Should Britain stay or should it go?

During the seven years I have spent in the UK, I have never experienced such a poor public debate about a key political issue, which will affect lives of millions of people for generations to come. The Brexit debate has been a combination of lies, demagoguery and populism on the ‘Leave side’ and weak and split political partisan politics on the ‘Remain side’. The under-researched and half-informed media reporting on it has not helped either, turning the famous British news sector into a cacophony of irrational truisms, number wars and attacks.

I have no formal say in this debate as I am not a British but an EU citizen. At the same time, I would like to present some of the arguments for why to stay and why not to leave. Not for myself, who would like to continue living in this adoptive home of mine, but for the United Kingdom, because I care for it and want it to remain united. But in Europe. And this is why:

1. National unity EU was instrumental in the Good Friday Agreement, which has kept Northern Ireland peaceful; Scotland wants the EU market for its oil exports; the Gibraltar issue was resolved through the EU. There will be a referendum in Scotland on independence, leaving would endanger peace in Northern Ireland, it would lead to the isolation of Gibraltar (again).
2. Economy and Trade EU economy is the largest economy in the world (GDP), the world’s largest  trader; 44% of UK exports go to the EU; access to single market will be seriously restricted (both Switzerland and Norway pay a hefty price to access it partially); 9/10 economists agree that the economic benefits offset the 1% governmental expenditure sent to Brussels; less than 2% of our taxes go to the EU. GBP already dropping when there is a prospect of the UK leaving; short-term impact would be highly negative (long-term is unpredictable); export & import (7% of EU’s export goes to the UK) would be reduced. You cannot trade with other countries if you do not reciprocate – you will have to bear the consequences of exclusion.
3. Autonomous decision-making Around 10% of laws originate in Brussels; EU regulation had very positive effects on the British environment, NHS benefits from EU funds, research and workers; food industry regulation and consumer rights were first upheld with the EU laws. EU is a complex decision-making machine, poorly understood and explained. But influence from the inside is more effective than from the outside (Norway and the Swiss are a case in point). If you want control, you have to stay in Brussels.
4. Migration and mobility Migration and free movement of people (both highly skilled and low skilled) makes economies prosper: research and development are critically dependent on mobility as is business innovation; low-skilled workers doing jobs Britons do not; there are clear demographic benefits for an aging population; millions of Britons freely work, study, travel to, and get health treatment (!) in the EU; global patterns of migration cannot be stopped but need to be accommodated. Fewer EU migrants will come and more Britons will seek citizenship of other countries. Travel will be more expensive. Research and the diversity of the job market will suffer. Note: Migrants might be replaced by non-EU migrants if the ‘Australian scenario’ is put in place: it allows for re-familization, i.e. automatic right to bring entire families.
5. Global power and security EU replaced culture of wars and conflict with a culture of peace and arbitration (ex. EU negotiated the Iran deal); UK is no longer the empire it used to be and will be weakened by leaving as it is the EU which is a partner to the US, China, Russia and India; NATO cannot face the global world as a political decision-maker, EU can. UK will be on its own as an island nation, cut off from the rest of European affairs =


Putin’s dream!




The travails of fieldworking in Bosnia

It goes without saying that if you want to understand a topic you study, a hands-on experience is a sine qua non. This is why field research was the primary element of my doctoral thesis when I started my PhD in 2013. Since I worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the past in the NGO sector and was very interested in how victims manage to live on after what they experienced, my PhD topic was to be related to ways of dealing with the past in the post-war divided country. I decided to first go to Bosnia again and see what emerges as THE topic, which we researchers should be looking at so that it also has some real-word impact.

Since then I conducted five research trips lasting from 10 to three weeks across the country. I interviewed victims, ex-fighters, NGO workers, international and local experts and academics and also political elites. It was a challenging and draining experience but I learnt a lot not only about the topic, which I at last settled on, but also about the challenges of being a foreign research in a very complex and unhealthy social environment. I say unhealthy not in medical terms but in social ones – any country, which experienced a brutal war, mass rape, ethnic expulsions and unsuccessful international peacebuilding would be deeply traumatised and broken. Bosnia certainly is. But as a research and a foreigner, this poses several issues and sources of frustration, which have emerged over the course of my trips.

