An overwhelming majority of the 1.2 million Serb voters backed the government of President Milorad Dodik, despite warnings from Bosnia’s highest court that the vote was unconstitutional and discriminatory against non-Serbs. The referendum will seriously damage inter-ethnic relations as well as the credibility of the international officials who oversee the country but proved powerless to stop the voting.
After years of threatening to unravel Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dodik has challenged the authority of the national court and ignored pressure from the EU and the Office of the High Representative (OHR). The OHR has the mandate to remove politicians from office if they threaten the terms of the Dayton Peace Agreement. But in recent years those powers have rarely been employed and the current HR, Valentin Inzko, is wary of heavy-handed intervention.
Dodik is calculating that he will lead the entity to independent statehood before he leaves the political scene because international resolve to keep the country together will weaken. Hence, the purpose of the constitutional referendum was to legitimize the self-determination of the Serbian entity as a prelude to a referendum on secession and statehood.
Dodik did not buckle under international pressure despite warnings from EU and U.S. officials that the referendum could lead to financial sanctions against him, his family members, and some of his supporters. If international players try to remove him from office, Dodik could ignore the ruling and appeal for help from Serbia and Russia, thus setting the stage for an escalation of conflict with Bosniak Muslim leaders.
One of the most important factors for Dodik is the role played by Serbia. Both Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić desisted from openly supporting the referendum. However, they have also indicated that they could not stand aside if armed conflict erupted again in Bosnia.
To demonstrate his nationalist credentials ahead of local elections on 2 October, Dodik has also announced a new initiative to abolish the RS’s House of Peoples. This parliamentary chamber plays an important role in protecting the rights of non-Serbs and its disbandment will be viewed as consolidating ethnic homogeneity. Dodik has also pledged that an independence vote will be held during 2018, if various jurisdictions are not returned to the Serbian entity by 2017. Such a referendum could be moved forward if a major political crisis erupts in Bosnia or if protests escalate against worsening economic conditions.
An independence referendum could also be pushed through when the international climate becomes advantageous. If the rift between the West and Russia widens, Moscow will strongly oppose any international intervention while backing the RS’s right to statehood. Moscow can play the Bosnia card against Washington and Brussels by pledging more direct financial, diplomatic, and even military support for Banja Luka.
Dodik is banking on divisions in the international community and the lack of consensus regarding sanctions against the RS. Some EU and NATO members remain strongly opposed to applying the OHR's executive powers, arguing that Bosnia should no longer be micro-managed by international players. Moreover, OHR has limited means to implement its decisions, as there is no NATO presence and a miniscule EU force. This itself could encourage Bosnia’s Serb leaders to escalate the crisis without fear of retribution.
Banja Luka will also be emboldened by a weakening EU, especially as nationalist and anti-enlargement sentiments continue to grow in the Union. Additionally, a distracted Washington could mean a lessened US role in the Balkans, while a potentially more isolationist America will present new opportunities for separatism in various parts of the region.
Much also depends on Serbia’s calculations. The government in Belgrade has staked its future on EU accession. If prospects for membership are indefinitely postponed, nationalism will rise in Serbia and could push the government toward backing the creation of a second Serbian state. Officials will argue that the Kosova precedent should also be applied in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In the midst of the current standoff, RS and Serbia held their first joint “anti-terrorist” maneuvers at the end of August. The exercises heightened regional concerns that Belgrade is preparing to defend the entity in the event of conflict with Sarajevo. Special police units from the RS and Serbia, together with armored vehicles, helicopters, riverboats, and gunships, simulated a battle against terrorists along the Drina River between Serbia and Bosnia. Both Presidents Nikolic and Dodik attended the exercises.
The Drina exercise was designed to demonstrate to Sarajevo that Banja Luka possesses its own fighting units and can combine with forces from Serbia in the event of armed conflict. Not surprisingly, Bosniak leader Bakir Izetbegović accused Dodik of "playing with fire," indicating that the Bosniaks themselves may need to prepare for war.