Bosnia and Herzegovina still has many reforms to undertake, but its people need encouragement on their journey to integration with the West, Sven Alkalaj, the country's foreign minister, told EURACTIV Germany in an exclusive interview.
Sven Alkalaj has been foreign minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2007. Prior to assuming the post he was his country's ambassador to the USA, Belgium and NATO. Alkalaj, who is of Sephardic ethnicity, is one of the most prominent Bosnian Jews.
He was speaking to EURACTIV Germany's Daniel Tost.
What are the main issues that the new government of Bosnia and Herzegovina will have to deal with?
I want to mention one important issue we must deal with immediately after the formation of the new government: we have to align our constitution with the European Convention on Human Rights based on the judgement of the court in Strasbourg.
Our constitution is currently very discriminatory. It does not allow citizens of Bosnia who are not part of the three ethnic groups to put forward their candidacy for, let's say, the presidency of the country.
A number of institutions globally have realised this and given recommendations. The US Congress, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament have mentioned the flaws of the Dayton Constitution and gave recommendations what should be done.
Is there political will to make these changes?
There is no critical mass, especially within the entity of Republica Srpska. We have to look for different ways and means to move forward.
One of the important steps would be allowing Bosnia and Herzegovina to present its application for EU candidate status. So far, the European Commission has been setting up conditions for Bosnia and Herzegovina to submit its application, giving five principles plus two conditions (the 5+2 agenda). However, this could not possibly be implemented for at least the next two years.
Other countries from the region, which are not as complex as Bosnia and Herzegovina, will be able to move further and this will widen the gap between countries in the Western Balkans.
A year ago you spoke about the mood in Bosnia towards the EU having reached a new low. Now you have a visa-free regime. How is the mood today?
Our citizens and government needed some recognition for the process of reform. The visa-free regime was a very good and clear signal. This decision was merit-based, and we fulfilled all the necessary requirements from the roadmap. The decision is very welcome and serves as a very good incentive for the citizens to work harder on implementing further reforms on the path towards EU membership.
We are speaking on the fringes of the international conference 'Prospects for South-Eastern Europe'. What are your expectations from this event?
I am participating in this conference for the second time. I was here last year. This meeting of government officials, thinkers and parliamentarians is an excellent opportunity to exchange and discuss different views and positions.
It is important to know that the Western Balkans play an important role geographically in Europe. It makes a lot of sense to discuss the European path of the countries in the region as well as the special meaning of full NATO membership. This is a very important incentive for reforms to be conducted.
Without the important goal of joining these exclusive clubs (the EU and NATO) it would be rather difficult for the politicians in these countries to get the populations to accept all the reforms. In many cases the reforms are not easy and sometimes they are painful. But one has to put one's house in order. What is good for 27 should be good for other countries as well.
From the standpoint of Euro-Atlantic integration we are practically surrounded by countries who are members of the EU and who are members of NATO. It's just a matter of time until we fill this grey area. Of course, it always depends on implementation of the necessary reforms and it is a merit-based process: some countries are faster, some slower.
Bosnia Herzegovina is slower because of its complexity. It is operating on the Dayton Constitution, which was a side-line by-product of the peace negotiations. Obviously, we need to amend our constitution in a positive way, in the sense that European values are embedded in it.
During the economic roundtable at the conference, Herbert Stepic of Raiffeisen Bank International spoke of enlargement fatigue in the EU. German diplomat Dietrich von Kyaw decidedly disagreed. What is your impression?
I am not quite sure. I will address this issue from the position of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For Bosnia and Herzegovina, joining NATO is of utmost importance. It can be done in four or five years. We are in a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is a contractual deal with NATO. We are participating in NATO missions such as ISAF. I believe we should concentrate our efforts on becoming a full-fledged member of NATO. If we look at the new members of the EU and NATO, we can see they first became members of NATO before becoming EU members.
For Bosnia and Herzegovina the EU membership perspective is a little bit down the road, somewhere around 2020. We don't even know what the European Union will look like by 2015.
