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Bringing Bosnia into Europe

Can Bosnians and the EU ever learn to accept one another?

January 4, 2006

Can Bosnians and the EU ever learn to accept one another?

I arrived tired and rumpled at Sarajevo’s rusty bus station in late October 2005, after a 24-hour ride from Brussels. I wanted to find out more about this country struggling so hard to chart a better future by joining the European Union ten years after the Dayton Peace Accords, the agreement that ended four years of brutal fighting between Serbs, Muslims and Croats.

Nothing prepared me for the state of the city, which is still recovering after a three-year siege by Serb forces that lasted from April 1992 to October 1995 — and almost decimated Sarajevo.

The scars are everywhere. Birds nest in holes left by shells that rained down on the city. Bullet holes and bomb craters are still so common I soon stopped noticing them.

The old Turkish Quarter, however, is charming with its narrow cobblestone passages, serene mosques and bustling market stalls. Downtown cafes are full, highrises are going up, buildings and homes being repaired. Strangely, this combination of factors makes Sarajevo an enchanting place — chaotic, vulnerable, determined to have peace and prosperity.

The next day, Bayram began — the three-day celebration that follows Ramadan. My hostess Saida and I visited her family, consuming pots of sweet Turkish coffee and plates of sticky baklava.

The cafes filled with young Bosnians who, Muslim or not, were taking advantage of the holiday for some socializing. Ethnic tensions linger, but everyone seemed content to share religious festivities when it involved a day off.

Before the war, Sarajevo, and to a lesser extent Bosnia, was famous for its harmonious interethnic mix. That has changed.

The country is split almost in half today by a Serb mini-state, the Republika Srpska, which runs along the Serbian border, and a Muslim-Croat federation. The Muslims, or Bosniaks, make up nearly 50% of Bosnia’s 3.5 to 4 million citizens, and they are the majority of Sarajevo’s 350,000 inhabitants. Ethnic Serbs account for another 37% and Croats for 14%.

One of the war’s legacies is a new national consciousness among Bosniaks, who were the target of deliberate ethnic violence. I could see why as I stood amidst the hundreds of white Muslim tombstones. They are all the same: killed 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995. Yet, Bosniaks seemed more baffled by the war than angry.

Saida kept asking, “Why?” That was the question spray painted on the side of a sooty downtown building: “Why?”

Instead, they are angry at their government — a divided, three-prong presidency shared between a Serb, a Croat and a Muslim. Then there are four layers of politicians between the federal and local levels. People say these politicians have three priorities: their power, their wallets and their separate ethnic constituencies.

To add insult to this injury, a quarter of Bosnians live below the poverty line, unemployment is at 40% (half that if the “gray market” is counted), corruption is prevalent.

Cafe Tito, a little bar on the outskirts of central Sarajevo, is one of the hottest spots among Sarajevo’s 20-somethings.

Most of them were born after the former Yugoslavian leader died in 1980. They flock to the cafe because it stands out from Sarajevo’s other bars and cafes. Helmets from World War II double as lampshades and Tito memorabilia cover the walls.

Nostalgia also has a lot to do with its appeal. They credit Tito with turning Yugoslavia into a prosperous, multi-ethnic and peaceful country before the war that tore it apart at the seams.

“Tito was a magnificent man,” Maja Demiroviæ, a 19-year-old pharmacy student, told me. And the young Muslim added, “life was much easier when he was alive.”

One of the sorest subjects for Bosnians is the travel restrictions set by other countries. The Bosniaks are hit hardest, because — unlike ethnic Serbs and Croats — they don’t share citizenship with a home country. It makes them feel like the neighborhood pariahs.

Lines of Bosnians seeking visas stretch around Sarajevo’s various embassies every day. “How can Bosnians know about the EU if they can’t travel to its member states?” wondered Emir Hadzikadunic, spokesman for the Directorate of European Integration, which is responsible for channeling EU funds into projects.

