|Poster in Banja Luka with pictures of Republika Srpska’s current and previous officials. Photo: BIRN.|
Ignoring objections from Bosniak political leaders and international officials, Bosnia’s Serbs prepared the biggest-ever celebration of their disputed January 9 ‘statehood’ holiday, underlining the continuing divisions in the country.
Decorations have been in place for weeks, overshadowing those installed for New Year’s Eve, with thousands of flags flying throughout Banja Luka.
One poster featured a picture of Republika Srpska’s wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, whose appeal against his genocide conviction is pending, alongside that of the entity’s current President Milorad Dodik.
There was an increased police presence in Banja Luka, the administrative centre of Republika Srpska, where the centre was closed to traffic ahead of the celebration, which marks the date in 1992 when the Bosnian Serbs declared the founding of Republika Srpska.
On Monday in Banja Luka, the youth wing of Republika Srpska’s ruling Alliance of the Independent Social Democrats gave out flags and Republika Srpska ‘passports’ – small brochures with information on the entity and its tourism potential.
The celebration is going ahead despite the continuing repercussions of a state-level Constitutional Court ban in 2015 and complaints from the country’s Bosniaks, who regard the establishment of Republika Srpska as the prelude to the 1990s war.
The central public focus of the celebration is set to be a Soviet military-style parade in which hundreds of police officers, firefighters, prison guards, members of the Civil Protection force and even members of the Republika Srpska Hunters’ Association are to march along Banja Luka’s main street.
January 9. Awards will be handed out, with recipients including former Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic. His successor Aleksandar Vucic will not attend, but Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic will represent the Serbian government.
Anatoly Bibilov, president of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, a tiny Russian-backed entity, will also attend, and a protocol on cooperation between Republika Srpska and South Ossetia will be signed during his visit, SRNA news agency reported.
But it is unclear if soldiers from the Third Infantry Regiment of the Bosnian Armed Forces, made up of soldiers from Republika Srpska, will participate in the parade.
Their involvement in the event last year caused controversy and led to a Defence Ministry investigation, although no one was disciplined as a result.
|Preparations for the celebration of January 9 in Banja Luka. Photo: BIRN.|
Court ban on celebration disputed by Serbs
Bosnia’s Constitutional Court ruled in November 2015 that holding the annual ‘Day of Republika Srpska’ holiday on January 9 was discriminatory against non-Serbs in the RS because it is also a Serbian Orthodox religious holiday – the day of St Stephen, who is the entity’s patron saint.
Despite the court ruling, and in spite of strong objections from Bosniak, US and EU officials, the Republika Srpska authorities held a referendum in September 2016, seeking public support for the holiday – a vote which was also ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court.
In December 2016, the Republika Srpska National Assembly adopted a Law on the Day of Republika Srpska, which stipulates that January 9 is a secular holiday and that the entity’s government will decide how it is marked.
Bosniak officials in the entity oppose the marking of the holiday on January 9. At an emergency meeting on Monday in Banja Luka, convened by Republika Srpska’s Bosniak Vice-President Ramiz Salkic, they announced that they have submitted an appeal requesting a review of the constitutionality of the Law on the Day of Republika Srpska.
Salkic also said they had asked the state-level prosecution “to notify the public what they did about the failure to implement the decision of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina in relation to January 9 and the holding of an unconstitutional RS referendum on the RS Day”.
Dodik retorted that only the naive could believe that the “will of the people” could be annulled by a single administrative measure.
“The Constitutional Court is a political court,” Dodik told media.
Political analyst Srdjan Puhalo told BIRN that the main reason for the celebrations being the biggest yet was that people will go to the polls this year.
“We are in an election year and the authorities want to show that they are powerful and that they have everything under control. And it seems that throwing the biggest party for a banned patriotic holiday is something that they see as a good idea,” Puhalo said.