The parliament of Bosnia’s Serb dominated entity, Republika Srpska, adopted a controversial law on referendum late on Wednesday. The law has been described by the international community as provocative and potentially unconstitutional.
Although the law only regulates technical issues, such as the manner in which a referendum can be called and voting procedures, it immediately provoked strong reactions from Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) leaders, who said it was setting the ground for Republika Srpska’s secession from Bosnia.
“While a referendum in Republika Srpska would be legally irrelevant, its real goal would be to train people for plebiscite…and to wait for the situation when it will be possible to ask the truly intended question,” the Bosniak member of the country’s central presidency, Haris Silajdzic, told journalists.
Silajdzic added that the true intention behind the adoption of the law was “to break Bosnia apart”.
A deputy in the Republika Srpska parliament from the strongest Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action, Ramiz Salkic, said that the adoption of the law has prepared technical and legal conditions for an independence referendum to be held in Republika Srpska once the international community winds down its presence in Bosnia.
Bosniak MPs previously walked out of the parliament’s session, refusing to participate in the two-day discussion on the law.
However, Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik told the parliament before the vote that his government, which proposed the law, did not have “any hidden agenda”.
In the past, Dodik has threatened to hold a referendum on Republika Srpska’s secession from Bosnia, but he now insists that he has no intention of breaking the country apart.
In his address to the lawmakers on Tuesday, Dodik said the law “was not a first step towards the secession…because that is not on the government’s agenda,” also adding that a referendum on secession “can be organised only once”.
Bosnian Serbs first announced plans to hold a referendum in December, following the decision by the international community’s High Representative to Bosnia, currently Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, to extend the mandate of international judges working on war crimes cases at Bosnia’s state court.
The Bosnian Serb government rejected Inzko’s decision and said it would call for a referendum to allow the citizens of Republika Srpska to decide on the issue.
Under the Dayton peace agreement, Bosnia was divided into two highly autonomous entities – the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and Croat-Bosniak federation. Each entity has its own government, parliament and presidency, but the two are linked by weak central institutions.
The post of the high representative was also created under the Dayton peace agreement and was later given the authority to impose legislation and dismiss local officials who it determines are obstructing the implementation of the peace agreement.
However, Bosnian Serbs have recently stepped up their opposition to the high representative’s continued presence in Bosnia, accusing Inzko of abusing his powers and refusing to accept his authority.
Inzko’s office and the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) – a group of 55 countries and international organizations that sponsor and direct the peace implementation process in Bosnia – previously warned the Bosnian Serb government against challenging actions undertaken on the basis of the Dayton peace agreement.
Inzko and PIC have warned the Bosnian Serb leaders that they would set Republika Srpska “on the dangerous path of legal uncertainty” if they organised a referendum.
The US embassy in Sarajevo issued a statement ahead of the vote saying that it would consider provocative any referendum question “that would challenge the structures of the Dayton peace accords, including the authorities and decisions of the High Representative”.
“While a referendum can be a legitimate mechanism in the right circumstances, it can be counter productive, and even provocative, when used to pursue a narrow political agenda,” the embassy said in the statement.
Bosniak deputies in the Republika Srpska’s parliament previously announced that they would veto the referendum law. If this happens the law will be sent to the region’s constitutional court for review.
However, the speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament, Igor Radojicic, told journalists after the vote that he was confident the law could easily pass a review by the constitutional court, describing it as “primarily technical and procedural”.