No Change, No Gain

“Dobro jutro Sarajevo” – I tweeted enthusiastically while enjoying a splendid Saturday morning. Fresh air and sun. Sarajevo in full HD.

“Sir, it’s not good at all. Citizens are scared; I can feel it in the air.” – a tweeter wrote back.

Even though Bosnia and Herzegovina has come a long way from war to peace, this was not the first time I heard such concerns.

This country has immense potential; what it lacks is a serious and broad political commitment to solve problems people are facing in their everyday lives. Like the citizens of the EU member states, people here just want to enjoy opportunities: good jobs, quality education and health care, sufficient pensions, and a functional rule of law system.

In their pursuit of these ‘essentials’, too many have already left Bosnia and Herzegovina. Too many more consider leaving. They are not only motivated by a lack of employment opportunities, but perhaps even more by constant economic and political insecurities that make life very difficult. The shortcomings of governance have come to outweigh the opportunities in people’s minds and in their lives. BiH politicians cannot afford to ignore the fact that the population of BiH is shrinking rapidly.

It does not have to be like this!

A few weeks ago in Bijeljina, I hosted a joint meeting with representatives of the BiH Council of Ministers and the Entity governments. Several other ambassadors and colleagues from the international financial institutions joined us to help the country’s representatives drive forward socio-economic reforms in BiH.

This comes at the time when the European Commission has proposed a new enlargement methodology with a strong emphasis on the economy along with plans to increase funding for those countries achieving progress – and improve the quality of lives of its citizens along the way.

BiH authorities committed to enhance the implementation of socio-economic reforms, while the EU and other international institutions pledged to support this process. A list of actions in the areas of economic governance, education, energy, environment, and others, was endorsed.

My excitement with this positive outcome soon dampened. While we were discussing reforms and the future, another political crisis emerged in the country. The overall tone of our discussion was expectedly much grimmer in light of these developments.

I couldn’t help but wonder:

Would reforms be delayed once again?

Whenever I talk about reforms in this country I am thinking of the living conditions of citizens. Things have to change. Quickly. The timeline is measured in months, not years.

Priorities are many but the list of the initial 66 short term priorities deriving from the Opinion of the European Commission is a good starting point.

Each of these priorities is feasible. Essentially they are expected to positively impact real lives of ordinary people across Bosnia and Herzegovina who enjoy little or no power or privilege, and businesses that are drivers of economy in this country.

For instance, one of the priorities reads: “introduce a uniform minimum level of maternity leave benefits and protection throughout the country, starting by harmonising the definitions of maternity, paternity and parental leave.” No woman in this country should ever have to choose her job over being pregnant out of a fear that she will not be able to provide for her family. No man should be prevented from taking paternity leave to care for his child.

We also discussed improving governance of public enterprises necessary to increase BiH’s growth potential and stop putting more strain on scarce government’s financial resources. Restructuring these companies and introducing an open competition with the private sector would result in lower prices and better-quality services they provide to citizens. The Sarajevo International Airport is a case in point. BiH citizens expect more connections, better services and more competitive fares.

This is perhaps stating the obvious, but the 66 measures, consolidated with socio-economic reforms adopted by the Entity governments last year and endorsed by the Council of Ministers in January 2020, represent a list of things that obviously must be addressed urgently. Nobody is reinventing the wheel. What is now needed is a willingness to turn commitments into action.

Why should BiH citizens be made to wait?

After the meeting in Bijeljina, I was interviewed by BN TV.

“Do you think that BiH will take 100 years to join the EU?”  – the journalist asked me in all seriousness, expressing a frustration perhaps shared by many.

No, I truly don’t think so.

This country is not the black hole of Europe. It is not a lost case. Its people may be tired of hearing about all the necessary reforms or may feel overwhelmed by so many problems. Yes, they are many, but so are solutions.

The process of EU accession is about transforming a society so it becomes stable, just and safe for all. This is what matters, and I will keep pushing and coming back to the reforms until together we succeed to change things for better for everyone in the country. Until Bosnia and Herzegovina becomes fit for the EU.

It is definitely worth the effort.