Saturday

3rd Dec 2022

Analysis

Bosnia's EU application masks turmoil

  • Sarajevo. The EU, for most Bosnian citizens, is the solution only as a destination to which to run away. (Photo: Michal Huniewicz)

The streets of Sarajevo are filled with stray, hungry dogs. You can see them at every corner, and it is not rare that they attack people. Nermin Tulic, who is in a wheelchair, was attacked in the city centre. In order to protect himself, he barked back at the dogs, trying to be louder than them. After a while, the dogs left.

Packs of stray dogs have been a problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina for several years, after the local government adopted an EU recommendation that outlaws culls and instead requires municipalities to build shelters. However, local authorities lack the money or the willingness to really deal with the problem and citizens are left to fend for themselves.

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  • Bosnian PM Denis Zvizdic (l) with EU diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini. the EU-Bosnia Association Agreement came into force in 2015 (Photo: Council of the EU)

Nevertheless, the government believes the country is ready to submit a formal application to join the EU and, as the EU's current presidency announced, they will do that on 15 February.

The application will be submitted despite scepticism of Bosnia's readiness for this step, or of the EU's current ability to absorb another troubled country. Bosnia and Kosovo are the only two countries in the Balkans that have not applied for membership.

Jessie Hronesova, a doctoral candidate in politics at Oxford University, who focuses on the the Balkans, sees Bosnia's decision to submit its application as a political strategy, diverting attention from more serious problems in the country. “It's basically a cover-up strategy because everyone knows that Bosnia is not ready,” Hronesova claims.

Shades of grey

The picture of life in Bosnia today is black with occasional shades of grey. Poverty, corruption, unemployment, a lack of basic human rights are just some of the characteristics of everyday life 20 years after the war.

The country is made up of two distinct political entities, one self-governing district (Brcko), 10 cantons, three presidents, and the Office of the High Representative, the ad hoc international body that oversees implementation of the peace agreement signed in 1995 after three and a half years of bloody war. The Office has ultimate power in the country, making Bosnia a semi-protectorate.

Despite the critical situation in the country, the last progress report issued in November by the European Commission concluded that the country was “back on the reform track”.

According to the report, which was rejected by the public and most analysts as hardly in line with actual developments, some progress was detected in several policy areas. In 2015, the EU changed its approach towards Bosnia, putting the economic agenda first. Soon after, on 1 June, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement entered into force.

“Local politicians have been encouraged by this and keen to show progress to their citizens in view of upcoming municipal elections in October 2016, and with the back-drop of deep economic and political dysfunctions,” Hronesova told EUobserver.

One month after the commission report, a group of civil society organisations from Bosnia issued an alternative report rejecting most of the conclusions from Brussels and pointing towards serious problems facing the country.

The international NGO Human Rights Watch has also detected some of these problems and their report is very critical when it comes to the protection of basic human rights in the country. Their states that “despite parliament’s commitments for reforms”, there was little change in 2015.

Journalists in Bosnia, HRW concluded, are vulnerable “to intimidation and threats”, while the authorities “failed to make progress on ending discriminatory restrictions on political office candidacy for members of minority groups.” The EC hardly noticed any of this.

Poverty and corruption

For people in Bosnia even any notion of progress is seen almost as a bad joke. Scepticism comes from their experience of reality. According to Eurostat, the EU's statistics agency, Bosnia is the poorest European country measured by GDP per capita (28 percent of the European average). The general unemployment rate is over 27 percent, with youth unemployment at over 60 percent. An average monthly salary in Bosnia is around €413 while average monthly consumption is around €784.

Based on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Bosnia occupies 76th place out of 168 countries. The NGO claims that the government is not effective in the fight against corruption: law enforcement agencies are ineffective and uncoordinated; there is no effective control over the financing of political parties or property records; while the government is constantly trying to establish full control over the work of independent institutions and to entirely politicise public administration.

Meanwhile, more and more people are leaving the country, seeing no end to this kind of life. Local media report about areas that have become entirely deserted. Over the last five years, the number of kids in schools has decreased, as they parents are leaving the country with their families. In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the two political entities, the number of school children in primary schools over the last five years has decreased by 9.45 percent, and in secondary by 15.84 percent.

Public hospitals in Bosnia are in poor shape. Many, including in the capital, Sarajevo, lack basic items, including painkillers, clean sheets and sanitary equipment. In the city of Zenica, there are no cytostatic drugs, a form of cancer treatment, something that often happens in Sarajevo hospitals, too. Robberies, often armed, are an everyday occurrence. High officials have been arrested under suspicion of having connections with regional narco-mafia or of massive embezzlement (most of these cases so far have ended without convictions).

Legitimacy

One EU diplomat in Bosnia commented that giving the country positive assessments in the report was premature and that it is too early for Bosnia to submit an EU membership application. However, local officials are promising that there is “realistic possibility” that Bosnia will be given candidate status by the end of next year.

Bodo Weber, a senior associate of the Sarajevo-based think tank Democratization Policy Council concentrating on the Western Balkans, is sceptical, claiming that the EU will refrain from any clear public statements that Bosnian leaders are on the wrong path - which would imply refusing any Bosnian application. “But on substance, we will simply see the EU being forced to ignore the application when it is filed until conditions are really fulfilled,” he told EUobserver.

Hronesova is afraid that if the EU decides to accept the application, it can be dangerous for the country. “Bosnia belongs to Europe and Bosnians deserve more than anyone to be part of the EU, but the same cannot be said about their corrupt political elites. Giving them EU legitimacy by accepting the application is to my mind only reinforcing their positions, rather them forcing them to adhere to transparency and accountability.”

But the biggest problem is that no one has the solutions to all the problems Bosnia faces today. The EU, for most citizens, is the solution only as a destination to which to run away.

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