Bosnian Serbs mark divisive 'national holiday'

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Special Unit of Bosnian Serb police parade on January 9, 2017, honoring "The Day of Republika Srpska" in Banja Luka

Special Unit of Bosnian Serb police parade on January 9, 2017, honoring "The Day of Republika Srpska" in Banja Luka (AFP Photo/)

Pale (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (AFP) - Serbs in Bosnia celebrated on Monday a deeply divisive holiday, a date tied to the fragile nation's brutal 1990s war and a sensitive issue for Muslims.

This year's Republic Day marked the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Bosnian Serb-run entity, the Republika Srpska (RS).

January 9, 1992 has huge emotional resonance in Bosnia, stirring memories of nationalist fervour, trauma and bloodshed.

"For me, this day means the preservation of the Serbian people here," Mladen Govedarica, 66, told AFP in the Bosnian Serb wartime stronghold of Pale, near Sarajevo.

It commemorates the proclamation of a "Republic of Serb people" in Bosnia that took place three months before the inter-ethnic 1992-1995 conflict erupted, eventually claiming 100,000 lives.

"The RS was founded as an answer to the Serbian people's call for creating a state in this region," the entity's president, Milorad Dodik, said in its capital Banja Luka.

He spoke as a parade of police officers, firefighters, war veterans and students marched through the streets with several hundred people watching in the freezing weather of northern Bosnia.

The RS founders included Radovan Karadzic -- sentenced in March by a United Nations' tribunal to 40 years in jail for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the war that also displaced more than two million people.

The holiday however causes deep anguish among survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Muslim males by Bosnian Serb forces, Europe's worst atrocity since World War II.

"They are celebrating the death of our children and our relatives, while we are still looking for bones of hundreds of victims," Hatidza Mehmedovic, the head of a survivors association, told AFP.

An overwhelming majority of Bosnian Serb voters in September opted in a controversial referendum organised by a defiant Dodik to continue to hold the holiday.

Bosnia's constitutional court ruled that the holiday was illegal for discriminating against non-Serbs and cancelled the referendum, but Dodik pressed ahead regardless.

The referendum was criticised by the United States and European Union (EU), but supported by Dodik's ally, Russia.

The Dayton peace agreement that ended Bosnia's war split the country into two semi-independent entities, the RS and a Muslim-Croat Federation, linked by a weak federal government.

But analysts say that the institutional bonds between the entities remain fragile and prone to instability.

- ' Not give up our identity ' -

Dodik has repeatedly insisted that Bosnia is not a functional country, labelling it a "useless state" and a "failed international project."

"The RS intends to live and celebrate its day, to live together with others ... but we will not give up our identity, our state and our Republika Srpska," Dodik said on the controversial holiday.

In Pale, local residents echoed his views.

"This day has major symbolism for all Serbian people," said 50-year-old Zeljka Kosmajac.

"Of course it is contested by those who would like that Serbs and RS did not exist," she added.

Some think Dodik is warming up for a referendum on independence for the RS, which he has repeatedly threatened to carry out.

In an interview on Serbian television Sunday, Dodik said the vote "is not on the agenda this year unless events speed up things."

Political analyst Tanja Topic believes Bosnia's "political turbulence and tensions" will likely deepen.

"There is a risk that we might slip (back into violence) at any moment," she said.

Muslim leader Bakir Izetbegovic had expressed concern over Moscow-leaning Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic's attending the celebrations.

Nikolic missed the parade in Banja Luka but arrived later to attend other ceremonies and slammed those opposing the celebrations.

"It is not the fight against the date," Nikolic told a ceremony at a sports hall.

"They (Muslims) would like to forbid us to celebrate ... for having survived."

However, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic stayed away from the celebrations, in what Topic described as a "very clear message" from Belgrade that it did not back Dodik's nationalist fervour.

Vucic, who is leading Serbia's EU accession talks, urged Dodik in a letter to "protect with pride ... the RS as well as peace and stability in the whole Bosnia."