The international status of Kosovo remains a contentious issue in Serbian politics and the governing coalition in Serbia is fractured over the question of early national elections. However, the most hot button topic in Serbia and indeed the Balkans today is the looming referendum in Republika Srpska (RS).
Republika Srpska is one of the two federal units which comprise Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) today. A result of the 1995 Dayton Accords which brought the war in Bosnia to a close, the agreement allows for two primary governing units, the Serb dominated Republika Srpska and the Croatian and Bosniac dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although both units are officially under the authority of the federal government in Sarajevo, the “entities” maintain considerable powers which often clash with legislation from the center.
The government in Sarajevo is itself a complex institution with a rotating “chair of the presidency” of eight-month durations with a Serb, Croat, and Bosniac president each holding four-year terms in the shared office. Bosnia and Herzegovina also have a Parliamentary Assembly with elected representatives from both entities and a Constitutional Court which has four members selected by the Federation, two by Republika Srpska, and three by the President of the European Court of Human Rights. The highest authority in the country, however, remains the International High Representative, an internationally appointed officer with the constitutional authority to bypass the elected assembly and remove elected officials. The position is currently held by Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat appointed in March 2009.
Last week, the government of Republika Srpska announced that it would be holding a referendum on state-level institutions, primarily on the rulings of the High Representative imposed by the Bosnia-Herzegovina parliament. President Milorad Dodik argues that the court has unfairly prosecuted war crimes in the country, focusing on many more Serbs than Croats or Bosnian Muslims and avoiding prosecution of those who committed crimes against Serbs. Many fear that this move is a slippery slope toward undermining the Dayton Accords and toward the RS demanding independence from Bosnia.
Inzko has threatened to dismiss President Dodik and, in response, the RS has threatened to withdraw all Serb representation from the BiH government including current chair of the presidency Nebojša Radmanović, all RS members of the Bosnia Council of Ministers, all RS judges and prosecutors in the Bosnia Court and Prosecutor’s Office, and all RS deputies in parliament. Inzko has given the RS seven days to annul the referendum while Dodic has said that he has “no intention” of doing so.
Serbian President Boris Tadić has expressed his opposition to the imposition of any solution on BiH or the suspension of involved politicians. While opposing the partition of the country, he insists that the crisis must be resolved through compromise. Lousie Arbour, President of the influential NGO, International Crisis Group, has voiced her concern that canceling the referendum would be even more damaging to the unity of BiH than allowing it to proceed. Both Serbs and Croats are increasingly disaffected with the politics of Sarajevo and “a situation will occur in which Bosniak parties will control a failed and bankrupt state, whose institutions have been left by the Serbs and Croats.”
In this current game of political brinksmanship, it is not clear that there will be any real winners, but it is almost certain that BiH will be the biggest loser. So too will the results of this referendum have an effect on the mood in the region regarding Kosovo. There are not a few Serbs who feel not only that Kosovo has been unjustly taken from Serbia, and that the most logical response is similar moves for unilateral independence, or at least increased autonomy, for Republika Srpska. With the deadline for the referendum looming, it is certain that the peoples of the Balkans will be watching. For my part, I will do my best to stay on top of developments here and report them as I see them during my next two weeks in Serbia.