This week, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) marked the 27th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), which ended the three-and-a-half-year (1992-1995). Since then, BiH, a war-ravaged country, has struggled with overcoming the past and moving forward toward genuine cooperation and reconciliation, which requires recognizing the past, finding common ground, making a commitment to BiH’s future, and building a sense of unity and national pride.
Last month, on November 25, 2022, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), one of two entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), celebrated Statehood Day, which marked the 79th anniversary of the establishment of the first Republic in the history of the statehood of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Komšić 2022). When the State Anti-fascist Council for the National Liberation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ZAVNOBiH) held its first session in 1943, it did not only define BiH’s territorial integrity by restoring its historic borders, but it also constituted the republican government and laid the foundation for the modern and democratic BiH. Komšić stressed that ZAVNOBiH helped people find a common language. He highlighted that BiH was “an integral and indivisible state, neither Serbian nor Croatian nor Muslim, but also Serbian and Muslim and Croatian, a twinned community in which full equality will be ensured for Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, but also for all other people who live there” (N1, 2021). The decision was also upheld at the first session of the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ).
This year, the newly elected Croat and Bosniak members of BiH’s tripartite presidency, Željko Komšić and Denis Bećirović, held a reception at the City Hall to celebrate the Statehood Day and welcomed well wishes from leaders around the world, including U.S. President Joe Biden. However, the Serb member of the presidency, Željka Cvijanović, did not participate in any events. Cvijanović stated, “BiH does not have a law on holidays, and November 25, which is celebrated in the Federation of BiH as the so-called Statehood Day of BiH is not a holiday in the whole of BiH” (Radio Sarajevo, 2022). Moreover, Milorad Dodik, President of Republika Srpska (RS), BiH’s second entity, called November 25 – Statehood Day a “fake holiday” (Srpskainfo, 2022).
According to Bećirović, the celebration of Statehood Day on November 25 does not discriminate, threaten, or exclude anyone but affirms the human rights of all citizens and nations. Therefore, it raises the question of why November 25 is not considered a Statehood Day and national holiday in all of BiH, including Republika Srpska, BiH’s second entity. RS political leaders deny BiH’s history and significance of November 25 by refusing to celebrate the holiday. However, RS celebrates November 21, the date when the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) was initialed in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, United States (National Assembly of RS, 2022). There are other entity-specific holidays, which can be best understood by looking at BiH’s independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the war following its independence, and the complex peace agreement it ended the war.
The Road to BiH’s Independence
Following the recommendation from the Badinter Commission, established by the European Community and the Conference for Yugoslavia, the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina held a referendum on its independence and recognition as a sovereign state. The referendum, which took place between February 29 and March 1, 1992, asked, “Are you in favour of a sovereign and independent Bosnia-Herzegovina, a state of equal citizens and nations of Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats, and others who live in it?” Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats supported BiH’s independence, while a large number of Bosnian Serbs, but not all, opposed it and boycotted the referendum. The Serbian Democratic Party was against BiH’s independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). With a 63.6% referendum turnout and 99.7% support for its independence, the Socialist Republic of BiH declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on March 1, 1992. The European Community recognized BiH as an independent state on April 7, 1992.
The Serb nationalists, who opposed BiH’s independence referendum and its subsequent independence, began the war. While the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) ended the war, the perceptions of it vary. Some argue that DPA transformed BiH into “a weak union of two deeply autonomous ethno-territories” (Maksić, 2009, p.4) consisting of the Federation of BiH (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS). Toal (2013) stresses that DPA “institutionalized an ethno-territorial division of BiH organized around war territories, locking nationalist antagonism into the very structure of the state” (199). Within BiH, FBiH argues that DPA reconfirmed BiH as the legal successor of the Republic of BiH and ensured its continuity, which means celebrating its past national holidays unless they were later changed. On the other hand, RS argues that DPA validates RS and serves as a “protection of the constitutional position of the RS and the interest of the Serb people in BiH” (Čubrilović, 2022). With differing perceptions of BiH’s history, DPA, and plans for the future, BiH’s two entities celebrate different holidays.
