While Bosnia and Herzegovina has made some progress throughout the past few years, “significant reforms” are still needed to improve the lives of the citizens, outgoing US Ambassador to Bosnia, Maureen Cormack told N1 on Thursday.
“I’ve been very clear during my time here that I think that all too often politicians are allowed to distract citizens, the media, all of us, from the real issues with these side-issues such as these symbols, these rhetorical issues that they do so well,” she said, referring to an ongoing disagreement between Bosnia’s three Presidency members on what flags should be displayed in common areas of the institution.
The priorities in the country, however, need to be focused on, she said.
“Very clearly what is needed now is for governments at all levels to come together and get back to work making the reforms that are going to move BiH forward,” Cormack said.
The Ambassador said that she felt that despite the flag issue, the meeting between Bosnia’s three Presidents on Wednesday was “reasonably positive” and that she hopes it is “a sign of better things to come.”
The US policy toward the Western Balkans has been very consistent throughout the past 20 years, she stated, explaining that “we want to see all the countries in the region move forward together, build economies, build stability, really get integrated into Europe.”
Cormack called upon regional countries to cooperate, mentioning that she understood that the three presidents have on Wednesday decided to invite presidents of neighbouring states for a meeting.
“That kind of dialogue is very important and we very much hope that that is what will characterise the relationships in the region,” she said.
Bosnia has a lot of potential and “wonderful people, human beings”, who she said, “deserve a better future.”
NATO foreign ministers approved last week the Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Bosnia and Herzegovina, a step forward in the country’s relationship with the alliance.
Cormack said that the development is “very good news” for all citizens.
“I think that, when we look at NATO and what it has done for the countries in the region who have joined, what we see is that it increases stability. That stability gives investors and businesspeople confidence, you see economic growth, and I think this will help every citizen in this country,” she said.
The decision to move closer to the alliance has already been made and it is supported by “laws and policy documents that clearly lay out Bosnia’s path,” she said, adding that “all we need now is a process decision to move this forward, and we have called upon everyone at all of the layers the government to support this.”
The actual decision on NATO membership “will be something that will come down the road,” she said, but stressed that “in the meantime, there are significant reforms that need to be made, and those will help people in their everyday lives.”
Cormack said that Bosnia could move forward and grow its economy, develop jobs, but pointed out two “big challenges” that need to be addressed for this to happen.
“One is corruption, at every level of society,” she stressed. “People need to understand that it’s not normal, that in our societies, we don’t accept it, and they need to be able to push back, obviously they need a justice sector that helps them push back against corruption.”
The other challenge she named is transforming the country’s educational system, “for your young people who are smart and talented, but are not getting the 21st-century education that they need, and are not learning in schools to build a shared society for the future.”
In some Bosnian areas, which are seen as ‘divided communities’ after the 1992-1995 war, there is a system in place where students of different ethnic groups are kept separate and are taught according to differing curriculums. It is called the ‘two schools under one roof’ system and has been criticised by various local and international NGOs.
Bosnia has made progress over the years, but a lot more needs to be done.
“I understand that the citizens want to see more, and they should want to see more. But I also think it’s important to acknowledge that progress has been made,” she said.
Cormack explained that she came to Bosnia in 2015, following a difficult year for the country.
“In the years before I got here growth was less than one per cent, it has now been two and a half or three per cent a year. You have seen the economy develop, some reforms have been made on labour law, on excise taxes,” she said.
But she stressed that the proceeds of those taxes need “to be implemented into what it’s supposed to be, highway development, infrastructure development.”
She also commented on a recent meeting with Milorad Dodik, who was blacklisted by the United States in 2017 for obstructing the implementation of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the war in the country.
Dodik was elected to the post of the Serb member in the tripartite Presidency in October.
“The US policy is consistent, it has not changed, but he is the elected member of the Presidency, he is the Chairman of that institution right now, and we respect that,” she said.
“But the US sanction policy, as we have discussed in many different settings, is a very long-term policy, and he knows what would need to be done to change that,” she added.
The Serb leader has throughout the years consistently been advocating for the Serb-dominated semi-autonomous Republika Srpska (RS) entity he comes from to secede from Bosnia – an idea the US opposes.
Cormack also announced that the US Deputy Secretary of State and the head of the US National Guard will be visiting the country.