Two separate votes in autumn 2016 marked the continued splintering of Europe and highlighted the lure of Putin’s Russia at a time of great global uncertainty. At the centre of these two seemingly-disparate polls lay two men: Dodik and Dodon.
In September, Bosnian Serbs were asked whether January 9th should be celebrated as the annual "statehood day" (the same date that Bosnian Serbs seceded from Bosnia in 1992. igniting three years of devastating ethnic war). While the question seemed innocent enough, some feared that Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serbs’ president, would use the vote to confirm his region's autonomy from Bosnian national institutions and provide a pretext for secession. 99.81% of the electorate voted in favour.
The referendum (forbidden by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Constitutional Court) plunged the country into a constitutional crisis, raised tensions across the Balkans and received international criticism. On the eve of this referendum in Republika Srpska, Dodik met with Russian President Vladimir Putin – a sign of Moscow's support for the controversial vote. On returning to his territory, Dodik proclaimed the win "a great day for our republic and our people” and later refused to go to Sarajevo to answer questions about the referendum, claiming he feared for his safety.
Bosanka Gradiska, September 28, 2016 - Bosnian-Serb teenagers sit nearby a bridge crossing the Sava river to neighboring Croatia. © Pierre Crom
A week after the referendum, Dodik's party triumphed in municipality elections; the town of Srebrenica, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Serb nationalist forces in 1995, elected a Serbian mayor who has denied this was an act of genocide despite international court rulings to the contrary. Meanwhile, the West’s threat of imposing sanctions against Dodik, his family and supporters over the referendum never materialised.
Banja Luka, September 30, 2016 - A child plays with foam and fire under the supervision of teachers during an event organized by schools and partly funded by the European Union © Pierre Crom
On January 9th, Bosnian Serbs turned out to celebrate the contentious ‘National Day’. Leather-clad bikers from the pro-Russian ‘Night Wolves’ motorcycle club joined hundreds of police officers, firefighters and Civil Protection personnel to march down the main street in Banja Luka. They were backed by “March on the Drina”, a patriotic Serbian song written in World War and sung by ultra-nationalist Serb brigades during the 1992-95 war.
Banja Luka, January 8, 2017 - The Bosnian army attend ceremonies during celebrations of the banned Republika Srpska day. © Pierre Crom
Dodik intensified his independence rhetoric, using the occasion to demand greater autonomy and threaten to break from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was joined by Patriarch Irinej, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Serbs, who hailed Republika Srpska’s creation as “the work of God”.
Some Bosnian Army soldiers attended the celebrations, sparking a high-level spat. The Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency requested their presence, despite warnings by NATO and Bosnia’s defence ministry that their participation was illegal.
Banja Luka, January 9, 2017 - A young woman reacts during a Christian Orthodox mass given by Serbian Patriarch Irinej. © Pierre Crom
The United States imposed sanctions against Dodik in January 2017, eight days after Bosnian Serbs celebrated ‘The Day of Republika Srpska’. U.S. Ambassador Maureen Cormack accused Dodik of violating the rule of law and jeopardising the Dayton Accords, which ended the region’s war in 1995. The Treasury Department sanctions block Dodik from accessing any property or assets under U.S. jurisdiction.
Banja Luka, January 9, 2017 - Members of the Russian motor gang Night Wolves march in a parade during the banned Republika Srpska statehood day. © Pierre Crom
Bratunac, July 7, 2017 - Serbian minister of defence Aleksandar Vulin (CL) and Republika Srpska's president Milorad Dodik (C) attend an event to commemorate Bosnian-Serb victims of the Bosnian 1992-1995 war. © Pierre Crom
Bratunac, July 11, 2017 - Bosnian-Serb children celebrate the traditional Orthodox Christian Saint Peter outside a football stadium where Muslim-Bosnians were held captive during the genocide. President Dodik proposed a ban on school books that mention the Bosnian-Serb genocide against Muslim-Bosnian. © Pierre Crom