Nidžara Ahmetašević: Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are part of a political experiment

The Bosnian journalist Nidžara Ahmetašević speaks to Cross-border Talks about living in a political experiment together with her fellow citizens. She takes on the specific status of Bosnia and Herzegovina in international relations (a protectorate), the specific tripartite political division of the country and explains why the citizens of Bosnia are ignored. The 2014 protests were probably the last attempt for them to establish political presence by way of citizen assemblies. What has followed is a deep social crisis, which has led to massive emigration. Nidžara also explains the reason behind the EU’s pretense that Bosnia is moving a step forward in its accession process to the union – migration is a huge issue and the EU has been funding detention centers (or concentration camps in her words) for migrants inside Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

The Bosnian journalist Nidžara Ahmetašević speaks to Cross-border Talks about living in a political experiment together with her fellow citizens. She takes on the specific status of Bosnia and Herzegovina in international relations (a protectorate), the specific tripartite political division of the country and explains why the citizens of Bosnia are ignored. The 2014 protests were probably the last attempt for them to establish political presence by way of citizen assemblies. What has followed is a deep social crisis, which has led to massive emigration. Nidžara also explains the reason behind the EU’s pretense that Bosnia is moving a step forward in its accession process to the union – migration is a huge issue and the EU has been funding detention centers (or concentration camps in her words) for migrants inside Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Veronika Salminen: Welcome to the next episode of Cross-border Talks. My name is Veronica Salminen, and together with my colleague Vladimir Mitev, we are going to discuss with our guest, journalist and researcher from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nidžara Ahmetašević, on the current issues or current developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As you probably are aware, in October there were elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and these elections probably have shown that the country, which, by the way, in my opinion, has the most complex political system in Europe, is in continuous political crisis, or somebody calls it even the political deadlock. There are recent developments which are, however, part of the longer problem related to the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the war in Yugoslavia. So we will have a look at this from different angles. We will have to look at the political side of the problem. Of course, we will have a look also a bit on the foreign or geopolitical aspects and socioeconomic situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. So welcome, everybody. Hello, Vladimir and hello, Nidzara.

As you know, I usually ask more general questions in order to get into the context. And I have to say that the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina is really, really difficult to understand for outsiders. We know that the political system and the political map of Bosnia and Herzegovina is based on Dayton agreements, which were an attempt to find a solution to the war in Yugoslavia. I would like to ask first about the current situation with this platform, if it’s working, and what we learned actually from the current elections in October related to this, the way how the political system is currently organized.

Nidžara Ahmetašević: Thank you very much for the question and thank you for having me and for the opportunity to talk about this. As you said, it is a complicated system. I have to try to simplify Bosnia. Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia,  one of the six republics in it. In the nineties, we went through the war as well as other countries succeeding from Yugoslavia. In 1995, the war was stopped with the Dayton Peace Agreement. The Dayton Peace Agreement is written in a way that it shouldn’t have lasted for so long. However, it is still in place and still defines our lives until today. 

We do not have a constitution. Our constitution is part of the Dayton Peace Agreement.

We don’t have anything. Everything is part of the Dayton Peace Agreement, including the power which is given to the Office of the High Representative, which is the ultimate power body in this country. To put it in very simple terms, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the only semi- protectorate in Europe at this moment, and probably one of the few in the world. And the leaders from the countries that are keeping this semi-protectorate alive do not want to talk a lot about that. That’s why citizens are not aware and this semi protectorate is practically financed by the citizens of different countries who are paying this impossible life and impossible situation with their taxes. The High representative receives the salary from other countries, not from Bosnia.

These very high salaries of all the international dignitaries in Bosnia are tax free, and all the people who are part of this protectorate cannot be taken to the court. They are not accountable for any of the actions they are doing in this country. So that’s life in Bosnia for 25 years, and that is the most complicated part. We do not have a chance in this madness.

 The late Professor Zdravko Grebo, professor of law from Sarajevo who died a couple of years ago, used to call Bosnia and Herzegovina and Dayton Peace Agreement Frankenstein State. And exactly that’s why we are in this kind of state, forever and ever. We will have in power people who do not care about the state, but who just comply by with stupid things which are written inside of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which do not work for a very long time, while at the same time international community that keeps this agreement alive in this protectorate. 

This way they can play any game they want to play and pretend that we are moving in some kind of way to our democracy or whatever, while they are imposing any decision. They may impose the decision on the night of the elections, proving that there is no way that democracy exists in Bosnia and that there is no way that those who are holding this protectorate alive will ever permit democracy to come to Bosnia. 

When I say that, I want to say that the voices and the wishes of people who are living in this country are completely ignored. They are ignored by political elites in this country who are more or less the same for more than 25 years. And they are completely ignored by the international community.

