Bosnian Serb leaders marked the Day of Republika Srpska with festivities and an award ceremony on Wednesday, again defying a state-level Constitutional Court ban and stoking ethnic tensions in the divided country.
Banja Luka, the administrative centre of the Serb-dominated entity, was festooned with thousands of Serb red, blue and white flags and billboards with the slogan: “Proud and eternal.”
The culmination of the three-day celebration was a Russian-style parade in which hundreds of police officers, firefighters, prison guards, members of the civil protection force and bikers from the pro-Putin Russian motorcycle club the Night Wolves, marched through Banja Luka’s streets.
“Every time we were united, we were strong; nobody could do anything to us. We appreciate the freedom in which we live because we know that it has no price,” Republika Srpska President Zeljka Cvinanovic said at the parade.
Wednesday’s celebrations were arranged to mark the 27th anniversary of the creation of the Republika Srpska entity in 1992 – an event which many Bosniaks see as the precursor to the outbreak of the war a few months later.
The Bosnian Serbs’ defiance over the holiday is widely seen as part of an attempt by Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnian presidency, to test the limits of his freedom of manoeuvre against Bosnia’s fragile central authorities.
“January 9 is a synonym for the freedom of the Serb people for which lives were given. It is important that we gather today around January 9 as we are gathering around our freedom, our identity, and everything that is important for a nation,” Dodik told reporters on Wednesday.
The parade was preceded by an award ceremony at Republika Srpska’s Palace of the Republic. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, Russian ambassador to Sarajevo, Petr Ivantsov, and former basketball player Dejan Bodiroga, were among those honoured this year.
“This transcended the relations of bilateral co-operation and was much larger than diplomatic and administrative. This [shows] a concrete and real concern for the survival and progress of Republika Srpska,” Brnabic said.
Bosnia’s Constitutional Court ruled in November 2015 that holding the annual holiday on January 9 was discriminatory against non-Serbs in Republika Srpska because it is also a Serbian Orthodox religious holiday – the day of St Stephen, who is the patron saint of the entity.
Despite the court ruling, and in spite of strong objections from Bosniak, US and EU officials, the Republika Srpska authorities held a referendum in September 2016, seeking public support for the holiday. The referendum was also subsequently ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court.
In December 2016, the Republika Srpska National Assembly adopted a Law on the Day of Republika Srpska, which stipulates that January 9 is a secular holiday and that the RS government will decide how it will be marked.
However, in January 2018, Bosniak representatives in Republika Srpska institutions filed an appeal to assess the constitutionality of the law. The Constitutional Court has not yet considered the appeal.
Bosniak representatives in Republika Srpska institutions issued a statement on Wednesday insisting that the holiday is unconstitutional.
“In this way, they [Republika Srpska institutions] opposed the principles of functioning of a legal and democratic state, continued to provoke great and general tension and anxiety among citizens, further aggravate political relations among political actors and continued to undermine the process of Bosnia’s integration into the EU,” the statement said.