Question for Short Debate
My Lords, a few months before the last election in the last months of 2009, my right honourable friend William Hague and I—well, at least he was not my right honourable friend then, but he is today; he was then the shadow Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—wrote a joint article for the British and foreign press on Bosnia and Herzegovina. We complained bitterly that Bosnia was stuck, that the progress that we had made during the previous 10 years had gone backwards, that the tone of nationalistic rhetoric had risen, that this was dangerous and that Bosnia remained stuck in a mire of dysfunctionality and corruption. We ended that article with this paragraph:
“Today Radovan Karadzic is finally on trial in The Hague on charges of alleged genocide and war crimes in Bosnia. As he and others are called to account over their part in the horrendous events of the 1990s, it would be a supreme irony if their plans for carving up Bosnia-Herzegovina were to be realized simply because the international community was too busy to care”.
So it was then; so it is, I have to say, today, for Bosnia has not moved one inch forward—it has indeed gone backwards. This is despite the fact that this was a key article in the coalition agreement, one of the very few in the foreign affairs section of that agreement, which picked out the Government’s priorities; despite the fact that we have had in Mr William Hague a Foreign Secretary, until he was relieved of that position, who was genuinely interested in Bosnia and Herzegovina, advised by the admirable Arminka Helic, who is due shortly, to my delight, to join our number here; despite the fact that he knew what had to be done; despite the fact that he had a series of policies to push forward the process of making a functional state in Bosnia and Herzegovina; despite all those things, we are now exactly where we were in 2009. No, we are in a worse position than we were in 2009, for Bosnia has not gone forward but has gone backwards in the most dangerous way, despite the fact that we have in Bosnia and Herzegovina today more instruments of leverage, power and influence than in other country on earth. We are spending hundreds of millions of euros every year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We have a police mission under the European Union; we have EUFOR under the European Union; we have the largest European Union mission; and yet, because of a drowsy apathy in other European capitals and because of the most signal failure of policy over seven long years on the part of Brussels, Bosnia has slipped backwards. It does not please me to say these things. This is now both a tragedy and exceedingly dangerous. I shall talk about the tragedy first. For the first 10 years of Bosnia’s progress, it was the poster boy of post-conflict reconstruction. It moved further than any other country has ever done. We had a million refugees returning even to the Golgotha of Srebrenica—Muslims returning to Srebrenica. We had the genuine building of institutions of functional government. We had free elections carried out by the Bosnians alone to the highest possible standards. In my time in Bosnia, we took the two armies and we welded them together into a single-state army under the control of the presidency. We took the three intelligence services and we welded them together under the control of Parliament. We created in faster time than in any other country a genuine system of VAT revenue in place of a shattered, broken and corrupted sales tax. We brought together the customs services; we began to lay the foundations for the unification of the great city of Mostar. I do not claim these as successes for those who were high representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for we played but a small part in them.
None of these things was done, as the legend now says, by the use of the Bonn powers or by coercion; all of them were done by persuasion. All of them were done by having a co-ordinated policy from the European Union and Washington to drive the process of state functionality. All of them were done not by me but by brave Bosnian politicians such as Adnan Terzic and Dragan Covic, who were my partners in my days there and who took great risks to themselves and believed in the Bosnian state. These were achievements by the Bosnian politicians; they passed through the Bosnian state democratic institutions; they were not imposed by outsiders. And then, in 2007, sadly, the European Union adopted a policy to stand back and take no further action. It would leave it to the policy of ownership.
