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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Europe’s black hole

Bosnia
©EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR  |   Pictures of victims who were killed in the Bosnian war, in the big park in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 31 May 2019. The pictures show 3,176 Bosniaks and Croats, including 102 children from the Bosnian town of Prijedor, who were killed by Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

Christian Schmidt, a center-right German politician, is the new High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Why is it important to mention this office and what is the role it plays in a country made up from scraps? For one, the High Representative holds the decision-making power in the Federation, as per the Dayton peace accords, which ended the cruel war that tore apart former Yugoslavia, put an end to fighting in Bosnia and ushered in a new age of much-anticipated independence. The Office was created to oversee the implementation of the accords, which regulated everything, from disarmament to the election system. The High Representative still holds extensive powers, including the right to revoke elected officials.

Annex 4 in the Dayton Accords and all the preceding articles make up the fundamental law of the Croat-Muslim Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska.

In fact, Bosnia ended up caught in the middle, today being a patchwork of several unfinished projects. This might explain why, every now and then, unofficial records pop up, like the one that transpired last month in European offices, advocating Greater Croatia or Greater Serbia as a solution to a possible resolution of the Bosnian file. And this makes Bosnia first and foremost Europe’s time bomb. We should recall that the war that broke out in 1992, after the declaration of independence, was in fact started by  Serbia under Slobodan Milošević, who sought to put Greater Serbia on the map of the Balkans. Franjo Tuđman, Croatia’s president at the time, also dreamt of a Greater Croatia rising from the ruins of Bosnia. Without external interference, today we would be looking at a different picture in the former Yugoslav space. Alija Izetbegović, the leader of Bosnian Muslims and in many ways the father of today’s Federation, is the one who called the 1992 referendum for the independence of Bosnia. It was a consultation which the Bosnian Croats supported and the Bosnian Serbs boycotted. Franjo Tuđman, Alija Izetbegović and Slobodan Milošević signed the Dayton peace accords, enshrined in the Constitution of the Bosnian state.

It was a solution aimed at putting an end to a bloody war, the details of which we won’t be discussing here. No one would have imagined, 26 years ago, that nothing would change. Change was never an option, not for the international community or for Bosnians themselves.

PhD Christian Schwarz-Schilling, a former High Representative for Bosnia over 2006-2007, recently described Bosnia as follows:

The country that had the most to lose from the wars in former Yugoslavia, today is an unstable country. There is no rule of law. Corruption is at its highest. Poverty and social uncertainty run deep. Well-trained young people are leaving the country. The Dayton Treaty and the Constitution, which are still in effect, undermine democratic rights and push the country further away from the EU.

Bosnia is an impoverished land which Iosip Broz Tito knew how to integrate into the economy of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It was the industrial engine of communist Yugoslavia. Now, close to nothing is left. Small farmlands in the west have hardly been brought back to life. To this day they are not 100% mine-free. The country is struggling with grinding poverty, whereas Bosnians themselves try to overcome their frustration, despite being supported by the international community ever since the early ‘90s. Europe and the USA were not ready to fight a war at the heart of the Old Continent, so after the independence referendum, Bosnia was recognized as a state by the European Union and the USA and that was the end of it. When Milošević started the war, Alija Izetbegović called for help on Islamic states, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Libya. Imagine Bin Laden himself met with Izetbegović in Sarajevo in 1993. At least this is what the American media claims, citing a report of the German weekly Der Spiegel.

The so-called Mujahideen also left their mark on this space, which is virtually deprived of any identity.

5 years after the war, I had the opportunity of working for the press department of the OSCE mission to Sarajevo. FIVE years had passed since the Dayton Accords were implemented, and it still didn’t feel like peace. Sarajevo is a wonderful city. The old town rings with bells of the Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral, the Orthodox Holy Mother of God Cathedral and with echoes of the muezzins’ calls to prayers from the Ferhadija Mosque. Back in Tito’s day, it was known as the city of intellectuals.

Under the Dayton Accords, the signatories agreed that the OSCE, among other entities, should take part as observers in operations aimed at disarming the civilian population. From what I saw with my own eyes, I don’t think the operation was ever successful. Idealists continued to dream of a democratic Bosnian state. Others, let’s call them gold diggers, got involved in illicit business, arms dealing and human trafficking in particular.

I was in Sarajevo when the UN mission there was involved in a huge scandal. The media at the time made revelations about several UN officials who allegedly backed a prostitution network.   

Charges that UN personnel were ever involved in this affair were never substantiated. To all intents and purposes, information warfare and targeted fake news are not novel in terms of manipulation tactics.

An unfortunate context and a network of tunnels that exists physically, not just in Emir Kusturica’s Underground, turned Bosnia into Europe’s black hole. A three-headed political class (made up of Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs) has little interest in seeing the former Yugoslav republic become a state in its own right that should fight corruption, not fuel it. The international community lacks determination over the best approach, and prefers to maintain control by means of the High Representative.

Bosnia started EU accession negotiations in 2016. Generally speaking, EU members demand administrative and social reforms from Bosnia. In concrete terms, Bosnia so far has achieved too little, and the prospect of EU membership is still a remote goal.

Starting July 1 Slovenia is taking over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. One of the priorities of its term in office is to the integration of the Western Balkans in the Union. In fact, Prime Minister Janez Janša recently suggested this would solve a great deal of problems, including migration and the ambitions of geopolitical rivals he preferred not to name.

If the solution to this highly complex problem were that easy, coming from a former Yugoslav republic itself, why, then, has no one cared to implement it?

 


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  • Bosnia ended up caught in the middle, today being a patchwork of several unfinished projects. This might explain why, every now and then, unofficial records pop up, like the one that transpired last month in European offices, advocating Greater Croatia or Greater Serbia as a solution to a possible resolution of the Bosnian file. And this makes Bosnia first and foremost Europe’s time bomb.
  • Bosnia is an impoverished land which Iosip Broz Tito knew how to integrate into the economy of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It was the industrial engine of communist Yugoslavia. Now, close to nothing is left. Small farmlands in the west have hardly been brought back to life. To this day they are not 100% mine-free. The country is struggling with grinding poverty, whereas Bosnians themselves try to overcome their frustration, despite being supported by the international community ever since the early ‘90s.
  • Bosnia started EU accession negotiations in 2016. Generally speaking, EU members demand administrative and social reforms from Bosnia. In concrete terms, Bosnia so far has achieved too little, and the prospect of EU membership is still a remote goal.
Democracies vs. Autocracies – a new Cold War?
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