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Bosnian Serbs Are Holding a Referendum That Has the West Screeching -- But Putin's Cool With It, Here Is Why

There's nothing to get excited about this symbolic poll. It's the western and Bosnian Muslim assault against the referendum that's stoking tensions

Today Republic of Srpska, one of the two "entities" (roughly equivalent to US states) that makes up the State of Bosnia and Herzegovia is heading to a referendum.

Here is what the western press has to say about it:

--Jeez, that's pretty serious then! Looks like the Serbs are at it again! Stoking tension, reawakening fears of strife, challenging peace terms! Don't these Serbs ever tire of trying to start wars??

--So what is the referendum about then? Secession, segregation, genocide? How are Serbs trying to cause a war this time? 

Well, the referendum question is whether Republic of Srpska should continue to mark January 9th as its central holiday, the 'Day of Republic of Srpska'.

-- Ok, that sounds like a fairly benign question, but surely there is more to it. Surely January 9th is an anniversary of a particularly infamous massacre, or the birthday of Genghis Khan -- or something of that sort.

Well no, not exactly. January 9th 1992 is when Bosnian Serbs declared that Serb-majority districts of Bosnia and Herzegovina now constituted a union republic of Yugoslavia separate from Bosnia and Herzegovina -- which at the time had still not proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia.

Basically the Bosnia Serbs reasoned that as a constituent (Yugoslav) people of Bosnia they were entitled to their own republican institutions. Earlier they had forsaken the right to separate institutions because the joint Bosnian institutions represented them fine. However, once Sarajevo became synonymous with Bosnian Muslim politicians with a separatist agenda of taking Bosnia and Herzegovina out of Yugoslavia they (instead of denying the right to self-determination of separatist-led Bosnian Muslims) withdrew their consent to be governed at a republic level from Sarajevo and founded their own republican institutions.

Thus in March 1992 when Bosnia and Herzegovina held an independence referendum the Serbs did not participate -- in their view this had nothing to do with them as they had already seceded from Sarajevo. Likewise when Sarajevo in April finally proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia Bosnian Serbs held this had nothing to do with them -- as they had withdrawn from the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina three months earlier.

Sarajavo, however, held that its declaration had very much to do with Bosnian Serbs. It would not be just Bosnian Muslims and Croats who favored secession from Yugoslavia who would be seceding but also the Bosnian Serbs who emphatically did not. Ergo the war -- born out of stubborn insistence of Bosnian Muslim politicians they have the right to decide the future of their people and the future of Bosnian Serbs both. Bosnian Serbs insisted their republic was real and independent from Sarajevo, while Bosnian Muslims insisted it was illegitimate and that Bosnian Serbs were properly ruled by a unitary Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ultimately peace was concluded on "compromise" terms: the Bosnian Serb Republic was recognized as one of the two entities forming independent Bosnia and Herzegovina. It wouldn't be independent from a weak joint government in Sarajevo but it would enjoy wide autonomy.

-- Ok that doesn't sound so bad, so you have a recognized autonomous Republic that wants to celebrate its founding, surely there is something more to it?

Well yes of course there is, basically Bosnian Muslim as well as their wartime sponsors in the west never truly accepted the existence of a Bosnian Serb Republic. They're still bitter that it exists and was not shattered by western intervention in the Bosnian war in 1995. So naturally they're going to be offended this entity -- which shouldn't even exist -- dares to celebrate its founding.

-- Ok but surely they must have some real-world argument, they probably aren't just screaming about their feelings, right?

Of course you're right. Their argument is that both the holiday and the referendum have been declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of the join state.

-- Well there you go! The referendum is in the defiance of the country's highest judicial authority! That's pretty reckless of the Serbs! You can't just go around defying the constitution court whenever it serves you!

