Bosnia and Herzegovina has been in a slow-motion crisis for so long that it has become part of the normal daily routine. A year has passed without any sign of a state-level government and on the surface life continues, but deep down, people are increasingly divided over the question of where BiH should be going.
Ethnic and social tensions are on the rise. Over the past few weeks there have been four violent clashes between football hooligans in different towns, the last one on 6 October in Sarajevo when supporters of the local team Zeljeznicar and Hajduk from Split (Croatia) clashed in the city centre. Scores of people and police were injured and numerous cars burned and upturned in one of the worst such incidents in many years.
Strikes are also spreading in local firms, with a massive protest planned by local NGOs on 15 October in Sarajevo and in a few other cities against the prolonged political, economic and social crisis. Though the environment is very different from the late 1980s and early 1990s, violence on football fields and unrest in city streets is eerily reminiscent of the final days of Yugoslavia.
Still, local politicians look unperturbed, civil society is inert, the international community divided and local media as divisive as ever. The EU has just published its 2011 Progress Report for BiH, which shows it halting or slipping in political, economic and all other key areas. It is the worst progress report BiH has received so far, so bad was it in fact that the EU should have called it the deterioration instead of the progress report. Incredibly, some politicians are trying to persuade their electorate that the recession is about to end and that a brighter future awaits.
For the past year my colleagues and I have toured this country far and wide, identifying problems on different administrative levels and exploring their origins. We spoke with people from all sides: ruling and opposition parties, urban and rural, dignitaries and ordinary folks alike. We published our findings about the situation in the BiH Federation [one of the two BiH entities] in the report “A Parallel Crisis” last September. We released our findings about BiH’s other entity Republika Srpska in “What Does Republika Srpska Want?” last week.
Our latest report concludes that RS leaders’ harsh political discourse has succeeded in guaranteeing that no local or international counterpart questions RS’s existence any more. Yet this has come at a high price. Today, RS’s international image is badly tarnished; RS’s immediate neighbors in the BiH Federation are fuming; foreign investment has dwindled down to almost zero, and corruption, cronyism and nepotism are rampant. RS now faces critical economic and social trials that threaten not only Serbs’ but everyone else’s national interests.
RS leaders have brought their own entity and the rest of the country to the edge of catastrophe by toying with nationalist sentiments, mocking international powers and weakening state institutions. Yet RS is not the only one at fault. It still takes at least two to tango, but in the case of BiH it takes three, four or sometimes even five. So instead of tango we end up with the local circular dance (kolo) with each dancer pulling in a different direction.
Croat national parties are increasingly flirting with the dangerous idea of a separate Croat entity focused in the south of the country, even though this would largely isolate Bosnian Croats who live outside Herzegovina. Bosniaks hate the idea, and it has no international support, but Croat national leaders seem not to care.
While Croats and Serbs are mainly focused on their national interests, most Bosniaks, as well as others who identify themselves with BiH, want to build up a civic state. Most of them have no tolerance for the views of most Croats and Serbs who prefer ethnicity-based entities. Nobody is willing to open a discussion on how to merge the civic and ethnic concept in a democratic BiH.
I believe that all this fuss about ethnic versus national allegiance, the central state versus entities, is set up by politicians to disguise their protection of their personal and economic interests. Bosnia’s political elites have been rallying in defense of what they claim to be higher national or ideological interests since 1992, but do they really care about them? And what has this high minded nationalism produced so far but misery and tragedy for all ethnic groups and residents of BiH?
Nevertheless, three and a half years of war and 15 years of subsequent political strife have affected people across BiH. They no longer share a common view of the country’s future or structure, and some do not even accept the country’s existence anymore.
While traveling throughout BiH I have seen that Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats still have much to share. They all care first and foremost about their identity but none wants violence again. If their identity is respected and accepted by others, they all shift their focus to bread-and-butter issues, such as security, stability, jobs and better living standards. They reject the political aspirations of their ethnic counterparts but welcome them as friends and neighbors.
But six years of political, economic and social tensions are taking their toll and the country seems to me to be approaching economic and social, if not political and administrative, collapse. The BiH economy is halting and the entities are taking out new loans to continue to pay salaries, pensions and social benefits. The country is facing new difficult economic, social and financial challenges in 2012 when repayment of large international loans is due to start.
As the situation seems to be going from bad to worse, it is time for BiH citizens to think whether they care more for the packaging than for the content and to tell their leaders they want not only their national but also their economic and social interests protected. It is also high time for local leaders, NGOs, intellectuals and media to provide BiH citizens with what they need and stop promising them what they cannot deliver. Otherwise all may end up with what they want least: a collapsed state, economy, and maybe even more conflict.
This blog post was also published in Balkan Insight.