Can Europe Make It?

Fear and loaning in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Republika Srpska’s controversial referendum

While Europe's focus is on the Middle East and the threat of terrorism, Bosnia and Herzegovina may hold a referendum that puts the country's fragile peace at risk.

Mirela Zarichinova
25 November 2015
A triptych titled Philately. The skulls wear hats traditional for the three main ethnic groups in BiH. Author - Emir Hodzic.jpg

A triptych entitled "Philately"- three skulls wearing hats traditional for the main ethnic groups in BiH show just how useless the ethnonationalist fights in Bosnia are. Emir Hodzic/All rights reserved. “The referendum is like throwing sand into the eyes of the voters”, says Boris Mrkela while stirring his Turkish coffee in Rahatlook, one of the cosiest cafes in Baščaršija, Sarajevo. “This is Dodik’s way to make them forget about the low pensions, the lack of salaries in the public administration, the loans”, he continues.

Mrkela is telling me how he sees the upcoming plebiscite in his native Republika Srpska (RS). While Europe’s eyes are focused on the Middle East and the threat of terrorism, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is on the brink of facing new major challenges that could possibly lead to disintegration or new conflicts. Soon, part of its citizenry will go to a referendum and be asked whether two of the state institutions should have authority over them. The actual question sounds quite long and complicated:

"Do you support the unconstitutional and illegal imposition of laws by the High Representative of the international community and in particular the imposed law on the Court and the Prosecutor's Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the implementation of their decisions in the territory of Republika Srpska?"

According to the president of RS, Milorad Dodik, the Court and Prosecutor’s Office are biased against Serbs (while others point back at the referendum question itself as raising many concerns related to impartiality). The plebiscite date is not clear yet. It was to be held in RS on 15 November 2015 but was postponed after the Bosniak delegates in the Parliament of the Serb-majority entity raised the issue before RS’ Constitutional Court.

Bosnia consists of two ethnically defined entities, RS and the Federation, with three “constituent peoples” - Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats and one autonomous district - Brčko District. The majority of Serbs live in RS, while the majority of Bosniaks and Croats are in the Federation. (For more information about the complicated constitutional set-up of the state, see here.)

The judicial bodies in question are two of the few Bosnian institutions that function on a state-level, meaning that their decisions affect citizens over the whole territory of the state - RS, the Federation of BiH and Brčko District. Established in 2003, their jurisdiction includes war crimes, organised crime, corruption cases and economic crimes. As for the Office of the High Representative (OHR), it is an ad hoc international institution responsible for overseeing implementation of the civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement.

While the referendum concerns the judicial system, analysts and foreign diplomats perceive it as a threat to the Dayton Agreement, the integrity of the country and even as a de facto referendum on declaring independence. A painful detail is that it was prepared in 2015, the year when Bosnia was expected to celebrate 20 years of peaceful coexistence. Concerns are further enforced by the fact that Dodik recently made another announcement – a plan to hold an independence referendum in 2018.

“BiH Court and Prosecutor’s Office violate political, civil and human rights because they apply criminal laws retrospectively, extend jurisdiction on criminal matters illegally, don’t make public their decisions and discriminate in war crimes prosecution”, this is how Mario Djuragic, the head of the Regional Representation of Republika Srpska in Brussels, sees the reasons for the referendum. Asked why the referendum comes now, Djuragic corrects me and says that the right thing to ask would be why they waited for so long.

Is Serbia at the end of Republika Srpska’s ethno-nationalist tunnel?

A logical question is how far can this referendum go? What would be the final aim of the citizens of a Serb-majority entity inside a state in whose authority they do not believe, while bordering with the state they identify with? Isn’t it simple – RS wants to join Serbia? However, answers in BiH are never as simple as one might expect.

“Citizens in RS are confused – there is this general belief among Serbs in Bosnia that RS will become independent eventually. The logic of their thinking is that they did not suffer so much to stay in this country”, Mrkela tells me. However, according to him, Bosniaks would never allow a scenario where BiH splits and part of it joins Serbia – for him this could mean another war.

Filip Balunovic, a political scientist from Belgrade, has another opinion. Quite paradoxically at first look, he states that those who would not allow RS to eventually join Serbia are RS’ politicians themselves. Such a scenario would not be desirable for them as it would only mean a loss of benefits. “The continuation of ethno-nationalist struggles is the best possible outcome for Bosnian politicians, such as Dodik, because it guarantees them political power and economic influence. Status quo is the main source of their political power”, says Balunovic.

Moreover, such a scenario does not seem to fit in Serbia’s current plans either. In the beginning of November, just a few days before the initial date chosen for the referendum, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić visited Sarajevo and met Denis Zvizdić, head of the Council of Ministers which is a state-level institution. Zvizdić himself is a Bosniak. The meeting apparently upset Milorad Dodik who commented that Serbia has chosen a wrong partner in BiH. He went even further saying that BiH does not have a state government but only entities do.

A few days later Vučić returned to BiH and paid a visit to Srebrenica, a little town in RS where 8,000 Bosniaks were massacred in July 1995, a crime later proclaimed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as constituting genocide. Vučić’s visit came just a few months after he was attacked with stones and forced to flee from the Srebrenica 20th anniversary commemorations. During November’s visit he promised to donate €5 million in development aid to the town.

Amid the referendum debate, Vučić seems determined to show his will to cooperate with the Bosniaks in BiH and not restrict himself only to contacts with RS officials. He was even quoted as saying that Serbia wishes to become Bosnia's largest trading partner. However, during the war Vučić was famous for another quote: "For every killed Serb, we will kill 100 Bosniaks", one of the reasons why many in Bosnia still find it hard to believe in his sincerity.