In its post-1995 history, Bosnia was exposed to a grandiose international guardianship via an inundation of international projects, consultants, programs and mentorships. It was equally exposed to a similar avalanche of international pundits, who came with these projects and international money, and who started first implementing their peacebuilding ideas and then studying and measuring them. Since the results have been very poor, Bosnians have turned against foreign interferences in their own affairs, and foreign assistance has become synonymous with external blackmail.

This has serious repercussions for people like myself, who genuinely want not only to learn about how Bosnians are coping but also about their needs and how we can learn from these past mistakes. I have often been reproached by my respondents for not giving anything in return for the interviews in terms of financial assistance. Expectations in terms of what my respondents would gain from me were clearly high because of the generally negative perception of foreigners. It only made it worse that the topics we covered in the interviews were deeply disturbing – from loss of family members to rape and physical suffering during the war.

Nonetheless, the resentment towards foreign researchers has also had a wider implication for the legitimacy of foreign research on Bosnia. Several Bosnians declined to talk to me because they were “tired of all these foreign researchers”. Bosnia has become a laboratory first for international peacebuilding and then for academic researchers. And Bosnians have been justifiably resenting this by declining to talk to foreigners.I have heard many times during my interviews that only Bosnians – i.e. people who went through the things I am trying to explain – have the right to discuss such things in public. The ownership of research on the country has also been perceived by the locals as only within the country.”Enough of foreigners telling us what to do and explaining us who we are”, was one of the explanations I received.

It has taken a lot of time and effort to gain trust and understanding of my Bosnian friends and respondents. My starting position was better because of my nationality, which is considered rather neutral in the former Yugoslav area (I am Czech) and also because I managed to learn the language – including slang – quite quickly and quite well. Because I had worked in the country before my PhD, I also had good friends who supported and helped me. However, the bottomline is that it has never ceased to be a draining struggle to do field research under such conditions.

There are two lessons I learned, though, and two reasons why I never ceased to believe in what I was doing.

Even if I was unable to offer financial assistance to victims and veterans I talked to, I hoped that I have at least been part of the process of recognising their suffering. I am not a trained psychologist but often assumed that role during my interviews – listened and listened, sometimes for several hours. That was the least – together with conveying these stories in my work – I was able to give in return. And at the end of one interview, my respondent said, “I fell good now. I have not talked about this for many years. But it feels good to get it off my chest.”

The second one is more related to public activism. Twenty years have past since the end of the war and Bosnia barely makes headlines outside of the Balkan region these days. I believe that it is part of my responsibilities to remedy this and make sure that the country is not fully forgotten. By writing open letters, organising seminars, talks, conferences and sharing the stories I listened to during my fieldwork beyond my PhD is – to my mind – another way how I can return the time my respondents have given me. By listening to them, I became closer to understanding their needs and thus better at conveying this to those who can make a difference in their lives. I hope that this message will be brought home in Bosnia at some too, so that me and all future researchers in the country will no longer be devalued and mocked.


A version of this article was also published here:

Bosnia’s EU Application: Political Ruse or Misguided Optimism?

Bosnia’s plan to submit an application to join the EU in 2016 is more of a strategy to divert attention from internal political and economic problems rather than an indicator of real progress.

The last two months of 2015 were marked by optimism about Bosnia’s EU prospects. In November 2015, the EU progress report provided more a positive assessment than the country arguably deserved, leading to brash statements in the following month from the government that Bosnia would formally apply for membership in January 2016.

Instead, on January 1, the European Parliament suspended preferential trade arrangements with Bosnia after the country repeatedly failed to adjust its export quotas to EU levels. A week later, the EU delegation in Sarajevo announced that without releasing the October 2013 census data, Bosnia cannot submit its EU application.

In spite of these setbacks, Bosnian policymakers seem determined to submit their application in the coming weeks. This claim should not be seen as an indicator of a major breakthrough, but as a strategy aimed at diverting attention from the country’s economic and political problems before the 2016 municipal elections.

