Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Jolt of Balkan History

Co-Authors: Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova & Dr Zuzana Palovic

The Voices of the East: Perspectives in a Divided Europe? Series Part #10

The Voices of the East: Bosnia and Herzegovina in focus
The Voices of the East: Bosnia and Herzegovina in focus

A land nested in the very core of the tempestuous Balkans is an expression of its diversity, paradoxes, hopes and fears. It was in its capital Sarajevo where the smoldering fire of European restlessness turned into the inferno of the first global conflict in human history. Only a few decades later, the Balkan maze reshaped itself in the aftershock of WW2 and transformed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia into a Socialist Federal Republic. Tensions have always been brewing under the surface in this part of the Europe. The travesties of the 1990s only exposed the deep fractures of its ethnic divides.

The collapse of the old empires influenced national tensions in the Balkans
The collapse of the old empires influenced national tensions in the Balkans

Once the whirlwind of the Balkan war subsided, Bosnia and Herzegovina emerged out of the former Yugoslavia as a curious federation of Muslim Bosnians, alongside Christian Serbs and Croats. This was solidified through a mind-boggling institutional structure in an effort to prioritize dialogue over conflict. Against all the odds, the country succeeded at managing its differences and has been growing in confidence ever since. Today, it is the pursuer of the ultimate international stamp of recognition: European Union membership.

Marked by the cruelties of the many transitions, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the embodiment of the ‘round table’ idea. Mr Branko Neskovic shares the bewildering fusion that Bosnia and Herzegovina was born out of, as well as its unique perspective on Europe. The overwhelming principle that guides his words is that of talking to one another. It is no wonder this is important to a country where failure to do so has cost over a 100,000 lives.

Ambassador Branko Neskovic
Ambassador Branko Neskovic

The Balkan region has been a place of connection, but also of separation for centuries.

It has been critical to Europe, as well as Asia throughout history because of its location. Being at the crossroads of the world has been a mixed blessing for us bringing both diversity and openness, as well as wars and subjugation. My country is once again rising in importance today. Bosnia forms the energy bloodline of the region, it is also Europe’s transport corridor, connecting the south with the rest of the old continent.

Bosnia and Herzegovina saw many regimes and empires playing their games on our territory.

We were governed by the Ottoman Empire for half a millennium. Then we were incorporated into Austria-Hungary at the cost of two wars that pushed the Ottomans back to Asia. We hardly recovered from that when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and the WW1 erupted.

My country faced a huge dilemma.

Having a large Serbian population meant that our soldiers, who fought in the ranks of Austro-Hungarian army, did not want to fight Serbians. To us they were not the enemy. Many found themselves punished for their disobedience to the emperor. Once this ordeal was over, our country was absorbed into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

A united Yugoslavia was but a transition
A united Yugoslavia was but a transition

At the dusk of WW2, Bosnia and Herzegovina became a republic within the newly reinvented Yugoslavia.

Josip Tito, the President of former Yugoslavia, was a great historical leader. He put himself and his country between the East and the West. He navigated the fine line well, working with the advantages from the West, while maintaining good relations with the East.

When the Cold War ended in 1989, the geopolitical powers of the day did not want Yugoslavia to continue to exist.

One by one, the republics proclaimed their independence, including Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, Yugoslavia had a strong military industry and a potent army. To hold such a concentration of guns in one place is never good thing for anyone.

A society still recovering from a rain of bullets
A society still recovering from a rain of bullets

A terrible war and a dark chapter in our history followed.

We had a referendum in which Muslims and Croats voted for independence, but Serbs wanted to stay in. A bloody conflict was born.

100 days of talking is better than a single day of war.

After three and a half years of a fighting one another, our people grew tired. We were forced to sit down and finally find a solution. My personal opinion is that we could and should have done this without a war.

The Bosnian war of the early 1990s cost over 100,000 European lives
The Bosnian war of the early 1990s cost over 100,000 European lives

Both Yugoslavia and the EU made a grave mistake.

Yugoslavia’s mistake was not to join the EU right away. The EU’s mistake was failing to foresee what would happen if no solutions were found for our region. It was the mutual error, that brought about a devastating war in the 1990s.

The EU would have benefitted from incorporating Yugoslavia.

If Yugoslavia became a member of the EU, the border of Europe would run through the Adriatic Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea, making its defence that much easier. This would have helped to tackle the refugee crisis in much more efficient way as well.

It puzzles many that we went into a war so as to gain independence and now we want to join another union.

This is difficult to explain. Some political leaders made grave mistakes during that sad period of our history and we ended up in war because it. Yet, we know that only a big country can protect us.

From Soviet Bloc to European Union; a goal and aspiration for much of Eastern Europe?
From Soviet Bloc to European Union; a goal and aspiration for much of Eastern Europe?

I worry about the development in Catalonia.

I can easily recognise the warning signs. Whatever the reason behind the rift and the plan to harmonize them, there needs to be respect on each side. In addition to a calm willingness to get together and discuss their differences opinion and future options.

Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country of 3.5 million is made up of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians.

After the war, the Dayton Peace Agreement laid the basis of the state composed of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina comprised mostly of Bosnians and Croats and Republika Srpska dominated by Serbs. Each have a president, parliament and government with 16 ministries. On top of that, the Federation is divided into 10 cantons each with its own government. On the common level, we have a presidency and a Council of Ministers presiding over 9 ministries.

It is a perhaps the most complicated system of government in the world.

However, it does reflect the historic and ethnical intricacies of my country.

Hopes run high for a peaceful future
Hopes run high for a peaceful future

We hope to start negotiations to join the EU by the end of 2019

Nearly 80 % of our people want to join the EU. Brexit has not changed this. Our people want to feel safer which is no surprise when you look at our turbulent history and the last war. The EU is also a promise of a better life.

The European Union is not complete without the West Balkans.

Brussel’s work will not be done before these countries all join in. In return, we can offer Europe our young educated and highly skilled work force, not to mention our natural resources.

Sow good seeds, not the bad ones

Many cultures, religions and influences have passed through this land, each leaving something behind. We need to pick the best of each and create a new beautiful mosaic. I look at the future of my country with much optimism.

The life principle you reap what you sow applies in every context
The life principle you reap what you sow applies in every context

People need to talk more.

I believe that we must focus on what is good in others. Notice what is bad, but not to channel our attention and energy to that. It is counterproductive. Fear is not the way forward, it does not allow for countries to grow and societies to become better. It is up to us how we see things and the world.

It is our responsibility to be positive.

Ambassador Branko Neskovic
Ambassador Branko Neskovic

Politics and political science have accompanied Mr Neskovic since the first day of his university years. Education smoothly translated into a series of prestigious political posts in the young Bosnia and Herzegovina, including that of the Head of Prime Minister’s Office. Consequently, the experience with domestic affairs elevated Mr Neskovic to lead his country’s diplomatic mission in Romania as the Ambassador. Upon return, he performed a number of key roles within the government apparatus of Bosnia and Herzegovina before coming to the UK in 2015.

<u>Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova CEE and Corruption Expert</u>
Dr Gabriela Bereghazyova CEE and Corruption Expert
<u>Dr Zuzana Palovic CEE and Migration Expert</u>
Dr Zuzana Palovic CEE and Migration Expert
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