Marion Kraske: The EU falls for the manipulations of nationalists

Only when enlightened citizens realize that they have rights and that they can and must use them to change the system for the better, something will change.

Marion Kraske Marion, after almost 6 years of working for the Heinrich Boell Foundation, you are leaving BiH for other work assignments. What has been the biggest challenge all these years?

The biggest challenge was to first point out the most necessary problems: alarming air pollution in several cities in BiH, which are among the most polluted in the world, which was almost completely ignored by politicians. One of our partners, Eco Action, then developed an application that shows the extent of air pollution. Together with our partners, we conducted training and informed the public that clean air is a human right. Most people in BiH are not aware of this. Or another example: gross human rights violations and cases of discrimination that have been on trial before the European Court in Strasbourg and that have made it clear that it is incompatible with universal values that some ethnic groups dominate the state system, while others are marginalized and excluded, such as a group of so-called "Others", including Roma and Jewish people. It should first be explained that this is an obvious violation of norms that have no place in the modern community in the 21st century. Political "elites" manipulate BiH daily and citizens have become accustomed to these inaudibilities, so much, that this abnormal situation with the violation of human and individual rights is considered "normal". Only when enlightened citizens realize that they have rights and that they can and must use them to change the system for the better, something will change. I think that this is the biggest challenge for us as a green foundation, to participate in the development of active citizenship. As Heinrich Böll would say: Those citizens see themselves as "Homo politikus" and actively advocate for their rights. One of your last activities as Director of HBS was to prepare and publish a publication on the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement. What is your opinion on the Agreement, should it be changed or would any change in it further destabilize BiH?

First of all, the Dayton Agreement was an important document for ending the war. However, the cost of this compromise solution was high: with the creation of the RS, the crimes that took place there were, so to speak, legitimized. In addition, a maze of various forms of discrimination and injustice has been created that now must be alleviated. The cases that have been discussed before the European Court of Human Rights - Sejdic-Finci, Pilav, Zornic and others - all show that the current BH constitutional system is not in line with European legal standards and must be changed urgently. Implementation must now have absolute priority for the international community, it cannot be that such fundamental judgments are simply not being implemented simply because the HDZ, SDA and SNSD do not want to give up any piece of that cake. The EU must finally take action here and increase the pressure: the state is not a self-service for nationalist parties, their favorites and relatives. The state must create the same rights and opportunities for all citizens. That is the main task. When this is resolved, then an important basis for catapulting BiH political system from the ongoing crisis can be created. The agendas of Milorad Dodik and Dragan Covic are going in a completely opposite direction. The prevailing ethno-nationalism must be stopped and must not be deepened further. The EU Delegation in Bosnia should be careful not to be subject to false narratives - such as the alleged threats to Croats.

One thing is for sure, the domination of the ethnic principle is the basic evil for a lasting crisis, which must now finally end. 25 years after the end of the war, BiH citizens, regardless of nationality or religion or sexual orientation, have the right to continue the sustainable dynamics of reforms here. It is no coincidence that the following principle stands right at the beginning of the German Constitution: Human dignity is inviolable. This constitutional principle is of fundamental importance, because it is about the people, not about the party, the nationalist current, or the clan.

Heinrich Böll has repeatedly emphasized in his works that the individual must be put in focus. The individual and his rights have been almost abolished, because the Dayton Constitution has reduced them to ethnic groups. Expert in constitutional law, prof. Nedim Ademovic states that the negotiators then, in the fall of 1995, unfortunately did not think about the future of the state when they created the Dayton system. And that is exactly what must be done now: the idea of a democratic, anti-discrimination, European and more peaceful BiH must be placed at the center of all the efforts of international actors. We need to bring end to the 1990s agenda. BiH is, as many thinkers say, a "captured country." Who keeps her captive? Domestic politicians, ethno nationalists, criminals or someone else? And where are the citizens in all this?

Yes, it is a "trapped" system in which political elites have taken almost every corner of the country for themselves and used their influence there, as we last saw in the HJPC. You literally can’t make a state with captive institutions. The state is currently in a brutal state of affairs, as described by Thomas Hobbes, in which political chaos and anarchy reign as nationalist parties take what they want. Citizens are marginalized in this system, they are not even allowed to run for certain positions, as is the case with Azra Zornic. When I explain to politicians or colleagues in Berlin or Brussels these “BiH realities”, they cannot believe, this fact seems so absurd to them. It is grotesque that an EU member state, such as Croatia, also participates in open action against the civil principle - thus one EU member directly contributes to the fact that we are maintaining prehistoric injustice here. In this regard, 25 years after the end of the war, there should be a critical exchange between Brussels and Zagreb, and any outside intervention should be stopped.

