18th Mar 2018

Bosnia referendum makes mockery of EU step

  • The referendum could undo the Dayton agreement, leading to Bosnia's break up (Photo: Clark & Kim Kays)

Western powers have urged Bosnian Serbs to abandon a referendum that threatens to destabilise the country and put in doubt its EU prospects.

"We once again urge the RS [Republika Srpska] authorities not to hold the referendum … The decision of the BiH [Bosnian] Constitutional Court will remain fully in force and must be respected”, the Western countries’ ambassadors said in a joint communique on Tuesday (20 September).

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"Republika Srpska will remain an integral and essential part of the sovereign state of BiH … [and] there will be no redrawing of the map”, they added.

The statement was signed by diplomats from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Turkey, the UK, and the US, who sit on the steering board of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), an international body created in 1995 to oversee Bosnia’s post-war peace deal, the Dayton agreement.

RS, the Serb part of the Bosnian federation, aims to hold a referendum on 25 September on whether it can mark its national holiday on 9 January.

The constitutional tribunal, last year, said it cannot because that day marks its unilateral declaration of independence from Bosnia in 1992 in one of the events that led to the 1990s conflict.

The court said that if it went ahead, it would make Bosniaks and Croats who live in RS feel unsafe.

But the real stakes are higher, because if the referendum undermines the court’s authority, it could lead to RS splitting from Bosnia and the unravelling of the Dayton deal.

Russia, which is also a member of the PIC board, refused to sign Tuesday’s appeal.

Milorad Dodik, the RS president who organised the referendum, will also meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.

The meeting comes amid EU concern that Russia is trying to stir up trouble in the Balkans in order to disrupt EU integration or to create a bargaining chip to use in other theatres.

Tuesday’s referendum appeal came the same day that EU states, in Brussels, formally accepted Bosnia’s application for EU membership.

They declared that “the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union” and voiced the EU’s “unequivocal commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina's EU perspective as a single, united, and sovereign country”.

The EU urged Bosnia to press ahead with “socio-economic reforms … [and] reforms in the area of rule of law and public administration."

It also urged Sarajevo to apply an old ruling by the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to let people of Roma and Jewish ethnicity run for high office.

The EU states “invited” the European Commission to “submit its opinion” on Bosnia’s eligibility to join.

EU process

The process, which can take one year or more, involves EU officials sending detailed questionnaires to Bosnia in order to assess what demands to make in future accession talks.

It could take years before the negotiations start, let alone end, however.

Most places in the Balkans, except Kosovo, are further down the road to accession. But despite the EU’s strategic aim - to stabilise the region - it noted that “each country's progress towards the European Union depends on its individual efforts”.

The referendum crisis in Bosnia, unrest in Kosovo, and a political crisis in Macedonia have increased the risk of a return to violence.

Speaking in Split, in Croatia, on Saturday, Petr Pavel, a Czech general and senior Nato official, said the Western Balkans were “far from stable”.

His remark upset Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic.

The PM said on Monday no one should imply that Serbia is not playing a constructive role, because “we have already seen what all that [instability] looked like 17 years ago [during the Yugoslav wars]” and “because we have not threatened anyone”.

Vucic is a former nationalist who is also being courted by Russia and who has so far declined to put pressure on Dodik to stop the RS referendum.

But the Serbian PM said the EU “should not worry because they have a serious and responsible leadership” in Belgrade.

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