Republika Srpska’s steadfast descent into authoritarianism7 min read
Relations between social movements and state structures in Bosnia have long been structured by the dividing line between its constitutive entities, Republika Srpska (RS) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH). Events in March 2023 showed that this line is stronger and sharper than ever.
The different political opportunity structures of the two entities have important consequences for the possibility of activism and political contestation, as Belgian researcher Heleen Touquet concluded in 2012. The Serb-dominated RS is ethnically more homogenous than the FBiH, which is shared between Croats and Bosniaks. Whereas in the FBiH much of day-to-day politics is localised to the level of cantons, in the RS, political control is highly centralised in the hands of one party, the Alliance of Social Democrats (SNSD) led by Milorad Dodik. Consequently, there are far fewer access points for activists in the RS than in the FBiH.
Although RS residents have become accustomed to undemocratic leaders and political crises, March 2023 was a particularly dark chapter for democracy. Dodik’s regime demonstrated its repressive tendencies by further limiting basic freedoms and showing animosity towards activists, journalists, civil society, and other potential enemies.
An attack on LGBTQ+ activists
On 10 March, I noticed that Dijana (pseudonym), one of my students, looked worried. She is an activist in Bh. Povorka Ponosa, a Sarajevo-based collective in charge of organising the BiH Pride March. The organisation was planning an LGBTQ+ event – including a movie screening, a discussion, and a party – in Banja Luka, the administrative capital of the RS. Dijana’s concern was caused by the numerous threats they received ahead of the event. To reassure her, and perhaps naively, I told her that attempts to scare the activists would remain on the level of verbal threats. On 18 March, the day of the event, the Ministry of Interior (MUP) prohibited the gathering, citing concerns they would not be able to guarantee participant safety as two football games were being played in the city that same day. The following afternoon, the news of an attack on the LGBTQ+ activists broke.
Following the announcement of the ban, the collective organised an informal get-together in the offices of Transparency International (TI). Journalist Vanja Stokić recounted to BUKA magazine that while they were smoking cigarettes in front of the TI offices, suddenly, “a group of 20, 30 hooligans appeared and started running towards us. People with hoods, scarves, and some without, so we could see their faces. I saw several metal bats, I saw several glass bottles. We scattered in all directions. There were about 15 of us, mostly women. Of the 15 of us, there were maybe three men. They came to beat women.” Stokić and one other activist were lightly injured, while an ambulance was called for Stokić’s partner who had his head bashed with a bottle.
Activists accused the current government and the police of being complicit in the act, and rightly so, as so far no authority has fully condemned the attack. For example, the mayor of Banja Luka, Draško Stanivuković, stated that he condemned “all forms of violence,” but then added: “Banja Luka will remain a bastion of traditionally patriarchal family values, and I am proud of that, not intruding on anyone’s right to love whomever they want, but not to parade it that way.” Despite being 29 years old and a part of the opposition, Stanivuković’s statement perfectly reflects the conservative consensus shared by almost all political parties in the RS. This pact makes activists, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and all others who do not conform to patriarchal norms feel uncomfortable or unsafe in this city.
Anti-defamation and NPO laws
The next step in the authoritarian rule book soon followed. Fourteen March saw journalists in front of the RS National Assembly protesting against amendments to the Criminal Code which would reintroduce defamation – and statements that damage honour and reputation – as a criminal offence punishable by up to €25,000. Journalists sealed their mouths with adhesive tape to express dissatisfaction with the draft law, which they believe will harm their profession and freedom of speech. Siniša Vukelić, president of the Club of Journalists in Banja Luka, commented: “Reporting will become mission impossible, investigative journalism will no longer exist, and this will affect every citizen.” Despite strong opposition from journalists and other institutions, the RS Assembly voted positively on adopting the draft law on 23 March.
The imprecise and broad definitions of offences related to defamation and other crimes are particularly problematic. For example, Article 148 of the draft law stipulates that whoever shows, among other things, a video, text, or any visual “that has harmful consequences for the personal life of [another] person” without their consent will be fined or imprisoned for up to two years. This means that an investigative journalist who exposes information that could harm the reputation of a politician may face imprisonment. Similarly, Article 208 states that “anyone who insults someone else will be fined from 5,000 KM to 20,000 KM.” As legal expert Lejla Gačanica notes, the article does not specify “what the offence would be, nor give any description of the action for which such high fines are prescribed.” Furthermore, if the offence or insult is communicated in a protest, in the newspapers, or on TV, such that it is “made available to the wider number of people,” it may result in a fine of up to 25,000 EUR.
On the same day the anti-defamation law was voted on, the draft law on the Special Register and the Public of the Work of Non-Profit Organisations was discussed in the RS Assembly. Even though the latter seemingly aims to organise the work of non-profit organisations (NPOs), in essence, it restricts and renders near impossible the functioning of the non-governmental sector. The bill specifically targets foreign-funded NPOs, and it resembles the “foreign agent law” that was recently rejected in Georgia.
Article 3 of the draft law prohibits NPOs from carrying out any kind of political activity, broadly defined as “any activity towards the authorities, institutions or elected representatives of the Republic of Srpska […], adopting or changing regulations and policies of the Republic of Srpska or in terms of political and public interest.” Article 11 stipulates that if an NPO “acts contrary to the Constitution of the Republic of Srpska and the regulations of the Republic of Srpska, i.e. when it acts as an agent of foreign influence […] the Ministry of Justice initiates proceedings with the competent court for the prohibition of work.” Ivana Korajlić, executive director at TI BiH, said that the issue here is not the oversight of NPOs, but “that we go into the nature of the work of these organisations.” The fact the latter has been the regime’s primary concern – more so than the effort to have a functional registrar and financial oversight of NPOs – was obvious from the statement released by Miloš Bukejlović, the RS Minister of Justice. According to Bukejlović, the new law is necessary because “these are organisations that, through illegal cash flows, use these funds for a type of social destruction, destabilisation and eventual financing of terrorist organisations.”
Republika Srpska’s political opportunity structure today
In a lecture I attended on 21 February about the state of democracy in Southeast Europe, Dr. Damir Kapidžić characterised the region’s democratic backsliding as “a gradual and incremental decline with no sudden democratic breakdown.” Considering the recent political developments in RS, it is clear that the entity is part of this larger trend. By drafting the laws and taking actions that directly limit the freedom of media, expression, and assembly, the Republika Srpska’s leadership has closed off the political opportunity structure and made it almost impermeable to criticism and contestation. In other words, the RS leadership has exempted itself from accountability and sunk further into authoritarianism. Moreover, the events that took place in March clearly reflect what the “freedom for the Serbs in RS” that Dodik so often evokes really looks like. Underneath this phrase is only poverty for the citizens, political repression, and a good life for the ruling elite.
Having in mind how neither the process of accession to the European Union nor US sanctions have dissuaded the Republika Srpska’s leadership from changing its established course, it is about time that citizens, civil society, and foreign powers rethink strategies for combating illiberalism in Europe’s southeastern periphery.