I will give you a simple example. For many years, citizens of Bosnia have been trying to change this Dayton Constitution and introduce another way of thinking. By the Dayton Peace Agreement, we have three ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats –  who have all political right. If you are any other than that or if you do not belong to any group, just living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, not willing to be put in one of these three groups, in practice you don’t have political rights. However, one lady a couple of years ago took the state to the court in Strasbourg. She won the case. There is  the decision by the court in Strasbourg, saying that the constitution has to be changed and instead of these three ethnic groups, we should be all “citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina” and we should all have the same rights. 

Until today, none of the political representatives or people from the international community in the first place Office of the High Representative, the body imposed by the Dayton Peace Agreement, the body that is representing this semi protectorate that I am talking about, never, ever try to do anything to fulfill this court decision. It means that not only people’s voices are not heard, but even decisions of such institutions as the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which is a European institution, are ignored. And they are ignoring that in order to keep this experiment. We are experimenting.  I’m just part of this experiment and I’m trying to survive inside of this experiment. 

Many people are leaving. Last year only, 180,000 left Bosnia and Herzegovina because they are tired of being part of somebody’s experiment and tired of living a life with these corrupt political elites who are not nationalists anymore. They’re not nationalists for a very long time. They just find a way to stay in power. This is a mafia state practically, and semi-protectorate, and that semi protectorate allows the mafia state to exist.

This is a really interesting description of the situation. When we look at the election results now, we see, as you explain now, that there are three different ethnic groups which are able to participate in the political process, not call it democratic then together with you, but political process .In the elections, according to some observers, at least in two cases, which is the case of Croatian and both Bosniak part, showed that there is support at least for, let’s say, reformist oriented political parties. Could they be able to break the chain of this situation and go from the system, which is very much based on these closed ethnic lines and ethnic groups? Could they move to something else beyond the Dayton Agreements and beyond this system? However, we also could read that at the very moment when this happened, the High Representative, which position you describe, the High Representative, did put in motion the reform or the change of the electoral law, which was basically cementing the Dayton system. We could also read and find out that the track of this change goes to the influence of your neighboring country Croatia. It was somehow lobbying for this change, if I understood correctly. Is there some kind of demand for change of this rigid system? Do the people want to break the chain or it’s just an illusion and all these political parties which you have in motion are part of the mafia state? 

I have to clarify myself a little bit. No, everybody has the right to vote in this country. But the thing is that you have to vote for Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. So if you are nothing like I am… I don’t belong to any of the national groups, any of the ethnic groups in this country, I don’t have a right. I cannot be elected. I can vote, but I don’t want to vote for representatives of one of the three ethnic groups because they don’t represent me. They don’t represent what I want. And I want a normal life in this country.

Also, as I said, there are people who are trying to change that, as Azra Zornic did, and there are court decisions that are imposing that this has to be changed, but they’re ignored by political elites and by the international community in this country, which has a semi- protectorate.

 I am also aware of different analysts who are saying that there are some parties who are reformist. I have to say it with all due respect. First of all, some of them do not live in Bosnia. I live in Bosnia, and I’m not aware that these parties exist. I’m not aware that even one of the existing parties in Bosnia is fighting for citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I don’t remember that any of the existing political parties ever tried to recall the Azra Zornic case from the Strasbourg court and to do anything to implement that decision and to give the rights to citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And that’s what I want. That’s what people in this country obviously want, because they do support Azra Zornic. And they tried to say the same things as Azra Zornic is saying and the decision was made in the court in 2014. So it’s not from yesterday. It’s a very old decision.

There are people, many people who do not vote, many people who left the country are citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they are sick and tired of thinking in this way. They are sick and tired of being the subject of the protectorate and in decisions imposed on us from the outside with the best intentions. We are sick and tired of living with the Dayton Peace Agreement. We want a chance to start building the country for people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we do not have a chance.

 I do not want to live in a country where there is a high representative. That is not democratic. That does not allow me to, as a citizen of Bosnia Herzegovina, to have a normal life. That’s the problem. Protectorate is a problem. Protectorate allows this type of state to exist where nothing else is important, where citizens are not important, but just the games and just this imposition and protectorate. So I don’t believe in any of this. It is just I don’t know what it is, but it’s not what people want.

Vladimir Mitev: You mentioned the word: citizens. And we need to remind our listeners that in 2014 there were remarkable protests in Bosnia, which in fact applied a democratic innovation called citizen assemblies. And I’m curious what happened as a result of those protests in 2014 and to what extent the energy or the ideas which stand behind them as something new in Bosnian politics is now alive?

Back in 2014, I was following them as a journalist, but I was also very active in everything that was happening. I was on the streets. It lasted for a couple of months, actually. However, back then, as well as today, of course, political elites never wanted to listen to what people are saying. At some point we had 21 people’s assembly all over the country, voices of people were not heard, and the international community decided that people who are on the streets are hooligans and that their voices are not relevant, their requests are not relevant, so they protected political elites in Bosnia. The result is that people got even more disappointed and understood that whatever we try, we don’t have a chance. 