For seven long years, Bosnia has gone backwards. For seven long years, the noble Baroness, my good friend Cathy Ashton, has presided over the European External Action Service’s actions in Bosnia and we have seen, without any step taken to prevent it, all the progress of those 10 long years successively unravel, starting in Republika Srpska with Milorad Dodik. If there was ever an example of how Bosnia has failed to move forward, in the elections held last week, Bosnia ended up with exactly the same collection of politicians running it as it had before: the same people who ran the war, the same obstructionists. I ask us to reflect for a moment. It is 20 years next year since the Dayton agreement, and yet, in 20 years, despite all those advantages, despite all the leverage, we have utterly failed to put together the kind of functional state that could provide the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina with a future, the only future that they can have that gives them prosperity and security, as part of the European Union.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, was even persuaded by her advisers to go to visit Milorad Dodik as though he was the head of a state, not the head of an entity, and sit down with him when, on his table, there was a map and flag of Republika Srpska and the flag of the European Union, but no flag for Bosnia-Herzegovina. You could not give a clearer example that the European Union was not interested in the state. Of course, it says that it is, but that is not how it worked out. Every Bosnian knew that from now on the whole emphasis was to be not on the functioning of the state but the functions of the entities. The entire political activity in Bosnia is now spent not on trying to build a functional state capable of joining the European Union but, instead, of investing in the old institutions of division: the entity and the federation. Those are exactly the same ingredients as took us to war.
This is a tragedy. So much has gone missing. We have stood by and allowed this to happen. Because we permitted Milorad Dodik to start spouting the old rhetoric of secessionism, we have an equal and contrary reaction from the Bosnians on the other side; so the rhetoric of division has risen in the past seven years in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the rhetoric of unity has faded away. The mood in Bosnia today confirms to that old Balkan proverb: “Da komsiji crkne krava”, which means, “My neighbour’s cow is dead, that makes me happy”. That is the mood of Bosnia today: not unity, but disintegration; not the building of a functional state but the investment of political power in the entities. What are we to do? You cannot have a more terrible example of a long-term failure of public policy than our failure to build on the foundations of Bosnia-Herzegovina to create the functional state necessary to join the European Union.
Here is where it gets dangerous. We now have instability in Bosnia. We have secessionism in Republika Srpska and deep, deep disappointment among the Muslim community—the largest Muslim community in any European country; an ancient Muslim community that goes back 400 years and understands that there is no contradiction between Islam and European values. It is feeling left out, just as it did in 1992. A friend said to me the other day, “Isn’t it a good thing that the two great foreign policy challenges of our time—the Ukraine crisis and the crisis of fundamentalist jihadism—never come together?”. Oh yes they do, they come together in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Russia is now playing mischief with the Serbs in Republika Srpska. It is offering it false loans to enable it to duck out of its agreement with the IMF. It is playing the Ukraine crisis right into the heart of Europe. We stand by and do nothing.
At the same time, thank God, the Bosnian Muslims are as difficult to radicalise as you can imagine—they continue to wear their skirts as short in Ferhadija in Sarajevo as they would in any other city on a Friday evening. If you go to Bosnia in weather like this—in still, clear October weather—you see rising above every little Bosnian Muslim village little columns of smoke ascending to an Allah or God who is offended by alcohol, at the bottom of which you will inevitably find a slivovitz still cooking up the plum brandy that is necessary to survive the winter.
These are not easily radicalisable people, but there are now significant numbers, not just from Bosnia but from Sanjak, Montenegro and Albania now joining ISIL, because they see no hope left in a nation to which we will not commit the necessary political will to make it into a functional state. I know that my noble friend will tell me that the Government have supported the continuation of EUFOR. I am glad of that; it is a good move; but EUFOR is the backstop that prevents failure becoming something worse; it is not a plan to take Bosnia forward. I know that the Government are saying that there is a rapprochement between us and Germany that will bring forward some plan for economic and social progress, but that is not the core of it. You cannot create a strong economy unless you create a functional state. Unless we address that and come forward with a series of co-ordinated plans and procedures to achieve that and push it forward, Bosnia will remain where it is.
These are dangerous times; they are very dangerous times indeed. I do not believe that the threat to Bosnia-Herzegovina today is that it returns to conflict. There is no mood for that, thank God, in Bosnia-Herzegovina today, but, for the first time, I cannot totally discount it. I do not know what will happen if a grenade is thrown into a mosque in Doboj on Friday night. By and large, the threat to Bosnia-Herzegovina is that while the rest of the Balkans moves forward, it continues to sink into a black hole of corruption and dysfunctionality from which we do not have the will to move it forward but may never leave because of its destabilising influence over the whole region. That is where we are unless we shift gear.
