A vote on a national holiday has reignited ethnic tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Bosnian Serbs voting despite a ban by the country's constitutional court. Many see the referendum as a test run for secession.
The voters in Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity in Bosnia, took part in a referendum on Sunday to decide whether to keep January 9 as a state holiday. The date commemorates the day the Serbs declared independence in 1992, at the outset of the bloody Bosnian war that ended some four years later.
A court in Sarajevo has already banned the referendum and declared that the holiday is discriminating against Croats and Bosniaks, the majority Muslim population living in the Balkan country.
The authorities of Republika Srpska decided to push on with the vote anyway.
The long-ruling president of the largely autonomous region, Milorad Dodik, said on Sunday the voting was proceeding without a hitch: "I am especially glad that everything is happening in a peaceful and festive atmosphere," he said while casting his vote.
Dodik's decision to set up the vote has sparked outrage in Sarajevo, with many linking it with a push to secede from Bosnia. The nationalist leader has long threatened to hold a referendum on declaring independence.
The dispute over the Sunday ballot also prompted Bosniak leaders to rehash wartime rhetoric, with the Muslim leader Bakir Izetbegovic accusing Dodik of "playing with fire" and the Bosniak ex-commander Sefer Halilovic saying he was "crossing the red line."
Halilovic also urged the authorities in Srpska to "think hard" about undermining the constitution, as, he said, they could no longer count on support from ex-Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
"Milosevic is dead, there is no ex-Yugoslavian army, there are no thousands of tanks, armored vehicles… Serbia cannot help Republika Srpska," he said. "We will not let anyone breakaway half of our country," Halilovic said.
Court tried to 'humiliate' Serbs
Serbia has publicly denounced the referendum and urged stability in Bosnia. At the same time, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic denounced Halilovic's statement and said Belgrade "would not allow a military assault and destruction of Republika Srpska."
The US and the EU also oppose the referendum and have threatened sanctions against Bosnian Serb politicians. Russia, in turn, backed the vote.
The Serbian member of the three-seat Sarajevo presidency, Mladen Ivanic, said there was "nothing controversial" about the referendum.
After casting his vote in Banjaluka, Ivanic told reporters that the court decision was "an attempt to humiliate the Serbs and it was simply unnecessary."
"January 9th will still be a holiday in Republika Srpska, and the people who don't want to celebrate it, do not have to do so. This is the only sane and reasonable solution."
He also said that the Sunday vote was not an introduction to a vote on independence.
Pre-ballot polls showed that the option of keeping the holiday enjoys wide support among the population. The first results are expected on Tuesday.
dj/jm (AP, dpa, AFP, FENA, Beta)