Saturday, February 8, 2014

A ‘Bosnian Spring’ in Winter?

A ‘Bosnian Spring’ in Winter?

Source: Reuters
As the attention of the world’s media turned to Sochi for the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, a storm raged in Bosnia where anti-government protests across the country turned into anarchy. The closure of a local chemical factory in Tuzla on Wednesday quickly sparked civil unrest in Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla, Bihac, Mostar and Brcko as angry citizens took to the streets demanding that the government stand down. Protestors clashed with riot police, burned down government buildings including the Parliament building in Sarajevo, and set cars alight in a show of force not seen in decades. These events have been interpreted by some political analysts as the beginning of a revolution – a Bosnian Spring. However, before such declarations are made it would be useful to examine the facts more closely.

A weak political system

The benchmark for a revolution in Bosnia would be nothing less than a new system of government rather than a change of government.  The existing political framework was established in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement. While the agreement was successful in ending hostilities, it also preserved the autonomy of rival ethnic groups at the expense of the country’s long-term economic and political interests.  The political system in BiH is highly complex comprising of: two autonomous state entities each with its own constitution, government and parliament; a tripartite presidency, three prime ministers; and an international presence known as the Office of the High Representative (OHR).  One of the main demands of the protests was an end to widespread corruption and inequality – two direct consequences of Bosnia’s convoluted political system.

Revolution or revolutionary?

Source: AFP
Acts of civil disobedience in Bosnia over the past 20 years have been rare and unusual. Crossing the line is in itself, a revolutionary act. However, for a revolution to occur, the protests would need to transform into a national movement with a legitimate basis of support among the people.   So far however, most of the rioting seems to be taking place in only one of the country’s two autonomous entities: the Federation of Bosnia.  In the other entity – the Republic of Srpska – cities such as Banja Luka, Bijeljina, Prijedor, and Doboj have remained quiet.

A revolution without a leader?

A key feature of the Arab Spring was the existence of highly organised opposition movements with the support base of hundreds of thousands.  In Bosnia responsibility for the riots is unclear.  Most reports point to the involvement of “a few hundred football hooligans” acting spontaneously. Civil society actors such as university professors and students who have the strongest ability to influence society have yet to become actively involved in significant numbers.  Although it is possible for a grass roots movement to emerge, the protests have already been condemned by Bosnia’s powerful religious institutions which yield considerable influence over the population. In one unofficial report from Zenica, mosques have already begun preaching that “rioting is not the Muslim way”.

Mixed public reactions

Public reaction to the riots has been mixed.  Large segments of the population have expressed sympathy with the protestors, although at the same time condemned the use of violence and meaningless destruction of property (a message reiterated by the European Union Commissioner for Enlargment, Sefan Fule).  Others oppose the actions completely claiming that riots are counterproductive.  Thus, events have divided rather than united society.

The Bosnian Police can’t stop the rioting

The performance of the Bosnian riot police can only be described by one word – embarrassing. According to some reports more than 100 heavily armed police officers were injured in clashes as protestors were left free to burn some of the country’s most important historical buildings. These included the Presidency building in Sarajevo, the newly renovated Town Hall in Mostar, as well as government buildings in Zenica and Tuzla.

Bosnian Spring or catchphrase?

Events in Bosnia have taken the world by surprise, although in many respects they were a long time coming and could have happened sooner.  However, in order for these actions to trigger a revolution more needs to happen. Firstly, the protests need to become better organised and coordinated through some form of political representation. Secondly, change needs to be supported by all segments of society: from students and families, to retirees who are all prepared to become actively involved in peaceful demonstrations.  Finally, demands for change need to transcend into a broader national movement by spreading into the Republika Srpska. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Some things are just better left not said....

Technically, this is old news now but I couldn't help but mention it since this story is one of the most strangest I have read recently.

Apparently the daily paper in Bosnia Dnevni Avaz awards a prize for the "foreign personality of the year". The winner for 2013 was announced in late December and awarded to....(drum roll)...Ambassador Peter Sorenson from the EU mission in BiH.

The story doesn't mention what Mr Sorenson managed to achieve as a diplomat in 2013 to deserve the award other than saying he was "the most important and most positive international factor in Bosnia"...

In a year where Bosnian-EU relations reached an all time low, the award is probably nothing more than a meaningless sweetener...

Friday, September 13, 2013

The EU Strikes Back...what will Bosnia do?

