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Serb referendum threatens to raise ethnic tensions in Bosnia

ALEN LEPAN
ISTANBUL
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Serb referendum threatens to raise ethnic tensions in Bosnia

As EU states in Brussels formally accept Bosnia's application for EU membership, the referendum in Republika Srpska fuels fears of strife, threatening to destabilize the country

Although Bosnia has received the green light from Brussels regarding its full membership application, tensions in Bosnia started to escalate seriously in recent days between Bosnia and Serbia due to the referendum that is planned to be conducted by Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska (RS) on Sunday. It is evident that the security situation in Bosnia has relapsed and that the situation is increasing ethnic tensions and stimulating fears of new conflicts.

The referendum planned for Sept. 25 will be conducted on the initiative of the government of the Republika Srpska. Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina's two constituent entities, alongside the federation, with a Bosnian and Bosnian Croat majority. Both entities have their own government, parliament and judiciary. The referendum will decide whether the Day of Republika Srpska can continue to be celebrated on Jan. 9, the day the Serb-dominated entity was formed just before the outbreak of the war in 1992. Beforehand, the Bosnia's state-level Constitutional Court said the statehood celebration was discriminatory and unconstitutional. Yet, Republika Srpska, beside the warnings by EU High Representatives, didn't respect the Constitutional Court's decision and celebrated the day despite the ban. The Day of the Republika Srpska created tensions inside Bosnia because of its connection to the entity's secessionist ambitions. It is also ruled as contrary to the Dayton treaty, the peace agreement that ended the war in 1995.

During the war Serbs expelled non-Serbs from the territory that was under their control and declared the creation of their own state within Bosnia with the aim to make it part of neighboring Serbia. The war was the worst decimation in Europe since the World War II, which resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and millions left homeless. People, who are non-Serbs and still live there, see the date as a symbol of their expulsion and a sign that the Republika Srpska is still a place intended only for Serbs. The referendum has raised serious tensions among the citizens and especially politicians. It was criticized by the Bosnians and Croats, both saying it will provoke ethnic division in the country.

Speaking to Daily Sabah, Professor of political sciences at the International University of Sarajevo Muhidin Mulalić when asked about what impact will have a referendum on possible ethnic tensions, he said that scheduled referendum and other indicated referendums on secession are primarily exploited for political purposes and in particular the purpose of the upcoming elections. ''Scheduled referendum, its preparation and daily bickering among the political leaders had negative impact particularly on the non-Serb population in the RS entity. Official's statements as well as exercises as of few weeks by the police forces of RS entity and Serbia have upset local returnee population that survived the genocide during the war. Inter-entity tensions among the population of the entities of the RS and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina have not been reported and are not expected on the day of the referendum," he added.

Republika Srpska has no legal basis to conduct the referendum, and if it does it could meet with fatal consequences. The U.S. officials supported Bosnians and indicated that the referendum must be canceled, whereas Russia, which is backing the Serbs, openly supported the referendum in the Republika Srpska, seeing it as an act of democracy.

Bosnia and Herzegovina takes first step toward EU membership

Bosnia and Herzegovina's long term efforts to move closer and to become a full member of the European Union (EU) have begun to yield positive results. The EU has accepted the application for full membership of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) Tuesday and said it will examine whether Bosnia has what it takes to become a member. The European Commission, the EU's executive, was tasked with evaluating if Bosnia has earned candidate status.

The European Commission will examine Bosnia's readiness to become a member by finding the answers to thousands of questions about the economy, the rule of law, human rights, and state of democracy in the country. Furthermore, the Bosnian government should put efforts into eliminating ethnic discrimination, which for a long time has represented one of the biggest problems in the country and could be a crucial obstacle on its path to the EU. It is certain that it will be a long process, yet Bosnia's governments cling to the hope that it will get its place in the bloc.

One other issue that will be monitored by the European Commission is the 2009 European Court of Human Rights ruling that Bosnia should allow ethnic minorities, such as Jews and Roma, to run for high office. However, Bosnia still has to implement that ruling since only Serbians, Bosnians and Croats can run for high office. This issue is seen as an obstacle to Bosnia's EU plans.

When asked about what impact will have a referendum on the candidate status of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Professor Mulalić indicated that the announced referendum in RS is already disputed by the Bosnia's state-level Constitutional Court, the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the European Union and by the leading forces and as such will have no effect on B&H's road to the European Union. ''Therefore, the scheduled referendum will have no impact on the candidate status of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, it should be noted that the authorities in RS squandered an opportunity to position itself as a partner in the European integration process and that the referendum itself largely influenced its political self-isolation,'' he stated.

The European Commission's examination results will show whether B&H is ready to move forward in the accession process toward candidate country status. The accession process will depend on the pace and effectiveness of the reforms toward improving economic growth, social justice, rule of law and public administration. In order to ensure process advance, coordination and cooperation at all levels of government is necessary.

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