BiH after the war (1992-1995): Citizens of BiH want nothing more but to live a normal life

Cette page n’est pas disponible en français. Veuillez choisir une langue ci-dessous:

Article, 14.11.2017

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended more than twenty years ago, the country is peaceful, although the memories of war atrocities are still present. There is hardly any economic growth, the unemployment rate is high, and there are no political reforms. Despite all these challenges, the Ambassador of Switzerland in Sarajevo, Andrea Rauber Saxer, sees a ray of hope in this multinational country.

Read the interview with the Swiss Ambassador to BiH published at by Gaby Ochsenbein.

Swiss Ambassador to BiH Andrea Rauber Saxer
The fight against unemployment is one of the major goals of Swiss development policy, stated the Swiss Ambassador to BiH Andrea Rauber Saxer © Edvin Kalic for Ladies In In spite of the international aid, including from Switzerland, there is a lack of political and economic reforms. Has the tripartite division of powers under the Dayton Agreement caused this standstill of the country?

Andrea Rauber Saxer: The Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina was created by the Dayton Peace Accords (1995.). The purpose was to stop those who were waging the war. Two Entities were created: Republika Srpska, mostly inhabited by Serbs and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, mostly inhabited by Bosniaks and Croats. The state is still based on this system. Constitutional reforms initiated in 2006 failed narrowly.

In my view, the system is not necessarily the problem as such, because the system could function if there was political will. In Switzerland, we have 26 cantons, which are not always in agreement. When problems arise, they are discussed about and compromise is sought. For this reason, we have been trying to bring the Swiss example into discussion, which should inspire the country to find its own solutions. Can a country, in which war-time atrocities have not been overcome yet, where thousands of persons are still registered as missing, and where not all war criminals have been convicted, move forward at all?

A.R.S.: I can notice a great desire of citizens to think of the future. The people are sick and tired of being reminded of the past over and over again and want nothing more but to live a normal life – like all other Europeans. The responsibility to deal with the current issues is therefore on politicians. I have reiterated this consistently in the political dialogue and tried to provide support to this end.

A year ago, the country submitted its application for membership in the European Union, thus setting its path to the future. This will not happen overnight, but it is the first step. Switzerland supports this goal. The stability of this country is in our interest because it lies on our doorstep. You have been Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina for a good year now. Do you see any progress?

A.R.S.: Achievements are emerging over and over again, for example in the health sector, which Switzerland strongly supports. Common standards have been agreed upon in the education of nurses. An instruction that encourages hospitals to acknowledge more competences to professional nurses has been adopted recently. While this is a technical rather than a political step, it is of huge importance for citizens.

In addition, the Labour Law was reformed, and two years ago the so-called Reform Agenda was adopted.  This is an economic program that enshrines various measures designed to bring the country forward.  The Government is committed to these objectives and we will provide it with support in implementing them. According to official statistics, the youth unemployment rate is about 50%, and those highly qualified seek their future abroad. How and where does Switzerland help the country to get back on its feet?

A.R.S.: The fight against unemployment is one of the major goals of Swiss development policy. Due to the above mentioned brain-drain phenomenon, the country is under great pressure, the time to act is limited, and failure to do so could drive its people away. We are helping the country to establish start-up companies and promote entrepreneurship. Another area where we provide support is the dual system of education, as an example of good practice in Switzerland. One of the problems is that the private sector here is relatively small with scarce apprenticeship opportunities. On the other hand, I have heard representatives of companies saying that they were unable to find eligible staff. This means that those looking for a job do not have appropriate competences. This suggests that the companies should clearly indicate their needs to the vocational schools. The positive side is that an increasing number of companies are willing to offer apprenticeship to young people or to give them an opportunity to come once a week to acquire practical knowledge. You will not learn how to cook if you only read cookbooks. How are things with foreign investments?

