In a state of political limbo

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country where the solution became problem. Two decades later, the peace agreement-turned-constitution from 1995 is still preventing post-war progress. In a state where almost half of the population is unemployed, it is clear that some kind of change is desperately needed.

By Beata Thor

The square outside The National Theatre in central Sarajevo has been named after Susan Sontag, the American writer, director and political activist. The sign indicating her name is modest, but for a city where monuments are left to wither and traces of shrapnel holes still mare the façades of many buildings, it might not be such a small feat.

“She was a very important person for us, showing solidarity with Sarajevo during the siege,” says Neno Novakovic.

“In 1993, right in the midst of the siege, she came here and put up a production of Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. It was very fitting, because we were also waiting here you know,” he says with a sardonic laugh, “day after day while the bombs fell, for the world to intervene.“

The square is the starting point of Neno’s walking tour. Every day at 10.30 a.m., from March until October, curious tourist gather here to get a glimpse of the city’s vast history and hidden gems through the eyes of a true Sarajevan.

Novakovic surronder by his tour group on the Miljacka river bank. Photo by Beata Thor

Neno Novakovic, now a 31-year-old political science graduate turned self-employed tour guide, shares his memories of growing up in the besieged city. He paints a vivid picture of everyday resistance with tales from the makeshift neighbourhood classroom in the basement of their apartment building and of his mother, who insisted on wearing heels on her way to work every day, despite the sniper fire.

“If she was shot and injured she wanted to look good for the cameras of the international press”.

As the tour continuous, we pass by the National Gallery. On the top floor is an installation by Edin Numankadic. Displayed is his kitchen table during the siege, filled with food rations and art supplies.

“I took part of my existence like a document,” Numankadic says when we meet a few days later. Now a 68-year-old museum director, he also remembers what life was like in Sarajevo before the war.

Europe’s little Jerusalem

“My family has lived here for 300 years. In the street were I was born we lived like a big family in normal times; Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, Jewish people, and that was beauty. That was normal concurrence. From the moment you were born, you had to respect people who were different from yourself; your neighbours, you lived with them. We married each other, we went to school and university together, and that was the beauty of the multi-ethnic, normal society.”

Back at the tour, the traces of Sarajevo’s multi-religious past are evident. As Neno points out, Orthodox and Catholic churches are mixed in the neighbourhoods with mosques and synagogues. Today the majority of Sarajevo’s population is Bosnian Muslim, or Bosniak. Neno himself is of mixed heritage.

“My mother is Muslim and my father is Catholic, but my parents they don’t emphasise the religious or ethnic categorisation, they have more of a general, Bosnian identity. I feel Bosnian. When people ask me – what are you? I say I’m Bosnian Herzegovinian agnostic and people get quite confused like, what’s that? That’s not an official thing to be here.”

Neno and his family are reluctant to identify along the lines of ethnicity but he says that sometimes people do it out of necessity.

“People will say they’re Bosniak or Croat because its easier to get a job like that. Many of my friends are open-minded as well but I know that although they’re not religious at all, they will say they are Muslim to fit in the category of Bosniaks or that they are Catholic Croats, when they send in applications and ask for services. It’s beneficial to place yourself in one of those categories in order to fit in to the system.“

The system that Neno refers to is the one stipulated by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitution, which was established through the Dayton Peace agreement.

“The constitution is definitely preventing Bosnia from developing, because through the constitution we are not respecting the human rights of the minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina; like the right of Jewish and Roma people,” Neno points out.

He mentions the European Court of Human Rights case from 2009 where two Bosnian nationals, one Jewish and the other Roma, took on Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to challenge their constitutionalised inability to inhabit public positions in their home country, due to the fact that they did not belong to one of the three major ethnic groups. They won, but Bosnia and Herzegovina has yet to implement the constitutional reforms needed to enable minorities to participate or work within the now-ethnically quotated positions in the public sector and government.

Velid Šabić, advisor to the Institute for Research of Crimes against Humanity and International Law at Sarajevo University concludes that The Dayton Agreement was primarily made to stop the war.

“They were thinking: this is for now and later you will do the reforms which will improve it, but that never happened. The fact is that the Dayton agreement stopped the war but the Dayton Agreement also created a country, which is a bombshell and could explode at any time.”

Hard times

The situation in Bosnian society is indeed tense, agrees Neno Novakovic.

“People are not satisfied here. There is a lot of frustration. There is no welfare system or support. Young people are hit the hardest.”

The struggle to find work is the biggest issue. With a general unemployment at around 40 % and youth unemployment at over 60 %, the numbers speak for themselves.

“I finished my political science degree but to get job in Bosnia is very very difficult, especially in social sciences,” Neno says. After graduating he applied for many jobs but lacked the connections necessary to secure a position. Inspired by a trip to Budapest, he decided to start his own walking tour company instead.