Starting from 2014, the number of people who are leaving the country started rising. Today we have cities that are almost empty. In Sarajevo, which is the biggest city and the capita, this year, only 4000 pupils started the school year. And that’s like it’s like sometimes there were in one of the municipalities in Sarajevo that had many, many pupils now the whole city of Sarajevo has 4000 new pupils. That’s nothing. When you go to see a doctor, you don’t have a doctor. You then have to like anything, because people are running away from this country. They’re not leaving, they’re running away, leaving everything behind, taking with them the entire family and just going. They don’t care where. They just want to be far away because they are so disappointed. They are confused with this system, aware that the international community will always and forever take a side of political elites.

 We are not sure when we have some demands where to go, whom to ask if we want to change this. Who is responsible for these changes? People don’t have power. The power is taken away from us. Elections are not worth it. Nobody cares because on the night of the elections you have an international person who is imposing some decision in this country. So what should we do? What is the solution? At this moment, there is no solution.

Somebody might say that the European Commission has just invited Bosnia to become member state to start the process of accession, and maybe that is also an issue which should be taken into account: to what extent the future of the country lies in this direction or within this course, joining the EU and giving all the reforms which, you know, are prescribed to countries who are to become members of the European Union?

If you read the report by the European Commission, you will see that no progress is made in Bosnia and Herzegovina in any of the 14 fields that the European Commission identified as a key for Bosnia and Herzegovina to become a member of the EU. It’s not a status. We are not invited. It’s just a proposal. Nothing else. We don’t know how it will go. Actually we know it will never happen because the semi-protectorate cannot be a European Union member. And we know that it all is just a joke.

But also there is  something very interesting when you read this report and when you read last couple of reports. You will see that out of all the questions that citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are asking, out of all the problems that we have, which are noted in these reports, the biggest and the most important issue that the European Union wants to deal at this moment is how to stop migration. The reason why we got this invitation, let’s call it invitation for EU membership, is because we agreed to let the European Union implement migration management in Bosnia and Herzegovina, meaning to stop migration flow towards the European Union. 

At this moment in Bosnia and Herzegovina, you have European Union building… they call them temporary accommodation centres, I call them concentration camps, which are places where refugees are forced to stay, places like in many European countries that do not have decent living conditions for people on the road. Countries in the Balkans, not only Bosnia, but even some others, are given the task to use the force to stop people from passing through the Balkans and going to the European Union. And at the same time, the European Union is sending enormous amounts of money to these countries, including to Bosnia and Herzegovina, investing it in border strengthening, in police forces and different security forces that are buying equipment for our police. So we have more drones, more police, more guns, more bulletproof jackets, more wires, more cameras at the borders and concentration camps. So that’s the reason why Bosnia got this kind of invitation to be a candidate. 

But it’s nothing in reality. It’s nothing because there is no progress in any other field except this. And that is how  we are managing. Actually, we are not, because even that is part of the protectorate, because Bosnia and Herzegovina is not responsible for what is happening in this country. But the European Union, through their partners in the field, which is the International Organisation for Migration, received all the financial help coming from the European Union directed towards migration management. I know it sounds complicated, but that’s the reality. The countries that obey the rules in relation to migration management are the countries that will be given some promises from the European Union. This is only a promise, but people in this country don’t even kind of like to consider it. It’s not even a hope. It’s nothing except for the political elite who are seeing in that way how to praise themselves, pretending that they’ve done something to achieve, even though obviously they didn’t. 

They haven’t read the progress report where very, very openly and very straightforwardly is written that no progress is achieved in any of the fields except in migration management. So at the moment when we are talking about Bosnia, actually the European Union and some individual countries are making plans for Bosnia to become a kind of deportation hub. Already some people are deported from Bosnia and the European Union is financing these deportations.

Allow me to finish with a challenging question to you. You are very engaged in what you do and your messages sound militant, but what gives hope to you and what could give hope to Bosnians in this context, which you just described, is devoid of hope?

I would never describe my messages as militant. I’m definitely not somebody who is militant. I survived a war. I survived genocide and everything I want in my life and everything I want for myself and for everybody around me and everybody in the world is peace. So I will never, ever say that anything that I am saying or doing is militant. I am somebody who is hungry for democracy. I’m somebody who believes in the power of people. I believe in democracy. That’s what the power of people is. And that’s what I hope. 

I hope that the people in this country will find a way to find a voice and be more vocal in saying and describing and achieving the life they want to have. Otherwise, I hope we will be able to leave the country as soon as it is possible, because living in a semi protectorate, living under the imposition, living with a peace agreement, any kind of peace agreement is not a normal life. So, no, I’m not a militant. I’m a person who has a right like everybody else, like you or everybody else for a normal life. And my voice is strong because I’m begging and I’m doing everything I can in my life to create conditions for democracy and for normal life. It’s not militant. I’m somebody who loves peace and democracy.

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