Glitz and Loathing in Sarajevo

SARAJEVO – It has been sixteen years since war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If commemorative coverage in the local media is anything to judge by, the war is still going on – the peace agreement made in Dayton, Ohio notwithstanding.

The war’s physical scars in Sarajevo have mostly healed. Several burned-out buildings still remain, but the rest have been repaired and renovated. The city actually looks better today than even in 1984, when it last received a facelift for the Winter Olympics. Old Austrian-era buildings, gone drab with soot and smog over the course of the 20th century, now sport light ochre, burgundy, beige and even green facades. Communist-built public housing in western parts of the city, once depressingly concrete-gray, now sports cheerful blues, greens, yellows and reds.

And yet, only the buildings are cheerful. The people grumble. Work is scarce. Those who do work are sucked dry by a myriad of taxes and fees, levied to support a gargantuan bureaucracy. Bosnia-Herzegovina has more government officials per capita than anyplace else on the planet. And after paying all the local, provincial and entity taxes, Bosnians pay a crushing 17% VAT on everything they buy.

Shiny stores filled with expensive goods line Sarajevo’s main streets, but there are few shoppers inside, and fewer buyers. The only burgeoning businesses are cafes, bars and eateries. There is never enough capital for entrepreneurs, but there is somehow always plenty of money for new mosques, or inflammatory war memorials.

The Saddest Show on Earth

This helps explain the anger with which the public – Serbs, Croats and Muslims alike – reacted to the bill currently debated in the state legislature that would regulate the salaries of government employees, including the members of parliament. While most Bosnians are supposed to scrape by with a few hundred marks (the country’s currency is the poorly-named "Convertible Mark" and is worth about .5 Euros), their legislators’ salaries and pensions would be greater than three thousand. Some government employees – like the head of the revenue service, or the postmaster – even have five-figure salaries. Ironically, it is Bosnia’s foreign overlords that have lobbied for such exorbitant government paychecks, believing them to be a barrier to corruption. Bribes, however, aren’t so much of a problem as the fact that government is the most profitable "business" in Bosnia today.

To make matters worse, occasional live TV coverage of the Parliament looks like a lowbrow reality show. Many of the legislators can’t string together a coherent sentence. Others communicate strictly through callous insults and outright slander. Diatribes and rants are common. There are a few honorable exceptions to the cesspool that is the Bosnian Parliament, but their presence only underscores the general rot.

Chasing EUtopia

Membership in the European Union is the self-proclaimed goal of most Bosnian politicians, no matter their ethnic affiliation; becoming a part of the Leviathan’s bureaucracy translates into job security and even juicier wages. The general public mistakenly believes the EU will somehow protect them from their politicians’ depredations; those more realistic would be happy with at least a chance to emigrate somewhere less kleptocratic.

The EU is demanding law enforcement reform as a condition for signing the Stabilization and Association Agreement – the initial treaty opening the arduous process of getting annexed by Brussels. The reform is not particularly necessary; what a variety of law enforcement agencies in the country need are jurisdictional arrangements, as well as better laws to enforce. Still, the Leviathan hath spoken, so the very same legislators who communicate with each other solely in invective are now expected to pass a police reform bill. Or rather, choose between the three currently on offer. Needless to say, optimism isn’t exactly rampant.

One thing that might make Bosnian Muslim politicians – currently against the proposed reform bills – reconsider their position is the EU’s apparent wooing of their favorite bete noire, the neighboring Serbia. This week, Brussels offered to sign the SAA with Belgrade prior to the country’s May 11 elections. EU’s foreign policy commissar, Javier Solana, advocated the move while letting his colleagues know that they could still torpedo the process later, in ratification. Reactions from Belgrade have ranged from "Thanks, but no thanks" to "Do us no favors," with even the pro-EU party of the incumbent President rebuffing the offer.

Meanwhile, the Serbian public TV showed a story about poor Bulgarians – EU members – trying to supplement their sorry incomes by peddling underwear and sundries at a street market in eastern Serbia. It was hard to miss the message: EU membership hardly means instant prosperity.

