Bosnia: Republika Srpska referendum and the threat of secession

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is preparing for the impact the next referendum will have on the fragile state’s backbone. The Republika Srpska (RS), the Majority-Serb entity of BiH resulting from the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA), has planned to hold a referendum on September 25. The question to the voters focuses on the RS Day to be celebrated on January 9 every year. The action challenges last year’s ruling by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Constitutional Court. It rejected the Day of Republika Srpska as a state holiday since it corresponds to a Serbian Christian Orthodox feast and is thus discriminatory to those citizens who do not share the same religious beliefs.

The Western Balkans is an extremely volatile region which has historically been referred to as powder keg of Europe. After the end of the Cold War, the growing sense of nationalism made the area a hot bed for conflicts. The war in BiH (1992-1995) has been the thorniest conflicts in Europe since the end of the World War II, and keeps on being problematic even today, whereas the country is dealing with the accession process to the European Union. As Bieber said in 2006, the conflict had been more pacified than resolved. The DPA ended the violence but laid the groundwork to build a dysfunctional state, divided along ethnic identity lines. Even though BiH has benefited from a large amount of international assistance, it still appears in the middle of its path, at a persistent standstill.

The Dayton Peace Agreement

The DPA, signed by the heads of the three main conflict parties, enacted the institutionalization and territorialization of the ethnic groups. The country was divided into two entities: Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. While Bosniaks remained mostly in the part of Bosnia and Croats in the part of Herzegovina, the majority of Serbs occupied the RS. The DPA set up a complex political system, made up of careful ‘checks and balances’ based on identity, leading to a sort of power-sharing among ethnic groups which has made government less stable. A particular feature of Bosnia’s post-war governance has been the deep involvement of a number of international organizations. The primary international agency tasked with civilian matters in Bosnia has been the Office of the High Representative (OHR), established as a ‘facilitator’ to implement the peace accords. Since the end of the 1990s, the OHR started to take part in nation-building efforts with an increasing number of interventions into local politics.

The international actors developed and support a flawed political system that promotes the rights of the constituent peoples over all Bosnians. This has been highlighted by a significant legal case featuring the relevance of ethnic identities in the country. In the case under consideration, Derbo Sejdic and Jakob Finci, a Roma and Jew, challenged those norms that guarantee the right to be elected to the presidency and to the House of Peoples only to the constituent peoples. In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Bosnian Constitution does indeed discriminate and needs to be changed. Nevertheless, attempts at the implementation of the Sejdic & Finci ruling have led to a political stalemate. The resolution of this issue is one of the most relevant missing pieces of the puzzle featuring BiH as part of the map of the European Union, as it shed light to the fact that not all Bosnian citizens are equal.

The EU role in BiH

The EU has a key role in Western Balkans through its enlargement policy. The EU integration process is one of the main driving forces for reforms and as financial assistance. In 1990s, the Yugoslav crisis was one where the United States had no real interest and Washington was more than pleased to leave the European Union to step in and play a major role. The Maastricht Treaty and all the negotiation process behind it brought with them a new course leading some to believe that Yugoslavia provided European Union with its first chance to deploy a common foreign policy and prove its effectiveness on the international scene. Bearing in mind that Dayton was primarily a US initiative, the EU’s role in Bosnia has been far greater by the time of the implementation and operationalization of the accord than it was during its negotiation. As Chandler notes, «Dayton gradually was to become subordinate to the requirements for eventual EU membership» (Chandler, 2005, p. 341). The Western Balkan countries’ path towards the EU has been particularly difficult for those countries which had to face the war’s legacy. Over the years, due to domestic issues and crises, the EU’s interest in the region wanes along with its leverage power.

Matters of concern

According to the 2015 United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office (UNRCO) survey findings, many Bosnians do not believe that the reconciliation is achieved. «Approximately 20% of respondents believe that the reconciliation among the countries of former Yugoslavia is already achieved […]. Somewhat more than a third of respondents believe that the reconciliation is only partially achieved. Furthermore, 41% of respondents state that reconciliation was not achieved, or that it was achieved only in small portion. some 80 percent of Serbs, some 62.2 percent of Croats and 74.4 percent of Bosniaks stated that they prefer to live in areas where their ethnic group is the majority» (UN Resident Coordinator Office, 2015, p. 37).

