Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of hostilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina (‘Bosnia’, ‘BiH’), a country that has become a byword for institutional duplication and bureaucratic overkill: in this unassuming republic of a little under four million people, there are no less than two entities, five presidents, 13 prime ministers, more than 130 ministers and over 760 legislators.
In recent years, narratives about Bosnia have tended to dwell on the political divisions in the country, particularly those between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (mainly inhabited by Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats) and the Republika Srpska entity (overwhelmingly populated by Bosnian Serbs). This cleavage – a direct result of a war eerily presaged by high-level agreements, at both Karađorđevo in 1991 and Graz in 1992, to divide Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia – has unsurprisingly dominated much reportage not just about Bosnia and Herzegovina but the entire region, impinging as it does on so many aspects of life in BiH.
Yet away from analysis of one of the most shocking conflicts in recent memory – a war that encompassed the interminable Siege of Sarajevo in which no less than 11,541 men, women and children were killed – there are plenty of reasons to think that the future of this heart-shaped state in Southeastern Europe is rather brighter than many seem to believe:
1. Centripetal Tendencies. If you had asked almost anyone in the know about the prospects of inter-community cooperation in Bosnia at the time the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995) was signed, a forlorn sigh would have been the most positive response. Yet a snapshot of the country in 2012 shows a nation with one currency (the convertible mark, which supplanted four operational currencies – the Bosnian dinar, Croatian kuna, Republika Srpska dinar and German mark – in 1998), one state court and even a single united army which answers to Sarajevo. In the context of a country that as little as seventeen years ago was the scene for Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, this is some progress.
2. Punching Above Its Weight. While Bosnia’s political scene is plagued by corruption and inertia, the country does surprisingly well in a number of areas which many nations find it difficult to excel in. In recent years, BiH has possessed the freest press in the region: in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index for 2011/12, Bosnia is placed in joint 58th place, above Italy (61st), Croatia (68th), Greece (equal 70th) and Serbia (joint 80th). Its multi-ethnic national football team is ranked 21st out of 205 nations (FIFA, 7th March 2012) and culturally it is very much a regional hub, particularly in the domains of film and music, with the Sarajevo Film Festival enjoying pre-eminence.
3. Equality. For all the social divisions that do exist within the country, Bosnians are remarkably similar when it comes to wealth: the 2009 UN Human Development Report shows BiH to have an income inequality level that many much wealthier places would be proud of: the richest 10% of Bosnians have just 9.9 times the share of national income compared to the poorest 10%, positioning Bosnia way ahead of nations such as the United States (15.9), Spain (10.3) and even Singapore (17.7) on this metric. This bodes well for the future given the emerging consensus that reasonably equal societies tend to perform better on almost everything worth measuring.