Last month I spoke about the unravelling trade war between Croatia and the EU on the one hand, and Bosnia on the other. Bosnia insists that Croatian goods that fail to meet EU standards cannot be imported into Bosnia. Croatia is crying foul. The EU has been exerting considerable diplomatic pressure on Bosnia to revoke its decision, which has not been forthcoming. Tariffs on inferior Croatian products have led to increased  demand for domestically produced Bosnian goods - a benefit to the Bosnian economy.

On 11 September an angry EU raised the stakes by cancelling pre-cession funding to Bosnia worth 5 million Euros. A further 9 million Euros of aid has also been suspended. The timing of these measures is hardly surprising: just two weeks prior to a scheduled meeting in Brussels between Ministers of all three parties to discuss trade issues. Clearly, the EU is manoeuvring to have its way with Bosnia. Most outsiders would view the actions of the EU as hypocritical.

It will be interesting to see how the Bosnian government responds. As a first step, it should threaten to recover lost funding through other means, such as additional tariffs on imported (Croatian) products. To enter discussions with Croatia and the EU from a position of weakness is not in Bosnia's best interest.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Making money, Serbian style.

Serbia appears to be on a roll when it comes to big economic announcements lately. In early August the Government of Serbia announced a US$100 million partnership with Etihad Airways that will revolutionise the Serbian aviation industry. Ethiad is the world's premier airline. Then less than three weeks later Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic announced that German luxury car maker Mercedes Benz and Japanese auto giant Lexus will be establishing assembly lines in Serbia. For the first time in a long time, it appears that Serbia is on the verge of riding (and flying) in style again.

The announcements are very good news for the people of Serbia.  World class companies bring with them capital, expertise, modern technology as well as other big companies.  Most importantly however, foreign investment creates employment opportunities in the local economy, providing the means for entire communities to raise their standard of living.  Given Serbia's turbulent recent history, this news is clearly a step in the right direction.

The ability to attract first class foreign investors is evidence that governance in Serbia is improving. Stories about the benefits of investing in Serbia are flooding the internet and clearly on the increase. Much of Serbia's change in fortune needs to be attributed to Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who appears to be driving the process of economic reform in Serbia. On the basis of current achievements, he has clearly been the stand out politician in Serbia over the past few months.

Leading the way: Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bosnian Milk tops Europe

A storm is brewing on the horizon and Bosnia is caught right in the middle of it. As I wrote last week, a rift is quickly emerging between Croatia and European Union (EU) on the one hand, and Bosnia on the other. When Croatia joined the EU in July, it was told that many of its meat and dairy products did not meet EU standards, and therefore could not be traded within the 28 member bloc. Croatia's solution: just send whatever the EU doesn't want to Bosnia. However, Croatia's carefully crafted plan backfired when Bosnia's trade Minister Mirko Sarovic declared that Bosnian citizens deserved the same food standards as the EU, and that Croatian meat and dairy products need to meet these standards before they can be imported into Bosnia. At stake are potentially millions of Euros in lost trade to Croatia, and better opportunities for local Bosnian producers to compete in the local market.

Despite causing this problem in the first place, the EU is a clear supporter of Croatia. Currently, the European Delegation in Sarajevo is applying incredible diplomatic pressure on Bosnia to back away from its decision to ban Croatian imports. This began on 2 August when the Delegation placed a public notice on the front page of its website, making several disguised threats to Bosnia, including (yet again) freezing its path to EU membership. 

On Friday 16 August the EU raised the stakes further by threatening to withhold pre-accession funding to Bosnia worth up to 100 million Euros per year.  The EU provides funds to Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia as countries looking to join the bloc, through what is called the Instrument Pre Accession (IPA). IPA funds are designed to foster better governance and encourage economic development. The Delegation claims that any future decision to withhold IPA funds is result of Bosnia's political institutions failing to agree on how the funds should be spent - although this reason is highly unlikely. The timing of the announcement suggests the threat is directly related to Bosnia's fair stand against Croatia. 

Stefan Fule, the European Commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy has invited the leaders of Bosnia's main parties and the Prime Ministers of the Central Government, and of the two entities for talks on the trade dispute in Brussels on 1 October. Normally, it would be the Bosnian delegation attempting to explain hypocrisy, although at this meeting I believe for the first time Bosnian politicians won't be doing the talking - a clear sign that Europe is slowly loosing its shine...

