THE threat of a new war in Bosnia is so strong that “you can feel it in the air,” warns Aleksandar Vucic, the prime minister of neighbouring Serbia. It would take only a spark, he thinks, to ignite it. Some worry that the Republika Srpska, the Serb half of Bosnia, has just struck that spark.
On September 25th, the semi-autonomous region held a referendum on whether to celebrate its own national day on January 9th, the date of its founding in 1992. Bosnia’s constitutional court had declared the vote illegal, ruling that it discriminated against Bosniak Muslims and Croatians. By holding it anyway, Bosnian Serbs have struck a blow against the authority of a weak Bosnian state that has faced the threat of disintegration ever since it was created under the American-brokered Dayton accords more than two decades ago.
Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader, has said that the Republika Srpska will vote on secession by 2018, and Sunday’s vote was seen as a trial run. The international body set up to oversee Bosnia’s 1995 peace agreement, which had the power to block the poll, did nothing, though Bosnia’s prosecution service may yet act against Mr Dodik.
Participation in the referendum was surprisingly low, at 55.8%. But a startling 99.8% of those who turned out voted in favour. A vote on secession would tear open the uneasy settlement that ended the Bosnian war. That compromise left the country divided in two. Bosnian Serbs retained their own government with limited autonomy, but gave up their fight for independence and union with Serbia. Bosniak Muslims gave up their aim of a centralised state, which, as the largest of Bosnia’s three peoples (Bosniak, Serb, and Croat), they could have dominated.
Late in 1991, referendums staged by the Bosnian Serbs, and later by Bosniaks and Croats, were important milestones on the road to war. Today the context is different. Unlike Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader, who backed union with Bosnian Serbs, Mr Vucic opposed this week’s plebiscite. (Mr Vucic, a former ultra-nationalist who served as Mr Milosevic’s propaganda chief, is now a pro-European centrist.) And today, unlike in the 1990s, there is no powerful, Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Army to support the Bosnian Serbs if they vote for independence. Western countries opposed the referendum, and on September 20th the European Union gave a green light to allowing Bosnia’s membership application to proceed. By contrast Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, egged on Mr Dodik, receiving him in Moscow on September 22nd.
Mr Putin’s backing for Bosnian Serb separatism is part of his strategy of sowing chaos in the EU, which has subjected Russia to sanctions over its intervention in Ukraine. For Mr Dodik the referendum, and the support from Mr Putin, are a means of boosting his waning popularity; he faces local elections on October 2nd. Bosniak politicians, too, have benefited by opposing the vote. Politically, the referendum has been good for everyone.
The risk is that it will be bad for the country. Bosnia is a weak and dysfunctional state, and staging the referendum in defiance of the constitutional court was a blow to its credibility. Nevertheless, war is unlikely to be the outcome. Most Bosnians are concerned about jobs, education and healthcare. Fanning the flames of nationalism, on either side, does nothing to create jobs or stop doctors emigrating for better salaries elsewhere. “I’m extremely sceptical that this will open the way to secession,” says James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans specialist at the London School of Economics. Kosovo Serbs also voted for independence in 2012, he notes, in a poll which was ignored and has since been forgotten. Even in the unlikely case that Republika Srpska could secede without a war it would be a tiny, poor and isolated country divided into two physically unconnected enclaves. Even the most patriotic of the 99.8% of voters who supported celebrating the country’s national day would not welcome that. (The Economist)