The war lasted some three years. It resulted in more than 110,000 deaths, made 2.2 million homeless and left the country as ethnically divided as it was at the war’s outbreak. The worst single atrocity during the war was at Srebrenica. In July of 1995, Bosnian Serb forces, led by Gen. Ratko Mladic, overran what should have been a UN safe haven. About 8,000 Muslim men and boys were taken away and killed, the result being that the UN changed the mandate for its mission and allowed force to be used. The Dayton Peace Agreement was signed on Dec. 21, 1995 to officially end the war.
The accord divided the country into two entities, Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The federation covers 51 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s total area, while Republika Srpska covers 49 percent. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a very complicated country with a highly complex system of governance. It has three rotating presidencies and each mini-state has its own president. There are 115 different ministries and 10 cantons. This has made governance a nightmare.
While today there is peace, stability has been harder to come by. The country’s three main ethnicities -- Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs -- are as divided as ever. These differences left the country without a government for nearly all of 2011. Corruption is a serious problem and the unemployment rate is hovering above 40 percent, with few opportunities for youth. There is an urgent need for deep constitutional reform, but with the chaotic bureaucracy and complex governance system, this is a very tricky thing indeed.
As we know, education is always key to a brighter future, but Bosnia’s education system is rather flawed. For example, “the one school, two classrooms” problem remains. Students are segregated and, even during break times, children from the different ethnic groups do not mix. Pretty much each community is taught a different version of history.
Yet, small steps are being taken. Fifteen months after the October 2010 general elections, in December 2011, the leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina finally managed to agree on the formation of a new central government and a state budget was also recently approved -- a first in three years. Earlier this week, the country’s foreign minister, Dr. Zlatko Lagumdzija, was in Brussels and gave a very enthusiastic and passionate speech entitled “Working to Forge a European Future” at the think tank where I work. While the minister acknowledged that his country still has many challenges to overcome and that the last 15 years have been extremely difficult, he was quite optimistic about the future. He listed priorities as EU and NATO membership as well as regional stability and cooperation.
Like the other countries of the Western Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina was given a clear EU membership perspective and sees its only future as being part of the Euro-Atlantic structures. However, because of the years of turmoil, it lags some way behind its neighbors and is now playing catch-up with Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, which are far more advanced in their membership talks, with Croatia due to enter the EU in 2013. Indeed, the prolonged political stalemate has been a considerable obstacle for Bosnia’s European aspirations and the minister said there will now be a massive push to move ahead with key reforms which, in his words, will make Bosnia and Herzegovina, a “normal” country with its peoples living in a shared, rather than segregated, society, adhering to European values.
The country already has a visa-free regime with the EU and, with the political deadlock now over and the recent adoption of state-aid and census laws, conditions for the entry into force of the Stabilization and Association Agreement are now close to being met. The EU is seen as a tool for transforming society. The carrot of EU membership should help facilitate the reform process and help unite society. However, the EU would like to see Bosnia become more centralized before it entertains membership as a possibility for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
NATO membership is also a priority and it is hoped that being part of the alliance would have a “fear-killer factor” and help to scale down the fear, prejudice and stereotypes that the different communities have for each other. To this end, at the forthcoming NATO summit in Chicago, Minister Lagumdzija hopes Bosnia will receive a Membership Action Plan (MAP).
The remaining problems with neighbors also need to be resolved. This includes the issue of border crossings and passage to Port Ploce in Croatia. When I asked the minister about the role of Turkey in the region, he stated that Turkey’s involvement in helping resolve regional problems has been crucial and praised Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for his support.