BANJA LUKA, Bosnia (Reuters) - Emboldened by events in Ukraine, the leader of Bosnia's Serbs called on Tuesday for Bosnia to become a confederation of three states, and again threatened a referendum on secession if the proposal fails.
Milorad Dodik, president of Bosnia's autonomous Serb Republic, has long advocated Bosnia be scrapped as a state, but has grown increasingly bold as elections approach in October that threaten to shake his 8-year grip on power.
Dodik, who has courted Russian political backing, has seized on Crimea's referendum to split from Ukraine - which was followed by Russian annexation - as a prime example of self-determination in action, unnerving Western capitals uncertain about his true intentions.
"Our next step is the opening of a dialogue ... on the restructuring of Bosnia as a confederation consisting of three states," he told a news conference in the Serb Republic's administrative centre, Banja Luka.
"If this proves impossible, Republika Srpska retains the right to hold a referendum on its status."
A confederation is a non-starter for Bosnia's Muslim Bosniaks - the chief victims of Bosnia's 1992-95 war - but may win some support among ethnic Croat hardliners who have long called for their own entity within Bosnia.
After a war in which some 100,000 people were killed, a U.S.-brokered peace deal split Bosnia into two highly autonomous regions - the Serb-dominated Serb Republic and the Federation, populated mainly by Bosniaks and Croats.
The two regions are joined by a weak central authority, while the Federation itself is split into ten cantons, creating a highly-decentralised and unwieldy system that is frequently paralysed by ethnic bickering.
Under the peace accord, neither region has the right to secede or can be scrapped.
The Bosnian Serbs have resisted any reforms at the state level that they see as infringing on their autonomy, slowing progress towards the European Union and NATO, which fellow ex-Yugoslav republics Croatia and Slovenia have already joined.
British politician Paddy Ashdown, a former international overseer in post-war Bosnia, accused Russia last month of stoking Serb separatist sentiment, citing among other things Moscow's offer of a loan to the Serb Republic after the International Monetary Fund halted funding for the country.
Dodik said he expected a first instalment of 70 million euros $95 million (57.08 million pounds) in April. Another 200 million euros were available over the coming year, he said, but did not specify the terms of the loan or whether it came from the Russian state or through a commercial bank.
Most analysts say Dodik's rhetoric has more to do with playing the nationalist card among voters than any real intention. Serbia, which fomented the war in Bosnia but has swung behind the goal of EU membership since the fall of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, will not want to be seen to be encouraging the breakup of Bosnia.
Crimea was "convenient" for Dodik, said Sarajevo-based Kurt Bassuener, a senior associate at the Democratisation Policy Council think-tank.
"But obviously this is unlike Ukraine - Bosnia does not border Russia, there is no Russian troop presence here, and I don't foresee the Russians flying paratroopers to Republika Srpska to support its independence bid."
Aleksandar Trifunovic, editor of the Banja Luka web portal "Buka", said Dodik's comments should be seen in the context of parliamentary and presidential elections due in mid-October, with Dodik's party losing ground in opinion polls.
Dodik has threatened a referendum "so many times in public, and so many times it has proven fruitless", he said.
Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Matt Robinson