BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Amid Bosnia’s greatest political crisis since the end of its 1992-95 interethnic war, the country’s Serbs celebrated an outlawed holiday Sunday with a provocative parade showcasing armored vehicles, police helicopters and law enforcement officers with rifles, marching in lockstep and singing a nationalist song.
Addressing several thousand spectators gathered in Banja Luka, the de-facto capital of the Serb-run part of the country, Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik disparaged sanctions Washington slapped on him last week over his alleged corrupt activities and threats to tear the country apart.
“This gathering is the best response to those who deny us our rights, … who keep imposing sanctions on us,” Dodik said.
“It proves to me that I must listen to you, that you did not elect me to fulfil Americans’ wishes but to fulfil the wishes of Serb people,” he added.
The Jan. 9 holiday commemorates the date in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared the creation of their own state in Bosnia, igniting the multi-ethnic country’s devastating, nearly 4-year-long war that became a byname for ethnic cleansing and genocide.
The holiday was banned in 2015 by Bosnia’s top court which ruled that the date, which falls on a Serb Christian Orthodox religious holiday, discriminates against the country’s other ethnic groups — Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats.
During the war that killed 100,000 people and turned half of the country’s population into refugees, Bosniaks and Croats were persecuted and almost completely expelled from the now Serb-administered half of Bosnia.
After the war, under the terms of the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace agreement, Bosnia was divided into two semi-autonomous governing entities — Republika Srpska and one dominated by Bosniaks and Croats.
Each part has its own government, parliament and police, but the two are linked by shared, state-wide institutions, including the judiciary, army, security agencies and tax administration. All actions at a national level require consensus from all three ethnic groups.
Dodik has for years been advocating the separation of the Bosnian Serb mini-state from the rest of the country and making it part of neighboring Serbia.
This winter, he intensified his secessionist campaign, pledging to form an exclusively Serb army, judiciary and tax system. He described Bosniaks as “second-rate people” and “treacherous converts” who sold their “original (Orthodox Christian) faith for dinner.”
Earlier Sunday, as part of holiday celebrations, Bosnian Serb officials participated in Serb Christian Orthodox ceremonies, broadcast live on local television, in the city’s main church, while a special police unit sang, while marching in the parade, a song about defending the Orthodox Christian cross and “the shiny new Serb Republic.”
The celebrations of the divisive holiday continue each year despite it being outlawed by the top court, and have been consistently criticized by the U.S. and the European Union.
However, the parade and other ceremonies on Sunday, were attended by the top officials of neighboring Serbia, including prime minister Ana Brnabic and parliament speaker Ivica Dacic; Russian and Chinese diplomats in Bosnia; and several officials of France’s far-right National Rally party.
In recent months, the staunchly pro-Moscow Dodik has repeatedly voiced hope that the Serbs’ “true friends” — Russia, China and the champions of illiberal democracy within the European Union — will serve as his bulwark against the “tyranny” of Western democracies