It’s not every day that starts with a text from a friend saying: ‘the minister wants to know if we can meet him’. Or words to that effect… I had to read the message a couple of times to believe it was indeed an invitation! So how, in the name of whoever-you-fancy, did three plebs end up in Government Buildings on Tuesday 28 January? Well, it transpired that the Irish Minister for European Affairs, Paschal Donohoe, had scheduled an official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Thursday of that week. Before his departure, he was seeking some perspectives on the current situation there – hence his contact with us.
This in itself was a small victory for activism. Over the last year, my husband and I have been in frequent correspondence with Minister Donohoe and other Irish politicians on themes relating to Bosnia. While our friend, who sent the text, has done so much lobbying, awareness raising and protesting in the rain for Bosnia since 1992 she deserves to have a street called after her in Sarajevo. And that’s not even to mention the hands-on support and understanding ear she’s offered Bosnians in Ireland. Or the fact that she’s been equally active on issues pertaining to Kosovo. Or that she now devotes almost every waking hour to the Syrian crisis…
Anyhow, the three of us met on a mizzly Merrion Street, a bit nervous but not over-awed by the occasion. Not until we got inside the palatial hub of Ireland’s administration. Being unused to the corridors of power, I must confess there were murmurs such as: ‘wow, the stained glass window!’ ‘ooh… nice soft carpets!’ and, directed at our Bosnian aficionado of national artwork, ‘nemoj dirati slike!’ However, as we waited for the minister, we were struck by stark reminders of Bosnia’s multitude of problems. Glancing at our phones, our Twitter feeds filled with reports from earlier that morning about the joint appearance of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The latter’s refusal to co-operate with what he called a ‘satanic court’ highlighted the resistance of those indicted for war crimes to any concept of atonement. It showed how far the victims of atrocities are from justice – how far Bosnia and the wider Balkan region has yet to travel on the road towards genuine reconciliation. Reading these headlines was all the more chilling on the day after the annual commemoration of the Holocaust.
The legacy of war still throttles Bosnia. In our discussion with Minister Donohoe, we illustrated aspects of its impact. Ranging from the country’s constitution (Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995), to the political structures this has created, to the attempts of certain leaders to destabilise the state by consolidating power bases within its separate entities – Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We talked about how the consequent lack of normal functioning affects ordinary life. About a society in which politicians won’t agree on basic measures to protect human rights, never mind tackle the economic difficulties which have led to widespread unemployment and poverty. Instead, they seem more interested in institutionalising division, for example, by segregation in the education system. Discrimination and skewed versions of history aren’t confined to schools, they percolate through public affairs. Genocide denial by prominent officials in Republika Srpska continues to cause serious offence. The fate of over 100,000 people who remain internally displaced due to ‘ethnic cleansing’ is unresolved. Past trauma lingers in a country with almost 8000 missing persons and thousands more still suffering from the physical and psychological wounds of war. Meanwhile, although flashy new buildings can be seen in Sarajevo and other cities, Bosnia’s present condition is best described as one of stasis.
Inertia seems the default mode of its governing elite. Stagnation serves to benefit a top tier of politicians who are well remunerated for constant bickering. But the role of the international community, which has supervised an uneasy peace for over eighteen years, must also be queried. Can these privileged players offer the Bosnian people any hope for the future? Or will they allow Bosnia and Herzegovina to backslide as surrounding countries progress? During the last decade, several Balkan nations have already become part of the European Union. Admittedly, EU membership won’t cure the region’s ills. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of club that when one’s neighbours start to join, it’s prudent to try to keep up with the Joneses. Following the accession of Slovenia in 2004 and Croatia in 2013, European integration has emerged as a key policy goal across the states that once formed Yugoslavia. However, some are making a lot more headway than others. While Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo edge forward, Macedonia and, above all, Bosnia lag behind. Our meeting with Minister Donohoe focused, therefore, on the question: how can Ireland support Bosnia’s EU aspirations?
