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What Does Republika Srpska Want?
What Does Republika Srpska Want?

What Does Republika Srpska Want?

Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group's Europe Program Director, discusses how the leadership of Republika Srpska can put its troubled relationship with the central government in Sarajevo back on track.

In this podcast, Sabine Freizer discusses how the leadership of Republika Srpska can put its troubled relationship with the central government in Sarajevo back on track. CRISIS GROUP

You can find below a transcript of this podcast.

The leadership of Republika Srpska, the smaller of the two entities comprising Bosnia and Herzegovina, continues to threaten the stability of the country by pushing conflicts with the central government to the brink, sabotaging the state and risking violence. I'm speaking today with Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group's Europe Program Director, about the steps Republika Srpska, or RS, should take to put its relations with Sarajevo in order.

Sabine, in June of this year Republika Srpska threatened a referendum.  Why didn’t it happen and what was at stake? 

There was a tremendous amount of worry earlier this year that Republika Srpska was going to organize a referendum on the OHR, the Office of the Higher Representative, and on the judiciary. People were worried that that referendum was going to be the first step in a referendum to separate Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Luckily that did not happen, because the international community intervened very clearly, and particularly the European Union came in with a compromise which made it possible for Republika Srpska to pull back. 

There was also worry that this kind of referendum could lead the country back to war, and that Republika Srpska has kept pushing the threshold on this possibility. Is that still the case?

Yes, there is this sense that Republika Srpska wants to break off from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it’s true in the interviews that we did throughout the entity, our staff went to many different villages, both in the east and the west of Republika Srpska, they found that in general the people do believe that Republika Srpska should be independent. There is this fear that one day there will be a referendum in the entity where the people will decide to break off. I don’t think that that is a real likelihood because, if Republika Srpska took that step, it’s very clear that the Bosniak reaction would be very strong and that they would fight to keep RS in Bosnia  Herzegovina.

So what alternatives are the international community, the EU in particular, offering to diffuse this situation?

The international community has made it very clear that RS cannot break off from Bosnia and Herzegovina. I think that the RS leadership understands that. Again, even though they might want independence, they realise that there is no chance that the international community will accept that or that the Bosniaks will accept that. Now what they are trying to do is carve up as much autonomy as possible for Republika Srpska. This creates a problem because when they try to carve up autonomy they make it more difficult for central institutions--so the institutions of the whole country of Bosnia and Herzegovina--to function.

Bosnian Serbs have expressed that they feel they are shouldering most of the responsibility for the war. In your interviews for this report, did you find that that’s still the case this many years later?

Clearly. The Serbs do feel like they are being blamed for the bulk of the war. And there is a reason for that, because most of the crimes were against Bosniaks, and the reality is that Serbs did participate more in those types of crimes. The problem is that the RS leadership hasn't publicly, in any way, asked for forgiveness, especially this current leadership. Mr. Dodic hasn't made any gestures towards the Bosniaks to show that he is sorry for what happened during the war. We think that that would be a very big step. President Tadic of Serbia has made those kind ofstatements, so it would be very helpful if the Serbs did that. It would diminish tensions and it would help avoid the situation where the war is still perpetuated through these memories and lack of forgiveness.

How have conditions in Bosnia changed since the end of the war? And in what ways has the impact of the war lived on?

I think the situation has improved dramatically in Republika Srpska. You do have a large number of Bosniaks who have returned to their villages. You have mosques that have been rebuilt, churches that have been rebuilt, so on the surface things look much better. But there has not been much success at having a peace and reconciliation truth commission or any of these kind of psychological social mechanisms that would help people get over the war traumas. 

Other than acknowledge and apologize for their role in the war, what else could the leadership of RS do to lessen tensions?

I think that if they did that, it would go a long way to help reduce the tensions at the local level. I would not say that the tensions at the local level are actually that high. It’s not really at a people-to-people level. The problem is this attempt by Republika Srpska to reaffirm itself, and I think that if it gains confidence that it can be quite autonomous within the borders of Bosnia/Herzegovina, then it should be able to work out its differences with Sarajevo to make a more functional country. 

What other recommendations do you have for a more cohesive country?

Ways that the government of Republika Serpska could improve the situation: first, it’s to stop doing these kind of referendums, because these referendums are extraordinarily divisive and all they are doing is increasing tensions. What they should be doing is working through the domestic institutions that exist to resolve their differences. For example, they should be going to the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia Herzegovina and they should be going to the Constitutional Court of Bosnia Herzegovina and resolving their differences that way. What ended up happening now with the latest referendum threat is that they went to the European Union and the European Union was able to start a dialogue between all the sides to talk about judiciary reform. That is an excellent way out, and basically I see that as the way forward, for the EU to facilitate this kind of dialogue on difficult issues where the Serbs, the Bosniaks and the Croats don’t agree. I hope that the EU will continue with that kind of policy. 

