BELGRADE Serbia urged Serbs in neighboring Bosnia on Friday to think again before holding a referendum on the authority of the national court, a vote the West says would challenge the integrity of the Bosnian state.
Serb lawmakers in Bosnia's autonomous Serb Republic voted on Wednesday to hold a plebiscite on the court's jurisdiction, arguing it is biased against Serbs.
The West sees the move as part of a growing challenge by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik to Bosnia's survival as a state, 20 years after it emerged from a war in which Serbia backed Bosnian Serbs with men and money.
The intervention by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic reflects the pressure Belgrade feels from the West to support stability in the Balkan region if it is to make progress in talks on joining the European Union.
"I tried in the name of Serbia to present all these events in the wider context," Vucic told reporters after meeting Dodik in Belgrade, saying he had asked Dodik "to think once more about it".
On Wednesday, the United States embassy in Bosnia denounced the referendum initiative as the work of "corrupt forces" and said that Washington would devise an "appropriate response."
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement on Thursday that such a vote "would challenge the cohesion, sovereignty and integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina" and risked undermining the country's EU integration.
Dodik argues the state court was not foreseen under the peace accord that ended the 1992-95 war, that it infringes on the authorities of the Serb Republic and is biased against Serbs.
Dodik, who has sought to deepen ties with traditional Serbian ally Russia in recent years, said he was open to negotiation to resolve Serb concerns, "and then there will be no need for a referendum".
The referendum has still to pass the upper house of the regional parliament, where Muslim Bosniaks are expected to refer it to the Constitutional Court. Bosnia's international peace overseer, Austrian diplomat Valentin Incko, is also likely to veto it. But Dodik has said the vote would go ahead regardless, within 50 days of the decision being published in the Official Gazette.
His party has called for a referendum in 2018 on the Serb Republic's secession unless the region is granted greater powers, deepening concern in the West that Bosnia risks unraveling.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Digby Lidstone)