BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia won’t help persuade Bosnian Serbs to cancel a disputed referendum that has challenged the international community in Bosnia and fueled ethnic tensions more than two decades after the 1992-95 war, the Balkan country’s leaders said Thursday.
President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said in a statement after meeting Bosnian Serb leaders that Belgrade doesn’t support the controversial vote, but will still stand by Serbs in Bosnia and will in no way influence their policies.
Serbia retains strong influence on Serbs in Bosnia and there have been hopes it will join international efforts to avert the Sept. 25 referendum that asks residents of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska whether they agree the annual day of the Serb mini-state should remain Jan. 9.
The issue has whipped nationalist tensions among the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs in Bosnia which have been simmering following the war that left 100,000 people dead and millions homeless. Many fear this month’s referendum is a test for a more serious one in 2018 — on independence from Bosnia.
The referendum also defies Bosnia’s top court, dealing a blow to Bosnia’s weak central institutions that were established by the 1995 U.S.-backed peace accords which also set up Serb and Muslim-Croat entities in Bosnia.
Officials have urged Vucic, a former nationalist who has claimed to have embraced pro-EU reforms, to influence Bosnian Serbs to abandon the referendum or postpone the balloting. Vucic’s position on the issue is seen as a test of his proclaimed pro-EU policies.
“I will tell them what I think, but I will not try to pressure anyone,” he said earlier Thursday. “Everyone is capable of making the decision within their authority.”
In their statement, Vucic and Nikolic also sharply criticized Western policies in the Balkans, complaining of an alleged anti-Serb campaign in the region and a weak international response. There are fears that Belgrade could be shifting away from the West and toward Russia, its traditional ally.
Serbia, which supported the Bosnian Serb war effort during the conflict, is one of the signatories of the 1995 Dayton peace accords and key to maintaining peace in the still-volatile region.
Bosnian Serbs have sought to strengthen their own mini-state, undermining international efforts to turn Bosnia into a viable country that will one day join the EU.
An international body overseeing the implementation of the peace accords — the Peace Implementation Council — said earlier this week that the upcoming Bosnian Serb vote was “destabilizing … and creating political tensions.”
The body urged Bosnian Serbs not to hold it, while the Russian representative withdrew support for the statement, siding with the Serbs.
Kurt Bassuener, a Sarajevo-based political analyst at the Democratization Policy Council, described the Serb referendum as a challenge to the international community’s authority in Bosnia and a risk to the country’s stability.
“I think that this will end badly,” Bassuener said. “I think that the potential for violence is real and we are not prepared to counter it.”
Sabina Niksic in Sarajevo has contributed to this report.