I am sorry that in our Chamber, where the tradition is for more modulated prose than I have used today, I have had to speak rather bluntly and openly, but I am depressed and frightened by what is happening in Bosnia. I am appalled at the failure of public policy that has led us to this. The Government have to lift more of the burden; they have done much but not enough in this process. I am sorry if in this speech I have been rather stronger than is normal in this place but simply, I know no other; I can find no way to whisper a wake-up call.
My Lords, I rise with some diffidence to follow the impassioned speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that I would not want him to think for a moment that any of us think that he should have spoken in any way other than he did about a cause that is so engraved on his heart and a people to whom he gave a significant part of his energy and life. It is indeed tragic that we find ourselves today pretty much where we have been for a long time. It is extraordinary to me to be cast as number two in this debate when someone who has lived, worked, lived and breathed for Bosnia-Herzegovina and his friends there and saw certain things begin to emerge that have been stopped in their tracks should be followed by someone who has made one visit.
For other reasons, I have wanted to contribute to this debate, and that will come out a little later in my speech. From my one visit, which was extensive and in-depth, I drew many of the same conclusions as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown. I stood at the Golgotha of Srebrenica, saw that massive graveyard, talked to the people crying their eyes out for memories still so raw of people they lost in that dreadful massacre and could only imagine where people are stuck and could not imagine how they get unstuck from it.
Susan Sontag put on a few performances of “Waiting for Godot” in Sarajevo in 1993. It could only be done during the daytime; nobody dared to go out at night. She reports that in the long, long pause in Samuel Beckett’s play, when Estragon and Vladimir have just been told that Mr Godot is not coming today, after all, he may come tomorrow, she, Susan Sontag, radical filmmaker and campaigner, broke down in tears in that silence. The only noise came from the streets outside: the thunderous noise of a UN armoured truck on the one side and sniper bullets on the other. This is a people who have weathered those storms and many others, too.
Because this debate was cast in the light of the recent elections, I really have made an effort to look at the statistics and data to see whether I can understand them. I am bound to say that they are taxing for a bear of little brain like me. There is the National Assembly, the federated Parliament, the Parliament of Republika Srpska, all the communes, cantons and elected officials, and so on. It is so extraordinarily complicated, and as the European Court of Human Rights has pointed out, it is cast in such a way that minorities such as Jews, Roma and Ukrainians are often excluded from the possibility of running for public office. It is a complicated issue and to hear the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, say that it is pretty much the same bunch of politicians being elected now as were there before makes me wonder why I bothered to read the results of the elections with such care. It is clear that things are cast in such a way that the populations of Bosnia are kept apart from one another. Separation is the name of the game, so it seems that any initiative that can undermine or erode those realities is to be welcomed. It is to that subject that I want to devote the core part of my speech.
I have been working for a number of years with a friend of mine who has been trying hard to bring a delegation to this country from Srebrenica. He had succeeded in forming such a group that would have men and women and be half Bosniaks and half Serbs. It is so easy to say those words, yet people from Srebrenica crossing that divide and coming together for such an experience really would be a radical achievement. It had just about been pulled off; an imam and a Serb Orthodox priest were to accompany them. Today would have been the day that they sat in this Chamber. We had arranged space for them to meet, and we hoped to have approached Members of your Lordships’ House to talk with them about how our systems and institutions worked. That has not come to pass because our immigration authorities refused to give visas to half of the group. I have said that the group was half Serb and half Bosniak and I leave it to your Lordships’ imagination to ask which of those groups was denied the visas—well, it was the Serbs.
The grounds upon which the Serbs were denied the visas are so extraordinary. It was assumed that they were coming with a hidden agenda to remain here and prey upon our welfare and other benefits. That was not the case. No effort had been made to look at the group as a group or the exercise as an exercise. A very complicated itinerary had been set up with visits to mosques, such as the Finsbury Park mosque in Islington, and the Serb Orthodox cathedral here in London. They were to end up in the conflict resolution centre in Coventry Cathedral. It was an imaginative programme; a tiny thing against the problems that the noble Lord has described. Yet this sort of thing perhaps symbolises the work that has to be done and the road that has to be travelled—and to think that it was our immigration authority which made it impossible for it to happen.
