Will threat to take away Bosnian politicians' EU visas focus minds?

By bne IntelliNews October 26, 2009

Kester Eddy and Nicholas Watson -

The depths of the EU's frustration with the inability of Bosnia-Herzegovina's politicians to find a compromise to fix the country's constitutional problems was apparent on October 23 as the European Parliament's rapporteur for Bosnia-Herzegovina urged the bloc to consider withdrawing permanent visas for the country's politicians of all parties for "failing to serve" their electorates.

Tensions have been rising in the country, which following the 1990s Balkan wars was split between the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb Republic, since a joint EU-US mediation effort aimed at ending three years of political deadlock ended on October 21. The fear is that with little chance of any break through before next year's elections, the country could fall apart in the meantime, possibly leading to violence.

In a wide-ranging attack, Doris Pack, who has 20 years of experience working in Southeast Europe, lambasted Bosnian politicians of all stripes for trying to elevate the two halves created by the Dayton accords of 1995 that ended the war into separate states and stressed that the only way the country will join the EU is as a single state, "nothing more, nothing less."

"If we cannot help the politicians to understand [the problems of ordinary people], then make them understand by taking their visas away. As long as they have visas, they don't feel how it is not to have them," Pack told a conference of business leaders in Sarajevo.

The issue over EU visas is a touchy subject in the region. The European Commission this summer recommended the scrapping of visas next year for citizens of the former Yugoslav states Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. The omission of Bosnia from the list caused particular resentment for Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), who point out they won't be able to travel freely, while Bosnian Croats will be able to because they have long used Croatian passports, for which visas were abolished some years ago, and Bosnian Serbs will now apply in large numbers for Serbian passports. "We now have the situation where Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia will get a visa-free regime from the beginning of next year - this is not because we like them more than Bosniaks or whatever; no, it is because they have fulfilled the benchmarks," Pack said.

Low benchmarks

Pack, who twice apologised for her harsh words, stressed the EU desperately wants Bosnia-Herzegovina to become a stable state, with EU membership down the line, but that progress will only come once tangible results in the political, legal and economic spheres have been achieved and made permanent.

Pack's tirade understandably unsettled Mustafa Mujezinovic, PM of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina of four months standing, who was sitting on the same panel. Mujezinovic declined to comment publicly on the criticisms and had earlier called for understanding for the government, which is seeking to negotiate the tricky path of satisfying the widely diverse demands of the ethnic and political power groups in the country.

However, what dismays the West is that some of the "benchmarks" that Pack was referring to shouldn't be so hard to meet. The plans put forward by the EU and US for constitutional reform were intended to resolve disputes over the nature of the state by modestly strengthening the central government at the expense of the two entities. But, as the Economist Intelligence Unit points out, the leaders of the three ethnic groups rejected the proposals for different reasons. Bosnian Serb Republic PM Milorad Dodik objected because the plans undermined the key principle of the Dayton accords, the establishment of a two-entity state, which he and other Bosnian Serb leaders hope will one day lead to full independence. The Bosniaks objected to the maintenance of a legislative veto for the entities, which has been used by the Bosnian Serb Republic to block change. The Bosnian Croats were unhappy at the maintenance of the two entities; earlier this year the three sides had reached an agreement in principle to replace the two entities with four regions whereby the Serb bit would remain unchanged while the Federation would be split into three parts, one of which would be Croat-dominated.

The West argues that the present arrangements simply don't work and are hampering the country's development toward becoming a full EU member state, something policymakers believe is the answer to finally delivering long-term peace to the region.

Pack described the present political arrangements in Bosnia as "crazy," "ineffective" and positively inimical to both domestic and especially foreign investment. "Entrepreneurs are hindered wherever [they go]. Particularly in the Federation, they have to go to the local authority for a permit, maybe they have to pay [a bribe], I don't know. Then the Canton [the same process], then the Federal government [the same process]. Can you imagine that any investor of normal thinking in Germany or Belgium or even Slovenia will go through all these crazy stages? And at the end you are in a country which has a crazy legal system," she said.

The German MEP's words were music to the ears of many businessmen present at the Sarajevo gathering, several of whom later explained their own woes at length. "We entrepreneurs pay almost twice the price for electricity as households - I don't think this is normal anywhere in Europe," a representative of businesses in Mostar told bne.

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Will threat to take away Bosnian politicians' EU visas focus minds?

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