But we should be continuing our work on reforms and as I said: what is good for 27 should be good for us as well. So I would like to advocate that the EU should not close its doors. It would be counter-productive for the Union not to talk about the countries of the Western Balkans.
Bosnian Deputy Foreign Minister Ana Triši?-Babi? stated during the conference that the Office of the High Representative (OHR) should be closed. US diplomat Thomas Countryman stressed that the Office is not hindering progress, rather the inability of the executive powers to make difficult compromises…
I share the opinion of Mr Countryman. We in Bosnia and Herzegovina have different opinions: Serbs within Bosnia and Herzegovina are advocating that this Office should be closed. I have a different opinion. The OHR fulfils its mandate until the full implementation of the Dayton Peace Accord, which is its main mandate.
At the moment the role is double-headed: one is the implementation of Dayton. The second is EU accession. As we come closer to the EU it becomes an enormous task. I am advocating that the Commission should split this into a strong EU special representation, which would focus on EU accession only and on finding modalities to move forward towards the EU. The OHR should be fully focused on the implementation of Dayton.
What role is Turkey playing at the moment?
I was personally involved in a number of trilateral meetings with Serbia and Turkey, as well as with Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Turkey. In terms of regional cooperation, it helped us to overcome bilateral problems. Turkey has no aspiration to dominate the process. I see a very a constructive role of Turkey and no perspective of creating a Neo-Ottoman Empire.
How are your relations with Serbia?
I believe the situation with Serbia has very much improved. Serbia is an important trading partner and also a neighbour, and we have signed a number of bilateral agreements, in every sector of cooperation between our countries. There are very few open questions, which should be resolved. But there are no major issues.
As Serbia is shunning this conference, are they missing an opportunity?
Of course they are. I do not know why exactly they are not participating at this level, but I see that the Serbian ambassador serving in Berlin is here. An ambassador would not take any action without clearance from his head office, so I assume that Serbia is participating.
Recently the EU's Special Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, said he wants to animate a sort of positive competition between your country's entities. What do you think of such an idea?
I don't know about that kind of approach of the OHR. I would rather try to work hard for more systematic law enforcement at the level of the state, which should be aligned with the laws of the entities. At the moment it is very complicated. How can we have a unified economic area if we do not have harmonised laws?
For example, until yesterday we had different tax laws, which was very unreasonable. So first we should be harmonising laws in the entities and then try to improve them in order to create a better investment climate.
I would like to say that the law that we are now operating on state level for foreign investments is one of the most liberal laws in Europe, even. We developed it together with the European Union, and there is no sector where you cannot invest, and I think the right environment is there.
Thomas Countryman said he believes that rule of law is a short-term problem, whereas he sees ethnic segregation as a long-term one. Would you agree?
I would put ethnic segregation on the top of the list right now. It exists now more than ever. If you look at the results of the elections in October, you could clearly see how ethnic segregation has been on the ground. Look at the members of parliament from Republika Srpska coming to the State Parliament. There are no other ethnic groups, only Serbs.
I believe the most urgent problem is segregation: segregation in education, in schools and among the population, which is based on the inefficiency of the laws and flaws of the Constitution, in the sense that entities try to act as states, which is not possible, not tolerable and not foreseen by the constitution.
Of course the implementation of rule of law is imperative. I would also advocate establishing the Supreme Court in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Inzko also spoke of the visa-free regime as something of a Christmas present that everyone is very excited about. What is your assessment?
I wouldn't call it a present. It's nice it happened before Christmas. But it was high time for visa liberalisation for the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There should be no fear of an influx of immigrants. Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of four million people who mostly don't have the money to travel. Visa liberalisation has a much more important impact: that in the end people can travel freely to know and learn about Western values. Then people will listen differently to nationalist parties, which are brainwashing especially the young ones at the moment.
As a young student in the former Yugoslavia, I could travel without a visa and this formed my state of mind. I would like young people to get different opinions from the outside world. This world is not against them, but it's with them and helping them. That's the major benefit of having visa liberalisation.