By Danijel Kovacevic and Srecko Latal
After international diplomacy failed to halt an ethnically-divisive referendum planned by Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska, its opponents hope that the country’s Constitutional Court can find a last-minute solution.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s state-level Constitutional Court is due to consider two appeals on Saturday that critics of the ethnically-divisive referendum planned by the Republika Srpska authorities for September 25 hope could stop the vote being held.
The court in Sarajevo is set to consider an appeal by the Bosnian Serb authorities against its own ruling which declared the annual Day of Republika Srpska unconstitutional because it discriminated against non-Serbs – a ruling that sparked the referendum that is intended to defend the ‘statehood’ holiday.
The court will also consider an appeal by Bosniak political leaders against the referendum. They want the referendum banned because they say it challenges decisions of the state Constitutional Court, which they argue Republika Srpska does not have the authority to do.
Over the past few weeks, EU and US officials have tried to resolve the controversy through diplomacy, meeting Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, who launched the referendum initiative, and asking him to cancel it.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic also met Dodik several times and attempted to use Belgrade’s influence on the Bosnian Serbs by publicly refusing to support the referendum.
However, the situation was complicated by the closeness of local elections, scheduled for October 2, only a week after the referendum.
International diplomats and Bosnian Serb officials said that the referendum was deliberately scheduled so close to the elections to boost the election chances of Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, which is the ruling party in Republika Srpska.
Diplomats and Republika Srpska officials said in recent days that Dodik had agreed to make a concession by proposing changes to the Republika Srpska law on public holidays, which meant that the entity would effectively conform with the ruling of the Constitutional Court and significantly reduce the importance of the referendum.
However, Bosnian Serb and international sources told BIRN that Dodik has now changed his mind, fearing that a compromise would show him as weak in the eyes of his potential voters, which would hurt him and the SNSD in the upcoming elections.
Some Bosniak officials have meanwhile called on Bosnia’s international overseer, High Representative Valentin Inzko, to use his executive powers to stop the referendum and impose sanctions on the Republika Srpska leadership.
But the international community is deeply divided on the issue and Inzko does not have the backing to use his executive powers. While he officially does not need anyone’s approval, he does need international support to make sure that his decisions are implemented.
In this situation, the international community’s last hopes are pinned on the Constitutional Court.
The court is made up of nine members – three international judges and two judges from each of country’s three main ethnic groups, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.
It has often been criticised by Bosnian Serb and Croat officials, who accused the international judges of regularly taking the Bosniaks’ side, allowing the Serb and Croat judges to be outvoted.
Because of this criticism, but also because of the general weakness of Bosnia’s judicial institutions, Constitutional Court decisions are often not implemented.
At the moment there are at least 76 constitutional court decisions which are being ignored by different institutions, organisations and individuals.
This adds to the uncertainty about whether the court can halt the referendum.
Bosnian officials have told BIRN that a compromise solution is possible, but refused to elaborate.
Bosnian Serb officials told BIRN meanwhile that even if the Constitutional Court finds a solution, Dodik could still decide to hold the referendum, just to make sure that his party wins as many seats as possible in the upcoming local elections.
However this could lead to serious destabilisation in the country, as Bosniak officials have repeatedly argued that Dodik could use this referendum as a stepping stone to organise another popular vote in Republika Srpska, this time on secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which according to Bosniaks would lead to new violence.