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Will Bosnia emerge from its legacy of war memories and fears?


SARAJEVO – Driving into the Bosnia capital, the evidence of the city’s past destruction is apparent immediately: sniper fire and holes from shells dropped on the city decorate nearly every building pre-dating the last 10 years.

Indeed, in many ways Sarajevo looks like war ended there only weeks ago, not a quarter-century earlier, when barely a single window survived the city’s bombings intact. That conflict cause an estimated EUR 80 billion in damage.

How to rise, psychically, above the morass of such a legacy? It doesn’t help that the scars of Bosnia’s self-devouring war remain etched across the walls and streets of its towns and capital as stark reminders of how quickly a once-stable society – albeit one held together by the iron straps of Communism – can fall apart.

In remarks to a Friends of Europe conference in Brussels in February, Schpend Ahmeti, mayor of the capital of Kosovo, whose country is no stranger to the remnants of conflict, spoke of the crucial role that reforming a neighbourhood’s surroundings has for creating the conditions for a more peaceful living space for its citizens. Making environments more inviting will reduce feelings of insecurity and isolation, both of which can lead to radicalised mentalities, he said.

While Ahmeti framed his comments in reference to the flow of foreign fighters from Kosovo to Syria, his observations could also apply to Bosnia’s persistent problems with nationalism and the insecurity it engenders. If intensified, these could easily create problems in the EU’s backyard equal to those of radical Islam.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Bosnian is still a problem in the country. For example, some 1.75 million residents were deemed to suffer from the symptoms, according to a 2010 study by Dr. Nemana Mehic-Basara of Sarajevo’s Public Institute for Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.

The city was under siege for three years in the late 1990s, causing unspeakable horrors for its denizens. From “rape camps” to killing games carried out by militia from Republika Srpska, no one was left untouched by this conflict.

Even today in rural Bosnia, when driving from Srebrenica to Sarajevo, burnt out buildings and homes from the war are a constant reminder of the region’s deadly past, and some 20,000 mines are still strewn across the countryside.

Rising above the memory of war is difficult for any society, but for the Balkan region’s cheek-to-jowl ethnic and religious groups, it is proving nearly impossible. As several ordinary citizens of Sarajevo told SECURITY EUROPE in a recent visit to the capital, “a second war is not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when.’”

There signs of division are everywhere, with no more ominous indicator of alienation among its three ethnic communities than Bosnia’s schools. These are strictly segregated among its Serbian Orthodox, Croat Catholic and Bosniac Muslim communities. The country’s villages are mostly mono-ethnic as well. As the Bosnians sense it: why would you want to live close to a group of people who shot at you for three years?

There is no lack of effort by the international community to help the country smooth over its grievances and aim for a better future, of course. During 2014-2104, for example, the EU provided Bosnia with nearly EUR 170 million in funding to support democracy governance and rule of law initiatives, , educational and training programmes, efforts to boost its economy’s competitiveness and innovation and, finally, investment in infrastructure such as transport. Since 1995, the EU’s support has been a staggering EUR 695 million.

Despite the buckets of cash and expertise, one EU official in the Bosnia capital was sceptical about the reform of Bosnia’s public administration. Moreover, “far more work” in that sector is needed if Bosnia is ever qualify for EU membership, said the official.

A big problem is corruption. Despite all the international money that has flowed into the country, Bosnia’s real unemployment rate remains at a staggering 60 percent, according locals. Without jobs and the personal sense of security that comes with employment, inter-community trust and cooperation will suffer as well, making the EU’s aspiration for Bosnia of “exporting stability rather than importing instability” an ever-elusive goal.

     THE UPSHOT: In defence of the EU’s largesse lavished on Bosnia, its funding can’t go to individuals to directly erase the unemployment problem; it has to channel it to governments and their interlocutor organisations. Bosnia’s overly complex and politicized bureaucracy makes effective use of that money difficult. At the same time, expectations that Bosnia’s three communities will “move on” and reintegrate on their own in the foreseeable future are naïve.
     The region’s calm is brittle, which would argue for bringing it rapidly into the EU to stabilise its social and political structures. Current conditions in Europe do not favour that, however. Leaving aside the deep-seated distrust between its ethnic groups and Bosnia’s disqualifying problems with corruption, the EU28 are in no mood for expansion.
     There is a risk the Balkan snake will curl around to bite Europe again.


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