Bosnian Serbs celebrate banned holiday, praise Putin

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Thousands of flag-waving Bosnian Serbs gathered on the outskirts of the capital Sarajevo Monday to celebrate an outlawed holiday associated with Bosnia’s brutal inter-ethnic war in the 1990s.

Neighboring Serbia’s top diplomat attended a military-style parade that was part of a series of festivities which Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik also used to profess his allegiance to Russia.

Some 2,000 Bosnian Serb law enforcement officers marched through the Sarajevo suburb of Lukavica showcasing their rifles, armored vehicles and police helicopters. They were joined by members of cultural, sport and community groups, including the local branch of a Russian motorcycle club that staunchly supports Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Lukavica was used by the Bosnian Serb military to relentlessly shell and snipe at the capital’s center throughout Bosnia’s 1992-95 war,

As bikers passed the dais from which Dodik, other Bosnian Serb officials and Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic observed the parade, an announcer praised through loudspeakers their mission to “promote Orthodox Christianity and make (Bosnia’s Serb-run part) Republika Srpska as mighty and eternal as Mother Russia.”

Previously, as part of the festivities — harshly condemned by the United States and the European Union — Dodik announced the award to Putin of his administration’s highest medal of honor for his “patriotic concern and love” for Republika Srpska.

The Jan. 9 holiday marks the date in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared the creation of their own state in Bosnia, triggering the war that killed more than 100,000 and left millions homeless. It was banned by Bosnia’s top court in 2015 for discriminating against the country’s other ethnic groups — Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. During the war, Bosniaks and Croats were almost completely expelled from the now Serb-administered half of Bosnia.

After the war, under the terms of the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace agreement, Bosnia was divided into two semi-autonomous governing entities — Republika Srpska and one dominated by Bosniaks and Croats. Each has its own government, parliament and police, but the two are linked by shared, state-wide institutions, including the judiciary, army, security agencies and tax administration. All actions at a national level require consensus from all three ethnic groups.

Dodik, currently the president of Republika Srpska, has for years been advocating separating the Bosnian Serb mini-state from the rest of the country and joining it with Serbia. He has maintained close ties with Putin despite Russia’s war in Ukraine, crediting him with defending the interests of his “Orthodox brethren” in Bosnia against what he described Monday as the “(western) thugs who have been trying for years to rob Serbs of their freedom,” including the freedom to celebrate the holidays and work with allies of their choosing.

“We love Republika Srpska and we love Serbia and if there is political, human and divine justice we are one people, the Serb people,” Dodik said.

Dodik’s increasing anti-Western rhetoric and vocal endorsement of Putin’s policies has raised fears in the West that the Kremlin might use him to create further instability in volatile Bosnia and divert some attention from its war in Ukraine.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo warned Dodik that his calls for independence of Bosnia’s Serb-run part “coupled with specious legal claims about its competences … are pushing the country down a dangerous path.”

“The Republika Srpska will only destroy itself and those around it pursuing the will-o-wisp of independence,” the Embassy tweeted on Monday.

European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said Monday in Brussels that siding with Putin “isolates Republika Srpska and its leadership internationally.”

“There is no place in the EU for decorating and awarding politicians who are ordering the destruction of a neighboring country and killing of its people,” he added.

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