A.R.S.: Diaspora is particularly important. We are certain that people who speak the language and know local circumstances, and who retained a network of acquaintances in this country, are the first to invest. We see this on the example of Swiss investments. These are most commonly medium and small-sized enterprises connected in a way to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which realized that manufacturing costs are very low here. Switzerland supports this through favourable loans and information exchange. International forces, including Swiss soldiers, are still in the country to maintain peace. Is their presence still needed, 22 years after the war?

A.R.S.: I believe it is, in order for the local population to feel safe. Not because there is an imminent risk of recurrence of the conflict, but because many people are still quite traumatised. For example, last autumn, in Republika Srpska they had a referendum to decide whether 9 January should become a national holiday in Republika Srpska (meaning of one part of Bosnia and Herzegovina). This may be a trivial issue for us, but it is a rather sensitive topic in this country. On 9 January 1992, Republika Spska declared its independence, which triggered the war. Thus, celebration of this day is a huge provocation. The Bosniak side filed an appeal which was upheld by the Constitutional Court. The referendum was a response to this.

As a newcomer to this country, I was astonished to see such an outrage among the people, including those who are well educated. They feared the recurrence of conflicts arguing that this was how everything started back in 1992, with nationalistic rhetoric from all sides. This minimal international presence involving 600 soldiers is necessary as assurance of security. It is additionally important as a clear message to nationalistic politicians. It would be wrong to withdraw these troops now. We are able to read about an increasing influence of Islamist groups in Bosnia. Is it fair to say that this is a powder keg, taking into account the lack of perspective for many young people?

A.R.S.: During and after the war, the Arabic countries strongly supported their brothers in faith providing humanitarian aid and funding construction of new mosques. There were also the so-called non-governmental organisations here, supported by Arabic countries, which were primarily dedicated to promotion of the faith. Even Bosnian Muslims were sceptical about their activities, because the Islam practiced in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a moderate Islam. This is also the official position of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Undoubtedly, there are extremist groups too, even villages whose inhabitants practice extreme Islam. There are certainly Bosnians and Herzegovinians who fought for the Islamic State (IS), but it is an insignificant number. According to the statistics, a couple of hundreds of persons. The media overstated these numbers. Foreign fighters who return here are also arrested and convicted in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the past two years there were indeed two attacks by individuals, but this happens in other European countries as well. Still, I cannot confirm increasing radicalisation. Memories of the war are still present. How is the reconciliation process progressing in the country?

A.R.S.: Many are still affected by the posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the war. An expert explained to me recently that it does not affect only those who have personally experienced the war, but that it will reflect on the next generation as well. In this regard, Switzerland helps in building the so-called mental health centres. In many municipalities, these are places where persons with mental problems are treated in outpatient’s wards. Everyone who survived the war here has their own story. Even those who had left experienced the war in their own way. This cannot be processed easily. I have also heard that those who had left have more difficulties with reconciliation than those who stayed here. Because those who remained here also had some positive experience with the so-called other side. Every now and then someone tells a story about Bosnian Serbs or Croats helping Bosnian Muslims and vice versa.

Please visit the following link to read the article on German, Italian or French.  

Andrea Rauber Saxer at the Swiss Embassy in Sarajevo © Edvin Kalic, Ladies In

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina started in April 1992 and was ended by the Dayton Peace Accords on 14 December 1995. The capital Sarajevo was under siege for a total of 1,425 days, over 10,000 persons died. The death toll of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina is estimated at about 100,000. Members of the Army of Republika Srpska under command of Ratko Mladić, police and Serb paramilitary forces, massacred 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, a UN safe area, despite the presence of blue helmets.

The Dayton Agreement resulted in that everyone persists on their own interest and tries to reap political benefits. “The Dayton” did bring the peace, but that resulted in strong partisan influence on the economy and public system in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is more paralysing the political structures rather than helping them. While the ex-Yugoslavia was a single-party state, there are now easily at least three parties which control the state. 

Andrea Rauber Saxer has been Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina since September 2016. Before that, she was the Deputy Head of the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the OSCE in Vienna, and worked in other international organisations, as well as a Foreign Policy Advisor in two Federal Councils in Switzerland. She briefly worked as a lawyer with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague (ICTY).