“Bosnia and Herzegovina: Political Accountability for a Euro-Atlantic Future”
AUBiH is proud to share with you integral text of the address by Ambassador Philip Reeker to AUBiH students from Tuzla, Banjaluka and Sarajevo which attracted unprecedented media attention:
Thank you, Denis and Esmir for inviting me to speak at the American University in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I’m always delighted to have an opportunity to speak directly to students when I visit. So much of my time on these visits is usually taken up talking to political and government officials – many of whom held positions within their parties as many ten, fifteen, or even twenty years ago – that it reminds me how desperately this country needs young people to become involved in the political process and work for change.
It is undeniable that this country has made a significant recovery since the 1990s. The rhythm of day-to-day life has returned to normal for most people. In the context of the darkest days of the war, that is an important standard. But for those of you who either were too young to remember those difficult times – which is most, if not all of you – or who take the time to look beyond your borders, you also know that progress achieved since the war is a very low standard by which to measure. Too many people struggle to make ends meet and to support their families. Bosnia and Herzegovina can do better. Indeed, Bosnia and Herzegovina must do better.
Consider that on July 1st, Croatia – which is already a NATO member – will join the European Union. Every Croatian citizen will immediately gain the right to work anywhere in the EU, be it London or Ljubljana, Bucharest or Berlin. Montenegro, just five years since independence, is well into the process of negotiating its EU accession and is rapidly implementing its NATO Membership Action Plan. And Serbia – building on the agreement to normalize relations with Kosovo – has an opportunity to open accession negotiations this year. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina want and deserve these same opportunities.
The United States and the European Union have made clear repeatedly that we support those aspirations. And we have made clear to your leaders over and over again what steps they need to take. Unfortunately, party leaders are holding such a future hostage, masking their true agendas to focus on their own selfish political aims.
While this approach suits the narrow interests of a privileged few, the costs to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are staggering. The economy shrank last year by almost one percent and is projected to grow less than one percent this year. Unemployment is too high, starting a business is too hard, and corruption continues to eat away at too much of your hard earned money. This country desperately needs foreign investment to create new jobs and new opportunities. That’s the way the modern world works. Yet last year foreign investment declined by a staggering 30 percent.
Investors want security, stability and a strong respect for the rule of law. As other parts of Europe have shown over six decades, the surest and fastest way to address these issues is through the process of integration into NATO and the EU. Time and again we have seen that when a country moves closer to NATO and the EU, foreign investment goes up, the economy improves, and corruption goes down. The same can be true here.
Your friends in the international community, having helped end the horrors of war, and pumped enormous resources into giving your country a new start, cannot live your lives or make your futures for you. We can engage with good will and the lessons of other transitions. We cannot and will not solve your problems, but we can – and continue to – extend a hand as friends, partners and would-be allies. But local actors – government officials, civil society, and ordinary citizens – all need to do their part for the country to move forward.
Party leaders say they support moving toward membership in the key European and trans-Atlantic institutions that have brought stability and prosperity far beyond what anyone could imagine in 1945, or even 1996. But instead of pulling up their sleeves and sitting down with one another to find a way forward, leaders from both entities, and from all ethnicities, spend their time blaming each other for holding the country back. The fact is, it doesn’t matter which entity has made more or less progress conforming to EU standards. Bosnia and Herzegovina is and will remain a single, sovereign state; it will advance to the EU and NATO as a whole or not at all.
We recognize that governing is not easy, particularly in a country as complex as Bosnia and Herzegovina, and particularly given the government structure put in place here by Dayton. We continue to believe that all Bosnians would benefit from a more functional and efficient government that protects the legitimate interests of the constituent peoples as well as others while promoting tolerance and respect for human rights. That is why we sponsored a process to develop recommendations to improve governance and better serve the interests of all citizens of the Federation. Last week’s conference on Federation reform discussed a number of practical proposals that would improve governance in the Federation and make the Federation government less expensive and more democratic.
But complex government structures alone are not responsible for the current stalemate or the lack of progress on reform. Likewise, these problems are not the fault of the international community or the international community’s responsibility to solve. Democratic governance is never easy in any country. Like in other countries, in Bosnia and Herzegovina your institutions can work if there is will to make institutions function. Rather, your leaders choose not to lead and instead blame each other or the international community for their failures.
The failures here are a direct result of the political games played by leaders who have forgotten that their first responsibility is to the citizens. SDP’s decision last summer to reshuffle the Federation government without regard to constitutional procedures killed momentum that had been gathering since the beginning of the year on the Euro-Atlantic reform agenda. And SDA’s abuse of procedural blocking measures has extended the political paralysis and provided an excuse for others not to tackle these far more important issues.
