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Just a month ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbàn gave himself full powers in the name of the COVID national emergency in a clear attempt to disband already weakened democratic institutions in his country. In Europe, he is not the only one.
Only 500 kilometers south of Budapest, Željka Cvijanović, president of the Republika Srpska (one of the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina), declared a national emergency and suspended the regional parliament, feeding many criticisms of anti-democratic political conduct.
TNGO’s Chief Editor Giacomo Di Capua interviewed Una Vaskovic, an expatriate Bosnian graduate student of International Affairs who had a first-hand view over the Bosnian government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Giacomo: How was Pres. Cvijanović’s decision to suspend the Parliament perceived? Would you say that there was a solid critical response from other political bodies (the federal government or the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina)?
Una: First, let me try and explain a difference that needs to be made. According to the law of Republic of Srpska there is a difference between the levels of state of emergency. The first one does not include the suspension of the Parliament and redirecting all of the power to Cvijanovic, whereas the second level does.
In an undemocratic country such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, it represents a real issue. What is even more worrying is that the two levels of governance, the Presidential body (which is responsible for the entirety of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the authorities of the two entities, have no correspondence. They act without any common plan on what to do. They are acting as if it is not one country, rather two.
Those who opposed the enactment of state of emergency were the opposition parties, which claimed that the Stage 2 has been enacted just so Cvijanovic can pass all decrees and obtain full control.
Contrary to Republic of Srpska, the second entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has declared the state of natural calamity. This means that all decisions that are made regarding the COVID-19 are to be passed by the Parliament of FBiH.
Apart from the two entities, Bosnia and Herzegovina as a country has declared a state of emergency, and has formed a Coordination team, that consists of 9 members of Council of Ministers of BiH, 5 representatives of the Government of Republic of Srpska, 5 representatives of the Government of Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with 2 members of the Government of Brčko Distrikt BiH.
First of all, this is incredibly confusing. All of the levels of governance and communication are confusing to a Bosnian resident born and raised in the country, let alone to someone who is reading about it from another country.
Second of all, people are not happy with their response. Yes, measurements are somewhat being respected, but the issue, at least in the Republic of Srpska, is that the government is not being transparent and is not perceived as trustworthy. As fears of the democratic backsliding rise with Orban’s decision to take absolute control of Hungarian political life, the democracy seemingly stopped existing in Bosnia and Herzegovina a long time ago.
G: Would you say that the public opinion values democratic institutions, or is it neutral? If so, why?
U: Article 2 of the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina states “Bosnia and Herzegovina shall be a democratic state, which shall operate under the rule of law and with free and democratic elections.”. It is a far cry from that.
The public does values democratic institutions but seems that there is no way to achieve them, and then the people decide to flee to countries that actually have effective democracies. In the recent years, there has been a constant decrease in the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the correct demographic numbers are hard to estimate. Many different sources show many different numbers, all of them are oftentimes considered falsified.
Why would a country falsify its population size? Because it arguably failed. It failed in implementing what it wrote in the Constitution, and to spread falsified information among citizens. I am one of those who left and will not return in a long time, even for a visit, because of how they downgrade people and consider them to be “sheep.” Sadly, not everybody has the financial resources to flee the country like I did.
Many of those who stay ask us, those who left, why did not we stay in the country and fight for what is right. The answer is simple, the corruption is so deeply embodied within every aspect of the authorities and its leaders. This is something that is bigger than one, two, or a hundred people.
There needs to be a bigger involvement of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, EU institutions, UN institutions, international organizations that support democracy, freedom of speech, expression and so on.
In the last two decades there has been a constant degradation of the democratic values and principles that were offered by the institutions, on both the levels of the entity and the country as a whole.
To provide an example of how undemocratic its institutions are; in the last years, a decree was passed by Cvijanovic allowing to prosecute journalist that “spread panic”. But the question is, what does the spread of panic mean? Nothing, it is just a way of censoring media as much as possible and giving full power to RTRS (public media that is “informally” filled with information on what to report by the leading political party in RS, SNSD.). One cannot imagine that in a democratic country that the censorship of the media would be so blatantly open.
