The President of the Republic of Serbia (RS), Milorad Dodik, has followed the ruling of a referendum held in late September of last year, supporting the celebration of Statehood Day on the 9th of January. Statehood Day is a Serbian Orthodox religious holiday (the day of St. Stephen, patron saint of the Republic), but also coincides with the day in which Bosnian Serbs declared themselves autonomous from Bosnia, eventually igniting the three-year ethnic war in the region.
This year the RS were to celebrate 25 years since its autonomy from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The two-part autonomous entity, located within the tumultuous region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, defied Constitutional Court rulings that, not only deemed the referendum illegal, but also the celebration of the day. It was ruled that celebrating the day would be highly discriminatory towards non-Serbs living within the Republic of Serbia.
The President of RS stated that the entity would satisfy the wishes of its people over the rulings of a court.
In the lead up to the celebration of the day the town of Banja Luka, the capital of entity was covered in posters supporting the day.
The posters were branded in the slogan ‘PRAVOnaSLAVLJE,’ the literal translation in Serbian being the ‘RIGHTtoCELEBRATE’. However, the capitalized letters, forming the word ‘Pravoslavlje’ translate to religious Orthodoxy, indicating as well the religious meanings that the celebration would have for the state.
Both messages have caused uproar both within Bosnia, but also in the wider Western community.
Social psychologist Srdjan Puhalo was interviewed by media outlet Balkan Insight and acknowledged that this second message, of religion, is outrightly discriminatory and a show of dominance by the RS government.
By stating that the holiday is only for Orthodox Christians, RS leaders are erasing what they once previously said their state supported, a nation that welcomed all, regardless of ethnicity. Ultimately, the statement highlights Serbian dominance both politically and religiously.
The celebration consisted of various performances and meetings with local and international guests. Yet, the focus of the 25th anniversary celebrations was on a Russian-style parade in which hundreds of police officers, firefighters, and members of the Civil Protection forces marched along the main street of Banja Luka.
The day was attended by the President of neighbouring Serbia, Tomislav Nikolic, and Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej, both of which participated in the days’ events.
The most controversial aspect of the day of celebration was the involvement of the Bosnian Army’s Third Infantry Regiment, that has a large number of members from RS, even though the Ministry of Defence and NATO command in Bosnia disallowed their involvement in the celebrations.
The Infantry lined up along the centre square to hand over a report to Mladen Ivanic, the Serb member of the state presidency.
Although the army’s orchestra was permitted to attend, soldiers were not expected to parade. Thus, the involvement of the regiment has now ignited a heated debate on the allegiance of the army and its soldiers. It has raised questions of who has control of these forces, but also on the overall security of the country.
International reception to this antagonistic act has been overly condemning, with the US and the EU openly expressing their disapproval at Dodik and his entity’s actions.
The US announced, via their embassy in Sarajevo, their disappointment in RS’s willingness to comply with the rule of law following the Constitutional Court’s ruling against the public holiday. In a statement, the embassy said, ‘It is regrettable that political leaders have chosen to seize this opportunity to further polarize the political dialogue in the country, instead of solving immediate problems faced by the citizens of this country.’
The EU expressed similar concern commenting on the need for, ‘great importance to the proper functioning of democratic institutions, including the implementation of decisions of the Constitutional Court.’
Each authority highlights the importance of authority within a democratic system, of which Bosnia and the RS are a part of. Yet, it is Dodik who has led his entity astray and defied the rulings of Bosnia’s highest power, a decision which ultimately will have a negative impact on a large number of individuals. This action is what is creating adversity in a nation that is already experiencing a great political divide.
With an act that is so outrightly discriminating of a group of people that have, thus far, experienced extensive amounts of hatred, persecution, and exclusion, the actions recently witnessed by the RS have proven to be a renewal of these past experiences, in an effort to resume dominance.
An individual who was not present at the events was Aleksandar Vucic, the Prime Minister of Serbia. Vucic professed his country’s support in ‘protecting the integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina to maintain peace and stability,’ within the region. As one of the main individual’s leading Serbia’s bid to join the European Union, his words come in good faith as the country moves towards policies that promote stability and peace, a welcomed reform from the nationalistic tendencies and close allegiance to the East.
Three days following the celebrations, though, tensions continued with Valentin Inzko, Bosnia’s High Representative, who commented on the actions of RS in following on with the Statehood Day by saying that celebrating such a day is like commemorating the foundation of an Independent State of Croatia, during the Nazi Germany era.
The comment aroused great outrage amongst Dodik and other RS representatives. The comments were received as insults by Bosnian Serb war veterans. Dodik announced that his country has suspended all communications and relations with the Office of High Representative (OHR) until an apology was returned by Inzko.
The cessation of communications and relations between RS and the OHR has brought about further debate and concern among officials, as under the Dayton Accords of 1995, all parties of the agreement, including RS, are obliged to cooperate fully with the High Representative and its staff.
According to Faktor, a local media outlet in Bosnia, Inzko followed his controversial comments by saying, ‘I think nobody is coming up with the idea [of celebrating Independent State of Croatia, April 10], and that we should look to the future, not the past.’ A comment, that truly lends itself to the issue in Bosnia, where a nation cannot take itself out of the past and solely focus on a strong future.
The need for the Office of High Representative to guide and ensure the agreements of Dayton are successfully and peacefully adhered to has not been more important than right now. With tensions boiling over about issues that were once the final straw for the ethnically diverse nation, a great focus must be placed on ensuring that antagonistic figures do not misuse their power.
Physical force has proven all around the globe, not only just in the Bosnian instance, to be ineffective in addressing the deep roots of a conflict.
It is institutions, and those already established in Bosnia, that will effectively be able to address the underlying tensions that have been overlooked since the implementation of the Dayton Accords. A lack of transparency and the participation of nationalistic leaders still in influential positions has continually abetted in keeping tensions in place.
Without an institutional change in Bosnia, peace will never fully be achieved. It is possible, however, and not through means of physical force, as once imagined. The country needs effective leaders with peace at the forefront of their goals. Greater emphasis must be placed on the Constitutional Court in its rulings, with penalties handed to those who chose not to abide by the rule of law. As a way of deterrence, this should hopefully help to build a country that can accept the law and welcome peace as a way of life.