Saudin Herenda, a 38-year-old Bosniak, sees his wife, Azra, and his two children every few months. The family wanted to immigrate to nearby Austria, where there are better opportunities.

Azra and the children got visas because her parents have lived in Vienna since the war. But the Austrians refused her husband’s application. Even a tourist visa is out of the question because, he said, they fear he will stay and work illegally in the country.

The gray-haired veteran of the 1992 war said he wants to stay in Sarajevo if he can find a better paying job with more security than driving for Sarajevo Taxi. Most of a decent day’s fares — about $70 — are eaten up by fuel, insurance and fees.

Like other Bosnians, Herenda lives in an isolated country where apathy and resentment are rising. Most Bosnians are now looking to membership in the European Union as a one-way ticket in a better direction, but the slow pace is frustrating.

The mild autumn had given way to winter when I finally understood the full meaning of EU membership for Bosnians. As big wet snowflakes were falling in the village of Visegrad, some 60 miles east of Sarajevo, Samir Ahmetspahic recalled how the 1992 war showered sorrow over his family’s land for a second time in 50 years.

When his father, Meho Ahmetspahic, was a young man during World War II, Bosnian Serb militia killed his parents and all but one of his brothers.

He lived long enough to see it happen again, when a new generation shot his wife and 17 others, including a toddler, as he looked on from his hiding place in the brush.

After the Serb fighters left and his family’s home burned, he dragged his wife to a small cemetery on the hill above. There was nothing Meho could do, so he left — and did not return for years. All told, the 80-year old Muslim has lost two generations of his family to the two wars.

“Nothing will really change until the cycle of violence ends,” Samir said. To Bosnians, the EU may represent their best chances at rerouting their future and ending the violence that swept over the country twice in one man’s lifetime.

The EU negotiation process began in earnest on November 25, 2005, symbolically the country’s Independence Day. Both events were greeted with cautious optimism. Negotiators from Brussels ideally want to complete the initial entry negotiations by the October 2006 elections.

Meanwhile, the EU has been sending signals to the government that Bosnia will be shut out of the EU club as a divided country. “It won’t make it like that,” says Frane Maroevic, spokesman for Bosnia’s European Commission delegation.

Officials have heeded the warnings, but the solutions are not as simple as they appear to the international community. It’s going to be difficult applying political solutions to a problem of existential magnitude.

It’s not that the Serbian Republic and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina are divided about EU membership. The problem is that they each have a different idea of what kind of country Bosnia will be when it joins.

Bosniaks believe in their right to a Bosnian nation, one that includes the Republika Serpska territory. “If the Serbs don’t want to live together with us,” goes an often repeated sentiment among Muslims, “they should go to Serbia.”

In contrast, Bosnian Serbs deny the legitimacy of the central government and the state as they now exist, because they were not — and refused to be — part of the political process that created independent Bosnia in 1992.

Within the Republika Srpska, Serbs live in a sort of geopolitical limbo drawn along ethnic lines. Their fear and mistrust of a centralized government runs high, bred in part by isolation, the media and opportunistic politicians.

Bosnians of all ethnicities have to see that their best interests are shared and represented by a strong government and EU membership. Only then will they have enough trust to elect leaders whose platform is progress rather than ethnicity. Those leaders will pave the way to reforms and the EU. That requires time — time that anxious officials in Brussels appear unwilling to give.

The international community understandably sees EU integration as the key to prosperity and stability in the region.

The question is whether it is too much, too soon for a divided country with worried ethnic communities. Balkan states cannot simply be pushed together, or pulled apart. The world already saw what happened when countries started peeling away from Yugoslavia.

Simply put, the centralization that the EU demands, meaning elimination of Serbian enclaves, is a threat to Serbs. It’s easy to ignore their fears, or say they deserve what they get. After all, NATO intervened twice to stop the violence wrought by Serb troops and militia.

But that’s the point. It won’t solve the problem to ignore the complexities of Bosnia and disregard their fears — not in the long run.