On the more war-related issues, I would say that obviously RS should stop having big commemorative events or setting up statues that herald what happened during the war, which for them might be victories, but for the rest of the population, for the Bosniak population, is still very traumatic. On the other hand, they should support the more positive type of events: actions and events that can reestablish the historical truth of what happened during the war. 

Report 214 / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia: What Does Republika Srpska Want?

If the leaders of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) continue driving every conflict with Sarajevo to the brink, they risk disaster for themselves, the country and the Western Balkans.

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Executive Summary

Republika Srpska’s flirtation in June 2011 with a referendum is a reminder that Bosnia’s smaller entity still threatens the stability of the country and the Western Balkans. It is highly unlikely that the RS will secede or that the Bosniaks will attempt to eliminate it, but if its Serb leaders continue driving every conflict with Sarajevo to the brink, as they have done repeatedly to date, they risk disaster. The agility of leaders and the population’s patience need only fail once to ignite serious violence. Over the longer term, RS’s determination to limit Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to little more than a coordinator between powerful entities may so shrivel the state that it sinks, taking RS with it. RS also suffers from its own internal problems, notably a culture of impunity for political and economic elites and a lingering odour of wartime atrocities. Its leadership, especially its president, Milorad Dodik, needs to compromise with Sarajevo on state building and implement urgent entity-level reforms.

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The RS threatened a referendum early in 2011 that could have provided support for a Serb walkout of Bosnian institutions and brought BiH back to the brink of war. The situation was defused in June, when the European Union (EU) offered a dialogue process on the judiciary, whose reform the RS was demanding. State and entity officials sat down and began to review the county’s complex judicial system with an eye to harmonising it with the EU body of law (acquis communautaire). The process will be long and painstaking, but RS can achieve effective change only by working through the BiH Parliamentary Assembly and Constitutional Court.

The international community has wrestled with RS for years. Given a free choice, many in the entity would prefer independence, but this is unacceptable to the rest of Bosnia and the international community. The RS is too weak to fight its way to independence and would not achieve international recognition as a state. Its leaders reject much of the internationally-led state-building project that has given Bosnia its current administrative structure. Some Bosniak and international observers believe international will has flagged, giving Serbs room to sabotage the state, while other international and Serb observers argue international interventions keep Serbs in a bunker mentality. The EU’s response, aided by the U.S. and others, to the political and legal challenge the RS posed in June offers a non-coercive alternative from which it will be difficult for any party to walk away.

Bosniaks, Croats and the international community have little choice but to engage with RS elites, especially President Dodik. He is the most populist and difficult leader the RS has had for years, but he and his party have strong support. The opposition did better than expected in the October 2010 elections, especially in the contest for the Serb position in the BiH presidency, but Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats party (Savez nezavisnih socijaldemokrata, SNSD) controls the RS government and presidency, as well as the Republika Srpska National Assembly (RSNA). Nationalism and protection of the RS remain the entity’s unifying idée fixe.

The RS is divided into east-west halves. The SNSD appears invincible in the politically and economically more influential western portion, controlling every municipality either directly or in coalition with a smaller party, and is encroaching on the traditional eastern stronghold of the Serb Democratic Party (Srpska demokratska stranka, SDS). Dodik’s government decides all budgetary issues, as well as much of the investment that goes to the east. Many eastern municipalities, especially those run by the opposition, feel deprived and are slowly beginning to seek greater economic and political decentralisation, but this takes a back seat to concerns about protecting RS as a whole.

Corruption and weak rule of law undermine economic growth. The RS, like the rest of Bosnia, is only slowly emerging from the recession that resulted from the global financial crisis. Privatisation of RS Telecom and an oil refinery gave the RS a cash bonanza in 2006-2008, creating a false glow of prosperity. But these funds have done little to further growth, and recent tax increases and expected cuts in social services may breed social dissatisfaction.

Many Serbs believe that they are asked to shoulder all blame for the 1992-1995 war, accused of being occupiers and aggressors. An overwhelming number of the war’s victims were Bosniak civilians, who suffered vicious ethnic cleansing and, most horrifically and prominently, mass murder in Srebrenica. Serbs worry that the RS will be taken away from them if they admit they carried out a genocide at Srebrenica. But this is an empty fear. Rather, RS elites should acknowledge the responsibility of their wartime leaders and support reconciliation efforts so as to become more respected and trusted authorities throughout Bosnia.

Sarajevo/Istanbul/Brussels, 6 October 2011