There are two issues now blocking your country’s path forward. For NATO, the need to register with the state those defense properties needed by the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces. For the EU, the obligation to comply with the European Court of Human Rights’ Sejdic-Finci ruling to eliminate discrimination against non-constituent peoples that prevents them from holding office in the state Presidency and House of Peoples. There is no place in the EU (or the broader trans-Atlantic community) for a country that discriminates against its own citizens on the basis of ethnicity.
These are minimal requirements. The party leaders have been discussing these issues in closed door meetings for over three years. But each time an agreement seemed at hand, it was reneged on or simply never implemented.
For example, registering defense property is a relatively easy, technical matter. The Presidency has decided that 63 pieces of property are necessary to meet the defense needs of the state. The political leaders agreed over a year ago on a solution to register the property. They also decided to transfer unneeded defense properties to the municipalities and that the same model could be a basis for resolving the much larger state property issue. Yet Republika Srpska President Dodik continues to block implementation of the deal to which he agreed.
And while finding a way forward to deal with Sejdic-Finci is understandably somewhat more complicated, it is by no means impossible. As we say back home, this isn’t brain surgery. The failure of political leaders to find a way forward raises serious doubts about their commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina finding its rightful place fully integrated into Europe.
Party leaders came close to agreement on Sejdic-Finci with assistance from the European Union in March, but we saw that apparent consensus slip away when the HDZ leaders Mr. Covic and Mr. Ljubic backed away, apparently because it would not meet their unreasonable and undemocratic position that one of their parties be guaranteed election to the Presidency. Regrettably, they continue to avoid re-engagement on finding a solution on this critical issue.
You, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, deserve better – particularly YOU, the next generation who will inherit the problems your current leaders refuse to solve. And you have the tools at your disposal to effect change. It is vital that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s elected leaders hear from you, the citizens who put them in office. Communicate to them your expectations for how they should move the country forward. Hold them accountable for meeting your expectations. Make clear to them what they must accomplish to earn your vote in 2014. And as you all know, the politicians are all now thinking about their fates in the elections of 2014, far more than they are thinking about what kind of stability and prosperity the citizens deserve.
There are three proposals for complying with Sejdic-Finci before your representatives in the Bosnian parliament, any of which would satisfy the European Court of Human Rights ruling. It is time that the institution constitutionally charged with resolving this issue debate these proposals and bring them for a vote in an open and transparent process so that citizens can make their own judgments.
Defense Property can be resolved in a similar fashion. The Constitutional Court has ruled that the state is titleholder of former Yugoslav property, including defense property, and only the Parliament of BiH can regulate the apportionment of property to other levels of government. It is time for the parliament to decide whether to pass legislation to do so along the lines of the March 9, 2012, political agreement, which the ruling parties still claim to support. Or, as the Office of the BiH State Attorney has confirmed, registration to the state of BiH of those defense properties already identified by the Presidency can simply proceed on the basis of existing law.
The United States remains deeply invested and engaged in Bosnia and Herzegovina and wants very much to see it succeed. Even with everything else going on around the world, there have been over a dozen visits by high-level U.S. government officials here just in the last four years, including Vice President Biden and then-Secretary Clinton, who visited most recently with EU High Representative Ashton last October. Our messages to your politicians and government officials have been consistent and clear: uphold your commitments and return to the reform agenda, and we will support you in taking the next steps towards membership in the EU and NATO.
That offer still stands. The EU has made clear it is prepared to make significant investments, including in infrastructure and economic development, as you move forward. The United States too will continue to invest in future leaders and in developing a market-based economy, the rule of law, and a strong democracy. Once your NATO Membership Action Plan is underway, we will be able to deepen our support and assistance to the Armed Forces, transforming them into a modern military organization in which all citizens can take pride.
It is possible to reverse the negative trends set by some political leaders. 2013 can still be a year of progress and increasing prosperity. The European Union and the United States will continue to support your country in the Euro-Atlantic integration process. But it is even more important that you make clear to your leaders that you expect them to move the country forward before the 2014 elections, and that they will be held accountable for the results. That is why I am here, speaking directly and candidly to you. You are young, smart people, and I believe that you understand how your politicians are failing you. It will be up to you and your fellow citizens to speak out and to demand progress from your leaders. For your future and the future of your country, I hope you do so.