24th Oct 2016


Bosnia: Dangerous referendum ignores real problems

  • The Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo. "Until today, the primary task for the local political elites has been to maintain the status quo," says an anti-corruptio activist (Photo: Jennifer Boyer)

War rhetoric and threats of break-up are the most powerful campaign tool for politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) before local elections scheduled for 2 October.

Local issues, like the fact that citizens of Sarajevo do not have 24-hour supply of water, have been eclipsed by a referendum organised in the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska (RS) that has reignited ethnic and political divisions.

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On 25 September, Bosnian Serb president Milorad Dodik is seeking public support for the Day of Republika Srpska to continue to be celebrated on 9 January, the day when in 1992 the RS was declared. It is often considered as the forerunner to the four-year war in the country.

The Republika Srpska is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina's two entities, with the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is mainly populated by Bosniaks and Croats.

Bosnia's constitutional court ruled that the referendum was illegal because it was discriminatory against non-Serbs living in RS.

The Peace and Implementation Council (PIC), an ad hoc body of 55 countries and agencies that supports the peace process, “urged RS authorities not to hold the referendum."

"Asking voters to declare themselves on a matter already decided by the Constitutional Court is destabilising, and is creating political tensions which are an unhelpful distraction from the very serious economic and social challenges," in the country, the PIC said in a statement.

Bosnia's peace guarantors added that they "will not tolerate any violation of the peace agreement … There will be no redrawing of the map of BiH."

The statement was not signed by Russia, a traditional supporter of Serbs.

Threat to the peace

On Monday (5 September), after a meeting in Brussels with Bosnia's current leader, Denis Zvizdic, EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn insisted that decisions taken by the Constitutional court are binding.

In Sarajevo, Bosniak politicians see the vote, which will cost the deeply indebted RS over €700,000, as a prelude to another one, this time on the entity's secession, which Dodik wants to be held in 2018.

Dodik, who has run the entity for 10 years as prime minister then president, is seen by many as the most serious threat to Bosnia's fragile peace.

It the third time that he has threatened a referendum on questions that undermine the existence of the state, on independence, or on the authority of Bosnia's judiciary.

Each time the international community issued warnings, neighbouring countries refused to interfere, and referendums were never held.

Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which formally applied for EU membership in February, remains in a difficult socio-economic situation.

Since the end of the war in 1995, and despite enormous international help, the country has become one of the poorest countries in Europe. The unemployment rate is more than 27 percent, and over 60 percent for young people.

Maintaining the status-quo

Politicians claim that their goal is to bring the country closer to the EU, but the level of corruption remains high among them.

"Until today, the primary task for the local political elites has been to maintain the status quo," Srdjan Blagovcanin, chair of the board of Transparency International Bosnia and Herzegovina, told EUobserver.

"Implementation of reforms could endanger their position and took away the almost limitless power they gained, and which they use entirely for their personal benefit," he said.

He added that since "the establishment of a functional state and of the rule of law will put them at risk of prosecution … their main strategy is to pretend they want reforms” without actually making them.

Srdan Puhalo, a sociologist and activist from Banja Luka, wrote on his blog that politicians who are inciting war should be sanctioned. But he deplored that there is nobody to sanction them.

"The judiciary, the police and all security agencies are controlled by them … We only have people who are doing their job more or less well, but they are all the time available to serve their ethnic groups. Or, better to say, to serve the political option that brought them to that position,” he said.

Most of the media are controlled by political parties and rarely cover topics relevant for citizens at the local level.

Quarrels over the Republika Srpska referendum and war rhetoric often cover the voices of citizens. Except on social networks, these voices - that are not lonely - are unheard by the wider public.

'It is time for you to retire'

In recent open letter published by the online magazine Buka, based in RS's capital Banja Luka, columnist Dragan Bursac called on Dodik to resign.

Bursac wrote that Dodik's referendum was unacceptable. He pointed out that politicians who dragged the country into war in 1992 did not have to fight or loose their children in war.

“It is time for you to retire," he wrote to the Bosnian Serb leader.

"You are saying that you still can do a lot in politics, and I trust you. But, please, don’t. I can tolerate what have you done in the past and what are you doing in the present, but the future, please don’t. And we will start everything from the very beginning. Without you.”

In Sarajevo, a citizen called Eldin Kurbasic posted a text on Facebook where he described the war as he saw it as a young soldier, with all its horrors. His post had such an impact that in was republished by several newspapers.

“To anybody who is inciting war, do not do that if you are not ready to go through all this, maybe even something 10 times more difficult, you and your sons,” he wrote.

This article is the third in a series about the situation in Western Balkan countries. The first one was from Croatia, and the second one from Serbia.

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