Few analysts believe Bosnia will be able to submit a credible application, let alone be successful in obtaining candidacy in the next two years. It is hard to see how Bosnia could go ahead without risking receipt of a highly negative opinion by the European Commission.

History of troubled relations with the EU:

Since 2005, when Bosnia and Herzegovina officially started negotiating the roadmap for its EU negotiations and membership, the so-called Stabilization and Association Agreement, SAA, its European path has been marked by a series of stalls, mitigated only by the leniency of Brussels. Such leniency was motivated by a perceived need to create a momentum for reforms in the troubled country.

The SAA between Bosnia and the European Union was at last signed back in 2008. But even before all the member states adopted it, it was frozen by a ruling in 2009 concerning discrimination against national minorities contained in Bosnia’s 1995 constitution.

This so-called “Sejdic-Finci” ruling, named after the main claimants, said members of other national groups other than Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs must be allowed to run for the state presidency and for the parliament’s House of Peoples.

As a result of the parties’ failure to agree on changing this rule, constitutional reform became an insurmountable obstacle for the country on its EU path.

But delivery on the Sejdic-Finci ruling was not the only condition needed to unlock the SAA. Other key stumbling blocks were the adoption of a state aid law, EU coordination mechanism, the conduct of a national census and closure of the international Office of the High Representative, OHR.

In 2010, the EU dropped the last condition, without much explanation, as unrealistic. Bosnia adopted a state aid law in 2012, although it was never implemented. The census was finally conducted in October 2013.

Although Bosnia’s two entities – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska – failed to agree on how to define a resident, an issue with repercussions for up 350,000 people, nearly a tenth of the population – the conduct of the census was a major success.

It seemed that, technically, “only” the coordination mechanism and the Sejdic-Finci ruling stood in the way of an EU application. In its attempt to create positive momentum, the EU lowered the bar once again and decided to drop this condition in 2014 and re-focus on the economy.

In early 2015, kick-started by a British-German economic initiative announced in November 2014, the EU did a U-turn on Bosnia. In exchange for Bosnia’s commitment to a political and economic reform agenda, the EU allowed the unlocking of SAA, which entered into force in July 2015.

Brussels also pledged to provide 37.2 million euros for Bosnia over the next three years to support this reform agenda. Such a generous financial pledge caught the eye of Bosnia’s politicians who started delivering on some of the promised reforms.

From the outside, it appeared that Bosnia was “back on the EU track”, as the EU progress report stated in November 2015. But, beyond this diplomatic hype, internal developments were less positive.

Conflicts with the RS and a weak economy:

Most importantly, relations between the two entities seriously deteriorated in 2015. The Republika Srpska President, Milorad Dodik, announced a referendum on the state judiciary and the OHR, which will be most likely held in April 2016. He also temporarily suspended his entity’s cooperation with the state security services, SIPA, in December 2015. Later, he disregarded another decision of the Constitutional Court – the 91st decision ignored in this fashion – which ruled that the celebration of the RS national day on 9 January was discriminatory.

Bosnian institutions failed to deal with such attacks or enforce compliance: both the Constitutional Court and the SIPA have since been under permanent attacks by the RS leader.

In addition, opinion in the Republika Srpska leans almost as much to Moscow as to Brussels. A survey by Bosnia’s Directorate for European Integration from 2015 showed that while 91 per cent of citizens in the Federation entity would vote “Yes” in a referendum to join the EU, the number was far lower in the RS, only 58 per cent.

Though Croat-Bosniak relations within the Federation improved last year, increasing tensions between RS and the other entity give only limited hope that any of the outstanding issues – including the publication of the census data – would be addressed this year.

The poor shape of the economy is another serious issue, in particular in the Serb-majority entity.

Bosnia nearly failed to finance its budget of approximately 800 million euro, which was belatedly adopted in May 2015. Reforms adopted in 2015, such as new entity labour laws, were clearly motivated by the hope of receiving international financial injections to save the country from bankruptcy. Without such external aid, Bosnia cannot fund its overburdened state and entity budgets.

This is why the EU trade conditions give more hope for a successful resolution, especially since the suspension of preferential trade arrangements was long in the making.

