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Bosnia: A European tinderbox just waiting for a spark

October 6, 2015, 12:30 PM UTC
Bosnia graffiti
Bosnia graffiti
Photo by Amy Kaslow

Foreign dignitaries in dark sedans lined a Sarajevo street in July, waiting for their Bosnian hosts to lead the way to Srebrenica, the site of a 20-year-old massacre known as the most brutal of Balkan war atrocities.

The delegations soon formed a caravan speeding along the country’s highway and edging hairpin turns cut from thickly forested mountains. A steep drop near the Serbian border, the largely Muslim town of Srebrenica is still in aftershock.

For two decades, Srebrenica has memorialized the massacre, and this year a staggering 50,000 people came, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who resisted military engagement during post-Yugoslavia’s inter-ethnic battles (newly declassified White House minutes convey the vexing issues for the President and his advisors), and ultimately became the driver of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the conflict.

Bosnians have grown resentful of the U.S.-brokered agreement that pushed combatants into an uneasy peace, but offered little more than the template for separateness: Serb governance in the north and northeast (called Republika Srpska) with a Bosnian and Croat federation covering the rest of the landscape. And in the years since, festering animosity has had a crippling effect.

In July 1995, Serb forces systematically purged Srebrenica of all Bosniaks, the ethnic term for Bosnian Muslims. Serbian army personnel, uniformed police and Srebrenica’s own Serb residents who turned on lifelong neighbors, slaughtered over 8,000 men. The assailants expelled tens of thousands more in what they termed an “ethnic cleansing” operation, forcing women, children, and elderly people onto busses for relocation in Bosniak-controlled areas. Some 10,000 men fled to the thick of the surrounding forest; women and children hid there, too, where they foraged for roots, leaves, and berries to eat. The killing fields and mass graves are now the makings of a war crimes tribunal at The Hague, where the mocking and unremorseful Serb General Ratko Mladic, known as the “Butcher of the Balkans,” stands trial.

While Bosnian Serbs spray paint walls with giant messages of support for Mladic and reject genocide claims, recovery on the ground remains elusive. During the past two decades, remnants of Muslim families have returned to Srebrenica, slowly repairing their lives. Along the main road, a stone stairway crumbles into tall weeds; the house it once led to is reduced to blackened ruble. From a distance, piles of red brick and corrugated roofing sheets appear to be a promising new beginning, but a closer look reveals long-weathered materials crusted with rubbish and the stains of time. For many, construction beyond the first floor is unaffordable, and here, as throughout the country, there seem to be as many unfinished new houses as there are those destroyed.

All of Bosnia still bears signs of the conflict that incinerated populated areas, along with the infrastructure and housing stock supporting them. Buildings have pockmarks from shelling, streets are marred by mortar fire, and billboards rise from large swaths of fenced-off land, warning of mines and unexploded ordinance.

The nation’s economy is at a standstill, and dangerously so. Industrial production is down, exports have slumped, consumer spending is anemic, and unemployment among youth is much higher than the official 60% jobless rate for 16 to 30 year-olds. Most employed Bosnians have secured government jobs through party patronage and ethnic ties. The International Monetary Fund standby arrangement – an infusion of funds to avoid the country’s collapse – enables the government to meet payroll and to run public works, but critics say the help only delays coming up with a way forward.

On one thing, at least, Bosnia’s fractured groups are in rare agreement: their state is a failure, emasculated by Serb, Muslim, and Croat entity presidents who operate on a mutually suspicious basis. The Dayton accord effectively sanctioned leaders to push their own nationalist and religious agendas to the exclusion of one another. Savvy players profit by wielding ethno-centric power in public works, schools, arts, and especially memory. The National Art Gallery, along with a half dozen other major state institutions, have long been shuttered, as budgets shrink and Bosnian citizens reject anything that might suggest that they are part of a single nation. In mid-September, the government re-opened the National Museum after years of neglect.

