The raw statistics document the extent of the horror. However, they are unable to express the immeasurable suffering that these figures stand for. The war in Bosnia claimed more than 100,000 lives. Two million people were displaced and tens of thousands of women raped. Once again, nationalism, long since believed to be a thing of the past, had been unleashed in the Balkans in bloody fashion, turning the former Yugoslavia into a huge battlefield. Twenty-five years ago today, on 14 December 1995, the time had finally come. The peace treaty between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, negotiated in Dayton in the United States with the mediation of the US and the involvement of the European Union (EU), was signed at the Dôme des Invalides in Paris. The Dayton Agreement marked the end of the war in Bosnia.
The genocide of Srebrenica is deeply etched in our collective memory as the darkest chapter of that war in Europe’s “inner courtyard”. The systematic murder of thousands of defenceless Muslim boys and men was without parallel in its brutality and dimensions in Europe after the Second World War. The atrocities committed before the eyes of the world have had a lasting impact on our perception of our responsibility in the region and for international peacekeeping as a whole. Peace and reconciliation in the Western Balkans became a litmus test for the long-term success of the European model.
The Dayton Agreement was a historic milestone on the path towards a more peaceful future. It made it possible to break free from a fatal escalating spiral of violence and counter-violence. The long-awaited peace agreement gave people the prospect once more of an everyday life without having to fear for life and limb. However, even though the violence came to a standstill and the guns fell silent, the Dayton Agreement did not bring about genuine reconciliation. To this day, the visible and invisible wounds of the war are omnipresent, be it the bullet holes in buildings along the streets or the painful memories of lost relatives, friends or neighbours. At the end of the day, the agreement also cemented structures that continue to stand in the way of cohesion in state and society to this day. It divided Bosnia and Herzegovina into a Bosnian-Croatian federation and a “Serbian Republic”, the Republika Srpska. Nationalism and ethnic segregation thus became a fundamental principle of the state structure.
The ethnic dividing lines in the country are still deep to this day. This is due not least to leading politicians who too often seek to divide rather than reconcile. The fact that there is still no national law criminalising the denial of war crimes speaks for itself. Those who unashamedly reinterpret historical facts, who neither refrain from worshipping convicted war criminals nor denying the genocide in Srebrenica, deepen these rifts. Targeted interference from abroad often exacerbates the agitation in question. Yet the common ground, the shared worries and needs, the desire for a bright future in a European Bosnia and Herzegovina should be in the foreground.
The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina today remains fragile. The country’s political system is highly fragmented, state structures are often unfit for purpose, and political blockades prevent more prosperous development. The economic situation is precarious, and unemployment figures are alarmingly high. Widespread corruption and considerable shortcomings in the rule of law also continue to be major obstacles on the path towards peace, democracy and prosperity. It is therefore hardly surprising that many young people no longer see any prospects at home and strike out in search of a better future abroad. Bosnia and Herzegovina is particularly hard hit by the brain drain. It is estimated that, by 2050, the country will lose more than a third of its population compared to 1990 – and thus a considerable amount of creativeness, passion and courage to dare to try something new.
However, as crippling as the circumstances in Bosnia and Herzegovina may seem, things are also moving in the right direction. We have, at a number of levels, seen dedicated people and encouraging developments that make a positive difference. There are, for example, inspiring young people who are committed to regional exchange and cooperation in the Western Balkan youth organisation RYCO or who join hands in the reconciliation initiative RECOM to lay the foundation for a common future. Pupils are opposing the ethnic segregation promoted by the authorities. The citizens of Mostar are finally participating in local elections again after more than 12 years. The recent adoption of the revised National War Crimes Processing Strategy also sends an important signal. In short, there is reason for hope. However, tangible progress is, still all too often, primarily made in response to external pressure, such as in the case of critical judgements of the European Court of Human Rights.
Across all social divides, an overwhelming majority of the Bosnian population is now united behind one major common goal: a future in the EU. Particularly among many young people, the united Europe of shared values has not lost any of its fascination. We must use this power of attraction and transformation wisely and strongly support the entire region as it moves closer to the EU. The EU has a special responsibility here. This makes it all the more important that we support the people in their efforts to achieve reconciliation and to overcome the economic and social upheavals of the coronavirus crisis. We must also support them as much as we can in building a strong and diverse civil society and focus even more strongly on the prospects of the younger generations.
Our promise remains, namely that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the EU. Bosnia and Herzegovina and the other countries of the Western Balkans must lay the groundwork for this future. Albania and North Macedonia have already achieved great things on their path towards the EU. They have consistently implemented an ambitious reform agenda and have not allowed themselves to be thrown off course by setbacks. With the resolution of the name dispute with Greece, North Macedonia has made history in the best sense of the word. The green light given in the spring for entering into accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia was therefore the correct, long overdue step to take. Now the initial accession conferences with the two countries need to follow as soon as possible provided the requirements for this have been met. Germany has strongly advocated this during its Presidency of the Council of the European Union. One thing is clear at the end of the day, namely that the EU must, for its part, keep its word and deliver. The accession process must not be put off because an individual EU member state holds it hostage to bilateral demands. We must finally make progress also in the case of Kosovo, where we have given our word as regards visa liberalisation. After all, a goal that is slipping further and further away from us is at risk of becoming a mirage – thus also losing its power of attraction and transformation. We urgently need positive signals for the Western Balkans now; nothing less than the credibility of the EU is at stake.
It is in our fundamental strategic interest to ensure the closest possible ties with the Western Balkans. If we do not do this, other actors who care little for our values will step into the breach. We must not allow this to happen in a world in which we are locked in fierce competition with authoritarian powers. If the EU were to fail in the Western Balkans, in our immediate neighbourhood – what would become of our aspiration to shape the world, of our capacity to play a role on the international stage? The EU must therefore significantly step up its engagement and raise its profile in the region. The new US administration will also expect us to assume greater responsibility in our neighbourhood. The election of Joe Biden as US President now presents an opportunity to work together again in the Western Balkans, together and with determination for peace, reconciliation and democracy.
Reconciliation remains a key to change and peace. The path of reconciliation is long and difficult, however, and demands a great deal of strength and courage from all sides. Twenty-five years after the end of the war, Bosnian society has still not found inner peace. New bridges must be built where old ones were torn down. It is important to create trust where hatred and hate speech set neighbour against neighbour; it is important to seek dialogue even where words have not been exchanged for a long time – for a peace in the “inner courtyard” of Europe that is much more than just the absence of war. However, the spirits of the past – nationalists and despisers of democracy, revisionists and those who seek to divide – have no interest in such a peace even in present-day Bosnia. They continue to sow discord, poison the social climate and block the path towards a European future. It is therefore high time to resolutely stand up to them and to banish them from the present in the interests of a better future – with poise, commitment and convincing arguments. After all, the toxic “success” of these spirits is not an insurmountable law of nature, not a fate with no alternative that we must simply accept, neither in Bosnia and Herzegovina nor elsewhere.