When I saw that this debate had been put down I definitely wanted to contribute to it, not because I have wise things to say but because a small initiative that might have been set against the prevailing trends, or spoken the language of hope, was thwarted in this rather jejune way. I will leave that on the table as my contribution and I thank once more the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, for his passion as well as his commitment.
My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Ashdown for initiating this debate and for his remarkable opening speech, which was very sobering.
I have visited Bosnia several times in the past year, the last time being in April with Remembering Srebrenica, a UK charity established to honour the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. It has a large educational programme to send more than 750 delegates to Bosnia and Herzegovina to learn the lessons of conflict and hatred. In return they pledge to use what they have learnt and seen when they return, in relation to the intolerance and barbarism they have learnt about, to enhance community relations in our very diverse 21st-century Britain.
Like many others I have memories from 22 years ago, when the full horror of the Bosnian civil war unfolded in our living rooms night after night. For my family it felt very personal. My late father-in-law was a Bosniak Turk who left the former Yugoslavia with his family as a child after the First World War and settled in Turkey, where there remains a significant ethnic Bosnian community to this day. I have Bosniak family in Turkey, so it felt like a personal journey when I went there. The phrase “ethnic cleansing” became part of the language of warzone reporting then. It was extraordinary that such scenes were taking place in modern-day Europe, half a century after the continent had seen such terrible wars.
As my noble friend quite clearly set out, Bosnia’s precarious ongoing financial and political situation further exacerbates continued nationalistic divisions—a state of affairs that the recent severe flooding in the country has worsened. World Bank data for 2009-13 revealed that Bosnia has some of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. The country is often considered as having the basic infrastructure necessary to succeed as a small nation but political deadlock at numerous administrative levels blocks genuine development on all sides. This is a source of great frustration and despair in Bosnia.
I was on a delegation which included Members of your Lordships’ House, and our visit included a presentation from the director of the International Commission on Missing Persons. The ICMP was set up to deal with one of the terrible consequences of ethnic cleansing: a countryside with mass graves of unidentified bodies. As we soon learnt, the bodies which are still being discovered are partial remains. One of the sights that we saw was in the mortuary and lab in Tuzla, where there are floor-to-ceiling shelves with bags of different sizes, each containing unique remains and fragments that require DNA testing. Thanks to forensic science 6,000 matches have so far been made, giving closure to grieving relatives, some of whom have been given at least a small part of their family member to bury. It also adds to the evidence of war crimes.
It is important to bring to the attention of the House the current situation in Srebrenica, the site of the 1995 genocide which the two previous speakers have already mentioned. The survivors of the genocide and relatives of the victims, such as the remarkable Mothers of Srebrenica group whom we met, live under the Government of Republika Srpska, who refused to prosecute those responsible for war crimes and have at times denied—and are still denying—the existence of the genocide itself. On a daily basis, returnees are forced to live alongside individuals who are implicated in atrocities. It was so shocking to hear how these brave women continue to experience harassment and intimidation in their daily lives. They still seek justice and recognition from the rest of the world. Meeting these brave women, hearing their personal stories and being invited into their homes made a huge impression on us all.
On our visit, we met the spiritual and political leaders of the Bosnian Muslims. The Grand Mufti in Sarajevo, a very wise man, told us that he feared the rise in nationalism. He fears for the young people and worries that the situation could easily flare up again. But, interestingly, he also told us that the Serbs were victims, too, as they have to live with the knowledge of the war crimes that many of them had committed or condoned—crimes which their political leadership still denies. With this deadlock, no one can move on with their lives.