At a lunch table overlooking red tile roofs and domed mosques of Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo, Srebrenica survivor Muhamed Durakovic claims his pessimism about the nation’s economic future is well-placed and widely held. He echoes others’ indictment of Bosniak, Serb, and Croat leaders for financing and favoring loyalists regardless of an investment’s integrity, all at the expense of “actual development.” Durakovic is wistful about his home in Srebrenica, where “hope for the future is really lost…there are very few sustainable projects.” In a bitter twist, the only consistent growth industry in Bosnia relates to the search for those lost to the war. Durakovic uses his forensics expertise with conflict-torn Libya as the Tripoli director of the Balkan-based International Commission on Missing Persons. Bosnia’s own search for skeletal parts and other clues is made more difficult by its ethnic rivalries. “There is more hatred in 2015 Bosnia than there was in 1995” as politicians prey on ethnic divides to preserve their own power, Durakovic asserts. “I have a message for the IMF: ‘Stop giving us money. Let us collapse.’ That’s the only way to clean house and get rid of all of these people. Let us starve for the next six months, and people will rise up and throw the leaders out.”

The structural impediments are obvious to Central Bank Governor Kemal Kozaric: without a clear legal framework that eases investors’ concerns about transparency, repatriation of profits, and political stability, he laments, Bosnia will draw only lackluster private foreign and domestic investment in sectors “that have a chance,” which include food processing, energy, and agriculture.

Survivors paying respects in SrebrenicaPhoto by Amy Kaslow
Photo by Amy Kaslow

Transparency International and other watchdogs offer sobering assessments of Bosnia’s economic prospects. Commercial lenders, governments, and the “big four” accounting firms remain wary as Bosnian corruption infiltrates every aspect of its society. It is the first thing shopkeepers, diplomats, and aid officials raise when asked about what’s obstructing growth. Locals like taxi driver Tarik Maglajlic tick off daily challenges: school administrators and teachers expect expensive gifts from parents in exchange for a seat in the classroom; doctors require bribes from patients before they agree to provide medical treatment; public permits are simply out of reach for those who lack the means to grease the palms of regulators. Meanwhile, Maglajlic says, public figures on modest government salaries somehow have deep pockets for their own private investments.

“Corruption is a national sport in this country,” quips Jakob Finci, the former head of Bosnia’s Civil Servant Administration. A Bosnian Jew and Holocaust survivor, Finci started Benevolencija in 1993, a wartime charity that evacuated thousands of Bosniak, Serb, and Croat families to safety. He later served as Bosnia’s National Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair and Bosnia’s ambassador to Switzerland. These days, government jobs are the best way to earn fast money, he says, adding with a wry smile: “Al Capone would be very happy here.”

Countries dispatching commercial attaches to Central Europe quickly grasp why the World Bank Doing Business Report ranks Bosnia among the most difficult places to do business worldwide. Like the West Bank, Rwanda, and other regions torn by protracted conflict, Bosnia hosts one of the largest populations of international aid workers, per capita. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the European Union have earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars for Bosnia over the next few years; their two top priorities are beating back corruption and establishing the rule of law. But help easily falls into the wrong hands. A veteran UN official attending the Srebrenica commemoration described Bosnia as “impossible” to work in, given the graft, red tape, and extortion at every turn.

USAID’s efforts in cultivating private sector growth might be the most successful. Last year, the agency reported, 166 Bosnian firms improved their management practices with Washington’s help and created a total of 1,503 new jobs. Among them is BOS Agro Food in Srebrenica, a berry processing and production plant where the majority of the company’s 80 employees are survivors of the massacre.

Most small firms in Bosnia are under water. Just off of Sarajevo’s main shopping promenade, 52-year-old Bosnian Edo Smajic sells bespoke shoes. The Italian-trained designer had three months of back orders soon after he opened 31 years ago, and he became the cobbler to well-dressed women throughout central and eastern Europe. When the war started in 1992, he made shoes for refugees and army boots for Bosnian soldiers patrolling Sarajevo under siege. Once the war ended in 1995, he secured a loan to purchase more materials and hire more workers, but business has been bad. These days, there are few walk-ins and even fewer orders. As a sole proprietor, Smajic assumes enormous risk, but he is seasoned. For most looking to start a new enterprise today, problems far outweigh prospects. “That’s why there is virtually no private business sector in Bosnia,” Finci says.

