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16 Jul 2009

Bosnia, EU: Suffering Incompetence

Chess players, courtesy of  N_Creatures/flickr
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Playing chess in Sarajevo

As the European Commission moves to adopt visa liberalization for the region, leaving out Albania and Bosnia, the Bosnian government should be severely taken to task for its horrific failures, Anes Alic comments for ISN Security Watch.

By Anes Alic in Sarajevo for ISN

The EU has finally made a long-awaited decision on visa liberalization for the Western Balkans, and the verdict is such that residents of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia will enjoy visa-free travel to the EU as of January, while holders of Bosnian passports will be allowed to travel freely only to obscure destinations such as Swaziland, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and so on - countries whose existence the average Bosnian citizen has not likely ever registered.

As for the European Union, it will remain off limits to Bosnians (at least to Bosnian Muslims) unless residents are willing to go through a series of humiliations that characterize the challenging task of obtaining a visa: waiting in lines, embassy staff interrogations, begging, promising, pleading and providing dozens of obscure documents and guarantees that we will return home at the allotted time.  

The European Commission’s 15 July decision to adopt a visa liberalization policy for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia and to leave out Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania – which were deemed to have fallen short of meeting the necessary requirements – has sparked major reactions in the region, and indeed within the EU itself.

Though Bosnian officials had earlier expressed hope that the EC might change its mind before making a final decision, the Bosnian public was not surprised at having been left out of the plan.

Perhaps it is fair to say that the Bosnian leadership has not earned EU visa liberalization. Certainly, the Bosnian authorities proved amateur negotiators throughout and it appears that it failed to meet some of the technical requirements necessary to remove the visa regime. But perhaps it is also fair to say that the citizens of Bosnia have been punished long enough for their government’s ineffectiveness and obstruction. 

Then again, some could just as easily argue that the citizens have gotten what they deserve, continuing to vote the same parties into office. Working toward Bosnia’s EU integration was a major campaign promises in the past election, and now the leaders should be taken to task for their grievous failures – but will the public do so? Not likely. Voting patterns indicate that the electorate will stay the course, as usual, and suffer for it, as usual. The leaders cannot be trusted, yet they are, time and again.

Bosnia’s nationalist leaders are now scrambling to assure the public that the fat lady has not yet sung: Perhaps by the end of July the country could manage to convince the EC to adopt visa liberalization. But this is a false hope: EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said yesterday that perhaps a new decision would be made by mid-next year, but not likely before.

The Bosnian Parliament held a session on Tuesday to determine who is responsible for the failure. After a seemingly endless bout of back-and-forth accusations, they concluded that they still have six months to fulfill the EU requirements, but only after the summer break, of course. The opposition’s suggestion that all MPs and government officials turn in their passports and forego vacation in light of the developments was met with much mirth and laugher. 

While it is true that officials in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska obstructed the passing of some required reforms, the fact remains that nearly 50 EU demands have gone unanswered, and the Bosnian Serbs cannot be held accountable for the majority.

And when it came to negotiating with the EU, Bosnian 'experts' showed a clear lack of enthusiasm and foreign language and diplomacy skills. They were not up to the task.

Certainly, it is also fair to question the EC’s decision from another point of view. Plenty of figures – not only Bosnian officials but also western diplomats – say the decision to leave Bosnia out of the visa-free plan is distinctly anti-Muslim and could create Muslim ghettos, with only Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) affected, as Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs can hold dual citizenship and enjoy visa liberalization.

And some have also questioned the ill-conceived timing of the decision, which came only days after the 14th anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

Plenty of others warn that the decision could destabilize the region and create a security threat for Europe. And it would seem that though the EC insists that Bosnia failed to meet the requirements due to technical issues rather than politics, that is not likely. Though the necessary introduction of biometric passports has been characterized largely by administrative incompetence, the system had in fact been introduced.

Bosnians are angry. Bosniaks are angry. I am angry. But who is to blame? Surely the country should be held accountable for its own failings. As always, there are the usual culprits: bureaucratic incompetence, institutional stalemates, ethnic division, religious animosity and poor diplomatic skills. Bosnia did not deserve visa liberalization and its institutions have done nothing to earn it. Still, there is a bigger picture that cannot be ignored, one of security and stabilization in Europe, and the international community here is indirectly working to create even greater divisions.


Anes Alic is the co-founder and executive director of ISA Consulting, based in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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