Since 2000, EU and Bosnia’s economic relations have been guided by special autonomous trade measures, ATMs, which expired at the end of 2015.

The ATMs allowed Bosnia free access to the EU market for almost all agricultural products without tariffs. The free-trade zone was further extended with the 2008 Interim Agreement on trade, a temporary replacement for the frozen SAA.

But since Croatia joined the EU in July 2013, Bosnia has failed to adjust its trade quotas granted under these measures to take into account its traditional trade with Croatia, arguing that it would damage its economy if trade with Croatia decreased.

Given the dominance of the EU in the fields of exports – in 2015, 72.1 per cent of goods exports from Bosnia went to the EU, including Croatia – an agreement will have to be reached if the country is to survive economically. EU trade and investments are indispensible for Bosnia’s liquidity.

Membership prospects distant:

Amid continuing conflicts with the RS over its challenges to the state’s central powers combined with a dire economic outlook, the prospects of Bosnia’s EU membership are as far away as ever.

The year 2025 is now an optimistic estimate. But there is no doubt that the government will continue to pursue its intent to apply this year, especially before the October 2016 local elections.

In the meantime, it Bosnia will struggle to have its EU application forwarded to the European Commission and thus accepted this year. However, Brussels will continue to demonstrate understanding towards Bosnia, as a gesture of goodwill.

Yet even if it drops more conditions, it will not be able to ignore the separatist tendencies of the RS President, who is clinging to power and is willing to use all means available to retain it.

Therefore, 2016 is unlikely to be the year when Bosnia presents a credible application to the EU; it risks too much embarrassment from a frank appraisal of an unrealistic application by the European Commission.

Though it might send and application to the European Council, its submission will not change the dynamics of Bosnia’s painfully slow and unwieldy progress, hindered as it is by deep internal political and economic problems.

EU and Western Balkans

The new year 2016 started with pompous statements by Bosnian politicians (Crnadak, Ivanic, Zvizdic) about Bosnia and Herzegovina’s intention to submit its EU application in 2016. Although such announcement are a political ruse – especially given the many pending problems and in the view of the upcoming October 2016 municipal elections, Bosnia’s submission, is not an indicator of when it would enter the EU.

After all – Turkey submitted in 1987 (for the second time). Even if that is not a fair comparison as there was never an agreement on Turkey’s prospects across the EU member states, we should not understand an application as an indicator of progress but as a political strategy for the eyes of the public.

The table below also speaks to the diversity of timings and processes with respect to EU membership. The candidate status was granted to Croatia and Macedonia within a few more than a year of applying, within roughly two to Montenegro, short of three to Serbia and five to Albania. But negotiations with Macedonia were never opened (though recommended in 2009) and it took nearly three years for Serbia to open them. And even then, because of regional disputes with Slovenia and internal problems, it took seven years for Croatia – the most successful post-war country in the Western Balkans – to enter. So even with the application of BiH (a negative report by the European Commission will certainly follow), it does not change the most optimistic prospects for its EU entry in 2025.

EU Balance for the Western Balkans

Country Application submitted Candidate status granted Negotiations opened Membership granted
Croatia 2003 2004 2006 1 July 2013
Montenegro 2008 2010 2012
Serbia 2009 2012 2015
Albania 2009 2014
Macedonia 2004 2005
Bosnia and Herzegovina 2016

A flawed recipe for how to end a war and build a state: 20 years since the Dayton Agreement

The General Framework Peace Agreement for Bosnia and Herzegovina, also referred to as the Dayton Peace Accords, agreed on 21 November 1995 at Wright-Patterson base in Dayton, Ohio, and formally signed in Paris on 14 December 1995, ended the Bosnian War, which had raged from spring 1992 until the winter of 1995.

The Bosnian War remains the most brutal conflict in Europe in the period after World War II. Out of the pre-war 4.4 million Bosnian population, approximately 105,000 people lost their lives, just under 1.4 million weredisplaced and 1.2 million became refugees abroad. The peace talks in Dayton were the last attempt to end the conflict. All previous diplomatic efforts had failed until the US diplomat Richard Holbrooke gathered Slobodan Milosevic, Alija Izetbegovic and Franjo Tudjman, as well as several European and Russian diplomats, in the Wright-Patterson base, where they stayed for 21 days of negotiations.