Years later, this legacy continues to impact on daily life and the old divisions have not been forgotten. By refusing to acknowledge and move towards reconciliation or restitution, the Republika Srpska Government condemn returnees to a continual fight to maintain recognition of the terrible wrongs suffered at the site of the genocide. After the billions of dollars in foreign aid that we have heard about, and despite various attempts by the EU, the three communities still have conflicting goals and interests which are a permanent source of crisis, exacerbated by a constitution that meets no people’s needs. Bosnian leaders, with international support, need an urgent search for a new constitution at the very least. Earlier this year, a countrywide popular uprising of mainly young people demanded urgent reforms, but after the election of last week it seems that nothing much is going to change.
What support are the British Government providing to progress this state of affairs and to begin the process of Bosnian membership of the EU, as my noble friend Lord Ashdown said? Does she agree with a recent report by the International Crisis Group, one of whose recommendations was that Bosnia needs support for reform as well as the expertise resulting from the European models of federalism and community participation in states with multiple language areas and peoples? Do Her Majesty’s Government agree that kick-starting these reforms would be a good start in trying to get things back on track?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, for the powerful and urgent way in which he opened this debate. I cannot claim to have been a resident in Bosnia but I have visited it, and nearby Kosovo, several times in recent years. I stood on the famous bridge of Mostar a few weeks before it was reopened by HRH the Prince of Wales. On another occasion I saw the historic Ottoman Ferhadija mosque, almost completely rebuilt. Bosnia is a unique country with Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim traditions. The sooner that it can make its own contribution to the EU, the better for all; here I agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown.
The Dayton agreement of 1995 gave Bosnia a most complicated constitution in an attempt to satisfy all parties and their external backers. The resulting layers of government and bureaucracy are not being helpful to economic development, as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, reminded us, despite the best efforts of successive EU high representatives such as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown.
Early this year, 25% unemployment was a standing grievance. In the city of Tuzla, a strike by factory workers who had not been paid for some time sparked off protests. Plenums, or citizens’ assemblies, sprang up in Tuzla and 12 other towns. They demanded an end to corruption and better ways of privatising state companies. The assemblies were self-appointed and there was little linkage between them and the departments of government. Since the spring they seem to have faded away. The floods in May, which the noble Baroness mentioned, destroyed 2,000 houses and 200 schools and hospitals and left 75,000 houses damaged and 15,000 extra people unemployed. Help is therefore urgently needed now to prevent further unrest.
Civil society groups, however, have not gone away and are still demanding change. The bishop of Banja Luka was recently quoted as saying:
“People want a new way of organizing the state”.
In response to such thoughts, NGOs have been discussing the holding of a national dialogue. It might follow the pattern pioneered in Tunisia, which brought together civil society, business groups and media as well as political parties. It helped an inclusive Government to emerge.
In Bosnia it is vital that Republika Srpska should be fully involved. Its western section is probably the most economically dynamic part of the country. Women should be active participants in the dialogue. The plenums, or assemblies, have already identified many of the key issues. These need now to be formulated and presented to the political parties and the layers of government in a coherent way.
The Soul of Europe is a British charity of which I am the patron. It has worked in Bosnia and Kosovo for 13 years and stands ready to facilitate the widest possible dialogue in Bosnia. Such facilitation has already proved useful in Banja Luka and at and around Omarska, as well as over the Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Kosovo. Will Her Majesty’s Government make a contribution to the unavoidable costs of the kind of dialogue that I have described? Will they seek matching funds from the EU? This would be a significant help to a country where in the 1990s we deployed major military and humanitarian effort.
I cannot help ending by agreeing most strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, on the point that he was making about visas. I have had experience of that in a different context—in my case, a Palestinian one. It is outrageous that very poor people are expected to pay large sums of money to get a visa. The Palestinians, for example, had to go to Amman in Jordan to get their visas to leave Palestine in order to come to England. That is the kind of thing that we are up against. I urge the Government to simplify, cheapen and improve the visa system.
My Lords, I tend to follow the line of the Economist last week—not normally my favourite reading—expressed in the following sentences:
“Bosnia works—but badly. The elections held on October 12th will probably not alter that. Yet to dismiss them as just one more round of political musical chairs would be wrong. Some change may now be in the air”.
Included in that is definitely a receding of the demand from Republika Srpska for secession. It seems pretty clear to me that Belgrade is no longer behind anything like that. Its target is joining the European Union, which indeed is the target of the whole of the western Balkans. When I had the privilege of representing the House of Lords in a west Balkans forum in Montenegro, it was very clear that the mood was changing and that people have to prioritise the main goal, and subsidiary goals have to be seen as subsidiary goals.
I was very saddened to hear the story told by my noble friend Lord Griffiths regarding immigration, but I ask whether there was not another reading of it—a bit like Northern Ireland—in that the fact that he could take that exercise as far as he did is perhaps a mark that, right around Bosnia-Herzegovina, people are looking for more co-operation. I travelled around a bit a month ago in Republika Srpska, which is part of Herzegovina, near the border with Montenegro. The talk in the pub that I was in was of jobs, yes, but certainly of Europe and that, “We don’t want to return to any of that conflict in the past”. On both sides of the new bridge in Mostar, which has already been referred to, there was the same sort of conversation. Okay, we can all accuse each other of being naive on some occasions, but there are raisons d’état why my interpretation may be more correct than that of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown. I do not know what he wants. We cannot speed up the European integration process without going through all the dossiers. After all, there was criticism in this country that Romania and Bulgaria were let in a bit early because they did not have to jump through all these hoops. Yet it all goes back, as has been mentioned, to the economy.
Where will any new economic factor come from? I offer my picture of the economy. It points in three directions in terms of what people call ethnicity, although that is a grossly overused word. When, 600 years ago, some people from Sarajevo went to work for the Grand Vizier in Constantinople, they stayed there for some time. When they retired, they came back to Sarajevo and, lo and behold, they were Muslims. That is nothing to do with ethnicity. We must be careful about how we paint these pictures.
Things have improved for the world’s polarities. I am putting the counterargument, and I do not want to exaggerate it, but the three polarities which fit are: Turkey, vis-à-vis Sarajevo and Bosniaks, in terms of investment; what you might call European Union-plus—NATO, the EU, the United States and so on—and Belgrade, which equals Moscow. In so far as Belgrade equals Moscow, it must be that Moscow has given Belgrade the wink to say, “We do not want to carry on with this secessionist pressure in the Republika Srpska”. This is because Russia has now removed any rhetorical obstacle to the whole of the west Balkans joining the European Union and NATO. I ask the Minister whether I have got that wrong. Is that not where we are?
In Zagreb, Belgrade and elsewhere, this solidarity certainly does not yet represent a magic wand on the ground. Of course not: look at Belfast, with its peace walls. Let us be realistic; these things do not happen overnight. There is no button that we can press which we have not pressed, or which we can hold a Labour, Conservative or any other Government responsible for not having pressed.
We must be cautious in paying lip service to any big attempt to change Dayton or anything like that. People are talking about constitutional changes—I do not know what they are talking about. I know that, of course, as in Northern Ireland, there are too many politicians, but that is part of the price we pay for this elaborate system of peace in two not totally dissimilar circumstances. However, the fact that Bosnia is one of the poorest countries in Europe, alongside Albania, cannot simply be laid at the door of there being too much politics. There is the lack of a modern social market economy and investment. Of course, people in Sarajevo and elsewhere are being very naive in thinking that if they somehow get the politics right the investment will flood in like water coming over a weir. It will not.
The interesting point, confirmed by Mr Erdogan when he changed his hat—he is now President of Turkey—is that Turkey is committed to a considerable increase in investment in the Bosniak area, and more generally in being a partner with all three parts of the country. I would be interested to hear how the Minister assesses the fact that Turkey has an interest in making sure that this all goes in the right direction.