The civic state is the foundation of democracy, including the EU. Anyone who openly says he is against this, is obviously opposing the pacification of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And that must be stated very clearly. Instead, unfortunately, we see that international actors sometimes ignore citizens as political entities, limit their spheres of activity, we call this "narrowing the space" for civilian actors. The best example was the "dirty agreement" in Mostar, in which the EU delegation helped the agreement between the two extremist parties to be concluded in a non-transparent manner, while largely ignoring the will of the citizens. That is why we gave civil society and the opposition the opportunity to exchange ideas at a citizens' forum organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The criticism of the EU was clear: Citizens and reformers do not want double standards, they do not want strange attempts by international actors, they are not "laboratory mice", as Sabina Cudic recently said. BiH citizens want the same standards that apply in the EU. This, above all, means equality, civic and human rights. And not some standards that do not exist anywhere in the world, such as "legitimate representation" for only one party, as propagated in the HDZ BiH.

The EU Delegation and the EU Commission should take this criticism of the citizens seriously, as otherwise it will contribute to the continued support of corrupt nationalist actors - and support the already alarming mass exodus from BiH. But then they are not part of the solution, but part of the problem. As analyst Tanja Topic recently correctly analyzed at the event of the Foundation in Berlin on the Dayton Agreement: there is obviously a Balkanization of international actors in BiH. And their goal should actually be democratization. In your public appearances, you have often said that the main culprits for Bosnia's status quo are "ruling narratives". What kind of narratives are they really about?

In fact, the BiH political system is full of manipulative narratives: Each group of constituent people uses certain narratives - and they all want to be victims. But nowhere in these narratives is it mentioned that Serbs and Croats in particular were primarily perpetrators. That is how Serbs deny the genocide in Srebrenica. A law banning genocide denial needs to be enacted urgently, because denial creates the basis for new crimes.

Croats deny the fact that the so-called Herceg-Bosna project was also a systematic war crimes project. The Hague war crimes tribunal sentenced a total of 111 years in prison for organizers such as Praljak and others. The flag of Herceg-Bosna is now flying everywhere in Croat-dominated areas, for example in western Mostar, and it should be banned - just like genocide denial. Public honors and decoration of war criminals of any kind should also be a criminal offense.

Wrong narratives are to blame for murderers and rapists becoming heroes. But murders, systematic rapes and displacements are by no means heroic deeds, they are crimes. Accordingly, Karadzic, Mladic, Praljak, Boban and others are not heroes, they are criminals responsible for the worst crimes on European soil after the end of World War II.

All this belongs to the history books of all schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the Nazi era, Germany had only one chance to develop into a democratic community because Allied forces forced us to face crimes committed, for example, by our grandfathers during the war. I learned this in school, as did entire generations of German students. And such an enlightenment approach must also be anchored in the education system in BiH. A crime is a crime - it doesn't matter if a relative was involved. When I saw photographs of Holocaust victims in my history textbooks, exhausted figures in concentration camps, I was so shocked that since then I have basically always worked on the subject, as a journalist and publicist for German state television ARD, for Der Spiegel magazine and now for the Heinrich Böll Foundation. This is a topic I will pass on to my children: We Germans put immense guilt on us in World War II. Parents must teach the younger generation a critical distance from historical events. Unfortunately, nothing has been achieved in BiH in this regard in the past 25 years. Therefore, the urgent priority of the international community should be to launch decisive corrective measures. Without confronting the real crimes of the Balkan wars, without clearly naming the offense and the offender, there will be no reconciliation, no lasting peace. Also, families in BiH must begin to renounce respect for "their own perpetrators." Who wants their children to learn that murderers and rapists are heroes just because they allegedly promoted their own ethnic goal? This lays the foundations for a new generation of radical nationalists. We see that politics, as well as narratives in BiH, are ruled all the time - men, who dominate in parties and in all positions of power. Is more women in power actually the solution? Does BiH have its own Angela Merkel?

Dubious actors with dubious agendas dominate the political system in BiH, in which are the destructive policies of Greater Croatia and Greater Serbia, Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic - we recall the historic meeting in Karadjordjevo, where the two divided BiH among themselves – continue to live on. Through these programs, Zagreb and Belgrade are de facto holding BiH hostage in order to further develop as a state. Internally, it is a patriarchal system dominated by men who turn criminals into heroes in order to stay in power, instead of taking responsibility for all citizens. If we understand politics as a means of solving economic and environmental problems, then we must understand that in BiH there are certain actors who do not do their job as politicians. There is no political will, which is why Bosnia and Herzegovina is worse positioned than classical developing countries in many areas (for example in environmental protection, where BiH was last positioned between Barbados and Lebanon[1]), in the inclusion of women and in issues of equality, in economic performance, etc.

There are studies around the world that show that the peace processes involving women give more durable and sustainable results. The pandemic has shown that those countries ruled by women cope better with the threat of coronavirus, such as Angela Merkel in Germany.

