Thousands of Bosnian Serbs gathered for rival demonstrations for and against the government in the capital of Bosnia\’s autonomous Serb region on Saturday, kept apart by ranks of police after warnings of violence.
Police reinforcements and demonstrators\’ cars flying Serb Republic flags in support of the government streamed towards Banja Luka, where buses had already arrived with supporters of both factions.
Authorities banned both sides from marching through the city to avoid confrontations in the politically charged atmosphere in the build-up to local elections in October.
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The opposition is protesting against what it sees as corruption and the poor state of the economy while the rival rally is a show of support for the government.
"I will go to support our president. He is a genuine Serb and only he knows how to preserve the Serb Republic," said Goran Keserovic, a Banja Luka resident.
"I am fed up with living like a dog. I was in a trench while they were enriching themselves," said Zivko Josic, an unemployed ex-soldier from the other camp. "I will support the opposition to change things for the better."
Worried that divisions among Serbs in Bosnia could cause instability in his own country, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has urged Bosnian Serb political leaders to set aside their differences and prevent the protests from turning violent.
Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej called on both camps to cancel the demonstrations and settle their differences through talks.
Political tensions in the Serb Republic have risen since elections in 2014, when the ruling party of President Milorad Dodik lost its place in the Bosnian government to the Alliance for Change, a reformist, pro-Europe group, and remained in control only of the Serb Republic government.
Dodik, who favors closer ties with Russia and has threatened to pull his region out of Bosnia, say officials who support a reform agenda designed to bring Bosnia closer to the European Union are traitors.
After Bosnia\’s 1992-95 war, the country was split into a Serb-dominated Serb Republic and a Federation of Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats, linked via weak central government.
The opposition accuses Dodik of autocracy and corruption. He has been investigated for embezzlement and abuse of office but never charged.
The counter-demonstration by Dodik\’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) was called to show support for government policies, after he failed to persuade opposition leaders to cancel their protest.
Since he rose to power with Western backing 10 years ago, Dodik has adopted increasingly nationalistic policies, with the goal of increasing his region\’s autonomy and weakening state institutions by blocking laws in Bosnia\’s national parliament.