Bosnia Serbs drop referendum plan, Ashton ‘very pleased’


The Serb entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina has abandoned its idea of holding a referendum on the legality of the country's national court, the European Commission announced today (13 May), as the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was on a visit to the country.

"Negotiations were done very much with the personal engagement of the High representative [Catherine Ashton] who traveled there last night," her spokesperson Michael Mann told reporters in Brussels.

"They [the Bosnian Serbs, or Republika Srpska] are not going to go ahead with a referendum"

"We are very pleased," he said.

According to Mann, the Bosnian Serb authorities agreed that a "structural dialogue" on judiciary issues would be held instead of a referendum. The dialogue's first session will be held in early June, under the chairmanship of Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle.

Earlier this month, the parliament of Republika Srpska overwhelmingly backed plans for a referendum on the court and its prosecutor, saying both were biased against Serbians.

The court was established in 2002 mainly to prosecute war crime suspects and ease the burden on the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Analysts have described the referendum as a Serb attempt to undermine Bosnia-wide institutions like the court and challenge the authority of Bosnia's international High Representative Valentin Inzko, who has the power to overturn laws and fire officials.

In recent weeks, the European Union's envoy to the Balkans strongly criticised plans for a referendum on the legality of Bosnia's national court, saying the "irresponsible" vote would widen divisions in the fragile nation.

Rough play

Bosnia's international High Representative Valentin Inzko recently said that the planned referendum was the "most serious challenge" to Bosnia's viability since the end of the Balkan country's 1992-95 war (see background).

Inzko who so far has rarely used his powers to impose laws or fire obstructionist officials, said that all options are now open, including the replacement of Milorad Dodik, leader of Republika Srpska.

"The international community's support that I have could include the replacement of Dodik," he was quoted saying by Reuters.

"We are not going to fulfil Dodik's conditions," he said. "He must fulfil our conditions."

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) experienced the worst of the ethno-nationalist fighting that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

Following BiH's declaration of independence in 1992, a bitter conflict ensued between Serbs, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats, claiming 100,000 lives. Eventual international military intervention under the auspices of the UN culminated in a NATO bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb forces in 1995, which led to the Dayton Agreement that created the current constitution and geopolitical structure of BiH.

The conflict involved ethnic cleansing and a number of atrocities were committed. Worst of all was the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, when an estimated 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by the army of the Republika Srpska and other paramilitary units, despite the presence of 400 armed Dutch peacekeepers in the area.

BiH is officially a federation, divided into two partner entities with considerable independence: the Bosniak-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska. Each has its own government, legislature and police force, but the two come together to form a central, federal government with an eight-month rotating presidency held equally by a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb (click here for more).

EU leaders have repeatedly warned BiH that continued political in-fighting between Serb, Muslim and Croat nationalists is driving the country away from its aspirations to move closer to the European Union.

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