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Broken Bosnia needs our help

by
08 August 2014

The country is calling for urgent assistance from outside, reports Donald Reeves

AP

After the fire: burnt government buildings in Sarajevo in February

After the fire: burnt government buildings in Sarajevo in February

"THREE THOUSAND people gathered outside local-government buildings. There was silence. But I had to speak. I took the microphone. I called on the government to resign." So spoke Aida Sejdic, a chemistry teacher in Bihac - a town of some 60,000 people in north-west Bosnia.

She is feisty and determined. She was just one of the organisers of the Citizens' Assemblies that sprang up in every large town in Bosnia in February. Ms Sejdic described the protests as a "Bosnia Spring".

A strike in Tuzla by factory workers who were asking to be paid sparked off the protests and the formation of the Citizens' Assemblies. They demanded an end to corruption and the inefficiency of overpaid politicians, as well as to the process of privatising state-owned companies. People had had enough of not being paid. Some were hungry. One in four people in Bosnia has no job. Jobs can be got only with substantial bribes.

In Sarajevo, the presidential palace was torched, and government buildings were attacked throughout Bosnia. The protesters were called hooligans. Politicians called for patience.

Everyone was taken by surprise. Something new was happening. International institutions did not know how to respond to the poor, unemployed workers, and the students, who were a manifestation of a new and chaotic phenomenon.
 

CITIZENS' Assemblies made decisions in a democratic manner. They were seen to be the harbingers of a new politics. The detractors said that they had no legitimacy because they were self-selected, not elected, and that they were not representative.

Five months later, the Assemblies have faded. Their activities are no longer reported. The reasons are simple. There was no method of making decisions except by acclamation; moreover, there was no agreement about how to engage the public and governments.

Yet the people are still there. Ms Sejdic and her colleagues in Bihac and throughout Bosnia have not left. Neither the activists nor the demands have disappeared.

Then, in May, north-east Bosnia experienced the worst floods in its history. The statistics prepared by the European Community Humanitarian Office give a sense of the scale of the destruction: 2000 homes destroyed; 75,000 homes damaged; 200 schools and hospitals damaged or ruined; 10,000 people evacuated; and 15,000 are now without work.

It has been estimated that the cost of restoring Bosnia is about €2 billion, and it could take many years. Time, however, is short. Unless by the winter some tangible signs of reconstruction are apparent, the protests in February will turn out to have been a prelude to unrest on a greater scale.
 

BOSNIA is battered and broken. Europe has to wake up, particularly the European Left. Messages of solidarity are not enough. The Left should stand shoulder to shoulder with those now dormant Assemblies. This means NGOs' going to Bosnia and sitting down with the activists, listening to their experiences, and sharing their own. As Ms Sejdic said, "We need a plan; we need help to organise."

Those who have the interests of Bosnia in their bloodstream need to see how useful they could be - not as well-meaning meddling foreigners, but as people who have had experience, and would be ready to receive an invitation to help wherever possible. (So, for example, the Soul of Europe, which has been working in the Balkans for 13 years, will assist in setting up a national conference on the future of Bosnia, which is being arranged by local NGOs and activists.)
 

THE EU has to be a significant player in the rebuilding of Bosnia. It has been the biggest donor since the end of the conflict in 1995. But the European Commission, the executive of the EU, is unable to respond. Its bureaucracy is sclerotic, inflexible, unaccountable, and aloof. Officials in its fortress-like offices in Sarajevo told me: "All decisions are made in Brussels," and "We are monitoring the situation" (referring to the Citizens' Assemblies).

The story of the EU in the Balkans is of one missed opportunity after another. Thus, when Štefan Füle, Commissioner for the Enlargement of the EU, flew into Sarajevo after the initial protests, he met politicians, made a bland statement about how he had heard what was being said, and then left. What he should have done was to meet the activists of the Citizens' Assemblies in Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica, Tuzla, Banja Luka, and Bihac.

The future of Bosnia lies in the EU. There is no other future. But this means that the Commission has to be more self-critical, flexible, energetic, and accountable.

It also needs to become more literate about religion, not as just a matter of "belief and practice", but of identity. Religious leaders need to be encouraged to start working together - that is, the six muftis, five Roman Catholic bishops, and five Bosnian Serb Orthodox bishops, all with their communities.
 

THE future of Bosnia is uncertain. Doing nothing or very little could witness its dissolution. The Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity, will become a more or less permanent black hole in Europe. Croatia seeks closer links with Bosnian Croats - leaving the Bosniaks trying to hold the country together. A public and political vacuum would readily provide an opportunity for the emergence of a radical Islam.

Since the end of the fightingin 1995, the West and the United States have been losing interest in Bosnia. Now is the chance to reverse this trend. It is in our interests to do so.

The Revd Donald Reeves is the Director of the Soul of Europe (www.soulofeurope.org).

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