A precarious power-sharing agreement that has kept the peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina for two decades is threatening to break down as the large Serb minority seeks further autonomy from the Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats who make up the majority of the country.
Milorad Dodik, leader of the Serb Republic that straddles the country’s borders with Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, intends to call a referendum on independence for the region’s courts later this year.
The wording of the proposed plebiscite leaves little room for opposition. It would ask ethnic Serb voters:
Do you support the unconstitutional and unauthorized imposition of laws by the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly the imposed laws on the Court and Prosecutor’s Office of [Bosnia-Herzegovina] and the implementation of their decisions on the territory of Republika Srpska?
A “no” vote could give Dodik a mandate to overturn part of the 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the 1992-95 Bosnian War and split the Balkan country along ethnic lines.
The international high representative — currently Austria’s Valentin Inzko — has the power to dismiss government officials, including justices.
In recent years, representatives have taken a hands-off approach as their previous interference in Bosnian politics was blamed for low voter turnout in elections and doing little to improve the accountability of Bosnian politicians.
But this has also allowed Serb nationalists like Dodik to reassert themselves.
Critics say the regional president is seeking political cover to stop the Serb Republic obeying the weak central government altogether.
Since he returned to power in 2006, Dodik has consistently weakened the region’s ties with Sarajevo. He recently proposed calling a referendum on independence as well.
Serb opposition parties on Monday urged Dodik to step down and call early elections. They threatened to boycott parliament unless it scraps a plan to allow for the prosecution of ethnic Serb deputies in the national legislature who are considered to be voting there against the interests of the Serb Republic.
Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, which has been the dominant Bosnian Serb party since 2006, lost two of its eight seats in the 42-seat House of Representatives last year. It has since been excluded from the country’s ruling coalition and accused other lawmakers of betraying Serb interests.
Dodik is supported by many in neighboring Serbia who dream of one day incorporating the Bosnian republic as compensation for giving up ethnic-Albanian Kosovo.
Russia, which considers the Serbs a brotherly Slavic people and has long maintained an alliance with Serbia, refuses to support Western attempts to stop Dodik, insisting that his planned referendum is an internal affair.
The wider East-West standoff, ignited when Russia invaded and occupied part of its former satellite Ukraine last year when it was on the verge of signing a trade deal with the European Union, could now involve Bosnia as well. Germany’s Foreign Ministry has warned that Russia is engaged in “public diplomacy with clear pan-Slavic rhetoric” in the country.