Bosnian Serbs celebrate banned statehood day despite warnings

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia – Bosnian Serbs celebrated their autonomous region’s statehood day on Tuesday with a parade of special forces and armoured vehicles in defiance of a top court ban and warnings from Western overseers of Bosnia’s troubled peace.

Jan. 9 marks the date in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared independence as then-federal Yugoslavia broke up, triggering a 3-1/2-year war in which 100,000 people were killed and two million made homeless, most of them Bosnian Muslims.

Since Jan. 9 coincides with a Serbian Orthodox Christian holiday, Bosnia’s Constitutional Court has twice declared it illegal, ruling it discriminated against the region’s Catholic Croat and Muslim Bosniak communities.

But the Serb Republic, which along with the Bosniak-Croat Federation comprises largely decentralised post-war Bosnia under the 1995 Dayton peace accords, was undeterred and has continued to mark the nationalist-minded holiday.

In freezing cold, about 3,400 police officers, wartime veterans and civilians marched along the streets of the region´s de facto capital Banja Luka, many bussed in from other towns.

“These people have the right to mark their Republic Day in this way, and we shall continue to do that,” Serb Republic (RS) President Milorad Dodik said, addressing the parade. “Anyone trying to ban it will not succeed.”

The annual RS nationalist rite underlines deep ethnic and political divisions in the Balkan country, whose post-war progress has been held hostage by a lack of reconciliation and Dodik´s repeated secessionist threats.

International organisations, including the mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the office of the International High Representative and the U.S. and British embassies have all warned that staging the statehood day constitutes a criminal offence against the high court´s ruling.

International peace envoy Christian Schmidt, who enforces Dayton’s terms and is not recognised as legitimate by the RS, has urged Bosnian state prosecutors and police to act against public officials taking part in the celebrations.

But Dodik, a pro-Russian separatist, told the crowd that nobody could forbid the Serbs from marking their statehood day.

“What we need is freedom, not colonisers or tutors,” Dodik said. “This is the republic that is looking to its people, looking into (neighbouring) Serbia, looking into Russia.”

Dodik previously announced that many foreign state leaders would attend the celebration, including pro-Russian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, but none appeared.

“This day means a lot to me because we are celebrating the Day of Republika Srpska in peace, happiness and joy,” Marko Cvjetkovic said, watching the parade. “We are not hurting anyone and don´t want anyone to hurt us and take from us what is ours.” REUTERS

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