2020 is over. Many of us have been counting the days until the end of the strangest of years. Of course the simple change of a calendar does not fix the problems we face, but it does give the chance for a fresh start. And we are feeling cautiously positive about the year in front.
Before looking ahead, we will mention one of the highlights of 2020, and a reason we remain optimistic about this country. Through the U.S. BOLD programme, and UK Youth Advisers, we have come across hundreds of positive, smart, and can-do young people, from across Bosnia and Herzegovina. They are already achieving great things, in business, in education, in civil society, in public service. But they want to do so without the burdens of corruption and dysfunction that drive so many away. Given the right opportunities, the future of BiH can be very bright indeed.
To make that progress friends like the UK and U.S. need willing partners. We have found them in many places, but by no means everywhere. We will target out support to BiH organisations, grassroots groups, and individuals who are really trying to make a difference.
Back then to 2021, what we have to look forward to, and what we need to do.
The good news on COVID is that the vaccines have been achieved, and are hopefully coming soon. It is a relief to see the numbers of cases in BiH continue to drop. The light at the end of the tunnel is visible. But that does not mean any of us can relax. Sticking to the measures in place – washing hands, wearing masks, and maintaining our distance – can help keep our loved ones safe, and to get across that finish line. And all authorities in BiH still need to cooperate to provide healthcare, education, emergency assistance, and an effective rollout of vaccines themselves.
The economic impact of the pandemic continues, in BiH as around the rest of the world. We must not waste this crisis, and should instead use the moment to think how to better support businesses and entrepreneurs, through less red tape, more digitalisation of services, depoliticisation of public companies, and more transparency in government spending. The recovery needs to be more inclusive, especially of women and young people. The IMF is offering a large amount of assistance to BiH, but we think it is completely correct – and understood by most citizens – that this money should be conditioned with exactly these kinds of reforms. Long overdue steps to join the World Trade Organisation could also give businesses a much-needed boost.
2021 sees no elections scheduled. But that is precisely why we want to see a serious attempt to improve the electoral system. Yes, Mostar recently held its first elections in 12 years, but that was a failure fixed rather than positive reform. Let’s remember we are still waiting to see 2018 election results fully implemented! What else needs to change is clearly laid out by the OSCE, and by the European Court of Human Rights. The EU Opinion confirms this must all be done. The Parliamentary body responsible for this work needs to meet and get on with this essential task, so BiH voters do not find themselves in the same position in 2022.
Top of the list of citizens’ (and our) concerns is the rule of law. How many of us would like to see genuine progress in that area in 2021? Again, the required steps are not a mystery – starting with the EU Opinion priorities, such as High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council amendments, improved public procurement, and meaningful steps against conflict of interest. We know there are individuals within the judiciary that want to make a difference, and they need our support. But the ultimate proof will only be when we see proper investigations, prosecutions, convictions and jail time.
These difficult reforms become easier when you invite the 30 Allies of NATO to help. The Reform Program process, started in 2019, is BiH’s opportunity to identify its own reform priorities and how it envisions Alliance assistance to achieve them. These reforms range from defense modernization to better governance and rule of law, and are complementary to BiH’s EU path. NATO Allies will continue to support BiH’s reform priorities guided by the BiH-led Reform Program process.
Finally, a word on the current situation with migration. Numbers this year are significantly lower, but the problem seems to be getting larger. In the short-term, it is in the interests of all BiH citizens that migrants currently in this country are safely and humanely accommodated, off the streets. BiH authorities need to coordinate their response to the migrant crisis, and to share the responsibility fairly across the country.
There is much to do in the year ahead, more than we have mentioned here. We do not see why anyone should settle for anything less. The US and UK, like many other friends of BiH, are here to help. What we need is willing partners, and we hope we will find more and more of them in 2021.