The Ambassador of Sweden to BiH Bosse Hedberg spoke with ‘Sarajevo Times’ on the most recent issues in BiH regarding visa liberalization, reform of the FBiH and the “Sejdić- Finci” case. He also spoke about the ways in which BiH diaspora are forming bridges with their home country. The Ambassador asserts that visa liberalization is one of the EU’s most successful achievements, so suspension of a visa-free regime would be a serious step backward for the EU, the region and citizens. However, more concerted efforts need to be undertaken to improve the socioeconomic conditions in the country and a combination of long and short-term measures are necessary to remedy these problems.
By Medina Malagić
There is a possibility that a suspension mechanism will be added to existing laws on asylum seekers in the EU. In your opinion, do you think there can be other alternatives apart from reintroducing visas in curbing the large influx of asylum seekers? And, do you think the source of the problem is something that Western Balkan countries need to solve on their own, or should EU countries do more in order to curb the flow of false ‘asylum-seekers’?
I have been careful to confirm to the media here that the additional regulation is not specifically directed towards BiH, but of course in the local media this is often the title that comes out. It is a fact that the western Balkan countries together produced almost as many false asylum seekers as some other countries victims of armed conflict, such as Syria, Iraq and Somalia. This is not acceptable because while the overwhelming majority of people who come from Bosnia have good reasons to leave for socio-economic reasons they have no chance of getting a stay as asylum seekers because this region is not at war. They come for other reasons, and I understand that. But the concern of my authorities is that we have to be able to cope with a huge influx and at the same time to not only deal with the real asylum cases but also have the means and capacity to give those persons a stay in my country.
So, there are short and long term measure to deal with this problem. I am aware that there is a push factor, meaning the negative socio-economic situation here. That is what makes some people leave, not only from BiH, but also from Serbia and surrounding countries. However, there is also a pull factor in the sense that some of the benefits, the length of time that these cases are dealt with in Sweden is actually something positive for some of these people. Thus, on the Swedish side we have to further shorten the handling time of these cases so that people do not have to wait for 3-4 months. In Bosnia, we have good cooperation with the Ministry of Security and the border police authorities to try to intervene, while respecting human rights of all persons, to reduce and stop potential false asylum seekers from going up north.
The long-term solution is obviously that this country progresses more quickly towards EU membership so that the socio-economic conditions in this country and surrounding countries improve and allow people to stay here. It may be seen as a drastic expression, but the inability of BiH leaders to move Bosnia faster towards EU means that they actually “unload” problems on other states. So we have to work on this together so that there are alternatives to suspension, which would be a huge step back, for Bosnia, the region and also for the EU. The visa free regime remains one of our most popular and successful achievements in recent years. To suspend it now would be a negative development.
In your opinion, if visas were to be reintroduced, how do you think this would affect BiH citizens’ view of EU integration, which so far enjoys popular support? How would the EU, and in particular Sweden, assuage the concerns of citizens who have only recently been able to enjoy the many benefits of visa-free travel to the EU?
As I mentioned before, a suspension would be a huge step backward. As we speak, the mechanism is not yet in place because it is still being negotiated between the European Parliament and European Council. I believe that it is only one aspect of the negotiations about different things, migration being one of them, so that the suspension mechanism, the final wording and the criteria for the mechanism is a part of a larger package. Some countries want easier criteria to trigger the mechanism and other countries are reluctant to go down that road.
An interesting fact mentioned in the media is that when Croatia becomes a member there will be up to half a million people in this country who individually become EU citizens. I don`t think that has happened anywhere else in Europe. This is quite interesting and intriguing. You may say it is unfair to those who do not have Croatian passports. I have no reason to have an opinion. However, I am just noting that this is a fact. I do not know what affect it will have on those people. They will have the right to apply for jobs and move inside the EU. And it is not only Bosnian-Croats who have these passports.
Recently there have been calls by domestic leaders and international actors for constitutional reform in the FBiH. The problem in the FBiH is that the division in to cantons is based on maintaining a delicate ethnic balance instead of serving the needs of its citizens. Do you see the Swedish model of local self-governing bodies as something that can be effectively implemented in the FBiH? If so, how can this be accomplished when ethno-politics is a dominant factor in BiH politics?