The EU has many reasons, legitimate but possibly also convenient, to regard Bosnia and Herzegovina’s prospects as bleak. The country is yet to fulfil the criteria necessary for its Stabilisation and Association Agreement (signed in 2008 as an initial step towards membership) to come into force. The chief condition is the implementation of a judgement handed down in 2009 by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This concerns the case of Sejdić and Finci – representatives of Bosnia’s Roma and Jewish communities respectively – in which the ECHR vindicated the right of minorities to full participation in Bosnian politics. It requires the removal of restrictions which ensure that positions in Bosnia’s three-person presidency and one of its two chambers of parliament (the ‘House of Peoples’) are limited to those who belong to the state’s ‘constituent peoples’ – namely and exclusively Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Four years have since passed, but Bosnia hasn’t adopted the ECHR’s ruling despite countless rounds of EU-brokered negotiations. Stalemate on this issue has caused the country’s EU accession process to stall indefinitely. This means that, while a clique of high-ranking politicians and international stakeholders engage in what appears to be an interminable circus, citizens face further isolation. And this case is only one of numerous sources of disagreement among political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
More than other EU members, Ireland can empathise with the frustration felt by the majority of the Bosnian population. The failure of the Haass talks to reach consensus on sensitive topics in Northern Ireland is analogous in ways to the ‘Sejdić-Finci’ saga. Intransigence tends to win out over any will to compromise in post-conflict ‘democracies’. As we in Ireland know, ethnically oriented voting patterns often prevail in divided societies where fear is a crucial factor in electoral choices. And if votes are cast essentially on the basis of ethnicity, there’s little onus on politicians to consider people’s needs. Campaigns can succeed simply by ramping up tension. Plus the social clout of political figures in Bosnia facilitates corruption and heightens the risk of voter manipulation. Bosnia and Herzegovina thus presents a more complex scenario than most of the other EU candidate states. It demands thinking outside the clichéd box.
Or so we tried to tell Minister Donohoe. I’m not sure how well we explained things… none of us are politicians! We just spoke from experience, from the heart, as articulately as we could. However, we were encouraged by the minister’s interest in Bosnia and how he viewed his visit as not merely a bureaucratic obligation. This was also apparent two days later, both in the lecture he gave at the School of Economics and Business of the University of Sarajevo and in media coverage of his high-level political engagements. His repeated expression of Ireland’s support for Bosnia was certainly to be welcomed. Although the Irish government must prove this fresh commitment by advocating innovative approaches and working, along with its EU partners and Bosnia, to find sustainable solutions. Expecting Bosnian leaders to be cajoled into bridging differences by a smidgen of Irish charm is a tad optimistic. Granted, outstanding obstacles – like the Sejdić-Finci impasse – provide the EU with a plethora of excuses for inaction. But the international community can no longer sit on the side-lines and let Bosnia languish. And Ireland should be more than the country’s occasional cheerleader. Given how much the Irish people, whatever their gripes, have gained from EU membership – a point Minister Donohoe stressed in Sarajevo – Ireland has a responsibility to use its European voice on behalf of another peripheral state with a similarly fraught history.
It’s worth remembering too that Ireland can attribute its EU status to the laxer entry requirements of times past. In 1973, Ireland and Britain were accepted as members of the EEC when both nations were embroiled in bitter conflict – their applications were approved during the bloodiest period of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. We could also ask whether Ireland’s penchant for corruption would’ve deemed it ineligible for EU integration if it’d been assessed in line with modern standards. And did new ‘European’ credentials suddenly eradicate the Irish culture of ‘brown envelopes’? Furthermore, would the ECHR rate Ireland’s record as impeccable, when it has taken the court’s intervention to force this country to address many fundamental issues? These range from the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993 (five years after an ECHR decision in favour of gay rights activist, Senator David Norris) to last week’s ruling that the Irish state was liable in a case of child abuse which occurred in a primary school in the 1970s. It appears that existing EU members are better at preaching than practicing the ‘values’ they insist budding candidates should share.
Yet the EU is what qualifies politically as ‘Europe’. Not the ragged-edged continent with an eastern boundary running from the Urals to the Bosphorus. Sometimes – when it suits –geography welds the arbitrary crack between countries of the ‘Union’ and their cousins on the wild side of the European family. In a centenary year, for instance, when former imperial powers want to rhapsodise or analyse their involvement in a war which engulfed the world. A war triggered by an assassination in Sarajevo. Undoubtedly, many dignitaries will descend upon the city in the months ahead. It may host premiers, presidents… perhaps even a pope. The Vienna Philharmonic has confirmed a concert in June and – here I’m rumour-mongering – might U2 make a comeback? Surely Bono knows that Sarajevo is much more fun than Davos!
With or without the Irish band, the anniversary of the beginning of World War I is already being billed as an unmissable event. It seems the mighty prefer to mourn the dead of 100 years ago than to stop the slaughter in Syria today or respond to the fallout of war in still-scarred countries like Bosnia. But returning to Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke whose demise had such tragic repercussions across Europe… Maybe one way of marking the significance of Sarajevo in 1914 would be to ask how the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina can be accorded their rightful place within an inclusive European Union. We hope that Ireland, which through the last century has felt the birth pangs then the growing pains of statehood and gone on to establish a unique EU niche, can lend them real support.
This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 14 February 2014, available online at: