Bosnian Serbs vote to keep disputed 'Republic Day'

More than three-quarters of the vote has been counted in a referendum on whether to keep January 9 as a national holiday despite a ban issued by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A man votes during a referendum on Bosnia's Republika Srpska should celebrate "Statehood Day" in Laktasi near Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, September 25, 2016.

Updated Sep 26, 2016

Bosnian Serbs on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to keep their national holiday celebrated in January, a date tied to the divided nation's brutal 1990s war and a sensitive issue for other ethnic groups. 

The referendum was held despite Bosnia's highest court ruling it illegal. The justification given by the court for the ban is that the celebration takes place on the same date as a Serbian Orthodox Christian holiday and so discriminates against Muslims and Catholic Croats living in the Republika Srpska.

The poll is the brainchild of Milorad Dodik, nationalist leader of the Bosnian Serb-run entity.

After three-quarters of the ballot had been counted, 99.8 percent of the votes were in favour of keeping January 9 the RS' "Republic Day," officials said. 

In staging the vote, Dodik flouted a veto by Bosnia's constitutional court, disapproval by the United States and the European Union; and even the reservations of Serbia, RS' foremost ally. But his initiative was supported by Russia.

Dodik said the vote would go down in history as the "day of Serb determination".

"Now we know that the public has confirmed January 9 and we know that the public did not want to give up this date," a defiant Dodik told a press conference in the RS parliament in Banja Luka, northern Bosnia.

However, former Bosnian foreign minister Zlatko Lagumdzija told TRT World that Dodik is commiting an "ultimate mistake" as the referendum will "not have a legal impact."

He called it an attempt to "escape" social and ecomomic failures.

Bosnian Serb nationalists declared their secession from Bosnia on January 9, 1992. In the resulting war over 100,000 people were killed, many of them civilians. A large number of atrocities including mass killings and rape were commited during the conflict, mainly by Serb paramilitaries against Bosnian Muslims.

Nusreta Sivac, a Bosniak who was held in a Serb detention camp in the western town of Prijedor during the war, said, "What's happening brings back memories of what happened in 1992."

Western diplomats warn that the referendum violates the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian War.

The United States, which brokered the Dayton treaty, and the European Union called on the Republika Srpska to cancel the vote, fearing instability. Russia supported the plebiscite.

"The West and Russia are choosing sides again - whenever big powers get involved, people suffer," Bosnian Serb opposition leader Mladen Bosic told Reuters.

TRTWorld and agencies