The main problem with the Washington agreement and the FBiH Constitution is that there are so many inbuilt grey zones. The major problem is the lack of clarity. Who has competence for what? Is it the Federation government, the cantons or municipalities? You may say that the Swedish model is fine because it works. However, I would say the same thing for Germany, Belgium and other quite decentralized states. That is because the areas of competence are clear, and this is lacking here. This is also the reason behind the conference on Federation reform planned for May, at which proposals will be presented and then be considered by the relevant political bodies. If such reforms can be made, the Federation could become a more efficient, less complicated and above all leaner to run from a financial point of view. The problems with the Federation structure are well known. Everybody agrees that there is an ongoing overlap of competence and a huge waste of money. The fact that in this small country there are 14 ministers of justice, of which 11 in the Federation, speaks for itself. There is also a ministry of education at the FBiH level, while competence is at the cantonal level. The experts are aware that they could probably draft a fantastic constitution for this country tomorrow. However, it also has to be put into practice. I believe that one has to work incrementally but each step has to be sufficiently large to allow this country could become a EU member in reasonable time. We have seen a number of attempts of constitutional reform since 2006. Again, hopefully, by taking smaller steps there can be some kind of confidence.
The biannual elections really disturb politicians, parliaments and ordinary people. That is why some of us have wondered why Bosnia could not combine municipal and state elections. At least there would be 4 years of political stability for everybody to work. However, I often hear that it is too complicated and would be difficult to arrange in this country. Holding state and municipal elections at the same time works well in Sweden. But of course, Sweden has not had such a complicated history.
You mentioned the importance of both short and long-term measures to solve the current and ongoing crisis in the Western Balkans, and that one of the long-term measures would be improving the social situation of minorities and vulnerable groups. Do you think that the recent decision in Sarajevo Canton to implement ‘Sejdić-Finci’ will precipitate further reforms? Do you see the decisions a sign that the power of ethnic politics is waning, and that citizens are becoming increasingly focused on more pressing issues that affect all?
The Sarajevo Canton decision was a very welcome example of what can be achieved when there is a consensus. But maybe it was easier to arrive at such an agreement in this city and canton. Hopefully it can serve as a good example, but in the more serious treaty law context it is not sufficient. The Council of Europe is asking Bosnia as a state to comply with the 2009 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. In other words, it is a question of the whole state to bring its legislation in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. I often remind the political leaders here that they have spent a lot of time on “Sejdić-Finci, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other cases of discrimination in the country structures where reforms are needed, also in the context of the forthcoming EU membership. I am sorry that it has taken such a long time to agree on “Sejdić-Finci”. As we speak, the EUSR, Peter Sörensen and his team is attempting, through dialogue with political leaders, to see if some kind of consensus can be found. Of course, the major problem concerns elections to the Presidency, not the House of Peoples. The problem is basically whether there should be direct or indirect elections. Ideally, there should be one system for the whole country, i.e. a “symmetric” solution. One “risk” of keeping an “asymmetric” solution is that delays in the process in one entity could delay the composition of the full Presidency, a body that in this country is entrusted important competence, for instance foreign policy. I have personally failed to understand the insistence on direct elections. I am not an expert but I do recall that, in the last presidential elections 2010, Mladen Ivanić was close to defeating Nebojša Radmanović. With indirect elections, maybe the parties in majority in the RS could have managed the procedure more in a system of indirect elections. But, having said this, this matter is something the politicians here must solve. I of course respect the facts that direct elections are what are laid down in the current constitution of the RS. At the end of the day it is also for the EU and the Council of Europe to decide whether an asymmetric solution can be the “credible effort” that the EU is looking for to agree to the entry into force of the SAA-agreement and for a subsequent EU membership application from Bosnia.
I do remain concerned though, seeing that time is running, that a solution will be possible to find. If this is not the case Bosnia would lose out on the whole time schedule and we would probably find ourselves in 2015 or later before anything can be done again. In this respect, that the messages from the EUSR here and from Brussels have been very clear. However, I do not want to speculate. I hope the leaders will really fix it this time. Otherwise, the people of Bosnia will lose a lot of benefits and the country another two years on the EU track.
Sweden has a large Bosnian population, and there are a myriad of examples of successful Bosnians living in Sweden. Diaspora communities contribute by sending money back ‘home’ and even invest in BiH. How much effect do you think diaspora communities have had in shaping the image of BiH, as well as their efforts to affect much-needed changes within the political, cultural and economic sectors?
