Sunday, September 25, 2016

Bosnian Serb referendum on disputed 9 January holiday

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Bosnian Serbs are voting on whether to keep 9 January as a national holiday in defiance of Bosnia's highest court.

It has ruled the date discriminates against Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats and should be changed.

Serbs declared the creation of their own state within Bosnia on 9 January 1992, fuelling an ethnic conflict in which about 100,000 people died.

Bosnia is still split along ethnic lines between the mainly-Serb entity and a Muslim-Croat federation.

The Constitutional Court, based in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, banned the referendum.

Polls opened at 07:00 local time (05:00 GMT) and will close at 19:00.

About 1.2 million people are eligible to vote. By 13:00 the turnout had reached about 30%.

Analysis: By Guy Delauney, BBC News, Belgrade, Serbia

Regardless of the result, the referendum has already damaged ethnic relations in Bosnia and, arguably, the credibility of the international officials who still oversee the country.

Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik has challenged the authority of the national court, which ruled the 9 January holiday unconstitutional and banned the referendum. He also ignored pressure from the European Union, the international high representative and Serbia.

This defiance has increased fears that Mr Dodik might follow through with his threat to hold a secession referendum.

The high representative has the ability to remove politicians from office if they threaten the terms of the Dayton Peace Agreement. But in recent years those powers have been used only rarely.

Referendum challenges peace terms

As well as being the anniversary of the declaration of a Bosnian Serb state, 9 January is an Orthodox Christian holiday.

Voting in the Bosnian Serb capital Banja Luka, President Milorad Dodik was upbeat.

"I think all the pros and cons about this referendum are not important anymore," he said.

"It's important that this referendum is taking place now. Nothing can question it right now. Nothing can make it look bad."

But the international High Representative, Valentin Inzko, told the BBC that the vote was "illegal and unconstitutional".

"No mistake, decisions of the constitutional court are final and binding..., and the constitutional court was very, very explicit..., it suspended this referendum," he said.

Bosniak leader Bakir Izetbegovic, meanwhile, has accused Mr Dodik of "playing with fire".

The BBC's Guy Delauney in neighbouring Serbia says that the Bosnian Serb leader has been deliberately provocative by insisting on celebrating the national holiday on 9 January.

Analysts say by flouting the court, one of the federal institutions set up at the end of the war 21 years ago, Mr Dodik is threatening the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the war in 1995.

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