The situation in the Western Balkans has never been better and there are signs of progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where competition between the entities could be used positively if it is accompanied by political will, Valentin Inzko, EU High Representative and Special Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), told euractiv.de in an interview.
Valentin Inzko is High Representative and EU Special Representative for BiH, a joint position he has held since March 2009. From 2005 to 2009 he served as Austrian ambassador to Slovenia.
On 11 December, Inzko attended a high level conference on Southeast Europe organised by the Aspen Institute and the Austrian Foreign Ministry in Berlin.
He was speaking to euractiv.de’s Daniel Tost.
On 3 October general elections were held in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). How can four more years of stagnation be prevented?
One should look at the regional situation and the State Presidency of BiH. The regional situation has never been as good as it is now: we have seen important gestures, such as the Srebrenica declaration in the Serbian parliament in Belgrade and President Tadi? attending the burial of over 700 victims in Srebrenica in July this year. Even Croatian President Ivo Josipovic has brought a breath of fresh air to the region.
Bakir Izetbegovic also plays an important role as the new Bosniak [Bosnian Muslim] member in the Presidency. By apologising for the murder of innocent Serbian victims by Bosniaks, he has contributed to regional reconciliation. Overall, the communication and the atmosphere in the Presidency have changed considerably for the better. We actually have the best situation in the region in the last 20 years.
What is your evaluation of the Presidency's work so far? Do you already see progress?
Absolutely. At the beginning of November, I reported to the UN Security Council. For the first time, a speech agreed upon by all three members of the Presidency was read out by the current chairman, Nebojša Radmanovi?. This has not happened before. He also went to the OSCE summit in Astana and the NATO conference in Lisbon with jointly-agreed positions.
We hope this will have an impact on further levels – the federal government and the governments of the entities and cantons – and that this example will be followed. In this sense, I am confident.
You recently stated that a great leap forward for Bosnia and Herzegovina would be constitutional reform. Do you already see progress here too?
It is still too early. There will probably be no major leap – as desirable as it would be – but rather small steps. But overall reform is necessary for getting nearer to the EU; also for the issue of human rights, because there are 16 minorities here who cannot run for certain offices as they don't belong to any of the three constituent ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina [Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs].
A smaller constitutional reform is certainly possible. There will also be progress on the issue of military property. These would be important achievements that could restore hope to the country and be built upon. At the moment, however, coalition negotiations have not even begun as exploratory talks are being held. It would be premature to talk about content.
What recipe is there for the road to the EU?
The German-French one. Firstly reconciliation and coming to terms with history, then everything that Germany had: an 'economic miracle' like under Ludwig Erhard, goal-oriented work and political will. That is the most important thing.
Of course, constitutional reform is important too. Dayton was born 15 years ago and today we live in a different millennium. But with good political, a lot could be accomplished.
You once said that you want to encourage positive competition between the entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. How exactly would this work?
Firstly, one could ask which government is best. Who has the better economy, the better investment climate? Of course, this is easier in the Republika Srpska because of simpler regulations, but also because the administrative structure is simpler, i.e. centrally-directed, in the sense of a 'one-stop shop'. It is more complicated in the [Bosniak-Croat] Federation.
Further questions would be: who has the better schools, the better faculties, the better clinics? In Tuzla – which by the way means 'salt city' or 'salt castle'; 'Tuz' is a Turkish word – heart transplantations are carried out almost as a matter of routine. That is a big achievement and I hope for competition with the clinic in Banja Luka.
Who has the more respectable police, who has better television? You could apply this idea in many areas. We would have positive competition towards best practices. There used to be such a positive atmosphere. In the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia was among the most developed of the constituent republics. For example, there was a huge Volkswagen factory here. There were large construction companies, which were operating in Iraq, Iran and Libya, as well as pharmaceutical firms; this was a pretty good place to live.
Many Bosnians still own weekend homes on the Dalmatian coast. This should be possible once again.
You are attending the international conference 'Perspectives for Southeast Europe' in Berlin. What do you expect from this event?
I expect new incentives. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has received many Bosnian politicians. I particularly expect this conference – organised by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger – to strengthen the very good regional cooperation currently prevailing in the Balkans and make it visible.
Only if the countries of the region work well together will they also be positively received in Europe. Nobody wants to import disputes. This is confirmed by the presence of many of the region's foreign ministers at the conference.
Recently, the mandate of Althea [the EU's military operation in BiH] was extended in the German parliament. Under what conditions? When can we expect the operation to end?
I do not want to speculate on this. We are considering changing the mandate to a training mandate in the near future. The training aspect could become stronger and the classic functions taken back a bit.
In any case, there were 60,000 international soldiers at the beginning. Today they number less than 2,000. Again, you can see that the country is doing better. A huge presence is no longer necessary, but the concentrated presence we have today sends an important signal of stability and security to the population and should be maintained.
The EU's visa-free regime for Bosnians is to come into force by mid-December. How is the feeling in the country towards this?
There is great joy. Many spoke previously of a ghetto. Many have said that the Berlin Wall has slipped into Bosnia as a visa barrier. The elderly population can still remember the days of Tito, when everyone could travel freely with exception of dissidents. They are happy that this situation is returning. They see it as a sign that they are welcome in Europe as visitors – as individuals, but also as a country.
Before the decision on 8 November, there were concerns in EU member states about a surge of asylum seekers. Are appropriate measures being taken in Bosnia against such an event?
We are raising public awareness massively. I do not expect such a surge. People here in Bosnia are well-prepared and in my opinion there will be no such emigration movement. In addition, the country has committed itself to the repatriation of illegal emigrants.
In 2009, you spoke of a certain 'Balkan fatigue' in the EU. What is your assessment today?
Yes, there was a Balkan fatigue, an enlargement fatigue. But this was also due to the institutions, because Europe was being rebuilt. Only now do we have a High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy. Now Catherine Ashton has a secretary-general, Pierre Vimont, and he has his deputies, Helga Schmid from Germany and Maciej Popowski from Poland.
The structures are becoming clear now. Europe can now focus on issues more intensively. Even in the region, it is becoming clear that personal contributions are important. One could see this in Bosnia with the visa liberalisation: they had to meet 174 conditions, including issuing biometric passports. 400,000 of these have been issued so far and people are only allowed to travel visa-free with one of them. One has to consider this relation.
I mentioned that Chancellor Merkel received a number of Bosnian politicians. With Catherine Ashton and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who have already visited Sarajevo, I now see a new interest in the region. However, the homework – as the name suggests – still needs to be done at home and every country has to meet the conditions for enlargement, otherwise there is no convergence.
How is the current mood in Bosnia towards the EU?
Enthusiasm is still high. The mood is good and everyone is looking forward to 15 December [when visa liberalisation commences]. It is like a big Christmas present.