There are currently about 75,000 persons of Bosnian origin in Sweden, which makes them a large group. Let me start with this comment: On two recent occasions, before Christmas and after many positive words were made by and about your diaspora in Sweden. Before Christmas there was an appeal in one of the major newspapers by a large group of prominent and well-known Bosnian Swedes living in Sweden. They wrote a fantastic “thank-you letter” to Sweden because they had been able to settle up there. And then just after Christmas there was another article praising the Bosnian diaspora as one of the most successful groups that had assimilated into Swedish society. These are very nice and positive events for Sweden since we want to remain a welcoming country, which has already profited immensely by many immigrants over time. The potential of the Bosnian diaspora is something we want to build on to improve business relations, cultural relations, etc. We have not been able to do as much as we thought but this is mainly due to the complex political situation and lack of reforms in Bosnia in later years If you look at national and local elections, I think that for the first time BiH diaspora could vote in local elections if they registered on time in various embassies around the world. The condition for Bosnian embassies around the world to arrange for elections abroad was that at least 50 voters in each country would register with their embassy to vote. Not even 50 people registered in Sweden. That tells you that the diaspora is has lost interest. in local politics here. Of course the members of the diaspora have emotional and social bonds to their home country. I think this is something that we should keep in mind. Also, almost all of them are now Swedish citizens. We see occasionally that older people move back, but this is not the trend with the younger generation. I had long discussions when I came in 2008 with the then Presidency member Haris Silajdžić and others who adamantly argued for the right of return under annex 7 of the Dayton Agreement. But we have to note that a number of these people are not going to move back. They do come back for summer and they do send money back, but they are not moving back.
We have therefore not been able to achieve so much on the business side either. Some companies that have started activities mostly have Bosnian or Bosnian-Swedish owners who wish to establish themselves in BiH because production costs are lower and skills in many sectors are very good here. Bosnia can certainly be attractive for those who know the market conditions and speak the language. It is much more difficult to have an “original” Swedish small company comes and settle here and there is definitely a declining interest in Swedish direct investments. Recent examples are mainly companies in the IT sector, which opened up business here. We cannot compete with Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria. I think Austria has around four hundred companies on the ground here. Of course, this is partly for historic reasons. And Croatian and Slovenian companies manage some of the big supermarkets. We cannot compete in that sense. It is too far away.
Much of the focus is on political and economic reform in BiH in regards to fulfilling the requirements for EU integration. However, it seems there is a significantly less of a focus on education reform. Do you think that it is crucial toafford more attention to education reform, which is already directly under the influence of the nationalist component in BiH’s political arena?
Absolutely. Proper education is of vital importance. It is about the coming generations. Let me start by saying that we have run bilateral corporation programs with BiH ever since the end of the conflict. We are currently in a four-year strategy that is investing around 17 million euros annually and we are working on new seven-year strategy valid from 2014 to 2020 for about the same annual amount of money. But our bilateral focus is not on education. Our attention now and probably in the future is on democracy, human rights and gender equality/ market development/ sustainable infrastructure (with an emphasis on solid waste and waste water treatment). Obviously we are concerned about the phenomenon of “two schools under one roof”. We all understand that something must be done because we should not contribute to creating new generations of ethnic divide. That is clear. The challenge with education is that there are many actors. I would say that, on the ground in Bosnia the lead among international organizations is with the OSCE and the council of Europe. They have a mandate. And together with some other bilateral donors they are engaged and have been for a long time at different levels of education reform. They are the ones you should speak to about details and where they wish to go from here.
The EU is good when it has an acquis of its own. But surely, the EU is following the “two schools under one roof” and similar kinds of ethnic divides and discrimination which can certainly be scrutinized – and criticized – already from a purely human rights angle.
As you probably know, there are all different sorts of education in the EU: private, semiprivate, state funded, non-funded, different kinds of scope of education, more or less religious influence in curricula, etc. But I think we all agree and we all try to contribute to resolving this problem of “two schools under one roof” through various programs in boosting human rights, the justice sector, making sure courts are equipped and can work as foreseen. With a strong justice sector, you pave the way for the respect and implementation of all the human rights standards that this country has undertaken as a member of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the UN and soon hopefully the EU. So I would definitely say that we are not doing anything. Let me conclude by pointing to another problem in the area of education. And this is the fact that for Bosnian students it is often difficult to go abroad to EU countries because it is expensive for them. It is also difficult for them to get certification from Bosnia to confirm what grades they have achieved so far because there is no central authority in this country that can certify those credentials. During a recent visit the students from Zenica told me that when they came back from abroad with their diplomas they have an additional difficult having those papers accepted here. So there are some challenges that should be possible to overcome. In fact, most of the students I talked to in Zenica said they wanted to study abroad, and if they found a job they would stay abroad. They said this in the presence of the Prime Minister and Minister of Education of the canton, who understand the problems and are trying on their side to improve the situation.