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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