Deleted memories - the non-Serbs of Republika Srpska

A second logical question, quite relevant for this referendum, is what stays behind the expression – “Serb-majority entity” or how many non-Serbs live in RS? However, this one is not answerable either: it is not clear who lives in RS and what is the ethnic composition of the entity. The last official census in BiH was carried out in October 2013. Two years later, its results are still not public due to disputes between the Federation and RS related to the methodology. The only official information is from a census conducted in 1991 and thus before the war, before ethnic cleansing and before the internal displacements of millions.

Certainly, there are non-Serbs living in RS today. But war and the taboos surrounding it are still a factor in their every-day lives. "There is a culture of denial coming top-down, from politicians and not from ordinary citizens", Emir Hodžić, a Prijedor-born activist and artist, tells me.

“There is a huge silence about what happened to non-Serbs during the war. As you walk around Prijedor you will find many memorials for Serbian soldiers. But there is no official recognition for the crimes that were committed against non-Serbs, no memorial for the civilian non-Serb victims, for the 102 children who were murdered, denial that women were raped, people were tortured, denial of the concentration camps, denial that 56,000 citizens were expelled from their homes”, says Hodžić.

He is one of the people who organize the White Ribbon Day, a campaign that aims to give a voice to victims of mass atrocities, particularly in Prijedor. “People who join us don’t hate Prijedor Serbs, I certainly don’t - but I do have a problem with Prijedor authorities”, Hodžić states.

The West and the East react

EU representatives, diplomats from US, Britain, France, Italy and Germany, Valentin Inzko, the High Representative, criticized Dodik’s move claiming that the referendum would undermine the road to European integration of BiH, that it is an immediate challenge to the Dayton Peace Agreement. Meanwhile, Petr Ivantsov, Russian Ambassador to Bosnia officially supported the plebiscite and argued that the international community is trying to interfere in RS’ internal matters.

“We firmly regret that US and other countries oppose the referendum”, Mario Djuragic told me. In his opinion the referendum comes “in order to uphold the centralised structure created by unlawful actions of the High Representative”. He further claimed that the plebiscite is the only meaningful mechanism for citizens to express their views on the OHR.

Economic decline and mysterious loans

Many of those interviewed in Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Prijedor directly pointed at the economic situation as the real reasons for the referendum. “We are increasingly indebted, corruption and bribery is not an exception – it’s the rule, and we are effectively in the hands of an army of party-line employed people: the ruling party’s most loyal and eager voters”, this is how Dražana Lepir sees the situation in RS outside any ethnic sentiments. Lepir is the president of Ostra Nula (meaning “Sharp Zero” in Bosnian), a citizens’ association based in Banja Luka.

Boris Mrkela goes further mentioning the loans taken by Milorad Dodik from private funds. In October 2015 RS agreed on a $300 million loan with Global Bancorp Commodities and Investments Inc. (GBCI). GBCI is a US based investment fund formed in Florida with its corporate headquarters in California. At least this is information one can find on financial portals - the company itself has neither a website nor a LinkedIn profile. No surprise that the most common definition given to it is “mysterious”. The name of the president is Alexander Vasilev, a Slavic name, most probably Bulgarian, which leads to speculations in the Balkan media that the money might be related to Russian capital.

The loan is supposed to cover RS’ budget deficit in 2015 and 2016 and ensure the payments of salaries, pensions and other bills. Dodik was criticised heavily by the opposition because it was not approved by the Parliament in RS. In Mrkela’s view, the loan is one of the reasons behind the referendum – the public’s attention must be distracted and ethno-nationalist sentiments are what politicians can always rely on, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Meanwhile, on 18 November, RS’ opposition accused Dodik of having acquired €750,000 from a private bank. The accusations coincided with a raid by Bosnian security forces on the premises of the bank in question. They entered the bank under a mandate given by the Prosecution of BiH, the same institution that would be the object of the controversial referendum.


“Dodik is a populist, he is threatening a secession, he is threatening referendums, he is trying to put himself in a position of absolute power”, Hodžić explains to me. Although, the artist believes that many in RS do realise that this is Dodik’s way to sidetrack the fact that he is losing power and trying to prevent talk over “real life stuff”, still he finds this kind of talk very dangerous – it polarises people and empowers extremists.

Hodžić tells me a story from a week ago when a young Bosniak woman was being buried in Prijedor. A group of young boys came shouting “Turks”, while one of them took his clothes off - clearly trying to disturb the burial. According to Hodžić, although the majority of Prijedor citizens do want to simply go on with their lives, these kind of attacks on returnees and non-Serbs are happening increasingly. Talk of the referendum gives wings to such ultranationalists.

Originally from Banja Luka, the capital of RS, Mrkela is a striking exception of the general rule. He lives and works in Sarajevo as a translator and journalist. “Every time I tell someone in RS that I live in Sarajevo, the first question that pops up is “Which part of Sarajevo?”, people always presuppose that I would live in the Serbian part of the city… but I don’t”, he tells me. He speaks slowly and squints his eyes against the low autumn sun. I wonder if in fact it is the sun, or whether it is the subject matter of our talk that makes his eyes look sad. “Until everyone comes to terms with the fact that their groups did some pretty bad things during the war, there is little hope for that country”, Mrkela says while we are waiting for the bill. He then continues as if talking to himself: “It’s a Frankenstate, Bosnia is a Frankenstate. That’s it…”

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