Thousands of flag-waving ethnic Serbs gathered on the outskirts of the capital Sarajevo Monday to celebrate an unconstitutional holiday associated with Bosnia's brutal war in the 1990s.
A military-style parade was part of a series of festivities that the ethnic group's separatist leader Milorad Dodik also used to profess his allegiance to Russia in what the Serb-majority entity of the Republika Srpska (RS) celebrates as its "National Day".
Some 2,000 Bosnian Serb law enforcement officers marched through Lukavica, a neighbourhood of the RS-administered East Sarajevo, showcasing their rifles, armoured vehicles and police helicopters.
Notably, the local branch of the Night Wolves, a violent Russian motorcycle club that staunchly supports Russian President Vladimir Putin, also took part in the parade.
As bikers passed the dais from which Dodik, other Bosnian Serb officials and Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić observed the parade, an announcer on loudspeakers praised their mission to "promote Orthodox Christianity and make the Republika Srpska as mighty and eternal as Mother Russia."
The Night Wolves, funded by the Kremlin, are known to have fought on side of the Moscow-backed forces in Ukraine's Crimea and the Donbas in 2014.
Dodik awards medal to 'patriotically concerned' Putin
Previously, as part of the festivities — harshly condemned by the United States and the European Union — Dodik announced the award to Putin of his administration's highest medal of honour for his "patriotic concern and love" for the RS.
“Putin is responsible for developing and strengthening cooperation and political and friendly relations between the RS and Russia,” Dodik said at the awards ceremony in the Bosnian Serb administrative centre, Banjaluka.
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said Monday in Brussels that siding with Putin "isolates the Republika Srpska and its leadership internationally".
"There is no place in the EU for decorating and awarding politicians who are ordering the destruction of a neighbouring country and killing of its people," he added.
The 9 January holiday marks the date in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared the creation of their own state in Bosnia, triggering the war that killed more than 100,000 and left millions homeless.
It was deemed illegal by Bosnia's state-level Constitutional Court in 2015 for being discriminatory against the country's other two main ethnic groups — Bosniaks and Croats.
During the war, a campaign of violent ethnic cleansing culminating in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide saw Bosniaks and Croats almost completely eradicated from the now Serb-administered half of Bosnia.
After the war, under the terms of the US-brokered Dayton Peace Accords, Bosnia was divided into two administrative units — the Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat-majority Federation of BiH.
Each has its own government, parliament and police, but the two are linked by shared, state-level institutions, including the judiciary, army, security agencies and tax administration.
The complex system involving numerous bodies across several levels of government has been deemed one of the most complicated in the world.
In addition, the Dayton-made system is heavily ethnicised, meaning that all decision-making power in the country remains squarely in the hands of the three ethnic groups.
Dodik, currently the president of the Republika Srpska, has for years been advocating separating the Bosnian Serb entity from the rest of the country.
He has maintained close ties with Putin despite Russia's war in Ukraine, crediting him with defending the interests of his "Orthodox brethren" in Bosnia against what he described Monday as the "(Western) thugs who have been trying for years to rob Serbs of their freedom," including the freedom to celebrate the holidays and work with allies of their choosing.
"We love the Republika Srpska and we love Serbia, and if there is political, human and divine justice, (then) we are one people, the Serb people," Dodik said.
Dodik's increasing anti-Western rhetoric and vocal endorsement of Putin's policies have raised fears in the West that the Kremlin might use him to create further instability in volatile Bosnia and divert some attention from its war in Ukraine.
The US Embassy in Sarajevo warned Dodik that his calls for independence of Bosnia's Serb-run part "coupled with specious legal claims about its competences … are pushing the country down a dangerous path."
"The Republika Srpska will only destroy itself and those around it pursuing the will-o-wisp of independence," the Embassy tweeted on Monday.