It was the 29th minute of the decisive World Cup qualifying match in March between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece. A midfielder, Zvjezdan Misimovic, a Bosnian Serb, delivered a beautiful pass to a striker, Edin Dzeko, a Bosnian Muslim, who headed the ball into the goal. The multiethnic teamwork led to two more goals and 3-1 victory, positioning Bosnia-Herzegovina as a favorite to qualify for its first-ever World Cup.
But when the match ended, the 16,000 fans attending the Bilino Polje stadium in Zenica, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, returned to their ethnically divided reality. More than 18 years after the bloody Bosnian civil war finished, the political parties still disagree on core issues. What’s more, a carrot that has motivated the sides to at least try to work together — accession to the European Union — is now ever more distant, adding to the political stalemate that halts any real state-building.
Of all the new countries created when Yugoslavia collapsed, Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose population is 48 percent Muslim, 37 percent Serb and 14 percent Croat, remains the most politically complicated. The brutal three-year war, in which Serbian forces massacred thousands of Bosnian Muslims (also called Bosniaks), ended with the intervention of NATO and a United States-brokered peace agreement. The pact, which was supposed to provide a basis for cooperation among the different ethnic groups, proved to be incapable of healing the wounds.
The violence stopped only through the presence of United Nations-led peacekeepers, but aside from the national soccer squad, there has been little teamwork among Bosnia’s ethnic groups. This is why a European-led mission has been operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2004, after the UN stabilization mission ended, and why the UN Security Council holds twice-a-year debates on the matter, one of which is on May 14.
A decade ago, the European Union recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina as a potential candidate for accession. Since then, Europe has been providing the Sarajevo-based government with financial assistance. Despite the aid, the country remains divided between two autonomous entities. The federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina controls 51 percent of the land and is inhabited mostly by Muslims and Croats. Republika Sprtska occupies the rest and is mostly populated by Bosnian Serbs. Europe has made it clear that until Bosnia-Herzegovina carries out constitutional reforms to create one ruling government, it cannot even apply for membership.
Last month, the lack of cooperation among the country’s political parties led to a rift with the sponsor from Brussels, causing a disappointed Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, to release a statement in which she called on citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina to hold their leaders to account.
The US mission to the UN addressed the problem in a statement at the Security Council debate, saying that “politicians throughout the country seem more interested in putting their own personal political agendas above the interests of the citizens they were elected to represent.”
Trying to isolate who is to blame for the Bosnian politicians’ failure to cooperate yields mixed responses as responsibility seems to lie on all sides.
“It would be misleading to pick one political party or one ethnic group to blame for the obstruction of EU-required reforms,” said Anes Alic, executive director of ISA Intel, a Sarajevo-based consulting company. “The issue is that the representatives of each of the three main ethnic groups has a different view of how the country should be run, and none is willing to compromise.”
Opinion polls have shown that a large majority of Bosnia-Herzegovina citizens support joining the European Union and believe that the country’s dire financial situation — highlighted by a 27.2 percent unemployment rate and a sharp drop in foreign investments — will improve if it meets European standards. In the last year, Bosnians have been, more than ever, feeling the effects of their stagnant economy, as public institutions like the National Art Gallery and the National Museum have been forced to close from lack of money. The director of the National Museum, Marica Filipovic, told The Guardian last October that national institutions had survived the war without ever totally closing but did not survive the peace. Furthermore, on July 1, when Croatia becomes a member of the European Union, there will be negative effects on Bosnian producers, who will lose their main export market.
“The situation has become dramatic and critical,” said Srecko Latal, a Sarajevo-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, an organization aimed at preventing conflicts. “Frustration, anger and dissatisfaction have been growing across the board, amongst all people, regardless of their ethnic or religious background. If this political, economical and social decline continues, then all options will be becoming more and more possible and open, starting with social uprising and god knows what else.”
Latal suggested that recently, Bosnian political leaders have been less motivated to compromise because further European Union enlargement, after Croatia’s entry, is most unlikely because of Europe’s internal financial problems. He did not expect Bosnia-Herzegovina to have a chance to enter the European Union for the next 15 years, regardless of what it does.
The national soccer team, on the other hand, needs only to beat the weaker opponents in its group — Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania and Slovakia — to ensure an historic qualification to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. These days, that might be the single good news the future holds for citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Yermi Brenner reports on migration and other sociopolitical issues for Al Jazeera, Global Post, Deutsche Welle and other publications. He is based in Berlin and is a graduate from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @yermibrenner.