The EU needs to up its game in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or risks losing out to others


Picture of Leila Bičakčić
Leila Bičakčić

Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN)

Leila Bičakčić is the Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN)

This year’s new EU Strategy for Western Balkans introduced a new approach to Balkan countries aspiring to become members of the European Union, including an accession process, and announced possible “winners” of the reform processes.

The differences among the Western Balkan countries result in varying speed when it comes to fulfilling the requirements set in the aquis. It goes without saying that this dynamic is heavily dependent on the historical position of the countries in question, their international allies and their meddling with the Balkan’s past, present and, most likely, future.

More than 20 years since the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still struggling with post-war reforms and transition process. Over the years, exposure to various international influences turned the country into a sort of a ‘test-lab democracy’. But with every proposed initiative seemed to lack the political will to be push through.

Indeed, these interventions often applied quick fixes to the deeply rooted problems of a country still healing from war wounds. A good example of this was the Reform Agenda, tackling socio-economic issues as a pre-condition to democratic development of a society. The bold approach had almost no results, and was quietly replaced with the new strategy without ever openly discussing the reasons behind its failure.


Bosnia and Herzegovina is still struggling with post-war reforms and transition process

The flaw in the Reform Agenda was that it tried to do everything, covering areas from health to education, from work to employment, and so on. With no detailed action plan, a tight time frame and no indicators to measure success, it was doomed to fail. While a number of the proposed actions were well designed, their implementation lacked a well-based feasibility plan and mechanisms of pressure to ensure ‘political will’.

In the years just after the war, initial reforms were implemented smoothly due to strong international pressure, and disobedient individuals were immediately sanctioned. It was a time of strength for the Office of the High Representative, which used a ‘stick and carrot’ approach. Over the years, as the country moved toward EU membership, this approach has changed: while the carrot, i.e. EU accession, has been hanging in the air, there has been no stick, i.e. pressure points. With political parties being increasingly confident that they would not be sanctioned, the constitutional setup of the country, as complicated as it is, was used as an excuse to further drive the county into dissolution, rather than as an incentive to move forward.

In such an environment, the position of the EU and other international ‒ mostly Western ‒ players has become obsolete. Proposed democratic reforms came with a set of conditions, dictating strong monitoring mechanism over every euro invested. Other money ‒ seemingly appearing out of nowhere ‒ was condition-free and caused issues that most national parties desired: national rhetoric building national spirit, and proposing protection for a nation in constant battle with other nations.

Currently, all three major political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina are striving to associate “their” ethnic group with dominant geo-political forces to provide a sense of security and support for “their people”. This violent rhetoric is aimed at securing endless political positions through increasing “fear factor” among citizens, where affiliated countries are seen as protectors.

Following from this scenario, Serbs have sought and received strong support, both financial and political, from Serbia and Russia. Meanwhile, Zagreb is openly supporting separatism, masked in recognising the unequal treatment of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This has left Bosnian Muslims with only Turkey to turn to, and too often they with disdain, which is not contributing to stability in the region.

Serbs have sought and received strong support, both financial and political, from Serbia and Russia

While all these trends could be potentially dangerous and should not be neglected, the fruitful soil for their growth was in part provided through uncoordinated and often conflicting international assistance and influence spread throughout these territories since the war. Constant tensions in the country, significantly increased by an artificial constitutional setup and the global rise of extreme right-wing tendencies, have influenced growing dissatisfaction. The Western Balkans region is in reality torn between east and west, with decision-making often emotionally hindered by the on-going geo-political battle. In such an environment, the EU needs to better strategize its position and provide concrete reasoning for the proposed reforms.

What this could mean in practice is establishing a strategy that is followed by a concrete, implementable action plan as well as by indicators of success and a monitoring plan that would measure implementation.

Such a strategy would need to be accompanied by a strong communication plan that ensures proper communication of measures, implementation stages and, most importantly, risk factors and mitigators. Independent monitoring and adequate mechanisms for independent oversight, involving different stakeholders (experts, civil society, academia), together with financial conditions associated with reform measures should also be included.

Perhaps most importantly, however, any approach to Western Balkan countries needs to be tailored, and should pay attention to the characteristics of individual countries. While these countries mostly share the same past, present and, most likely, future, their path to development is still dependent on the individual challenges and opportunities they each face.

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