"there is nothing wrong with the food...its all just politics"
Visiting a small farm in Zenica, Bosnia in 2006

Friday, August 16, 2013

"Vlast i Policija, Mito i Korupcija" (Government + Police = Bribery and Corruption)

In Bosnia most people believe that corruption is widespread and quite simply, a factor of life. Transparency International, which publishes a country index of "perceived corruption" gave Bosnia a rating of 4.2/10 in 2013. Generally, the lower the score the greater is the level of perceived corruption. This means that to become Europe's most transparent country, Bosnia needs to out rank Denmark who scored an impressive 9/10.

 Why is Corruption so bad?

Corruption is ugly for a number of reasons:
  1. It causes people to loose confidence in government.
  2. People come to expect that all public officials are guilty of taking bribes, regardless of wether they are corrupt or not. 
  3. When people mistrust the government, they begin doubting the power of collective action, and will think less for the community and more for themselves.
  4. It involves hypocracy - people are employed to serve the community but end up serving themselves.
  5. Corruption benefits people included within a certain relationship and harms everybody else who is excluded. For example, the costs of corruption to the community may include, lower incomes, less efficient governments, incompetent officials, a dirty environment, and unsafe buildings.

What can be done about Corruption in Bosnia?

In the spirit of a previous post I believe that a lot can be done to make a difference against corruption in Bosnia. A common myth in the Balkans is that the only way to fight corruption is through enforcement - that is, by even more anti-corruption campaigns, creating another government department, hiring secret police to chase normal police, and drafting new laws and codes of conduct. Excessive regulations not only fail to address the root causes of corruption, but they often create further opportunities for bribery.

Prevention, and incentives for integrity are the most effective, and cheapest methods to use in the fight against corruption. Basically this means supporting any policy that improves public information and accountability (transparency). For example:

  • public lists of donations made to political parties
  • creating computer systems that share information between government departments
  • going electronic with documents (close down all photocopy kiosks)
  • and my camera's in all police vehicles
I realise that most people who read this may feel that I am being unrealistic. However, to become like Denmark one must begin thinking like Denmark.

Caught on Camera - Bosnian cops extorting bribes 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bosnian milk and strong bones - how Sarajevo set the EU straight.

It appears as though the European Union isn't too happy with Bosnia again. This time against Bosnia's decision to ban certain meat and dairy exports from Croatia that fail to meet EU standards. Croatia, who only joined the EU last month is crying foul, and claims that while some of its foodstufs cannot be eaten in the EU, they are still good enough for Bosnia. 

Bosnia's Trade Minister, Mirko Sarovic was quick to defend the import restrictions against Croatia, saying that the people of Bosnia deserved the same standards as those in the EU. I believe he is quite right, although it is worth noting that Bosnian meat and dairy products don't meet these EU standards either. It is more likely that Bosnia adopted these measures in retaliation against losing Croatia as its main export market when it joined he EU. 

The EU, which is clearly looking out for the interests of Croatia in this dispute, claims that Bosnia should continue to accept Croatian food imports. To its credit, Bosnia has refused to budge on the issue, which has enraged the EU Commision in Sarajevo. In a statement released on 2 August 2013, the Commission said that it "regrets the current attitude of Bosnia and Herzegivina", warning that "it was not in line with the spirit of bilateral free trade"

In a further rant, the Commission goes on to claim that restrictions on Croatian foodstuffs will only serve to deprive Bosnian consumers of cheap food whilst benefiting a few wealthy elite who control large agro-food businesses. The statement says nothing about Bosnian farmers who will clearly suffer from the loss of the Croatian market and the far reaching effects this will have on the wider community.

Having eaten many a fine meal in both Croatia and Bosnia I can personally say that I have never had a bad lunch in either country. I would go as far as saying that Bosnia is one of the best places I have eaten. However, the issue for me is not so much about food quality as it about fairness and double standards.  Simply put: Croatia and the EU wish to benefit at the expense of Bosnia.


1. Bosnia and Croatia have been trading food for hundreds of years.
2. Croatia's entry into the EU deprived Bosnian meat and dairy producers access to their largest export market. According to Bosnia's Foreign Trade Chamber, Bosnia could lose as much as 22 million euro a year in lost exports of meat, eggs and dairy products.
3. Croatia seeks all the economic benefits of EU membership, but not the losses, which it wants to pass onto Bosnia. 
4. The European Union shouldn't be advocating dumping, but rather encourge both Croatia and Bosnia to comply with its food standards. 

It will be interesting to see if Bosnia stands firm or caves under EU pressure. I hope it won't.

On a small farm in Central Bosnia in 2006