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What is Republika Srpska?

Volker Wagener
January 15, 2023

Republika Srpska is an unusual political entity that grew out of the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia. It's independent in some ways but also part of the larger country that is Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnian Serbs march with a giant Serbian flag
Republika Srpska recently celebrated its 30th anniversaryImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

Republika Srpska is one of two entities belonging to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is not the same as Serbia.

Complicated geography

Republika Srpska consists of two separate entities, connected via a neutral district, Brcko, to the north. The Brcko district was created after the war in 1995 to ensure that Bosnian Serbs did not control a single, continuous territory within Bosnia and Herzegovina, bordering Serbia. Brcko has its own administrative status within Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Karte Teilrepubliken Bosnien-Herzegowina EN

Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Together, Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina make up the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is home to Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.

According to its constitution, the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina is in charge of its own foreign affairs, foreign trade, customs and currency policy, as well as migration issues, international law enforcement, telecommunications and its air space. It also gained control over its own defense policy in 2006, following the adoption of the new Law on Defense of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Strongly pro-Russian 

Whereas the EU is unpopular in Republika Srpska, Russia has many supporters. On January 9, Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik awarded Russian President Vladimir Putin the entity's highest honor for his "patriotic concern and love for Republika Srpska."

The honor was bestowed on the 31st anniversary of the creation of the entity, which is neither a proper state nor seeks to be one. Rather, Republika Srpska wants to see "all Serbs united in a single state" — a major provocation for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and for Europe.

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik speaking in parliament in Banja Luka
The de-facto seat of Republika Srpska's government has been Banja Luka since 1998Image: Dragan Maksimovic/DW

How Republika Srpska was founded

On January 9, 1992, the Bosnian Serb assembly declared Republika Srpska the independent "Republic of the Serb people of Bosnia and Herzegovina." The announcement is considered to be one of the causes of the Bosnian war, which led to the death of 100,000 people, with hundreds of thousands more forced to flee.

During the conflict, nationalist actors from all warring parties committed crimes. On the Serbian side, political leader Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and former parliamentary head Biljana Plavsic went down in history for their role in ordering, or condoning, ethnic cleansing.

New territorial status quo recognized

The Dayton Agreement of 1995 ended the war, yet also recognized the new territorial status quo. Since then, almost half of Bosnia and Herzegovina is made up of Republika Srpska, populated by 1,2 million people, most of whom are Serbian.

Independent political system

Republika Srpska has its own political system with an independent judiciary. Although Sarajevo is its official capital according to the constitution, the de-facto seat of government has been Banja Luka since 1998.

Ghosts of the past

Dealing with convicted war criminals has been a deeply contentious issue in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which still remains under international observation. Controversially, some war criminals are still revered in Republika Srpska today.

High Representative

A few weeks ago, Germany's High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, was moved to remind the people and politicians of Republika Srpska that Karadzic and Mladic were "authors of genocide," sentenced as war criminals by international courts.

Serb nationalists divide Bosnia and Herzegovina

National identities and religion

There are de facto very few differences between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. First and last names vary and so does language. More pronounced differences can be seen in religious affiliations. Bosniaks tend to be Muslim, Croats are Catholic and Serbs are Orthodox Christians.

Such differences have stood in the way of creating a citizenship-based state and society for years. In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, almost all official positions are divided between Bosniaks and Croats. Individuals who feel no allegiance to any one of the three constituent nations are excluded from holding certain political offices.

Ongoing problems

On the anniversary of the creation of Republika Srpska, Serbian President Alexandar Vucic sent his son Danilo to the entity to mark the event. This underscored Serbia's political support for President Milorad Dodik's efforts to achieve independence for Republika Srpska. The US Embassy in Sarajevo criticized the move on Twitter.

This article was originally published in German.