The tour group crossing the Latin Bridge where Austria-Hungary Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Photo by Beata Thor
The tour group crossing the Latin Bridge where Austria-Hungary Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914. Photo by Beata Thor

It is not uncommon for people to end up in professions other than those they studied for, he says.

“Many people also start their studies but drop out, so in the end we have a very low rate of highly educated people. Because while they are studying they might get a job and that is like winning the lottery in Bosnia. If it happens, you don’t ask your employer to take time of for exams. You need to choose straight away if you want to work or study.“

The lack of job opportunities for the educated has also prompted many young graduates to leave their home country.

“Many of my friends have left. Another one is leaving in 10 days. ‘I love this country,’ he said ‘but I don’t see any future here.’ So now he is going to Germany.”

Neno wants to stay in Bosnia but he is not certain for how long,

“I still have some hope. But if in 10 years things are still like today, then I will very seriously consider leaving as well.”

Freelance journalist and fellow Sarajevan, Merima Mulic have also taken note of the many young and talented Bosnians currently leaving the country.

“I believe in five or six years the country will be heavily affected by brain drain. A lot of people my age are leaving. I’m 33 years old and my generation is expected to carry the country forward.”

Merima says she used to expected things to change in Bosnia but as she learned more about the political dynamics of her country, that changed.

“Now I understand the reality and I don’t expect anything to change anymore. I only hope that our leaders will realise that we cannot go on like this forever.”

When asked if the Bosnian citizens could still be inclined to push for reform she says people are to busy with their own lives to take action.

“Like me, they have jobs and don’t want to be fired. They have families, responsibilities and the system doesn’t give you any support so you have to fight for everything. If you have to fight for everything, if you have to look out for yourself, be patient and keep your mouth shut. Everyone is careful.”

“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asks from across the table at the modern coffee bar in one of Sarajevo’s upper-end shopping malls, where we are seated.

“You have to be a smoker to live in Bosnia. If I didn’t I would kill somebody,” she laughs.

Big words

“We talk about politics, but I think that there is a problem,” Neno Novakovic says.

“When we talk in Bosnia, we are very loud but when we need to actually do something, we are not very loud. You might have heard about those demonstrations we had two years ago.”

Neno is talking about the protests that spread over Bosnia in February 2014.

“I remember standing there with my friends, freezing. We saw people we know, passing by and giving us looks that said ‘what are you doing standing there? You will not accomplish anything’. But in the beginning, we were hopeful that finally the voice of people could be heard.”

“We’ve protested many times but it is funny, nothing happens,” says Merima Mulic.

”It can’t happen because if there is a good couple of guys in one of the parties and they want to change things and help us; they are blocked and their hands are tied because if the constitution and how our government works.”

The complex, multiparty system results in a never-ending series of political blockades and unresolved disputes as well an extremely slow-moving bureaucracy.

Fundamental disputes

Not only does the post-Dayton system still have an impact on the major practical aspects of life for the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are also less tangible issues that linger. The prefix “republic” in Republica Srpska, is one of those issues for some people.

“This is the first genocide that has happened in Europe since WWII. What happened here was filmed by camera, watched by the masses and despite that it happened in the heart of Europe,” Velid Šabić, from the Institute for Research of Crimes against Humanity and International Law, points out.

The verdicts from the ICTY are not enough for the victims of the war, says Sabic. Their main pain is that on the bones of their children the Republica Srpska was built, he says. Photo by Beata Thor
The verdicts from the ICTY are not enough for the victims of the war, says Sabic. Their main pain is that on the bones of their children the Republica Srpska was built, he says. Photo by Beata Thor

“The Bosnian-Herzegovinian part of the country is now called a federation while the Serbs get to call the other part republic. As a result of all of that tragedy, Serbians were given Republica Srpska, despite the genocide. You could say that they were awarded for what they did.”

The name Republica Srpska contains a lot of discrimination according to Neno Novakovic.

“It means the republic of Serbs, while there are actually also many other identities there. There are Bosniaks, and Croats that live there as well.”

Neno says one could argue that the name Bosnia and Herzegovina could also be considered more reflective of one identity. He points out however, that that name has existed since medieval times, long before the Ottoman Empire and Muslims first became a part of the Bosnian identity.”

The case of Karadzic

Speaking to Merima Mulic and Velid Sabic, the afternoon before the verdict in the famous ICTY-case against former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, their hopes and expectations of the potential outcome differed.

“I expect that the judgment will satisfy neither Bosnians nor Serbians,” Sabic said.

“Because Bosniaks are expecting too much but at the Serbian side there is a constant will to minimize what Karadzic did, he is still a hero at their side. They are trying to relativize the genocide and the crimes that he committed. “

Merima Mulic had a more positive outlook.

“I think that the Karadzic-judgment is our last chance to change the situation in Bosnia, to change the constitution. Otherwise we will be stuck, that for sure. The same show will go on for years.”

The case against Karadzic is special according to Merima because Radovan Karadzic is defined as a Bosnian Serb, which is different from the Serbian Serbs. She also points out that Karadzic knew everything that was going on and how the Serb forces were acting, and still gave them authority to go on.