Celebration of Different Holidays in BiH
For many, it is mind-boggling that the whole country does not celebrate the same holidays. How can entities celebrate different holidays, especially those regarding BiH’s history and sovereignty? The answer lies in the fact that BiH lacks demos at the BiH level, which would be bearers of BiH’s sovereignty, national pride, and unity. Moreover, BiH lacks a single law at the state level on holidays. Only two secular holidays are celebrated in the whole BiH (i.e., New Year’s Day – January 1 and 2, and Labour Day – May 9).
FBiH celebrates Independence Day on March 1, while RS celebrates January 9 as the Day of Republika Srpska. On January 9, 1992, the Serb National Assembly declared the Republic of Serb people of BiH. The RS Day falls on St. Stephen’s Day, an Orthodox Christian holiday making it challenging to differentiate from being a secular or religious holiday. The holiday appears to share symbolism only associated with the Serbs and Serbian Orthodox tradition and fails to include other Constituent people and Others. As such, the holiday is considered controversial in FBiH.
In 2013, the Bosniak member of BiH’s tripartite presidency, Bakir Izetbegović, expressed concern that the celebration of the RS Day violated specific provisions of the BiH Constitution and requested that the BiH Constitutional Court reviews the constitutionality of Article 135 3(b) of the RS Law on Holidays. The concern was that the celebration of the RS Day on January 9 discriminated against RS residents from the other two Constituent people and Others. The Venice Commission, per BiH’s Constitutional Court’s request, provided an amicus curiae brief stating that January 9 went against BiH’s Constitution’s main values and celebration of the RS Day on January 9 had significance only for one of the Constituent people, which could exacerbate divisions within BiH. The decision to celebrate it on January 9 was “hardly in line with the unifying values of dialogue, tolerance, mutual understanding and equality which should be the underlying basis for the choice of a national day” (The Venice Commission, 2013, p.12). In 2015, the BiH Constitutional Court declared January 9 unconstitutional, specifying that the selected date, January 9, was the issue, not the right to celebrate the RS Day on a different day.
The RS Government defied the BiH Constitutional Court’s ruling by continuing to celebrate the day and organizing a referendum on September 25, 2016, which asked, “Do you support that January 9 be observed and celebrated as the Day of Republika Srpska?” (The Republic Committee for Referendum Conduct, 2017, p. 2). The referendum turnout was 55.78%, out of which 99.81% of voters chose to celebrate RS Day on January 9. Despite the BiH Constitutional Court’s ruling, RS continues to celebrate RS Day on January 9.
The RS Government argued that if the celebration of January 9 was forbidden based on being acceptable only to Serbs, Independence Day on March 1 should be as well since Croats and Bosniaks only celebrate the holiday. According to the RS Government (2016), March 1 represents the “anniversary of an illegitimate referendum that tore the Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina away from their country, Yugoslavia, and led to war.”
Moreover, Dodik suggested that RS celebrates RS Day on February 15, when the neighbouring country – Serbia celebrates its Statehood Day. According to Dodik, “If they (Bosniaks) feel hurt, and January 9 is not possible, will February 15 bother them? It is the day of the First Serbian Uprising, and we in the Republika Srpska are Serbs as well” (N1, 2021).
Throughout the years, Dodik has emphasized RS’s connection with Serbia instead of the rest of BiH. After becoming the President of RS in recent elections, Dodik stated that “the time is coming for the national and political gathering of Serbs” and that the policy of RS is to “connect with Serbia as much as possible” (Nezavisne novine, 2022). He has pledged to strengthen RS’s autonomy and expressed his plans and desire for RS to secede from BiH.
The unfortunate reality is that many people are not satisfied with the complex political and territorial structure of BiH. Thus, the focus should be on the embitterment of citizens’ lives. Unfortunately, instead of building national identity, working on finding common ground, and improving the everyday lives of its citizens by focusing on the economy, employment, and EU integrations, unscrupulous ethnic entrepreneurs stress differences and engage in corruption. They overemphasize ethnic identity at the cost of national identity, which can be observed through the celebration of different holidays. Moreover, some political representatives of ethnic groups and entities have different visions of BiH, including its dissolution, further complicating the situation. BiH’s sovereignty and territorial integrity should never be brought to question. Much of the Statehood Day debate has hinged on the vision and acceptance of BiH as a sovereign state by different ethnic groups.
Nadja Beglerovic, PhD, is the Project Manager at the International University of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She has over 13 years of experience working at universities in the U.S., Czechia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.