Bosnia:connecting the dots

Author: Cristian – George Gherasim, Romania
Photos are taken by Antoaneta Ivanova
The article is the 1st prize winner of the Mladiinfo Article Contest 2012 in category B

The troubles of Bosnia-Herzegovina
Two weeks ago, as bitterly cold weather and snow was yet to sweep across much of the Balkans, I flew in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina to attend a conference on the country’s future and challenges of EU membership. Nothing uncanny so far. Rather just another debate between students and specialist around the difficulties ahead.  One might say a commonplace event in a country so bound to European institutions via the key role EU special representative in Bosnia plays.

The conference started with the usual praising arguments, stressing the importance of becoming an EU member state and the benefits entailed. Yet, as the debate rolled on and students began voicing their opinions a different mindset slowly began to dawn. It shifted from an unabated consensus on the EU accession to a cautious, sceptical, less enthusiastic approach. It was new ground I was stepping on.

Misgivings over EU bid
From afar, European Union seems to be the place they all rush to get to.  And that was the misconception I first came to Sarajevo with.  But for those deciding Bosnia’s future, EU is much like heaven: everyone wants to go to heaven but don’t want to die to get there. A flimsy analogy saying but one thing: the perks and privileges that come with European Union membership are favoured by all, not so much the painful reforms and social transformation demanded by the accession process.

I imagine this as a bitter pill to swallow for EU officials and enlargement enthusiasts alike. Realising that the Balkans are not longer passionately yearning for Europe, not willing to do whatever it takes to get there, is for many a malaise hard to whisk away. With last month’s low turnout for Croatia EU referendum, this purely intellectual concept sported only in conference halls, gains more ground. It shows the carrot- and- stick approach EU assertively used in the Balkans as obsolete.

This is something European Union has to get a grip on, as well as understanding that Balkan countries can’t be all dealt with in a similar fashion. The region is simply too complex, with local enmities and expedient political interest chipping away at an ever vagrant trans-regional consensus towards the EU. Out of all Balkan states, only Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have yet to submit their EU membership application. If Kosovo is still a young state, highly contested internationally and on life support from Washington, the same can’t be said about Bosnia-Herzegovina. Yet, Bosnia has shown little national consensus in pushing for reforms and furthering the process of EU integration.

The status-quo
Again, for an onlooker such as myself the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina appears dire.  Since Dayton Agreement was signed, little has been done to prepare the country for peace. It simply appears that 16 years have been wasted, getting not closer to adverting the country disintegrating along ethnic lines. Meanwhile, people became disenchanted with what was supposed to be their unifying goal – EU and NATO accession -, whilst politicians continue to fester ethnic tensions for electoral gains. Attesting to this lingering ethnic strife is the current political deadlock – Bosnia having no government a year and a half after the last elections were held. This current state of affairs has but two culprits: the International Community and Bosnia- Herzegovina itself.

The International Community
As in most post-war societies, the involvement of the International Community was incremental to preventing further bloodshed and help rebuilt the country. What sets Bosnia a cut above other post-war societies is that 16 years after the war ended an international envoy, called the High Representative, still holds powers above local constitution, parliament and governments. This was possible because both EU and the United States agreed upon a reconstruction strategy foregrounding the principles of multiculturalism: in order to maintain peace, ethic communities should interact as little as possible.  Not only did the Constitution framed at Dayton legitimise the territorial division of Bosnia but created separate institutions for each of the 3 ethnic groups: Serbs, Croats and Bosnians. As expected this made the country ungovernable, with only one exception: The High Representative for Bosnia who still enjoys veto power, the ability to amend all laws and to revoke any elected official if deemed necessary.

The western leaders who drew up the accords fail to insist on a mechanism to adapt Dayton to future development on the ground in Bosnia. The Constitution left ethnic national groups too much room for blockades should they see their interest at risk. In other words, the existing constitution actually impedes the development of a culture of compromise.

It’s this reality that keeps Bosnia in limbo for almost two decades now and, looking backwards, 16 years later, we realise how faulty this approach was to begin with.  At that time it seemed the reasonable thing to do but this status-quo should have never lasted this long.

A divide country may be by the fallout of Dayton, but Bosnia is equally accountable for fuelling this ethnic segregation. With the exception of the Army, Bosnia keeps ethical divisions focal to any administrative and institutional organization. Serbs, Croats and Bosnians vote only for their own, as politicians foment ethnic nationalism and use religion as primary tools in their electoral battles. Likewise, the infamous two schools under one roof system, which separates pupils based on their ethnicity, has seen little popular support for its removal.  Sarajevo, blending in an Ottoman past with a strong European heritage, was once dubbed the “Jerusalem of the Balkans” for its religious and ethnic diversity. Nowadays, out of its 550.000 inhabitants only 18.000 are ethnic Serbs. For all it counts, the only thing people of Bosnia, whatever the ethnicity, clearly agreed upon is that direct external intervention has to narrow down.

There’s no silver bullet for Bosnia’s problems.  But the failure to spark a constitutional debate on the devolution of powers from the High Representative to local level will hamstring the government in Bosnia-Herzegovina, rendering it even more powerless than it is now. Also, EU has to have a clearer policy toward Bosnia and stop sending mixed messages, as was the case when it allowed Serbs and Croats to travel without a visa but not Bosniaks.

Mistakes were made as it was hard to connect the dots looking forward. But now, looking backwards, they must be amended. The final decision is with the people of Bosnia. Only Bosnians can say if they are willing to take up the challenge, make harsh reforms and join the EU, or keep the status quo which will only widen the existing gap between Bosnia and the rest of Europe, without even a perspective for a better life in the foreseeable future.



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