A Slight Witness Problem

One might recall that the EU was already supposed to sign the SAA with Belgrade earlier this year, but the deal fell through due to Belgian and Dutch objections concerning Serbia’s insufficient submission to the the Hague Tribunal. There’s hardly been a whisper about the ICTY from Brussels lately, though, following the acquittal of KLA leader and former "Prime Minister" of the occupied Serbian province of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj. Despite the ample evidence connecting Haradinaj with atrocities against both Serb and Albanian civilians during the KLA’s 1998-99 terrorist campaign in Kosovo, the Inquisition acquitted the Empire’s fair-haired boy in part because of a dearth of witnesses. They were mostly six feet under; Ramush’s fellow KLA are firm believers in Stalin’s maxim, "No person – no problem," and managed to bump off even three witnesses that were under ICTY protection, Serbian media claim. The Tribunal is playing dumb. Meanwhile, Haradinaj declared that the verdict showed the KLA had "fought the good fight."

Sic Transit Bush

George W. Bush was also full of the "good fight" when he stopped by Croatia’s capital last week, in between the NATO summit in Bucharest and a meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in the resort of Sochi. Life in Zagreb ground to a halt as the Croatian government fell over itself to impress the Emperor and his entourage. President Mesic and Prime Minister Sanader spoke much about partnership and alliance, but it was clear who was calling all the shots.

While some Croats were no doubt proud of receiving a NATO invitation and a visit from His Glorious Majesty in the flesh, others were more cynical. In a TV appearance, popular author Vedrana Rudan scoffed at Bush’s proclamation that NATO wouldn’t let anyone attack Croatia, saying that Slobodan Milosevic had promised the same sort of protection to the Kosovo Serbs in 1987, and that hadn’t quite turned out well.

Bush’s visit to Croatia was reminiscent of nothing so much as his sojourn to Albania last year. At least he got to keep his watch this time.

Renegade ‘Heroes’

In the week preceding Bush’s visit, the authorities in Zagreb were frantically trying to arrest Gen. Ivan Korade (ret.), who had gone on a shooting rampage in his home village, killing four neighbors. Once cornered, Korade shot and killed a police officer before he "committed suicide."

The weekly Feral Tribune commented that the government was all too eager to look away or react feebly in pursuing "former semi-literate laborers and thugs who thought themselves untouchable because they won the general’s clusters in the war." Claiming the toleration of abuses perpetrated by many "heroes of the homeland" was so ingrained in the political system that it was even impervious to the reality of their bloody hands and burning pockets, the weekly argued that the myths about the war and its heroes were rapidly crumbling, whether the authorities cared to notice or not.

All of this applies to Bosnia as well.

‘Change’ and Despair

In one essay published after his death, Nobel Prize winner and onetime Sarajevo resident Ivo Andric noted that "lengthy servitude and rotten governance can so confuse and corrupt the comprehension of a people, that it can almost entirely lose touch with both common sense and sound judgment. Such a deranged people can no longer differentiate not only between right and wrong, but even between what is beneficial and what is obviously detrimental."

This fits Serbs, Croats and Muslims alike. In Bosnia in particular, there is such cognitive dissonance that people seek to remedy their wretched condition through an increased application of the very same politics that have caused it in the first place. Instead of reducing the size and power of the government, and thus sidelining the main bone of contention between the country’s feuding ethnic communities, most Bosnians persist in the belief that if only better people could somehow be elected to run the rotten system, things would get better.

This sort of thinking has led the Academy Award-winning director Danis Tanovic to launch a new political party, "Nasa stranka" (Our Party), last week. Beneath the rhetoric of change and the allure of fame, however, the new party offers absolutely nothing new of actual substance. What Bosnia needs is less politics, less taxes, less state.

And that, so far, no one is even contemplating, much less offering, even as the country continues to slide down the spiral of despair.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.