“Those who know international law says that after Nuremberg, this is the most important case in the history of Europe, because the genocide took place in a part of Europe. If we want to learn from the past we need to punish those who are guilty.”

Merima believes that a certain aspect of the accusation against Karadzic holds particular importance.

“If he is sentenced for a genocide in Preijdor, a city inside Republica Srpska, it is reasonable to expect that we will have to reform our constitution. Him being sentenced for genocide there would mean that the Serb entity is based on a violation of international law. It is not legitimate anymore.”

To Merima, the Karadzic case is the only hope for Bosnia as a whole.

“We tried all kinds of reform but we are stuck with the constitution. We cannot go forward while we have this kind of constitution. So there is a national identity crisis still.”

When the judgment is pronounced the next day, Karadzic is sentenced to 40 years in prison, having been found guilty on all counts except one; the second count of genocide in seven Bosnian towns, including Preijdor, where he is only sentenced for the reduced charge of “extermination”. Merima’s hope for change are thus not realised.

A faded Sarajevo Rose. Neno explains to the group that this is a scar from the war in the concrete, caused by a Mortar shell and later filled in with red resin by Sarajevans to remember the pain. The roses can be found in streets all over the city. Photo by Beata Thor
A faded Sarajevo Rose. Neno explains to the group that this is a scar from the war in the concrete, caused by a Mortar shell and later filled in with red resin by Sarajevans to remember the pain. The roses can be found in streets all over the city. Photo by Beata Thor

“Many people are angry over the verdict, they say that it was not enough, only 40 years,” Neno Novakovic says a few days later.

“But for me what was important was the essence of it. I know that people are sensitive, because they lost family members, but its important what was in the end said, that he was sentenced for the siege of Sarajevo, the genocide in Srebrenica, the war crimes and ethnic cleansing.”

Neno agrees that a harsher verdict in the case could have been the starting point for constitutional change.

“So I think at the moment it will stay like this. I don’t think anything will be changed. I would love for things to change but when people ask me how, I don’t know. I don’t know how, but I would love to see it,” he says with a laugh.

It is not the hopeless or desperate Bosnia that Neno shows the tourist in his tours however.

“I want for you to see this country, not just as a war-torn country. For me Bosnia and Herzegovina is more than just the war.”

By taking his groups to the church that welcomes all the religions, the five-century-old public bathroom and the park where dozens of older men meet every day to participate or look on while others play the time-worn life-sized game of chess, Neno illustrates the persistence sense of openness, stubborn quirkiness and community that still lives on fiercely within the Bosnia people.   

The chess set was a gift from Switzerland after the war. Since then, it has been lovingly used by the elder men of Sarajevo. Year round, rain or shine, they gather here to play. Photo by Beata Thor
The chess set was a gift from Switzerland after the war. Since then, it has been lovingly used by the elder men of Sarajevo. Year round, rain or shine, they gather here to play. Photo by Beata Thor

Power in the hands of others

The sense that Bosnia is dependent on help from the outside to move on is strong.
“The keys to our situation are in the hands of the international community. They are the only ones who can solve the problem here.” Says Velid Sabic. Merima Mulic also shares this sentiment.

“If you ask me, things could be changed only with high pressure from the international community, but they are not pressing because they are scared of escalating things here.”

They both believe that the only way forward for Bosnia and Herzegovina now is with the European Union.

“Once they accept you, you need to challenge every sector of your country. You are obligated to go with the reforms,” Velid Sabic reasons.

“Everywhere in the EU, there is a law against driving without your seatbelt on, so everyone puts them on. In Bosnia, there is no such law and no one ever wears a seatbelt. That is the simple explanation. We need EU-legislation. You respect the law because the reprimands are costly. In the EU, you cannot prevent anyone from to applying for a job or other type of position based on his or her ethnicity or religion, like here in Bosnia.”

According to Sabic the road towards solution should be easily navigated.

“It is only a question of the will of the international community. There is the issue of prioritising. It has similar features to the situation in Syria or Ukraine, were the conflict becomes a game of chess between the major powers of the world.”

He describes Bosnia and Herzegovina as being stuck between the west and the east, a tug-o-war where the Federation, mostly Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, wants to align with the European Union whereas the Republica Srpska is looking in the direction of Russia.

To Neno Novakovic, the EU membership application is a good thing.

“But I think we sent it too soon. Our politicians, they are presenting it as a proof that they have accomplished a lot but I ask –what have you accomplished? Young people are leaving the country so what does that say. I’m not very optimistic, but we will see.”

The tour ends in the courtyard of an ancient, ottoman merchant inn. Neno hands out homemade maps displaying recommended restaurants in the area while thanking the group for their participation. He urges them to spread the word about his business but also Bosnia and Herzegovina as a destination.

“Tell people that the war is over! It is safe to come here now and plenty to see.”