Yes means no: Referendum in the Serbian Republic is not about secession

14 September 2016

The Serbian Republic intends to hold a referendum on whether the 9th of January will become the Day of the Republic. Vladimir Gligorov explains what is behind.

Republika Srpska (Serbian Republic), which is one of the two political entities that make up the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) scheduled the voting for September 25th. The Parliament called for it after the Supreme Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina ruled this celebratory day, as conceived, and its date unconstitutional. The decision to hold a referendum, in effect, on the ruling of the Supreme Court, on whether to defy that ruling, has triggered a political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) and some additional anxiety in Serbia too.

Why? There are basically two reasons. As it is not unusual for B&H, meaning and expression are not the same thing - what is said is not what is meant. In the case of the referendum, this is more transparent than usual because the act and the decision are ostensibly irrelevant. The Supreme Court ruled that the date, a sort of a Serbian religious holiday, and the legal justification, ethnic Serbian day, violate the multi-ethnic and secular character of the Republic and of B&H, but did not question the right of the Republic to have its day. Clearly, the decision taken in the referendum cannot annul the Court's decision. But also, Court's decision is not enforceable, because if the Republic wants to celebrate on January 9th, e.g. as if it was its day, it certainly can do so, and there is nothing that the Supreme Court or the institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina can do about it.

The implicit referendum

However, this referendum is meant to be seen as a substitute for the one that might not be held in which the decision would be taken on the secession of the Serbian Republic from B&H (secession is ruled out by the Constitution which is part of the international agreement on which the existence of the country in its current political form is premised). The Supreme Court ruling is seen as implying that the Republic is not an autonomous, let alone a sovereign entity. Indeed, the date, January 9th, is when an ethnic Serbian Assembly created a Serbian state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, later renamed Republika Srpska, and decided to remain part of Yugoslavia, thus seceding from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina.1) So, Court's decision and the referendum are not about the day of the Republic, but about the ethnic and religious character of the chosen date and of the official characterisation of what the day celebrates – it is not the day of the Republic, but an ethnic Serbian and orthodox Christian day.2)The celebration of this day caries implicitly the public understanding that the vote in the referendum will confirm the right of the Serbian entity to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is that implicit vote for ethnic secession which makes everybody, in and out of the country, nervous, anxious, angry, or hopeful.

The explicit test to Serbia’s relations 

The other reason for the anxiety in the country and in Serbia is because of the international ramifications, and more specifically about the test that it puts Serbia to. If the referendum is held and it is understood as a statement about the desirability of independence of the Serbian Republic from Bosnia and Herzegovina, that raises the stakes for Serbia, because that would be interpreted as an expression of interest of the Serbian Republic to be annexed to or by Serbia (which is what the original decision by the Serbian Parliament meant in 1992). That increases rather dramatically Serbia’s international responsibilities, as a signatory to the Dayton Agreement in particular, for the stability of B&H and regionally. This for the reason that the integrity of B&H is explicitly the responsibility of the international community, which is why unilateral changes to the constitution, including the right to secede, are ruled out and there is continuing international presence in B&H.

Lessons from Russia

So, the referendum is also a test of the readiness of Serbia to conflict with the international community, which is heavily involved in B&H. This is or would be, to use a comparison, similar to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Though international commitment to Ukraine and Crimea is not as direct as it is in B&H, Russia did violate an international agreement to respecting the integrity of Ukraine. However, Serbia has no capacity to do the same in the case of Republika Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a sense, the actions of the Russian government make it even more difficult for Serbia to play both either a constructive or a destructive role in B&H.

Russian representatives argue that they are taking a principled position when they support the Republic’s decision to hold the referendum. Principled here means that Russia is not prepared to get involved beyond diplomacy. In effect, that means that it expects Serbia to take full responsibility for the consequences of the eventual secession of the Serbian Republic, but is not promising any real financial or security resources to underwrite such a development. If indeed Russia were to commit to supporting Serbia fully, whatever that might mean, the Serbian government would have hard time to take a different course. Which is why the Serbian government and the public are not ready to support the upcoming referendum. Indeed, the Serbian leaders decided not to endorse the referendum and signalled in effect that they would rather it was not held.

The Russian policy in this instance and in the Balkans in general is consistent with its behaviour in Europe and in the world in general. It aims to renegotiate practically all the agreements that it had inherited from the Yeltsin and pre-coloured revolutions in 2003-2004 era. That includes B&H, Kosovo, NATO expansion in the Balkans, and also Serbia. Russia’s growing involvement in the Balkan affairs is not one of direct commitment of political and military resources, it is rather aimed at destabilisation and renegotiation of the existing agreements, like to one on which B&H is premised, with the other powerful international players.

Given the extent of the Russian commitment, the Serbian government took the position that it cannot support the referendum in Republika Srpska, but chose to frame the disagreement with the leaders in the Republic as tactical and not strategic. Basically, the Serbian leadership is saying that given the non-existence of effective Russian support and strong international opposition, Serbia cannot afford to destabilise B&H, so current degree of the frozen conflict within that state is as far as it can go, which does not mean that there is any strategic disagreement about the Serbian ethnic and national interests, including the control of and claim on Serbian territories within and without Serbia.

Most international commentators tend to focus on the fate of the Republic’s strong man, Mr. Dodik, the President. There is no doubt that the referendum is instrumental to his ambition to stay in office and hold power as long as possible. Serbian leaders, however, are not necessarily committed to supporting him in that. Indeed, their lack of support for the referendum is a blow to Mr. Dodik. He could retreat, but he is saying that he will not. Eventually, he will have to lose an election to step down. That will change the tactics of confrontation, but will not imply a change in strategy.







1) The territory of the seceding Republic of B&H, later Republika Srpska, was undetermined when the decision was made in 1992, on the 9th of January. Bosnia and Herzegovina held a referendum on independence from Yugoslavia on 29th of February and 1st of March 1992. Then a four year war over the control of ethnic territories followed. The international peace agreement was negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995 and signed in Paris in December of 1995 (the agreement is known by the name Dayton Agreement). Serbia is a signatory to the agreement, which obliges it to respect the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

2) The problem the Court faces, and indeed the existing constitution faces, is that B&H is set up as an ethnic state, i.e. the state of three ethnicities (and all other citizens), which, the ethnicities, are distinguished by their religious affiliation. This goes against “the spirit of a constitution”, which is civic and secular. This was subject to consideration by the European Court for Human Rights in the Sejdić-Finci case and the ethnic characterisation of the constitution of B&H was ruled out. There is, however, no doubt that the Dayton Agreement and thus the constitution it provided the country with was based on the presumption that ethnicity is the basis for rights and political participation.