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Ferguson: BiH is a beautiful country, but it has a problem with its image


British Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina Edward Ferguson, after his stay in BiH, decided to reveal his thoughts on the country in the form of a blog.

We bring you his blog in its entirety:

I arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina in July, and was lucky enough to spend a month improving my language skills in Mostar and in Banja Luka before arriving in Sarajevo to take up my post as the new British Ambassador.

I have decided to start a blog in order to share some of my own thoughts and, I hope, to encourage debate. Please do comment and contribute. I’d love to hear your views.

I thought I’d start by sharing some of my first impressions of this fascinating, if sometimes frustrating country.

This is a really beautiful country… Mountains, forests, lakes and rivers. This is my sort of scenery. I can’t wait to explore more of your beautiful cities and countryside. Some of my personal highlights so far include: watching people jumping from Mostar’s stunning old/new bridge; following the beautiful River Vrbas from Banja Luka to Jajce; drinking coffee in Bascarsija in Sarajevo; and enjoying the tranquillity of Blagaj and Prokusko Lake. You have so much to offer to tourists.

… but it’s under-developed and undiscovered. Unfortunately, BiH has an image problem. When I told friends in the UK I was coming here, the first reaction of most people was to ask whether it is safe. Many tourists seem to come from Croatia for the day, and so the economy doesn’t get the benefit. If BiH is to attract more tourists, it needs some focused investment. Most of all though, it needs to exude stability. It needs a government that is getting things done, and making sure that people around the world are hearing stories about political reconciliation and positive development. Early re-opening of the National Museum by the new government would send a strong signal of intent.

I can’t tell people apart… I have met hundreds of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. I can’t for the life of me tell who is who. They have almost all been warm and generous people, with a sense of humour. I was amazed to find the Peckham Pub in Banja Luka – a reflection of how popular British comedies like Only Fools and Horses or Monty Python are in BiH. People here can laugh together, so surely they can live together. Certainly, most ordinary people whom I have met, whatever their background, religion or culture, share the same hopes and dreams, for themselves and their children. They want what people all over the world want: security, jobs, justice, education and health.

… but some politicians are determined to divide. It was wonderful to see how communities such as those in Maglaj and Doboj came together to help each other after the floods. It was also striking how uncomfortable this made some politicians, who have built their positions upon division and mistrust. What has shocked me most is the willingness to infect the young with the same unfounded ethno-nationalist fears and fictions. By segregating children from each other, some schools are practising a form of apartheid. Last week, I met 200 children who had come from all over BiH to perform a dance together in Sarajevo. They seemed surprised to discover that the other children were just like them. It is essential to break down these barriers, so that the next generation does not inherit the prejudices of this one.

There is real potential in this country… OK, so let’s be realistic. This isn’t the next Qatar or Brazil. But you have natural beauty, plentiful water, timber and minerals and, most importantly, masses of human potential. All over the world, there are examples of successful Bosnians – although that in itself is a sign of the lack of opportunities at home. Nevertheless, businesses in BiH have shown what can be done – in Gorazde, Teslic and Sarajevo, to name a few. There are sufficient resources in this country that there should be enough for everyone to offer a reasonable quality of life for themselves, their children and grandchildren.

… but Government contributes little to economic success. Many of the most successful businesses in this country succeed despite, rather than because of, the system. The British Embassy has been working with the Association of Employers in the Federation, and with others, to identify concrete economic reforms that are needed after the election: to simplify the tax system, to cut labour costs, to reduce bureaucracy and to modernise the social security system. All this will create a better environment for economic growth and foreign investment, after years of financial mismanagement at all levels of government. The current economic situation throughout the country is deeply serious. Whoever is elected in October has a huge responsibility to get the economy moving forward.

The international community has made mistakes… The Dayton Peace Agreement stopped the terrible war of the 1990s. However, it also created a constitutional arrangement – albeit originally only intended to be temporary – which has contributed to BiH’s slow political, economic and social development since the war. It bequeathed a political system that has locked in ethnic divisions, and excluded minorities – essentially helping to keep the same, wartime parties in power, while discriminating against those who might offer a unifying vision for the whole of BiH. The international community has to recognise that we have contributed to the challenges this country faces.

… but that’s no excuse. The system can be changed, by constitutional means, if Serb, Bosniak and Croat political leaders are willing to change it. The problem is that the situation suits them. It allows them to offer jobs to their supporters within what is probably the world’s most excessive bureaucracy, who in turn vote them back into office. And meanwhile the public have failed to hold politicians and parties to account when they fail to deliver. Despite the predictions of a low turnout in the General Election this month, I know that people in this country are not apathetic about politics. But many struggle to find parties and policy platforms which they can support. Nevertheless, people have to register their vote for change. It is still possible to reform this country for the better, and to fulfil its potential. Remember: if you don’t vote, then you voted for the winner.


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