May 11, 2016 / 2:47 PM / 2 years ago

Serbia warns against violence at Bosnia protests

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic urged Serb political leaders in neighboring Bosnia to set aside their differences and prevent street protests scheduled for Saturday from turning violent.

Serbian Prime Minister and leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) Aleksandar Vucic reacts after elections in Belgrade, Serbia April 24, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Both the opposition and the ruling party in Bosnia’s autonomous Serb region, the Serb Republic, have called on supporters to take to the streets of the capital Banja Luka for demonstrations ahead of local elections in October.

The opposition will protest against unemployment and corruption, while the ruling party urged people to express support for government policies.

Vucic said Serbian police had indications the protests in Banja Luka could turn violent. He said he had spoken to political leaders in the Serb Republic, including its president Milorad Dodik.

“We don’t need conflict,” Vucic told a news conference. “Peace and stability are conditions without which Serbia cannot progress.”

Dodik has repeatedly tried and failed to persuade opposition leaders to cancel the protests but says he does not envisage any problems with having two rival protest meetings on the same day.

Vucic’s remarks reflect pressure that Belgrade feels from the West to support stability in the Balkans if it wants to make progress in talks on joining the European Union.

“If there is conflict, the survival of the Serb Republic would be in question while Serbia would be put in an unfavorable position,” Vucic said.

Bosnia is made up of the Serb Republic and the Federation shared by Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, and Croats. They are linked via a weak central government whose decisions are usually disputed by the Serb region, which often threatens secession.

Serbia, which supported Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia that killed 100,000, has signed an agreement on special ties with the Serb Republic that includes financial aid.

But as Serbia progresses toward EU membership, its leaders including Vucic are less supportive of polices of the ruling Bosnian Serb Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) seen as challenging the survival of Bosnia as a state.

Last July, Vucic told the SNSD, which is led by Dodik, to think again before it holds a referendum on the authority of one of Bosnia’s most important courts, a vote the West says would challenge the state’s integrity.

Political tensions in the Serb Republic have risen since elections in 2014, when Dodik’s party 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.

Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo; Editing by Giles Elgood and John Stonestreet

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