The final agreement, often referred to simply as ‘Dayton’, was the result of skilful diplomacy, political trade-offs and the military pressure being exerted on the main warring parties. While Dayton was a path-breaking, war-ending and peace-keeping tool, it has not proven to be an effective framework for allowing true post-war peace-building and the political reconstruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In many respects, Dayton was crucial in giving the new country a set of principles, rules and institutions. But it has failed to provide a universally backed direction capable of guiding Bosnia through the unchartered waters of democratisation and liberalisation – the two principles of liberal peace-building.

Given Dayton’s mixed results, it is important to assess the legacies of the agreement and the broader lessons for international policymakers in peace and state-building. With a war raging in Syria, on-going peace negotiations in Colombia and discussions concerning a war-crimes tribunal in South Sudan, such discussions are clearly timely. In this context there are at least five key lessons that can be taken from the Dayton experience.

The fallacy of complexity

By some accounts, the Dayton Agreement constitutes one of the most comprehensive peace agreements in the world. Its 150 pages cover topics from military consolidation, refugees and elections to the protection of national monuments and public corporations. Most importantly, Annex 4 represents the current Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It offers far-reaching ‘consociationalist institutions’ based on power-sharing, decentralisation, ethnic vetoes, and proportionality.

However, by anchoring the power of ethno-national voices in legislative and executive institutions, the Dayton constitution multiplied political platforms for the application of ethno-national principles, which fuelled the war. In addition, Dayton’s multi-tiered system of governance allowed for the development of an overburdening complexity of over 140 ministries and thirteen de facto semi-autonomous units (two entities, 10 cantons and the District of Brcko). At the same time, the central state was created as a weak overarching structure with only three central ministries.

This high level of complexity and decentralisation was driven by the nature of the tense negotiations that produced the agreement and was originally aimed at avoiding conflict. But it effectively weakened the central state and produced imprecise vertical and horizontal divisions of competences. Although the Bosnian constitution has since undergone several changes, the fundamental system established at Dayton has proved to be relatively resilient and continues to be the main obstacle for functional democratic development in the country.

People or peoples?

In addition to complexity, the Dayton Peace Accords have anchored our perception of Bosnia as a conglomerate of battling peoples rather than as a country of people just like any other state. Dayton upholds the principle of group-based rights in guaranteeing political representation to the three so-called constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs) while at the same time guaranteeing individual rights. Those people living in Bosnia who do not belong to one of these three groups were effectively denied active citizenship, with implications for their ability to be elected to political office, among other issues.

In addition, the power-sharing principle of three peoples may even contradict Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Accords, which guarantees all refugees and displaced people the right to return. This could lead to Bosnia becoming ‘multi-ethnic’ – the proclaimed policy of post-war external efforts in the country. In making the territorial domains of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats multi-ethnic, however, the group-based rights within the constitution would lose their relevance.

This issue has been an on-going source of tension. Following a decision by the Constitutional Court in 2000, the constitutions of the two entities in the country (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska) had to be amended as they did not represent all citizens, but only the majority constituent peoples in the two entities. One of the findings of the Venice Commission in 2005, which thoroughly assessed all the pending constitutional issues in the country, was also to reform the ethno-national principle of Dayton. But despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 2009 that the constitution violates individual political and civil rights, this has not been changed.

International peace and state-building

While calling Bosnia a democratic state, the Dayton agreement also includes provisions for the direct involvement and interventions of a series of international actors such as NATO (for the military), the OSCE (for elections), and the UNHCR (for refugees) without any sunset clause specifying when these provisions will end.

Dayton created the so called Office of the High Representative (OHR), which took over the task of building state capacities and institutions. The OHR progressed from an initial lukewarm implementation through a strong state-building period in the early 2000s. However it is now an institution which has been dying a slow death since 2006. This and other foreign agencies have been directly or indirectly involved in Bosnian post-war policy-making without nurturing the development of a democratic political culture. Instead, they have created a culture of dependency on international leadership.

