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Bosnian Serb Chief Cornered As Referendum Ploy Backfires – Analysis

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The President of Republika Srpska finds himself in a tricky political position after postponing his controversial referendum.

By Danijel Kovacevic

“He is obviously seeking an exit strategy,” Banja Luka-based political analyst Tanja Topic told BIRN, referring to Milorad Dodik’s sudden decision to “postpone” a referendum on the authority of Bosnia’s State Court and the Office of the High Representative, OHR.

Many believed the real aim of the President of Republika Srpska in calling the referendum was to maintain his political power on the back of heightened ethnic tensions.

Now the initiative appears to have backfired badly – and some experts maintain that the sudden concession could hurt his political authority in the run-up to local elections in October.

“He started this process with extreme radical positions but has gained nothing from it,” Topic observed.

The President of the Serb-majority entity first launched an initiative for a referendum on the powers of the state court and the OHR last July.

He and some other Bosnian Serb politicians say the court has shown bias against Serbs in war-crimes cases and that the OHR is also hostile to the mainly Serb entity.

In November, Dodik and other Bosnian Serb politicians threatened to hold another referendum, this time against the Constitutional Court, following a ruling that outlawed the entity’s national day as discriminatory against non-Serbs.

While the first initiative divided Bosnian Serb parties, the second one united them in collective outrage – but only briefly.

For a start, EU and US officials warned Bosnian Serb parties that Republika Srpska had no right to challenge institutions outside its jurisdiction and that they would deem any such attempt illegal.

Western diplomats also reportedly told Dodik that if he pushed on with the initiatives, he, his family and supporters might face sanctions.

Dodik eventually yielded to this pressure and on Monday said that the referendum on the state court would be postponed until all Bosnian Serb parties had reached agreement on it.

“We are searching for a consensus [on the issue] at the level of Republika Srpska,” Dodik told a press conference in Banja Luka on Monday. “We will not go into the referendum without consensus.”

Serbian leaders withheld support

Local experts and international officials say that neighboring Serbia played a key role in forcing Dodik to scrap the referendum on the state court.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic repeatedly refused to offer Dodik any support on the issue and openly called on him to back off.

Bosnian Serb officials told BIRN that in recent weeks Dodik tried to secure support from Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic instead – seen as more nationalistic than Vucic – but was also denied.

“Without Nikolic’s support, Dodik was left without any support, all alone,” Topic said.

In the meantime, Dodik tried to negotiate a way out of the difficult situation with the international community, seeking any concession that he could publicly present as both a victory and an excuse to call off the referendum.

Similar tactics – albeit in a different political context – worked for Dodik in 2011, when he launched his first referendum initiative and forced Catherine Ashton, then the EU’s Foreign Affairs chief, to come to Bosnia and negotiate with him on a diplomatic solution.

This time, the EU was less open to negotiations but also had no more concessions to offer, diplomats told BIRN.

Coalition pressures also played a role

Another factor that forced Dodik to abandon his initiative was worsening relations within his coalition between his own party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, and the second-strongest party, the Democratic People’s Alliance, DNS.

The DNS, alongside the Socialist Party, has been a loyal ally to Dodik’s party for ten years.

But tensions surfaced during and after the 2014 general elections, when the DNS appeared unsure about whether it wished to remain in coalition with the SNSD.

Negotiations lasted for days and the SNSD had to make many promises, sources from the DNS said.

The elections revealed that the SNSD’s popularity was falling, and after the vote Dodik struggled to put together a majority in the entity’s 83-seat assembly.

With only 29 deputies, the SNSD depended on the DNS and Socialists, which won five each. It still had to struggle to secure support from deputies from other political blocs to reach the minimum majority of 42 deputies.

Sources in both the DNS and the Socialists told BIRN that both of these parties grew weary of Dodik’s radical tactics, such as the referendum initiatives, which the DNS did not support.

The DNS and the Socialists also felt frustrated with Dodik’s habit of deciding on key issues without proper consultation.

The two parties also felt aggrieved by the fact that the SNSD failed to respect the agreements on the distribution of key positions; instead of DNS and Socialist candidates, it appointed mostly SNSD figures.

Signs of the deterioration in relations in the coalition could be noted during a recent interview by Nedeljko Cubrilovic, the vice-president of the DNS and speaker of the Republika Srpska assembly.

He told a TV station in Banjaluka that the SNSD has already done enough for the DNS to withdraw from the coalition. “We have [only] stayed in the coalition because we are responsible towards our voters,” Cubrilovic said last week.

Dodik’s stubborn insistence on the referendums was the last straw for the DNS party presidency, which last week decided to adopt a tougher line toward the SNSD.

After the session, DNS officials said they were reconsidering their support for the referendum as well as their continued loyalty to the SNSD.

Sources close to both the DNS and SNSD told BIRN that these statements rocked Dodik because without the support of the DNS, the SNSD would lose its majority and the government could fall.

DNS wants free hand in next elections

The DNS’s bolder position is influenced by the fact that as the local elections approach, its appetites are growing.

At a time when the ratings of the two main Bosnian Serb parties – the SNSD and the main opposition Serbian Democratic Party – are falling, partly because of their bitter quarrels, the popularity of the DNS is growing. It is now believed to be the third strongest party in Republika Srpska.

In addition, while the DNS is in alliance with the SNSD at entity level, it cooperates with opposition parties, such as the Party of Democratic Progress, PDP, at a local level in some municipalities. Sources close to the DNS say they wish to maintain their freedom to choose different partners in different local communities.

In some communities, local DNS officials are at odds with the local SNSD branches, as in the entity’s administrative centre of Banja Luka, where key SNSD and DNS officials do not speak to each other, DNS officials told BIRN.

For those reasons, DNS leader, the Mayor of Prijedor, Marko Pavic said after last week’s DNS presidency session that while the SNSD and DNS may agree on joint candidates for mayors, in the races for city councils “the DNS will decide on its own”.

Experts expect that more of these political games will be played as the local elections draw near.

“The relationship between the DNS and SNSD is specific. Every time elections approach, the DNS likes to act like an opposition party, forgetting that they are part of this ruling coalition,” Topic concluded.

Balkan Insight

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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