Rancid small-state nationalism surges in Europe: Don Murray

Two referendums and an election in southern Europe are setting emotions swirling and stirring up political havoc.

Votes in Republika Srpska, Croatia and Hungary highlight support for ethnic purity, defiance of EU

A Bosnian man passes the flag of Republika Srpska and a T-shirt with a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka on Sept. 21. Republika Srpska held a referendum on whether to approve a national holiday on Jan. 9. The result was overwhelmingly in favour. (Associated Press)

Ah, there's nothing like a referendum or two to set the emotions swirling and stir up political havoc.

Add a nasty election to the mix, and you have a savoury stew of rancid, small-state nationalism along Europe's southern flank.

Let's start with the referendum vote in Republika Srpska, which took place on Sunday. This entity has a violent and sordid history. Officially it is part of Bosnia, and once it was part of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia cracked apart into warring pieces in 1991. On Jan. 9, 1992 the self-declared Republika Srpska, made up almost entirely of Bosnian Serbs, asserted its "independence" from the fledgling state of Bosnia. 

Three months later, under its leader Radovan Karadzic, Republika Srpska forces began a brutal war against the rest of Bosnia.

The Bosnian Serbs proclaimed it a sort of "holy struggle" against the largely Muslim population next door. The bloody centrepiece of the fighting was a murderous three-year siege of the capital, Sarajevo.

Ex-Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic sits in court at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague on March 24. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity. (Reuters)

For his leading role in this dirty war, which killed more than 100,000 people, Karadzic was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Netherlands in March. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The referendum seemed innocuous enough. It asked voters whether to approve Jan. 9 as the national day of Republika Srpska. But that was directly linked to Karadzic and his murderous war. He was the man who announced Republika Srpska's "independence" on that day 24 years ago.

The vote was declared illegal by Bosnia's constitutional court, which underlined that the choice of date was upsetting to the other ethnic groups in Bosnia, but the Republika Srpska government simply ignored the ruling.
A refugee baby smiles on Sept. 2 in a makeshift tent on the Hungary-Serbia border, in a camp outside a transit zone set up by Hungarian authorities to filter refugees at Roszke, Hungary. The right-wing Hungarian government is distributing leaflets full of furious anti-refugee rhetoric. (Reuters)

And on Sunday, Bosnian Serbs voted overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the disputed holiday. Referendum organizers said preliminary results show 99.81 per cent of voters in Republika Srpska were in favour of the holiday and that the turnout was 55.7 per cent. Non-Serbs living in Republika Srpska mostly boycotted the vote, The Associated Press reported.

To the north, there is another non-binding referendum coming up, this one in Hungary. There, voters will be asked on Oct. 2 whether they approve of the European Union's attempt to set refugee quotas that each member country must accept.

The right-wing Hungarian government has tipped its hand by distributing leaflets full of furious anti-refugee rhetoric and maps of Europe showing so-called no-go zones in other countries because of refugee concentrations.

And to round things off, on Sept. 11 there was an election in Croatia, Bosnia's neighbour. It, too, was a nasty affair with rancid rhetoric.

The outgoing government had a minister who praised Croatia's Second World War pro-Nazi Ustasha movement leaders as heroes and martyrs. The opposition leader and former prime minister compared the leaders of Serbia to Nazi collaborators. Then he said Bosnia was full of "villains."

But back to Republika Srpska. This is a dour place, one I have visited several times.
A poster in Prnjavor, Bosnia features Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, calling for votes for a referendum on Statehood Day. The vote was declared illegal by Bosnia's constitutional court, but went ahead anyway. (Reuters)

The Dayton peace accords that ended the civil war in 1995 divided  Bosnia and its 3.8 million people into sullen halves.

In the Serb half, criminals and corruption have long dominated the dark streets. It was, and continues to be, a largely moribund economy. Unemployment runs at 60 per cent. Smuggling, money laundering, drug trafficking, much of it tolerated by the local government, are, for lack of a better expression, the leading sectors.

For almost a decade after the civil war NATO peacekeepers, including hundreds of Canadian soldiers, patrolled the streets and countryside. They prevented fighting from flaring up again.

Aside from that, Graham Day, a Canadian working as the representative in Republika Srpska for the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia, said they accomplished little more than to entrench the power of local criminal elements.

'Sandbox for the local mafias'

"Without courts, non-corrupt police and the rule of law," he said, "you simply build a nice sandbox for the local mafias here to play in."

Ironically, Western governments put their faith in Milorad Dodik, the present leader of Republika Srpska. A breath of fresh air, former American secretary of state Madeleine Albright once called him. He rose to prominence as an enthusiastic supporter of the Dayton peace accords and a unified Bosnia.

But Dodik is the man who pushed the referendum, thumbing his nose at the constitutional court and talking of a further referendum — this time on independence itself — for his "republic."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, at the Kremlin in 2014. Dodik has concluded that nationalism pays, as does a cosy relationship with Moscow. (Reuters)

In office, Dodik clearly came to the conclusion that nationalism pays, as does a cosy relationship with Moscow. He flew to the Russian capital three days before the vote to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The focus of their meeting, Dodik said, was "economic co-operation, as Russian investors are very present in Republika Srpska."

And the result of the referendum had a very Soviet ring – 99.8 per cent in favour of the government's proposal. Dodik told a cheering crowd, "Today we have written one more page of our glorious history and we said that we are people who fight for freedom."

Putin must be delighted. Just seven months ago Bosnia applied to join the European Union. Now the weak threads holding the country together appear to be fraying dangerously. It's another headache for the EU.

Meanwhile, in Hungary …

Hungary's referendum poses other problems for Brussels. Its attempt to impose a common refugee policy, with quotas for each EU member states, was already in disarray. The vote, which will almost certainly be overwhelmingly against accepting any refugees in Hungary, will only complicate things further.

There are common themes linking the two referendums and the vote in Croatia. The first is the return in force of nasty nationalism, one that defines nations and states by ethnic purity and furiously rejects outsiders.

The second, particularly in the case of the referendums, is the belief that Brussels is now so beset by crises that it can do little to stop or punish these nasty initiatives.

The picture is not pretty. And the prospects for a brighter portrait of Europe are slim.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.