BANJA LUKA, Bosnia (Reuters) - Bosnia’s precarious unity suffered a fresh blow on Saturday when Bosnian Serbs celebrated the anniversary of the founding of their statelet, with Serbia’s leader also in attendance, in defiance of a top court ruling ordering them to change the date.
The Bosnian Serbs insist on marking their Statehood Day on Jan. 9, the day in 1992 when they declared independence from Bosnia ahead of a three-year war that accompanied the collapse of the old Yugoslavia.
However, Bosnia’s constitutional court ruled in November that the date should be changed because it also coincides with an Orthodox Christian holiday and is therefore seen as discriminating against the mainly Roman Catholic Croats and mostly Muslim Bosniaks who also live in the region.
The court ordered the Bosnian Serbs to choose another day to celebrate their anniversary, prompting a rare display of unity between normally feuding ruling and opposition parties.
Banja Luka, capital of the ‘Republika Srpska’, was festooned with national red, blue and white flags and billboards that read “Srpska celebrates”.
“Nobody should try to dismantle the Republika Srpska at the constitutional court,” said the region’s president, Milorad Dodik, who has often called for its secession from Bosnia.
Leading a delegation from Belgrade, Serbia’s Prime Minister Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic dismissed Bosniaks’ criticism of his decision to attend the celebrations and called for greater regional understanding and mutual respect.
“My love for Republika Srpska does not imply hatred for Bosnia-Herzegovina. On the contrary, it is a path towards building bridges towards Bosnia,” Vucic said.
Serbia and Bosnia must both demonstrate a commitment to better ties in order to achieve their long-term objective of joining the European Union.
Bosnia’s constitutional court was established by the Dayton peace accords that ended the 1992-95 war and split the country into two autonomous regions - the Serb Republic and the Bosniak-Croat Federation.
The court’s decisions are binding and failing to implement them is seen as a violation of the peace accords and the constitution.
In the town of Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs massacred more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995 in Europe’s worst atrocity since World War Two, survivors and relatives of the victims protested against the Bosnian Serbs’ holiday.
“January 9 ... is the date which actually celebrates the decision to eliminate one people and to seize territory from Bosniaks,” an association of mothers from Srebrenica said.
Bosnian Serbs want to change the law underpinning the constitutional court to exclude international judges from it. They have threatened to pull their representatives from pan-Bosnian national institutions and to hold a referendum on the date of their Statehood Day if they do not get their way.
Additional reporting and writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Gareth Jones