In addition, with the exception of the clear mandate and role of NATO in the realm of the military, the various foreign agencies have been granted somewhat vague powers and areas of interest, which do not explain their priorities and cross-agency coordination. Again, Dayton lacked clear provisions for implementation with respect to these agencies. This resulted in patchy commitment to reforms and implementation, both from external and internal actors, and the loss of credibility and questionable legitimacy of any external interventions.

About us, without us

The Dayton negotiations took place behind closed doors. The constitution was written, borders were drawn and towns were assigned to one side or the other without any input from the beneficiaries of the process – the people of Bosnia. Of course, to deliver peace, it was necessary to act fast and efficiently and consulting the public was not feasible. But to build a state, it was not sufficient to simply convince the main leaders to sign, it was also necessary to convince the public that the agreement was necessary and temporary.

Indeed, it was not only the form of negotiations which left the public outside of the policymaking process. The vast majority of policy decisions, particularly in the sphere of social affairs, receive only limited input from the civil sector. As such, the Dayton constitution has effectively constrained the ability of citizens to influence central state affairs. Bosnian politics has typically been conducted behind the closed doors of ministries and the headquarters of political parties. Disquiet over the political process was expressed during protests in February 2014, which was only the first manifestation of citizens’ desire to play a more active role in the country’s politics.

Justice and peace

With over 70 references to human rights, 16 international conventions and commitments to cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, hopes were raised that Dayton would not only lead to peace, but would also ensure that the perpetrators of war crimes would be appropriately punished. Yet this was a difficult balance to strike as some of the main culprits of the conflict were also signatories.

International criminal prosecution could have jeopardised the outcome of the agreement, which was undoubtedly part of the thinking of Richard Holbrooke, who was careful about including the ICTY only where necessary. Ultimately, Dayton reasserted the existence of the ICTY and tasked NATO and the signatories with the delivery of those indicted by the Tribunal.

But rather than bringing about justice in the sense which the Bosnian population would have liked to see, ICTY was applied as a tool for political vetting and moderation: no person indicted by the Tribunal was allowed to run in elections. Dayton also remained silent over how to deal with the legacy of the atrocities carried out in the country.

This has had wide-ranging consequences in Bosnia, where the past is anything but over. Only a small number of individuals have been punished, truth commissions have never been successfully established and victims have not been compensated. While it could be argued that the role of peace agreements is not to deliver justice, but merely peace itself; the Bosnian case demonstrates that any positive peace – in the sense of sustainable peaceful relations – is impossible without fully confronting the crimes of the past.

Dayton: necessary but insufficient

Dayton has been a ‘laboratory’ for political scientists and historians, who have revelled in criticising the agreement’s flaws while stressing its success in establishing peace. What Dayton illustrates is that the more complex a settlement gets, the more difficult it will be to implement and change it. Indeed, it has become something of a tradition to blame Dayton for all of the problems that exist in Bosnia today.

On the one hand, this is entirely fair: Dayton set the tone for a complex and inconsistent form of policy-making which has had a trickle-down effect into all sections of life in Bosnia. On the other hand, Dayton succeeded where other attempts had previously failed – it made three leaders, who had held opposing positions in a bloody war, sign a document which they may not have agreed with, but which nevertheless stopped their armies killing each other.

Although the vague and inconsistent nature of the agreement has done much harm to Bosnian governance, it would be unfair to pin all of the on-going struggles in Bosnia on to Dayton when most of them come down to patronage, corruption and a lack of political willingness to reform. In the end, the puzzles Dayton has left us with remain acutely relevant: how to quickly end a war without compromising a country’s post-war peaceful development; how to negotiate with leaders while ensuring justice; and how to provide international assistance without creating international protectorates. One need only look at the other war-stricken countries around the world today to see the continued problems posed by these dilemmas.


First published by LSE here:

EU Progress Report 2015 on Bosnia and Herzegovina: There is little justification for the Commission’s optimism

EU Progress Report 2015 on Bosnia and Herzegovina

There is little justification for the Commission’s optimism

with Adis Merdžanović

In his presentation of the 2015 Progress Report on Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in Brussels on 10 November, the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, deemed the country ‘back on the reform track’. In 2015, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement had finally entered into force and there was even ‘some implementation of the Reform Agenda’ passed by the domestic institutions. The positive tone about the developments in BiH is also visible throughout the progress report, especially when compared to the criticism BiH received last year.

