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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Rebuilding And Reconciliation


At the end of 1995, after three years of war, Bosnia and Herzegovina was bloodsoaked. The conflict among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims – the so-called Bosniaks - had shattered Sarajevo and other cities, creating millions of refugees and displaced persons. The conflict triggered "ethnic cleansing," the slaughter of people based on what group they belong to.

In December 1995 the Dayton Agreement was signed, creating a federal Bosnia and Herzegovina made up of the Bosniak / Croat Federation of Bosnia and the Republika Srpska – the Serb Republic. The Dayton Agreement also created a presidency that rotates between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks.

With Dayton in place, the international community came to Bosnia and Herzegovina to work on constructing a government, economic development and to attend to the social needs of its people. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe spokesperson Elmira Bayrasli in Sarajevo says the response has been strong. "Over the past 9 years," she says "the government and people of Bosnia and Herzegovina have made great efforts to move the country forward and to build a better future for all their citizens regardless of their ethnicity."

When hostilities ended, helping people return to their homes became a top priority. NATO installed a force of about 60,000 troops to keep factions away from each other. A property commission was set up to resolve claims that homes and farms had been taken by others. Udo Janz, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Sarajevo, describes the massive scope of the refugee effort. "By the end of the war, we estimated 2.2 million refugees and internally displaced (persons)," he tells VOA. "By last month, we could officially record the one millionth returnee." The UNHCR representative says that more than half of those who have not returned so far have found residence in western Europe and will probably not come back.

Building a viable economy has been another major part of the effort to heal Bosnia and Herzegovina. Along with agriculture, the country was once a center of heavy industry. The plant shutdowns that followed independence contributed to significant unemployment – 40% according to recent estimates. But the head of the United Nations Development Project in Sarajevo, Jens Toyberg-Frandzen, says the real jobless rate is much lower because of the so-called underground or "gray" economy. "If you factor in those employed and not registered or having incomes in ways other than the formal market, that figure is down to about 16%," he says.

The UNDP pegs the underground or "gray" economy at about 30% of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s gross domestic product. The World Bank’s representative to Sarajevo, Dirk Reinermann, asserts that burdensome government is a major factor. "Either the taxes are too high, there are too many taxes, there are nuisance taxes, or they are being inspected seven times a year and they have to pay bribes to the inspectors," he says. According to Mr Reinermann, because of that, entrepreneurs say "'We stay out of all of that and we stay in the gray economy.'" World Bank’s Reinermann says regulatory laws clearly need to be made more business and investment friendly. Another problem holding back development is government spending, which consumes nearly 55% of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s gross domestic product.

Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina has its sights set on becoming a candidate for European Union membership. Working against that is the unresolved effort to bring to justice all of those accused of Balkans War atrocities. Former Clinton Administration envoy to the Balkans Jim Dobbins says there are repercussions to the Republika Srpska’s reluctance to assist the International Criminal Tribunal for (the former) Yugoslavia – the ICTY – at The Hague. "It’s a continued source of irritation, and it’s a continued obstacle to Bosnia’s integration into NATO and the European Union," the former ambassador tells VOA. Two prominent Bosnian Serbs remain fugitives from ICTY justice – leader Radovan Karadzic and general Ratko Mladic – despite a global manhunt.

In all, Bosnia and Herzegovina has made a remarkable overall recovery from one of the most vicious conflicts of the late twentieth century, with its ethnic factions keeping a fragile peace and its economy struggling to become competitive. But in the view of Ambassador Dobbins and many others, Bosnia and Herzegovina will continue to need international assistance and oversight for perhaps a generation to come.

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