Women are not better humans, but they tend to work for the common good. We see this in BiH as well. Wherever work is done on better environmental protection, on equality, on democratic reforms, women are more represented – as is the case with civil society. For example, brave women from Kruscica, who fought against a suspicious hydroelectric power plant, publicist Stefica Galic, who does not want to side with nationalism and falsification of history in Mostar, Irma Baralija, who led the scandalous failure to hold SDA and HDZ elections in Mostar to Strasbourg , or Sanela Klaric and Nasiha Pozder, which contribute to the fact that there are more environmentally friendly, sustainable policies that did not exist before. But also David Dragicevic's mother, who did not want to allow human life to be erased simply because it suited some criminal clique. All of these women show that women are a driver of reform around the world. In BiH, of course, most women are not yet aware of this power. This is something that still needs to be learned and that our foundation is doing. The latest attacks on two women who dared to be different on the political scene (Baralija and Cavar) show how women who raise their voices pass. The increase in violence against women is also an evident phenomenon in this society. Why are women today so disenfranchised and marginalized both economically and politically?

Violence against women is a widespread problem in the Balkans that many like to keep quiet about. According to an OSCE study, more than 50% of women and girls have experienced violence, an alarming number. Violence includes not only physical but also psychological violence. Verbal attacks on two Mostar politicians showed that women were not accepted as independent political actors. Day by day, male politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina either do nothing for the general public or damage the whole system with corruption and exploitation - and there is no critical discussion about that. But when two women make political decisions that do not fit the pattern of corruption, they publicly rise to the "pillar of shame." This once again shows that there is an urgent need for change here. The ethno-nationalist concept must be demolished, as we recently demanded in the publication "25 Years After Dayton - Ways to a Democratic and Prosperous BiH"[2] by several top authors, including the Chairman of the Board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Ellen Ueberschär, former High Representative, prof. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, prof. Jens Woelk and Manuel Sarrazin, a member of the German Bundestag in front of the Green Party. It is obvious that the current ethnic concept, together with the patriarchal system, encourages the boundless capture of the state. And with that, the plunder of state resources and budgets.

Unfortunately, politically united men in BiH have not yet realized that the system does not belong to them and that in the 21st century they cannot simply act at their own discretion, to threaten or blackmail as they consider appropriate. These are the approaches of feudalism from the Middle Ages. Corrections are urgently needed here, also by the international community. International actors should finally start supporting those forces that work on democratization on a daily basis and that demand human rights. So far, there has been a lack of strategic support - both from politicians willing to reform and from civilian actors.

For example, the Heinrich Böll Foundation recently organized an event[3], where we talked to four interesting women about future visions for BiH - and it was obvious that these women had what it took to move the country forward. However, women should also learn to purposefully support each other. There is a certain lack of solidarity among women in BiH. That is why there is no national women's movement, which must change urgently. If women - and they are the strongest social group with about 50 percent - become aware of their power, they can act much more effectively in politics - and the political system would be different. You have been a part of the international scene in BiH for years. What is the role of the International Community and what should it be?

The international community made a critical mistake in 2005/6. when it introduced the principle of "local ownership", which can be a nice idea if the conditions are right. In the case of BiH, this transfer of responsibility to local politicians was premature. The project failed and it brought BiH back years ago by exposing itself to total paralysis. Let’s be honest: the only significant reforms in state-building have been initiated by high representatives, and political elites have so far refused to take decisive steps towards reforms. That is why BiH is at the bottom of the region when it comes to EU integration.

Local ownership requires that we have responsible politicians who put the common good first, who are aware of their responsibilities and who want to further develop the country. Sad BiH reality is that political actors, especially Milorad Dodik and Dragan Covic, want to destroy the state. Together with Bakir Izetbegovic's SDA party, there are three large blocs that divide the country into spheres of influence and find it difficult to deal with factual politics - - it is always about ethnopolitical games of power, maintaining power, destruction - on the other hand, BiH's great potential is hardly used.

I would like the international community to recognize this and act accordingly. Instead, they constantly fall prey to these manipulators. The latest example of this was the Mostar agreement, with which the EU delegation showed that it clearly does not see through the games of nationalist forces and fell for their tricks.

The result is devastating: elections have been held, but in this corrupt system, elections are not what they are in other countries. With this dubious "agreement", the EU continued to court and legitimize nationalists, and the will of the citizens was ignored. Now the biggest danger is the changes to the election law demanded by the HDZ. If the EU delegation allows what is on their minds - namely, establishing a zone of influence of one party - it will basically do exactly what, according to the Venice Commission, it should not do: deepen the ethnic division of BiH. Anyone who wants the democratization of BiH cannot give in to it (HDZ BiH). According to renowned constitutional experts, such as prof. Jens Woelk, pending constitutional changes (Sejdic-Finci and others) should be given priority anyway in order to finally implement the Strasbourg verdicts that have been waiting for years. In this context, changes to the election law could then be approached in a moderate way and in line with the EU. That would be a reasonable solution. Anything else would mean permanently missing the opportunity for the normalization and democratization of BiH.

Marion Kraske, political analyst and expert on the Balkans (2015-2021 Director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Sarajevo office)