Thousands of waving ethnic Serbs gathered on Monday on the outskirts of the capital Sarajevo to celebrate an unconstitutional holiday associated with Bosnia’s brutal war in the 1990s.
A military-style parade was part of a series of festivities that the ethnic group’s separatist leader Milorad Dodik also used to profess his allegiance to Russia in what the Serb-majority entity of Republika Srpska (RS) celebrates as its “National holiday”.
Some 2,000 Bosnian Serb law enforcement officers marched through Lukavica, a neighborhood in RS-administered eastern Sarajevo, showcasing their rifles, armored vehicles and police helicopters.
Notably, the local branch of the Night Wolves, a violent Russian motorcycle club that staunchly supports Russian President Vladimir Putin, also took part in the parade.
As the bikers passed the stage from which Dodik, other Bosnian Serb officials and Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić watched the parade, a loudspeaker announcer praised their mission to “promote Orthodox Christianity and make Republika Srpska powerful and eternal like Mother Russia”.
The Kremlin-funded Night Wolves are known to have fought alongside Moscow-backed forces in Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbass in 2014.
Dodik awards the medal to “patriotically concerned” Putin.
Earlier, as part of the celebrations – harshly condemned by the United States and the European Union – Dodik had announced that Putin would be awarded his administration’s highest medal of honor for his “patriotic concern and love” for RS.
“Putin is responsible for developing and strengthening cooperation and political and friendly relations between RS and Russia,” Dodik said at the awards ceremony in the Bosnian Serb administrative center of Banjaluka.
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said in Brussels on Monday that siding with Putin “is isolating Republika Srpska and its leadership internationally”.
“There is no place in the EU to decorate and reward politicians who order the destruction of a neighboring country and the killing of its people,” he added.
The January 9 holiday marks the date in 1992 that Bosnian Serbs declared the creation of their own state in Bosnia, igniting the war that killed more than 100,000 people and left millions homeless.
It was found illegal by Bosnia’s state-level Constitutional Court in 2015 for being discriminatory against the country’s other two major ethnic groups: Bosniaks and Croats.
During the war, a campaign of violent ethnic cleansing culminating in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide saw Bosniaks and Croats almost completely uprooted from the now Serb-administered half of Bosnia.
After the war, under the terms of the US-brokered Dayton Peace Accords, Bosnia was divided into two administrative units: the Republika Srpska and the Bosnian-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Each has its own government, parliament and police, but the two are linked by shared state-level institutions, including the judiciary, army, security agencies and tax administration.
The complex system involving numerous bodies at different levels of government has been considered one of the most complicated in the world.
Furthermore, the system created by Dayton is heavily ethnic, meaning that all decision-making power in the country remains in the hands of the three ethnic groups.
Dodik, the current president of Republika Srpska, has for years supported the separation of the Bosnian Serb entity from the rest of the country.
He has maintained close ties with Putin despite Russia’s war in Ukraine, crediting him with defending the interests of his “Orthodox brothers” in Bosnia against what he described on Monday as the “(Western) thugs who have been trying for years to rob the Serbs of their freedom”, including the freedom to celebrate holidays and work with allies of their choice.
“We love Republika Srpska and we love Serbia, and if there is political, human and divine justice, (then) we are one people, the Serbian people,” Dodik said.
Dodik’s growing anti-Western rhetoric and vocal support for Putin’s policies have raised fears in the West that the Kremlin could use it to create further instability in volatile Bosnia and divert attention away from its war in Ukraine.
The US embassy in Sarajevo warned Dodik that his calls for independence in the Serb-run part of Bosnia “combined with hefty legal claims to its jurisdiction … are pushing the country down a dangerous path.”
“Republika Srpska will only destroy itself and those around it by pursuing the will-o’-the-wisp of independence,” the embassy tweeted on Monday.