That is true but the Bosnian constitutional court is specific in that it's not even Bosnians who hold the final word. Croats, Muslims and Serbs each get two judges while three more are foreigners appointed by a group of countries dominated by the Muslims' wartime sponsors in the west. In this way the Bosnian Muslims can together with foreigners impose their will on the other two peoples of Bosnia even if the latter combine.

In fact this is how many of its rulings (albeit not the ruling banning the referendum which had the backing of Croat judges) were handed down -- with the Bosnian Muslim and foreigner voting bloc overpowering the Serb and Croat judges.

-- Ok, foreigners as a decisive voting bloc in a constitutional court, that sounds very neo-colonial and in very bad taste, but if this are the terms of the Dayton peace settlement then Serbs should abide by it. You can't sign something then subvert it five minutes later! Will the Serbs please stop stoking tensions here!

Funny you should say that because actually the present order in Bosnia has nothing to do with the Dayton Agreement. It's based instead on lawless subversion of the original settlement by western powers.

In 1997 -- two years after the war -- states which were, not signatories, but observers to the Dayton Agreement, got together in Bonn and arbitrarily decided the "High Representative of the International Community", whose role under the treaty was limited to reporting the situation in Bosnia, would henceforth have the power to sack elected officials, decree new laws and ban uncooperative politicians from public life. 

After they had turned Bosnia into a mix of a 19th century protectorate and 16th century sultanate a succession of High Representatives (typicaly from Austria, Bosnia's traditional colonial overlord) proceeded to do all three, gradually eroding the Dayton order and moving towards the kind of centralization over whose rejection by Bosnia's Croats and Serbs the war had been fought in the first place.

The western explanation was that this was required to uphold "the spirit of Dayton" even as it meant extinguishing guarantees of power-sharing with the Croats and autonomy for Serbs enshrined in the Dayton and Washington Treaties. In reality, however, it represented westerners continuing to pursue its wartime goal of a centralist, unitary Bosnia and Herzegovina in peacetime -- and in fact much more effectively than had ever been during the war.

So I'm sorry but those who over the last 20 years have done everything in their power to subvert and tear apart the Dayton Agreement do not get to invoke it now. Especially not over a symbolic issue -- over whether Bosnian Serbs get to decide what day of the year they're taking off or does Sarajevo now get to decide even this. 


The truth is the only reason this is any sort of crisis whatsoever is because the Bosnian Muslim political elite and sympathetic western media and officials are making it such. It's not a Bosnian Serb holiday that represents any kind of stocking of tension but the bitter campaign against it. 

So you've got the High Representative Valenting Inzko warning the Serbs not to go ahead with the referendum, and the top Bosnian Muslim wartime military commander Sefer Halilović and nowadays a politician going one step further to warn the referendum means "trouble", that "there are enough men willing to fight" and that in case of a war the Bosnian Serb Republic won't last more than "10 to 15 days". So tell me who is really stocking tension here?

The answer is simple when you consider the top Bosnian Croat political leader Dragan Čović has said he doesn't see a problem with a referendum and that the Serbs have a right to it. Indeed the whole brouhaha has left the Croats indifferent - it's only just the centralizers who can not stand it.

This is similar to the stance of Moscow. On the even of the referendum the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik flew to Moscow to as he said make sure the Russians understand the issue. Putin was non-comital, after all a.) it's a symbolic issue and b.) what can the Russians even do? He did make the common sense conclusion, however, that people have the right to it, so why the fuss?

"This was an opportunity to inform the President ... about how the situation in Bosnia has been developing, and to express my opinion about it, particularly pointing to the fact that even after 20 years the High Representative is still present in Bosnia," he said, adding that foreign nationals are present in other state institutions, such as the Constitutional Court. 

"As for the referendum, there have not been any specific conversations, except for the conclusion that the people have the right to the referendum," Dodik added

Mind you don't think that Putin needs Dodik to explain the Bosnia situation to him. For years now the Russians have been suggesting that perhaps foreigners should bugger off and let Bosnia become an actual democratic and sovereign and independent nation as it had declared itself to be in 1992 with western backing.

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