Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: Serbs Threaten Constitutional Crisis

Republika Srpska to step up defiant response to Ashdown sackings.
By Gordana Katana

A possible constitutional crisis looms in Bosnia and Hercegovina, BiH, as the Republika Srpska, RS, parliament meets next week to confirm the exclusion of its three elected Bosnian Muslim ministers.


This move is part of the RS leadership's defiant response to the exclusion of 59 of its own representatives from office by the High Representative to BiH, Paddy Ashdown.


Within 24 hours of Ashdown's decision on June 30, Mladen Ivanic, leader of the Party of Democratic Progress, PDP, and the foreign minister of BiH, demanded that Bosnian Muslim representatives be removed.


Branding Ashdown's action as the product of "a coalition of the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, and Office of the High Representative, OHR", he said, "RS prime minister Dragan Mikerevic should dismiss the SDA ministers from the RS government."


The OHR censure of the RS leadership had been widely expected, following BiH's failure to gain admission to Nato's Partnership for Peace programme. This was attributed directly to the failure of the RS ruling coalition, made up of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, and the PDP, to cooperate with the Hague tribunal.


But OHR hopes that the RS governing coalition would respond by electing new ministers and deputies to replace those removed from office, were unduly optimistic. Instead, RS leaders have seized an opportunity to try and trigger a political crisis, which could paralyse the work of both RS entity and BiH state institutions.


"Ashdown’s action forms a first step in the weakening of RS political structures, as a way of enabling changes to RS' constitutional status," said Ivanic. "It is clear that Ashdown is working in favour of SDA leader Sulejman Tihic’s demands for the centralisation of BiH."


The Bosnian Serb leadership insists that Tihic is constantly trying to undermine their entity.


In April, Tihic supported calls by some international organisations and local think-tanks to get rid of the country’s two semi-autonomous entities, which, some argued, would speed up the country efforts to join the European Union. And at the recent NATO summit in Istanbul, Tihic said that RS was responsible to the alliance to reject BiH’s membership bid – a charge dismissed by the Banja Luka authorities.


The notion that the RS is responding to SDA attempts to undermine it was reinforced when the SDS main board endorsed the PDP's proposal to dismiss SDA ministers from the entity government on July 8.


"The SDS main board has come to the conclusion that the dismissal of RS government ministers from the ranks of the SDA is unavoidable, because of Tihic’s constant attacks on the RS," said SDS acting leader Dragan Cavic.


Opposition politicians within RS criticised the proposed exclusion. "Mladen Ivanic wants to dismiss SDA members from the RS government, while himself continuing to serve as a minister in Sarajevo," commented Milorad Dodik, leader of the main opposition party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats. "That shows his skewed view of politics in RS and BiH."


"Ivanic sanctioned the existing links between the SDS and the SDA, knowing the SDA leaders' views on RS. To suddenly complain about that is downright hypocrisy," said Milanko Mihaljica, deputy leader of the Socialist Party of RS.


In an extraordinary session of the SDA board on July 9, the party appealed to the RS leadership to reconsider its plan. "We call on other political parties - especially those in the RS, and on the international community to prevent the attempted violation of the constitution and the equality of peoples," they said.


However, the party also warned that if the SDA ministers are duly removed from the Bosnian Serb government, then retaliatory measures could be taken against RS members of the BiH Council of Ministers.


This would place both entity governments in direct contravention of the constitution, which guarantees the right of ethnic minorities to elect representatives to each parliament, and could paralyse the institutions on both an entity and state level.


Tanja Topic, a political analyst at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, thinks the RS leadership's behaviour should be viewed through the prism of forthcoming local elections. "Fearing that the voters are deeply concerned about the economy, they seized the opportunity to avert attention from that by raising the spectre of RS being under some kind of threat from the SDA," she said.


Continuing their belligerent stance, the Banja Luka leadership also boycotted Sunday's memorial service commemorating the ninth anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. Instead, high-ranking figures travelled to Belgrade to attend the inauguration of Serbia’s newly elected President Boris Tadic.


RS prime minister Dragan Mikerevic was invited to contribute towards the cost of the anniversary service by Srebrenica Mayor Abdurahman Malkic, but declined. "We cannot help finance any activity which includes the word ‘genocide’ in its title," he said.


This was a particularly retrograde development, since the RS government only recently officially acknowledged that 8,000 innocent civilians were slaughtered at Srebrenica by soldiers under the command of then RS chief of staff General Ratko Mladic.


Certainly, such a gesture can only raise the political temperature on both sides. "Parties in the BiH Federation are now saying that Tadic's inauguration on that date showed a lack of respect by Serbia towards BiH, and the fact that so many Bosnian Serb politicians went out of their way to attend only plays into their hands," said Topic.


With the RS parliament looking set to confirm its planned exclusion on July 19, it remains to be seen whether the SDA will respond in kind, as it has threatened to do. If so, Bosnia could face its worst constitutional crisis since the signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995.


Gordana Katana is a regular IWPR contributor, Nerma Jelacic is IWPR project manager in Bosnia and Herzegovina.