G: International reporters have also stressed the poor quality of the Cvijanović administration’s response to the COVID pandemic. Have you experienced any of the economic measures implemented by Cvijanović?
U: I personally have not experienced any backlash from the economic measures enacted by Zeljka Cvijanovic, since I have not been in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and with that, Republic of Srpska, since April 2018. I have read from some private posts, that seem to be the only relevant and unbiased source of information, that the government in Republic of Sprska has asked people to “donate” a portion of their paycheck to the COVID-19 relief fund. I was baffled by this.
The budget for this year for Republic of Srpska has not been passed and approved, and they are asking the citizens to donate money. It is one of those situations where you cannot believe the audacity that some politicians, or supposed leaders, have.
Unfortunately, people are genuinely scared, and believe that they will be fired if they do not give up half of their minimum wage, which cannot sustain them for a whole month.
G: What is the current condition of the health care system in the Republika Srpska? Is it public, state-funded or mainly privatized?
U: The health care in RS is public and available to everyone. Even if you do not have a health booklet, you do not have to pay that much to receive health care.
However, the system is flawed, and everything can be received through good connections and nepotism.
Hospitals, before the pandemic, needed to stock up, hide, save their equipment such as masks and gloves, because they did not receive enough equipment. If there is a need for more complicated procedure, or treatment, people usually go to Belgrade, Serbia.
Serbia, just next to Bosnia, is in a far better position in regard to the health care system, and their system is already cracking under the pressure of the pandemic.
G: Some Bosnian residents have reportedly lamented having been evicted from their homes to leave room for COVID patients, and afterwards relocated in ill-maintained structures under unsanitary conditions. Do you have any account/experience confirming these claims?
U: Some locals have claimed that the state of emergency can bring this upon them. However, I cannot claim it is a confirmed source since we also need to take into account that information is being falsely spread.
However, if someone came forward with this kind of information, I would not have a hard time of believing in it, and that is a harrowing thing to think about.
We, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, are used to the regime that is in place in Bosnia, and their horrendous actions, and that must change.
G: What do you think will be the toughest challenge for the country in the COVID pandemic, feeding the national economy or maintaining democratic institutions?
U: I believe that the COVID pandemic will only deepen issues that are within the country, and that it will show just how broken the system is. The economy is extremely bad, people are poor, there is no democracy, and it will only get worse.
This year will show how Bosnia and Herzegovina failed, over and over, to protect its citizens, and how it is all about the money and power grabbing, without the general concern for its people.
G: Do you have any reading to share with our readers if they want to know more about this situation?
U: My suggestion is to read Balkan Insight, which offers unbiased news in English, and it covers all of the countries of the Balkan. I believe it is a good source of info for people that are not aware of the situation in these countries.
G: Feel free to share any final thought with us!
U: I would ask people to curious about a country of which little is known internationally. The act of asking shows interest, whereas making claims such as doubting its very essence as a state can be hurtful to a people already troubled by internal affairs. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country, a broken one, and it needs help, or to be more accurate, its citizens need help. But the fact that it is a broken country does not make it any less of a country than Italy or Spain.
Furthermore, being from a non-EU country does not make us any less of Europeans. We are often regarded as vile, brutal, uncivilized, uneducated. This is the wrong representation. All of the countries in the Balkans have deep-rooted issues that are constantly being fired up by its politicians, but the people are the ones that suffer from this. You never know what a person’s background is, and what took them to reach a point where they are now. Making assumptions, that are often wrong, makes us feel isolated and “forgotten”. Be kind and ask questions. Be aware of who you are talking to and be sensitive. People notice that, and it makes us feel accepted and not like we come from a different planet.
This interview is part of TNGO’s Human Stories rubric.
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