Ethnic Tensions Rise In Bosnia Herzegovina Following A Nationalist Driven Referendum

The autonomous Serb Republic, housed within the borders of Bosnia Herzegovina led by President Milorad Dodik, defied a Constitutional Court decision to cancel a controversial referendum at the end of September, this year. The referendum concerned the celebration of January the 9th as the Day of the Serb Republic (RS), a commemoration of a religious holiday, but it is also the day the state declared autonomy from the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina in 1992.

Euractiv found that 56% of registered voters in RS took part in the referendum, with 99.8% voting to keep Statehood Day. Coinciding with a Serb Christian Orthodox religious holiday, the day, however, discriminates significantly against Bosniaks and Croats living within the RS.

Tensions began to boil within the Bosniak population, seeing the outcome of the referendum as an insult to the worst war that ravaged Europe since WWII and defying the regulations of the Dayton Peace Agreements. Peace has been maintained between the ethnically diverse country since the end of the Bosnian War in 1995, however, these latest actions have sparked the most hatred seen between the warring factions since the bloody conflict.

The instigation of this referendum also sparked talk of a possible succession of RS from Bosnia, potentially leading to another ethnic war.

The Bosnian War of 1992, initiated by Bosnian Serbs with the support of Serbian political and military figures saw around 100,000 casualties. Over 38,000 of them being civilians and predominantly from the Bosniak ethnic group. The war fostered crimes, such as genocide, rape, and forced detention. The conflict flowed throughout the state of Bosnia Herzegovina and displaced around 260,000 civilians. Fortunately, with the employment of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 the war came to a peaceful conclusion.

Although both Serb and Bosniak leaders denounced the notion of another war, nationalist leader Dodik has continually played on the idea of a completely independent Serb Republic from Bosnia in the near future.

Major world players have also input their two cents on the issue, with the US and EU condemning the referendum and acknowledging that there will be severe consequences for RS if they pursue succession and war. However, it is the support of Russia for the Serb Republic that is creating unease amongst western leaders due to fears that the support from a well-known antagonist could tip the balance of peace.   

Bosnian President, Bakir Izetbegovic is disappointed with the nationalistic leadership of Dodik and his neglect for collective peace, but retains the idea that there will be no future ethnic conflict between the two parties. In an interview with a Fox News correspondent, Izetbegovic strongly stated that “Nobody should force people who love this country to prove it again.” This signals that conflict in the extremely tumultuous region has come and long past for all Bosnians.

When asked about the referendum, Nura Begovic, an ethnic Bosniak and Vice President of Women of Srebrenica pleaded, “We just want a better future.” For the Bosniaks, it is about cooperation. Sovereignty has been achieved for the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina, and it is with this that Bosniaks wish to rebuild their lives and live in harmony, as they had over 20 years ago, before the bloodshed.

Peace for this region of the Balkans has been an objective for the past 20 years, and it is a long-awaited change from ethnic hostility. It is cooperation and a common goal towards this that is needed to ensure its lasting effect from all ethnicities.

Tamara Bilic