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Crisis erupts in Bosnia as Serbs threaten to break away

Europe is seeing a new dangerous crisis emerge as Bosnian Serbs take steps to secede from the Bosnian state, a move that many see as threatening peace.

(CN) — Twenty-six years after the signing of a peace agreement that ended the Bosnian War, Bosnia-Herzegovina is in the midst of a political crisis that has put the Balkans on edge after the country's Serbian politicians declared their intention to effectively secede.

On Dec. 14, 1995, the Bosnian War formally came to an end with the signing of the Dayton Agreement in Paris, a U.S.-brokered peace deal that ended the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia.

To win peace, the Dayton treaty approved slicing Bosnia into ethnic enclaves and left the country divided into two entities: a semi-autonomous Serb-dominated part known as the Republika Srpska and a Muslim-dominated Bosnian Federation. The new nation was called Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Under a complex constitution, governance was split among Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosnians. In addition, the peace deal gave a high representative substantial powers to enforce the treaty and impose laws.

In recent months, this complex arrangement has begun to become unglued after the Republika Srpska initiated what many see as moves tantamount to secession from the Bosnian state.

In October, its president, Milorad Dodik, said the Republika Srpska would withdraw from shared state institutions, including the army, judiciary, tax system and security services.

His statement sent shockwaves through Bosnia and left Washington and Brussels scrambling to find a diplomatic solution and threaten Dodik and the Republika Srpska with sanctions.

On Friday, the Srpska's assembly voted to begin the process of withdrawal, deepening fears that the Bosnian state could be on the brink of collapse.

At a raucous session in the Republika Srpska's capital of Banja Luka, the assembly set out a six-month period to draw up new laws to change its constitution and establish its new entity-level institutions. Opposition parties decried the move and walked out before the vote in protest.

Mirko Sarovic, an opposition leader, said withdrawal from the Bosnian state was “a direct threat to peace” and that it could lead “into the spiral of war.”

This crisis is rooted in unresolved conflicts stemming from the 1992-1995 war.

For years, Dodik has alarmed Western diplomats and caused outrage among Bosnian Muslims for leading efforts to deny that Serbian forces committed genocide when more than 8,300 Muslim men and boys were killed in July 1995 in Srebrenica, a town in the mountains of eastern Bosnia, near the end of the war.

Under Dodik's plans, the Republika Srpska's army – the same one that was behind the massacres in Srebrenica – would be reconstituted.

The move to break away was sparked by a decision in July by Valentin Inzko, the outgoing high representative, to make genocide denial a crime punishable by five years in prison. Some political observers saw this as an ill-advised provocation. Inzko said that he knew the new law would cause Dodik to react with threats to break up Bosnia.

“Inzko is essentially saying that in his view, it was worth triggering Bosnia’s biggest conflict since the war in order to get this law passed – which, as someone who was witness to the brutal war in Bosnia and a participant in the negotiations which led to Dayton, I find it hard to agree with,” said Ivor Roberts, a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, in a recent Politico piece.

Dodik's secessionist plans though face a lot of hurdles. It is possible that the proposed laws will be rejected by the Republika Srpska's upper house of parliament or thrown out by the state Constitutional Court.

Still, all of this has alarmed the U.S. and EU. The EU is talking about imposing sanctions on Dodik and the Republika Srpska. The U.S. has already imposed a travel ban and assets freeze on Dodik.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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