20 years after the war, politics is frozen in Bosnia and Herzegovina: first impressions from last week’s visit

June 24, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Just got back from a week visiting Oxfam Italy’s programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH from now on). It wasn’t what I expected. For a start, it never stopped raining

War? What war?

War? What war?

(and I say this as an Englishman).

And the traumatic war of 1992-95, which left some 100,000 dead (the exact figure is still disputed), and engraved names like Srebrenica, Tuzla and Mostar on the memories of our generation, is almost invisible now. Today they are just modest European towns. Nothing iconic here, move along please.

So what’s it like? 20 years after its traumatic four year siege, Sarajevo, the capital, is miraculously restored, thanks to European, US, Turkish and Middle East money. Tourists mill on the cobbled streets of the Ottoman quarter; imposing buildings in the Austro Hungarian bit; elsewhere, the glass towers and malls of 21st Century capitalism.

The buildings may have been repaired, but not the politics or the people. A sense of brittleness lurks beneath the trappings of modern Europe. No-one talked to us about their war experiences all week (and we were advised not to ask – better to let people volunteer their stories when they are ready). To fill the gap, I read Aleksandar Hemon’s brilliant and harrowing account, The Book of My Lives.

We drive out of Sarajevo along a pristine EU-funded motorway, alongside rushing swollen rivers passing through hillsides of gravestones. Scatters of solid alpine chalets, dotted with the needle minarets of mosques in some areas, church crosses in others. The war divided communities; peace froze those divisions in place: the Dayton Agreement that stopped the bloodletting 20 years ago is asphyxiating political progress now, and has no provision for review or evolution.

It made sense at the time

It made sense at the time

The religious mosaic is reflected in the institutional divisions established by Dayton:  A largely Bosnian (Muslim and Catholic Croats) Federation and a Serb Republika Srpska (Orthodox) form two separate ‘political entities’ within a not very powerful BiH ‘state’ (see map). The entities have different internal structures, producing a mind-boggling level of complexity. Listen to businessman Mladen Ivesic:

‘The administration is huge, too many overlapping tiers of government: cantons, municipalities, entities, state. All have departments, ministries (BiH has 162 ministries!). They send us to and fro, play with us. Everyone blames everyone else. But if you give them €100, suddenly they know who’s responsible – more levels of government mean more opportunities for corruption.’

I was travelling with a South African colleague (Hugh Cole) so the comparison was inevitable. BiH has no Mandela, no Truth and Reconciliation process, no agreed history of what actually happened. In the words of Silvana Grispino, Oxfam’s country director ‘the collective memory is fragmented and manipulated, so how can we imagine the future?’

People talk with nostalgia of Yugoslavia, whose disintegration triggered the war. Memories of the good old days were triggered by the public response to May’s catastrophic floods (below), which killed 44 people and did billions of dollars of damage to BiH and Serbia. ‘We felt like before, in the era of rich socialism [before 1991]’ says one university professor, after supposedly apathetic students headed off in droves to volunteer for the cleanup. Mosques and churches handed out food to the victims, regardless of faith. But the euphoria rapidly dissipated as rival political parties started to score points off each other and refused to cooperate.

Not everyone agrees that Dayton is a problem (after all Switzerland has four official languages and a labyrinth of local government, but seems to muddle through), but it certainly complicates any attempt by ordinary citizens to engage with politics. Here’s Mladen again:

‘Politicians will always try and drag you down (if you protest or call for reform), saying this will harm this or that religious group. The people are very afraid, frustrated floodsand easy to manipulate. They have no strength to fight. Young people leave if they can. Europe has to help – we cannot solve this problem by ourselves. This constitution was imposed, mainly by America, so they have to solve it. We call it the straitjacket.’

Government officials agree (but ask to remain anonymous): ‘The Federation and the RS are totally separate and often reject the rules and regulations of the State. We lost $0.5bn of EU pre-accession money because of the disputes. Dayton created peace, but now it is a bottleneck. Everything is difficult, Dayton needs to change.’

The frustration is that away from politics, some things do actually work. Not everything is religiously polarized – business, sport (the country is obsessed with BiH’s first ever involvement in the soccer World Cup). And civil society is working to overcome the divisions – more on that tomorrow.