BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Tens of thousands of people rallied Saturday in separate demonstrations for and against the regional Bosnian Serb government in the northern city of Banja Luka, kept apart by police and barricades to prevent violence.
The pro-EU Alliance for Changes is accusing the Bosnian Serb government of corruption and its leader Milorad Dodik of dictatorship, saying he has brought the region to the brink of financial collapse. The Alliance claims Bosnian Serbs would be much better off cooperating with others in the country on reforms to improve people's lives and get Bosnia into the 28-nation European Union.
Dodik's camp accuses the opposition of betraying Bosnian Serb national interests, which according to him lie in seceding from Bosnia and creating a new Serb country with close ties to Russia.
Bosnian Serbs fought in a 1992-95 war for secession and annexation to neighboring Serbia but the conflict ended with 100,000 dead with a peace agreement that left Bosnia's the external borders intact but divided the country into two regions — Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosniaks and Croats. Each have their own state-like institutions and are linked by a joint government, a three-member presidency and a parliament.
International officials have repeatedly told Dodik the dissolution of the country is impossible but his obstructions to the functioning of the state have left Bosnia lagging on the road toward the EU. His opponents claim he wants a separate country so he can control the courts and hide his financial embezzlements that have enriched him and his allies but impoverished the people.
Both sides brought thousands by bus Saturday to Banja Luka.
Opposition supporters held banners saying "You will all go to jail," and demanded an early general election while Dodik's supporters carried pictures of him and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"If we do not have a country, we will be killed," Dodik told his supporters. "Republika Srpska is a country and we are defending it."
He then sang a folk song with the lyrics "nobody can do us any harm, we are stronger than destiny."
A few hundred meters (yards) away, opposition supporters called for his resignation and chanted "Thief! Thief!"
The Alliance for Changes a year ago began revealing evidence of corruption Dodik and his allies were allegedly involved in as well as economic data showing how Bosnian living standards have eroded during his reign.
One after the other, speakers at the opposition rally complained about the bad living conditions, how their retirements are the lowest in Europe and how the children of officials in Dodik's government own property abroad while theirs don't even have jobs.
"Is this in the Bosnian Serb national interest?" asked Milana Karanovic-Miljevic, who came from Drvar, one of Bosnia's poorest towns.
At both rallies, former soldiers who fought for Republika Srpska competed in patriotic speeches claiming their respective camp was the real keeper of the ideas of wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and general Ratko Mladic. Both men are jailed by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. One is convicted of war crimes and the other is on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, committed while creating Republika Srpska.
Adding to the confusion, Mladic's son appeared on the stage of the pro-government rally to greet Dodik's supporters, while Karadzic's daughter spoke on the other stage, greeting opposition backers. Both said they spoke on behalf of their fathers.
The rallies ended peacefully.