Republika Srpska Day Celebrations Inflame Bosnia’s Electoral Divide

The Republika Srpska is one of two entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a large Serbian population. The other entity is the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (F.B.i.H.), whose population consists of Bosniaks and Croats. The creation of Srpska in 1992 started the four-year Bosnian War, which killed 100,000 people. Nevertheless, East Sarajevo once again celebrated Republika Srpska Day on January 9th, the anniversary of Srpska’s founding.

The holiday’s celebratory parades showed that Serbs in Bosnia are “ready to fight for our freedom,” Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska, told Radio Free Europe. But Bosnia’s Constitutional Court banned Republika Srpska Day in 2015 for discriminating against Bosniaks and Croats, who oppose the celebration.

“[Bosnian Serbs] say [Republika Srpska Day] guarantees liberty for them, and the best conditions to live in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” writes Liljana Smiljanic, a reporter for Al Jazeera. “On the other hand for Bosniaks, it is the start of the war horrors they endured during the 90s, and later on war crimes and genocide in Srebrenica.”

Frictions between the area’s Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs have existed for a long time, partially due to a complex electoral system which requires all three of these ethnic groups to share political power. Because both Bosniaks and Croats live in the F.B.i.H., voters from each group vote for both the Bosniak and Croat members of Bosnia’s presidency, a three-member body comprising one member from each demographic. If there were a separate Croat entity, in the way of the Republika Srpska, the Croat member of the presidency would only be elected by Croats.

The current Croat representative, Zeljko Komsic, is unlikely to have been elected by such an entity – Komsic’s calls for unity between Bosniaks and Croats won him Bosnian votes, which earned him the seat. This may be why, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations, Croatia supports the idea of creating one. Bosnian Croats, like Bosnian Serbs, tend to support nationalist presidential candidates who oppose unity between the country’s ethnic groups, and several other candidates for the Croat presidency include nationalists looking to establish a Croat state. Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, meanwhile, supports Dodik and wants to unite Serbia and Srpska. In 2020, Vicic created Serb Unity Day, which, like Republika Srpska Day, has increased support for Srpska’s independence.

In December 2022, Bosnia became a candidate for membership in the European Union, but the E.U. requires it to make electoral reforms before it will be allowed to join the bloc. One reform supported by the European Court of Human Rights is changing Bosnia’s presidential elections to allow candidates from other ethnic groups (including Jews and Roma) to run, as currently the presidency can only consist of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb. Another possible reform would involve ending ethnic quotas requiring equal representation for those three ethnic groups in the presidency and parliament, the International Crisis Group reported, instead noting representation by region. These reforms could make nationalist candidates less likely to be elected.

Although there is support for Bosnia’s current electoral system, there is also incentive to join the E.U. As Bosnia’s largest trading partner, joining the E.U. could help increase trade, which could motivate the country to agree to the suggested electoral reforms.

Republika Srpska Day has provoked conflicts in Bosnia, but electing nationalist candidates to the presidency has worsened tensions. Serbians’ and Croatians’ bids for independence have only aggravated the problem. However, Bosnia’s ethnicity-segregated electoral system plays its own role in driving up the area’s rampant nationalism. If the E.U. can convince Bosnia to reform its outdated election policies, more unity-focused candidates could successfully take the presidency, healing wounds between the country’s ethnic groups.