Bosnia: Ten Years On

A decade after the outbreak of war, Bosnia is at peace but remains mired in petty political struggles and almost hopeless poverty.

Bosnia: Ten Years On

A decade after the outbreak of war, Bosnia is at peace but remains mired in petty political struggles and almost hopeless poverty.

Constitutional changes, furious pre-election political games and a first ever "Oscar" award form part of Bosnia's confused landscape as it marks the tenth anniversary of the beginning of war in the republic.

After 10 years of conflict and chaos, nobody is sure what sort of a country Bosnia-Herzegovina is - a land doomed to experience constant ethnic tension, or one about to turn a new page in its history.

"Bosnia is just like a 10-year-old child, neither a baby nor adult,

searching for its place under the sun while being occasionally bullied by bigger kids and overprotective parents," said Samra Kulenovic, 33.

Although the fighting and ethnic cleansing in eastern Bosnia started back in March 1992, the death of two people at an anti-war demonstration in central Sarajevo on April 6 is usually held to mark the official start of Europe's bloodiest conflict since the Second World War.

More than 200,000 people were killed or went missing over the next three and half years, while more than 2 million people were displaced from their homes.

In an anniversary statement, Bosnia's top Western mediator, the High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch, said, "Ten years ago, two young women were shot dead on the Vrbanja Bridge in front of the building that today accommodates the Office of the High Representative."

Insisting that Bosnia had "come a long way" since then, he listed the achievements of peacetime rule. "Bosnia now has an opportunity to be a normal country where citizens can live and work in peace and security, where government, courts and police are becoming efficient and impartial, where economic opportunities are growing and where no one feels threatened because of their ethnicity or religion," he said.

"Making BiH into this kind of country is surely the finest monument that can be built to honour those who were lost in the terrible events that began 10 years ago."

For many people, ideological rhetoric and promises to protect the national interests are indeed a thing of the past. Although opinions and perceptions still differ sharply about the origins of the war and who is to blame, what matters most now are jobs and salaries.

"The war is something that nobody can forget," said Miljenko Stojanovic, 36, from Banja Luka. "Brother was shooting at his brother, a neighbor was shooting at his neighbor, not because they hated each other but because they followed the leaders who divided people to promote their personal interests."

Such ethnic-related incidents now are rare. The pace of refugee returns has increased dramatically over the past two years and people travel freely across the country. Bosnia is soon expected to join the Council of Europe as a first step towards full European integration.

Elections and polls since 1996 chart the constant decline in the popularity of nationalist parties, as a result of which the moderate Socialist Democratic Party, SDP, emerged as Bosnia's strongest party in the 2000 elections.

But the economy remains feeble. Western aid donations are declining and there is little foreign investment. From a post-war 70 per cent growth in GDP in 1996, the rate shrunk to 6 per cent in 2001.

Even maintaining this level will be difficult. Experts believe only the rapid privatisation of Bosnia's largest firms will bring in enough foreign investment to stabilise the economy. But this is unlikely to take place. The political parties - especially nationalist ones - have an interest in stalling the process to keep control over these companies and their profits. Bosnia's complex, expensive and corrupt administration also deters Western investors.

The moderates who took over the Federation and State administration in 2000 have initiated several programmes to combat poverty, reform welfare and trim the social and military budget, which currently consumes half the total expenditure, leaving few funds for employment, education and health.

However, the unemployment rate hovers at the 40 per cent level, though this official figure disguises a large number of workers who do not register as employed to evade taxes.

Petty political bickering, which has intensified as the October elections approach, also threatens the reform programme. The debate over constitutional changes highlights the inadequacy of the country's political elite.

Two weeks ago Bosnia's moderate parties signed an agreement on changing the constitutions of both entities - the Federation and the Republika Srpska, RS.

The changes would effectively overturn the part of the 1995 Dayton peace accord that granted Bosnian Serbs a dominant role in the RS and gave Bosnian Croats and Muslims (Bosniaks) similar hegemony in the Federation.

The agreement was dubbed "historic", as it appeared to represent the first step in overcoming Bosnia's ethnic divisions, providing a more balanced representation for all ethnic groups in all key institutions of power.

However, the main Bosnian Serb parties refused to sign up, and last week the RS parliament adopted different amendments, increasing minority rights but maintaining overall Serb domination.

Petritsch declared on Wednesday that the modified changes represented "a step forward". But after he urged Bosnian Serb leaders to adopt the full set of changes by April 18, the Bosnian Serb prime minister Mladen Ivanic accused the international community of siding with Croats and Muslims against the Serbs.

Whether the RS incurs sanctions as a result of its defiance, or has the amendments imposed by the High Representative, the struggle is bound to channel attention away from far more pressing economic and social issues.

One recent event, however, brought a touch of optimism and hope to many people across the country. Last week, the young film director Danis Tanovic won an Oscar in the best foreign language film category at the 74th Academy Awards.

The news spread like wildfire across Bosnia. Tanovic's tragic parody of the Bosnian war won many plaudits throughout the country, whatever their ethnic or religious origin. Many found the title of the film - "No man's land" - a perfect metaphor not only for the Bosnian war but for their present situation.

Janez Kovac is a pseudonym of the regular IWPR contributor. He completed this report with help from Dragan Jerinic, a journalit at Banja Luka daily, Nezavisne Novine.

Support our journalists