Additionally, the country is deeply affected by the economic crisis. Industrial production level still remains too low while the unemployment rate is around 27% of total labour force according to the International Labour Organization. Furthermore, there has recently been stressed that BiH has been seriously affected by the phenomenon of foreign fighters and radicalization. This phenomenon has spread among young people, a high number of whom – compared to other countries in the region – have joined Daesh. For this reason, the EU called for efforts to strengthen inter-religious dialogue, the urgent development of effective de-radicalisation programmes and for urgent efforts to provide a better economic perspective for young people in BiH (European Parliament, 2016, p. 7). At the same time, the European Parliament called for the further involvement of civil society in addressing challenges of ethnic division in order to help the country advance towards the EU and highlighted the essential role of education in creating and promoting a tolerant and inclusive society. Bosnia is still affected by the issue of ‘two schools under one roof’ and other forms of segregation and discrimination in schools, where a common core curriculum has not been developed yet. As a consequence, education in BiH remains a major concern that could be a facilitator for even greater instability in the future. The persistence of the phenomenon “two schools under one roof” carries on the physical segregation of children of different ethnicities. Youth should be considered a main objective for building a peaceful and thriving future in Bosnia, since young people have greater capacity to change attitudes (Barnes, 2009).

The issues around the referendum

Whereas the EU and its member states’ eyes are focused on the Middle East, BiH is bracing itself to face the greatest challenge to its statehood. Though it defies a Constitutional Court’s ruling, the referendum issue has whipped nationalist tensions. Many worry about this referendum is a test for a more serious one on independence from Bosnia. In these terms, it is a threat to the DPA. In the past, the president of the RS, Milorad Dodik, leader of the largest Serb party in BiH, i.e. the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats party (SNSD), has already called for a referendum on independence for the Majority-Serb entity in 2018. The political reason at the basis of this announcement is the alleged attempt carried out by the central state to take autonomous powers granted to the RS under the DPA away from the Entity authorities.

The choice to go ahead with the vote on the RS Day has divided the international community. On the one hand, the Western powers condemned the decision to hold the referendum, on the other Russia, which has always backed Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity’s right to self-determination in the past, did not join the statement released by the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the international body charged with the implementing the DPA, urging the RS authorities not to hold the referendum. In this context, neighbours’ reactions are noteworthy. Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s prime minister, has always highlighted the close ties between Belgrade and Banja Luka as there are many Serbs living in RS. Indeed, Vucic showed himself willing to support RS’s claims on the Day of Republika Srpska by attending the celebrations in Banja Luka on January 9 this year. However, PM’s attitude towards BiH is ever-changing depending on the daily political events in Serbia and Republika Srpska. Additionally, he feels the pressure of the international community, especially the EU on account of Serbian EU accession bid. Indeed, Vucic confirmed his ambiguous position on September 1 when he argued after a meeting with the Serb Bosnian leaders that its government will not support the disputed vote, but at the same time it will not put pressure on RS authorities in order to influence their policies.

Pressure has also been exerted on the Office of the High Representative (OHR) to take control of the situation in order to prevent the referendum from being hold. Valentin Inzko, the incumbent high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, has warned that the referendum would be a «blow against the Dayton peace accord» (Dzidic, 2016). However, several Western countries contend that BiH should be able to address this issue on its own but the other side of the coin shows concern for the OHR’s lack of means to implement any executive decision. The referendum represents an actual source of worry since it can be the overture to another popular vote on the independence of RS from BiH. «This [referendum] is some kind of test balloon», Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of the tripartite state presidency and the leader of the main Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action, said. It could «slowly plunge [the country] into conflicts which later you will be unable to halt» (Latal, 2016).

Nonetheless, another scenario is plausible, though paradoxical at a first look. It points out to the RS’ political leaders as the main opponent to an independent Republika Srpska leaning to join Serbia. Such a scenario would only mean a loss of benefits for them as the persistence of nationalist skirmishes guarantees such political figures power and influence. Against this backdrop, populist threats to secession and referendums are conceived as a way to bypass thorny political issues concerning the economic downfall and widespread poverty. Still, these moves are very dangerous as they tend to polarize people and galvanize extremists.


Dzidic D. (2016, August 30) Bosnian Constitutional Court ‘Under Pressure’ from Serb Referendum, Balkan Insight, retrieved from

Barnes, C., 2009. Civil Society and Peacebuilding: Mapping Functions in Working for Peace. The International Spectator, 44(1), pp. 131-147.

European Parliament, 2016. 2015 Report on Bosnia and Herzegovina (2015/2897(RSP)). Resolution: 2016 April 14

Latal S. (2016, August 23), Serb Referendum Splits Bosnia’s International Overseers, Balkan Insight, retrieved from

Old Friendship die hard: Serb Government can’t be anti-Russian (2016, August 16), Sputnik, retrieved from

UN Resident Coordinator Office (2015) Public Opinion Poll Results: Analytical Report, Sarajevo.