While the 2014 report spoke of ‘little progress’ and concluded that there was a ‘lack of genuine political support for the EU’, the 2015 report uses the positive formulation of ‘some progress’ in several policy areas and praises BiH’s parliament for starting to ‘deliver on the legislative agenda’. Such a broad positive message is aimed at keeping the political momentum going, but it is hardly in line with the actual developments in the country, which provide few reasons for optimism.

The 2015 progress report package follows a new methodology. The quality and detail of the information provided has somewhat improved as the progress reports now offer more background information through an assessment of the ‘state of play’ and succinct guidelines on what the countries are expected to do in each policy area. Progress is assessed on a five-tier scale – very good progress, good progress, some progress, no progress and backsliding – allowing for easier cross-country and year-to-year comparisons.

The greater comparability will surely prove useful. The new methodology has led to a clearer presentation of the findings and identification of the tasks ahead. However, the reporting still follows a largely technocratic approach, which fails to prioritise specific policy areas, or aspects thereof, and may prove too stringent for properly elaborating on certain challenges within policy areas.

On a closer read, despite the positive tone of Commissioner Hahn, no policy area in BiH was evaluated as having very good progress. Good progress is noted only in the area of public procurement due to the entry into force of a new law. Several policy areas – for example governance (adoption of the reform agenda) or the judiciary (adoption of a new justice strategy) – show some progress, while there are numerous areas with none.

The most worrying areas are, arguably, those related to the media sector and freedom of expression, where actual backsliding was recorded. As the report remarks: “the institutional and political environment is not conducive to creating the conditions for full freedom of expression”. The document further criticises political pressures on journalists and the lack of transparency of media ownership.

Overall, the report over-emphasises the small steps taken by the country’s domestic political elites without giving proper consideration to the fact that much of the reform agenda remains declarative. The EU will have to spend significantly more political capital to ensure actual implementation.

The report’s assessment of the political criteria does not reflect the seriousness of the political situation on the ground. It brushes over the renewed threat from Republika Srpska, one of BiH’s two federal entities, trying to organise a referendum on the judiciary, and does scant justice to the severity of political patronage and its role during the last elections, which this report assessed as held in a ‘competitive environment’.

Ultimately, the overly positive message the European Commission sent out with this newest report is hardly justified given the political, social, and economic developments in the country.


First published by LSE here:

The full report on Bosnia and Herzegovina is available here

Clock is ticking: Europe Must Not Leave Bosnia to its Despair

It is easy to yield to the Potemkin glamour of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo these days. With echoes of the film festival still in the air, Sarajevo is recuperating from the high-class event when the city was filled with foreigners, red carpets and money.


Andricgrad in Visegrad – another Potemkin project  (photo by author)

The deep depression afflicting so many Bosnians could end in violence, unless the international community finally wakes up to its responsibilities.

Houses still shine with new facades, parks with new benches and paths, garbage was finally taken out of the streets while stray dogs were removed from the city centre. There were suddenly more four-star hotels than cevabdzinica stalls in the old market, or carsija. It is easy to get lullabied by this camouflage good life. But life in Bosnia is anything but good.

From Visegrad to Bihac, Bosnian citizens are frustrated, depressed and demotivated. “People are like timed bombs, about to explode,” Jasmina, from Sarajevo, says: “Even the war was better. You were worried about a shell and your life but you had no constant worries about your children’s future like we do now.”

Milo from Tuzla thinks similarly. Self-employed and about to retire, he struggles daily to survive. He has a job as an engineer but, even to him, every Bosnian mark counts. He recently stopped talking to his son after he decided to come back to Bosnia from Germany where he had worked and studied. “He’ll waste his life here,” Milo thinks.

The situation is even worse for people who are in the minority in the other entity, for example, Bosniaks in Republika Srpska. “It is extremely difficult to find a job here as a Bosniak, if not impossible. People just don’t want to work with you if you are a Bosniak,” a Serb called Dragan from Visegrad admits.

