Is Republika Srpska About to Be the Next Crimea?

Everyone's getting the secession bug.

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Mar 26 2014, 7:00am

Protesters clash with police in Sarajevo last February (Photo by Fedja Kravavac)

Besides dredging up some awkward geopolitical tension, Putin sending his troops to hang out in Crimea has had a slightly more localised effect on European politics. As soon as Russian boots stepped down on Ukrainian soil, the eyes of every secessionist leader in Europe presumably lit up in excitement; and when the overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted to secede, without any real intervention from the West (besides lots of moaning about how it wasn’t really a legitimate referendum), I’d imagine their joy was almost too much to handle.

Of course, Venetian secessionists were already on the case while Crimea was voting for its own independence. And now it looks like the Bosnian Serb Republic (or the "Republika Srpska") – one of the two political entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) – could be next in line to seek independence, with talk of secession intensifying within the context of the recent “Bosnian Spring” – a series of protests against the government in BiH.

Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, only to quickly be consumed by a gruesome conflict between the country's ethnic Serbs, ethnic Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). The Bosnian War claimed around 150,000 lives, with 8,000 Bosniaks killed at Srebrenica alone by Serb forces – an event that has tarnished relations between the two groups ever since.

The Dayton Peace Agreement, negotiated in Ohio in 1995, forced the two sides to agree on forming a single country. With that, Bosnia and Herzegovina was formed, made up of the Republika Srpska (RS), whose population mainly consists of ethnic Serbs, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH).

Predictably, the agreement didn’t convince either side to put aside their differences, and other than in Sarajevo – the capital – there isn’t really any sort of integration between the ethnic groups. Both states have independent constitutions, laws, parliaments, borders, police forces, postal systems and even foreign policy, yet they still have a federal government. If you think the stalemate between Republicans and Democrats makes it hard for the US government to get anything done, imagine how difficult it must be in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It took 16 months to form a new government after the most recent election, for example, because neither side were prepared to settle on anything.

Milorad Dodik (Photo via)

The Bosnian political system is completely decentralised – divided into two independent entities and ten districts with their own governments and ministers. Unsurprisingly, this system provides fertile ground for corruption. Last year, for instance, the Bosnian president was arrested for pardoning crimes and murders for money. And the state of the economy isn't much better than the country’s political system; over 40 percent unemployment (and 57 percent youth unemployment), corruption and privatisation scams are crippling the frail country.

Resentment over the state of the country’s political and financial situation led to a series of protests – the first of which took place in February – that have been dubbed the “Bosnian Spring”. The situation isn’t too far removed from the 2011 Arab Spring, in that the initial protests came out of – in very simplistic terms – dissatisfaction with the country's economic system, but eventually gave way to demonstrations against a number of other social injustices and government wrongdoings.

Revolutionary voices – the loudest of which comes from Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska – are now starting to resonate with more and more people in the region. Dodik is one of the most outspoken adherents of the secessionist agenda, saying in the past that “Bosnia is a rotten country that doesn’t deserve to exist”. Persistently calling for independence, he has come to be regarded as a dangerous figure by so many that three of Republika Srpska’s opposition parties united to challenge him last week. However, Dodik is a skilled politician and knows how to maintain a high approval rate.

With all that in mind, Crimea sets the perfect precedent for Dodik’s independence plans. A meeting with the Russian ambassador to Bosnia on Tuesday seemed to bolster his own secession hopes, after he hailed the Crimea referendum as “legitimate and democratic”.

Last week, the radical nationalist Aleksandar Vucic won the parliamentary election in Serbia. This week, he met with Dodik to pledge more political and economic support to Republika Srpska – perhaps as an incentive for the RS president to seek annexation to Serbia, rather than independence.

The question now is whether Vucic and Dodik are as serious about restoring “Great Serbia” as Putin appears to be about restoring the Soviet Union.

EDITORS' NOTE: An earlier version of this article referred to "Republika Srpska" (the part of BiH) as "the Republic of Serbia" (the country). It also estimated the number of Bosniaks killed in the Bosnian War at 8,000, when in fact this number relates to the massacre at Srebenica alone. We have since corrected these errors.

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