Brussels has sounded the alarm over celebrations planned in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s post-war Serb region, the Republika Srpska, to mark its breakaway anniversary.
The so-called ‘Republika Srpska Day’ celebrates the region’s 1992 claim of independence from Bosnia during the breakup of Yugoslavia, which led to a bloody interethnic war that claimed 100,000 lives.
The commemoration, which coincides with a religious Orthodox holiday, has been deemed unconstitutional by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Constitutional Court because it discriminates against non-Serbs.
Tuesday’s events come amid increasing tensions as Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik, widely seen as a Kremlin ally, ratchets up secessionist threats, prompting international concern. Dodik has vowed to “declare full independence” of Bosnia’s Serb-controlled regions should Western democracies attempt to intervene in the country’s shared, multi-ethnic institutions.
The European Commission reaffirmed on Tuesday the bloc’s long-standing opposition to any act that undermines the Balkan country’s territorial integrity.
“When it comes to the legality of the ‘Republika Srpska Day,’ the Constitutional Court of the country already ruled twice in 2015 and 2019 that the legislation in Republika Srpska about the ‘Republika Srpska Day’ is not in line with the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Peter Stano, spokesperson for foreign affairs.
“The European Union has always emphasised that the sovereignty, territorial integrity, constitutional order and international personality of Bosnia-Herzegovina need to be maintained,” Stano added.
“Any action against these principles will lead to serious consequences.”
On the eve of the celebrations, the United States flew F16 fighter jets above Bosnia and Herzegovina in a show of support. Its embassy in Sarajevo also called for an investigation into the celebrations and said it would “not hesitate” to act in response to acts that violate the 1995 US-brokered peace deal.
Breakaway threats spark concerns
Republika Srpska, whose 1.2 million population is made up mostly of Orthodox Christian Serbs, is one of the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The second entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is made up of mostly Bosniaks and Croats.
Both entities were formed under the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which brought the three-year Bosnian war to an end and split the country into two entities along ethnic and religious lines.
The country’s stability and intricate power-sharing arrangements, the result of Western democracy building, are considered precarious and have recently been threatened by President Dodik’s intensified separatist rhetoric.
Adnan Ćerimagić, a senior analyst at the think tank European Stability Initiative, told Euronews that although Dodik’s warnings have not changed in substance over recent months, their increased intensity, combined with a fast-changing geopolitical environment, now merit international attention.
“While the idea of dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina into three mono-ethnic territories is not new, what is new is that Dodik has support not just from Belgrade in Serbia (…) but also from the outside,” Ćerimagić explained.
“It’s the support that comes from certain EU and NATO members like Hungary,” he added. “Just today, the Prime Minister of Hungary, a NATO and EU member, Viktor Orbán has been decorated as part of the celebrations of the Day of Republika Srpska.”
Region’s future in the balance
Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić has also lent his support to the controversial cause, promising synchronised fireworks would take place in the Serbian capital of Belgrade on Tuesday evening in a sign of its support for Republika Srpska’s holiday celebrations.
The spat over the commemoration comes less than a month after the international observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) found that thousands of ethnic-Serb voters had been bused in from Bosnia and Herzegovina to cast their ballots illegally in the recent Serbian elections.
“We tend to think that this alliance between Vučić and Dodik is, is natural and is explicit, but I would say that it is not,” Berta López Domènech, a policy analyst on the Western Balkans for the European Policy Centre, explained.
“Vučić has used this card of not explicitly supporting Republika Srpska’s secession because he knows that this would be a red line in his relations with Western partners, such as the EU.”
But Ćerimagić believes Belgrade could see its ability to rein in a potential escalation of tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a “bargaining chip” in dialogue with Western partners as they scrutinise the recent results of December’s parliamentary elections, which were marred by allegations of electoral fraud.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has been an official candidate for EU accession since December 2022. However, the opening of accession talks has been stalled by deeply entrenched ethnic divisions and delays in constitutional, judicial and electoral reforms.
EU leaders said in December that the bloc would open accession talks with the country “once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved.”
But both experts fear Dodik and the Republika Srpska ruling coalition’s increasingly defiant stance could have implications for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU membership bid.
“It’s clear that for some member states, a condition to start accession talks (with Bosnia and Herzegovina) is actually to see some of the steps that the ruling coalition in Republika Srpska and Milorad Dodik have done in the past couple of years to be reversed,” Ćerimagić said.
“That means that Milorad Dodik and the ruling coalition in Republika Srpska have a sort of a veto on that EU path,” he added.
Meanwhile, López Domènech warned that “marking a day that celebrates a genocide is clearly not in line with the European Union’s priorities.”