So how can Bosnia deliver jobs? The concern is pressing, with frustrations mounting for workforce-bound high school and college graduates (and an escalating juvenile delinquency rate). The problem is especially acute for the 350,000 soldiers who remain unemployed. Their schooling was interrupted by the war years and, today, these adults are restless.

“It has to be through education,” asserts General Jovan Divjak, a Bosnian Serb who is revered for his defense of Sarajevo from the 1992-1995 Serbian siege and an outspoken critic of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian atrocities, alike. Having abandoned his military campaign in favor of an educational one to reach young families, the 78-year-old retired brigadier general moves around the city, encountering one well wisher after the next, posing for pictures and slapping high fives. “You saved us,” one woman gushes, as she pushes her young boys toward the war hero. “This man is Bosnia,” she tells her sons.

Divjak insists the country’s future hinges on common education. Veterans don’t have an appetite for more war, he says, but Bosnian youth want their own taste. “Ninety percent of the people I know who served in the war” oppose more conflict, he claims “but juveniles today say ‘why don’t we go to war and settle our problems?’” He shakes his head, adding, “There is more hatred among those born after the war than among those who fought.” For teens and twenty-somethings “there is no fear of military clash. Verbal clashes are daily. They’re blaming each other for their problems, and that’s because of what their parents teach them.”

The status quo—ethnic groups living and learning separately, holding on to their own realities, with one’s mournful memory another’s jubilance—portends a violent future, the general warns. Divjak’s foundation to educate and prepare Bosnia’s 20,000 war orphans for productive work has a wish list of textbooks, science lab equipment, and learning technologies. The U.S. can help fulfill that, he says, so Bosnians can gain skills “to rebuild our infrastructure, and our energy and tourism sectors.”

Road reconstruction in SarajevoPhoto by Amy Kaslow
Photo by Amy Kaslow

But the general worries that his message will be lost amid the emotions of mourners and the platitudes of delegations attending the 20th anniversary commemoration. In the same old battery factory near Srebrenica where Serb soldiers warehoused Muslim men and boys before executing and scattering their remains across the mountainous terrain, a long list of notables addressed the teeming crowd. Former President Bill Clinton stood out in his push for peaceful coexistence. “I am begging you not to let this monument to boys and men become only a memory of a tragedy,” he said. But for many Bosnians, the 20th commemoration is as much a memory of the U.S. decision not to intervene. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif competed for Bosnian ears, with “the Islamic Republic of Iran’s commitment” to Muslim martyrs and its “central role in reconstructing the country.” Compelling the crowd to remember that “the UN and international community failed to protect the victims will and should haunt us forever,” he implored Bosnian Muslims to find common ground with Iran because “division will make us weaker.”

Bosnia’s political and economic instability makes this central European country as vulnerable to external interference as it is to internal combustion. While U.S. and European interests press Bosnia to behave like a democracy and develop a transparent economy, other players are pushing for the nation to resist such efforts. Russia is against Bosnia’s two-track pursuit of EU and NATO memberships, and it recently voted against the UN condemnation of Serb genocide in Srebrenica. This, while Moscow aggressively pursues oil and gas contracts with Republika Srpska, a tactic that could be part of a strategy to control Balkan energy supplies.

Diplomats and Bosnia-watchers worry that the country’s most troubling vulnerability may be ISIS. Replete with Bosnian spokesmen, ISIS released a 20-minute recruitment video earlier in the summer, calling on Bosnia’s Muslims to battle enemies at home and to join the ranks of jihadists in Syria. Over 350 Bosnian Muslims have joined the cause in the Middle East. Western diplomats, UN officials, and aid workers expect ISIS to gain a stronger foothold in the country by offering stipends, jobs, and a sense of purpose to Muslims with otherwise poor prospects.

Pessimists, realists, and even optimists are concerned that Bosnia, at best, is a country divided where former combatants live parallel lives. Without common goals, and common ground, its people and future, smack in the middle of central Europe, are standing on the breeding ground for more war.

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