Either way, the general depression does not choose ethnicity or religion. This exasperation is not surprising. The war-related traumas of shelling, killings and combat have never been properly treated through appropriate psychological therapy and economic security – the only two real solutions to such traumas. The subsequent post-war economic transition, which has proven painful and costly elsewhere in post-Communist Europe, has further deepened this depression.

Several studies estimate that two-thirds of Bosnians suffer from depression and that at least 30 per cent suffer from some form of PTSD. Every year, 500 people kill themselves, six times more males than females, a startling number for a population of less than 4 million.

The other well-known indicator causing depression is the level of unemployment, which in Bosnia is as high as 45 per cent. In essence, as many people are now working as are looking for jobs. In effect, only 16 per cent of Bosnians financially support the other 84 per cent by working in the private sector. The rest work for the state. There is little production or industry and no sustainable economic plan.

Bosnia is on the verge of economic bankruptcy. It has kept itself afloat first via humanitarian aid, which per capita was larger than the aid sent to Afghanistan, then via diaspora remittances and the “grey” economy. Now it functions via international loans. But aid has drastically fallen off, the financial crisis has cut the flow of remittances and international loans are also down. Look at any macro-economic indicator you like, from unemployment to public spending, the situation is dire.

Who is the main culprit for this tragedy? Again, talk to anyone you like and you get the same answer: politicians and politics. As Bosnians say, “We do not care about politics but politics cares about us.”

In reality, there has never been a true political elite in Bosnia. Politics has been a fight over budgets and public procurement. There is no ideology except populism, corruption and brinkmanship, all of which is conducted under the guise of defending three opposing goals: preserving the holy and untouchable Republika Srpska in the case of Bosnian Serbs, preserving a united Bosnia for Bosniaks and safeguarding the little Croatian cantonal fiefdoms in Herzegovina for the Bosnian Croats.

Corruption is no longer done behind closed doors but in full view of the public, which tolerates it out of fear of violence and loss of jobs and because it craves the petty social benefits that the “elites” distribute to them. Being in government does not only mean direct access to budget distribution but direct access to job distribution.

The party leaders operate on the principle of buying social peace through job procurement, small social benefits and by continuous talk of the threat facing their particular people. Those 84 per cent that are supported by the 16 per cent are tolerant because they are economically dependent on the “elites”.

Paradoxically, there is no true nationalism in Bosnian politics, only populism aimed at keeping the Bosnian population in a constant state of fear that “once shooting starts, there will be another war”. The lack of public discussion about the real sources of all the country’s problems only perpetuates the constant state of imaginary war.

A good surrogate culprit, meanwhile, has been found in the international community, which in all fairness has rarely understood the Balkan mentality, traditions and culture.

Neither the EU nor the various international agencies and representatives have done anything to erode the existing state capture by kleptocrats. The only thing that the EU seems to fear is violence and instability. This is why it is willing to use appeasement in place of a consistent and tough approach that includes sanctions.

The imaginary violence, which the world so fears and which is used to mobilise the local population, is thus slowly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some would indeed fight again, to protect what they gained, but many would fight out of pure despair.

Ivan, a former Croat soldier is convinced that “anyone would fight here if needs be, trust me on this one. We fought once and we will fight again. We are good at that. Not because we like blood but because we cannot work, we cannot provide for our children and we have nothing to lose.”

Last year’s protests and floods showed in full daylight the dire state of Bosnian economy and the literally non-existent central capacity of the state. But even when people’s frustration sometimes bubbles up, there are no mechanisms to enable this frustration to translate into breaking down the “thugocracy” of Bakirs, Milorads and Dragans.

Conflict does not have to be the natural outcome of this general depression. But, unfortunately, the cure will have to come from the outside as self-healing has proven impossible.

Bosnia is the political responsibility of Brussels, London, Berlin and Washington and it is time to act upon the endless stream of previous diplomatic promises and meetings. A lot of money and energy has been spent already.

Bosnia, the EU and the international community in Bosnia are at a crossroads. It is time for the latter to start flexing muscles to the Bosnian politicians, who have crossed too many red lines without facing any consequences.

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