Scottish referendum raises Bosnian Serbs’ independence hopes

The Scottish saltire flag (L) and Union flag fly outside the Scottish Office, in central London August 28, 2014.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia - Bosnian Serbs are closely watching Scotland's independence referendum, hoping if Scots vote to break away from Britain it would set a precedent that could boost their own chances of proclaiming a separate state.

After Crimea split from Ukraine and joined Russia following a disputed referendum in March, and with Scotland eyeing independence in Thursday's referendum, the president of Bosnia's Serb-run entity Republika Srpska (RS) has not hesitated to evoke the spectre of separation.

"We are following what is going on in Italy (South Tyrol), in Scotland and even in Catalonia. These are crucial experiences for the RS," Milorad Dodik said recently.

In multi-ethnic Bosnia, however, with the bloody legacy of its 1992-1995 war during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, observers say talk of independence also raises the danger of a new armed conflict.

The Dayton peace accord that ended Bosnia's inter-ethnic war created two almost equal and highly autonomous entities, Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation, linked by a loose central government in charge of foreign matters, finance and defence.

The Serbs had boycotted Bosnia's 1991 referendum to break away from Yugoslavia which was successful thanks to the votes of Muslims and Croats.

But Bosnia's proclamation of independence in 1992 came at the price of a brutal war pitting Serbs against Muslims and Croats that claimed more than 100,000 lives.

To this day many Serbs have never really accepted the new post-war Bosnian state, despite the level of autonomy they have in Republika Srpska.

"If a referendum was organised tomorrow, most of the Serbs would be in favour of independence," said Milos Solaja, professor of international relations at the University of Banja Luka in the Bosnian Serb entity's capital.

"Republika Srpska has gradually become a solid political entity that most of its inhabitants, Serbs, identify with," Solaja said.

While he thinks secession "is not realistic at this moment," he added that "Republika Srpska is de facto already a state given its huge statehood attributes."

Extremely dangerous idea

Rumblings of independence also come as Bosnia heads toward general elections on October 12.

Dodik has made it part of his campaign speeches.

"The goal of my politics is that we become less an entity and more a state," he said last Friday at an election rally.

"This is our protector and he will lead us to independence!," shouted Ranko Stanojevic, a fierce Dodik supporter in the crowd.

But the high representative of the international community in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, said the country's constitution "allows no possibility for either entity to secede." "The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina are enshrined in the Dayton Peace Agreement and guaranteed under international law" so contesting it would be "a pointless exercise," he said.

Dodik's statements have pushed the main Muslim party of Democratic Action (SDA) to declare that Bosnia "will never be put into question." According to a political analyst for Radio Free Europe, Dragan Stavljanin, it all amounts to electoral rhetoric, though he added there would be a "much stronger" reaction if the threat of independence became more concrete.

"I believe that it could not happen without a new war in Bosnia," he said.

He added that such a conflict would risk attracting "Muslim extremists" who, as they did in the 1990s, would come to help fellow Muslims in Bosnia.

Hajrudin Caluk, a Muslim and Bosnian war veteran in Sarajevo, said that "Serb separatist politics paralyse the functioning of the state." But to split Bosnia into two states, one of which would be Muslim-dominated, would turn the Muslim community into "the Palestinians of the Balkans," he said.

A European diplomat in Sarajevo, who asked not to be named, said the situations in Bosnia and the United Kingdom were "completely different" as the September 18 Scottish referendum was to be held with the consent of the British government.

"Not only is the idea of redrawing Bosnia's borders unrealistic but it is extremely dangerous," the diplomat said.

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