After all, looking ahead, it would be impossible to keep Bosnia out of the European Union on the grounds that it has got Muslims in it, or some such caricature, because Turkey knows that that is what is being said in some parts of western Europe about Turkey. Turkey therefore has some leverage. We think that we have affinity with parts of the former British Empire. People in Turkey have some historical memory of the Ottoman Empire. This is a factor alongside the Moscow factor, vis-à-vis Belgrade, or America and Europe. Let us not forget that each of these three areas of power, pulling strings, have together apparently come to a view that they all want the same things. Is that not a degree of progress?
The point has already been made about these three great religions: Catholicism and the Serbian Orthodox Church on the Christian side, and a generally progressive sort of Islam on the Bosniak side. It is an existential fact that we have a most fascinating jigsaw puzzle here. I am going to look on the bright side; someone has to look on the bright side and say some of these things. The last thing that we should do is say that they do not know where they are going. I would put tuppence on the proposition that in a few years’ time, the way we are going, for Europe it will be “Bosnia in, Britain out”.
My Lords, Bismarck in his later years was believed to have said that the next European war was bound to arise from some,
“silly thing in the Balkans”.
He was prescient, although Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was no mere “silly thing” 100 years ago.
It is testament to the difficulty of dealing with the Balkans that the last war in Europe happened there. I went there shortly before the Dayton accords brought peace, returning several times to help build a democracy —if one could have called it that at the time—through work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and its programmes. It was evident, even then, that whatever form the peace took, it would be very difficult.
It will therefore come as no surprise to the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, that I do not share his optimism. Indeed, I share the grave concerns that my noble friend Lord Ashdown has articulated so powerfully about the lack of progress. Dayton was supposed to be a settlement to end the fighting and to bring some governance structure to a deeply divided society. Let us remember that war had left about 100,000 dead, yet 20 years on there is little for the ordinary people in Bosnia to celebrate as a peace dividend. They have had seven general elections in the period since, but still the stratification of the country proceeds along both ethnic and religious lines.
For my part, I see three interlinked problems in the situation there. First, there is the enormously complicated —and in the long run unsustainable—constitutional architecture. While Dayton might have drawn the borders, it did not change the mindset, and the institutional structure serves to entrench separateness. The horse trading that we have seen—even within Bosniak parties over the last decades—is also a sorry sight, but the system provides for it. When politicians are paid six times the average salary, it is unsurprising that a rentier class of politicians holds forth. If political office is the main route to personal financial advancement, it naturally tends towards corruptness. When political identity is so closely identified with group belonging, then naturally any concessions towards the common good are measured as a zero-sum game. Moreover, when one part of a tripartite decision-making process is bent on obstructiveness, as Milorad Dodik has been, in order to demonstrate that the settlement can never succeed, stalemate is naturally the order of the day. Therefore, in a sense, it is some small comfort that his party has lost its seat on the presidency to Mladen Ivanic, although we wait to see whether his rhetoric is less nationalistic or anti-EU.
The second problem is the dire economic situation, which noble Lords across the Chamber mentioned. If nothing changes, that will lead to further unrest. Gone are the days when the high representative presided over a growth in real GDP of some 30%, which had an impact on real wages and living standards. There was a peace dividend at that time. I pay tribute to the time of my noble friend Lord Ashdown there, because it was under him that the somewhat stable period we saw in Bosnia and Herzegovina took place. The unemployment rate is now around 27%, and my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece described how less than 40% of the workforce is in employment. Two-thirds of young people are without jobs. If that is not a cauldron for unrest, I do not know what is. The international community has become distracted by the Middle East and other crises, and partially because of Bosnia’s dysfunctionality, it puts it on a shelf in a box labelled something like, “Too hard to handle but on a slow burn, so we don’t need to worry”. It has stopped applying pressure for change. However, unless we engage soon, we may find the situation becoming even more unresolvable than it is now.
Finally, while the international community might look away from the Balkans for the moment, Russia will not. Putin is a long-standing supporter of Milorad Dodik and his secessionist agenda. Only last week Serbia pulled out the red carpet for Putin in its biggest display of military prowess the two countries have mounted together. The less than helpful role of Serbia—and here I will disagree again with the noble Lord, Lord Lea—should give us cause for concern. We need to be vigilant. As much as Serbia is in Russia’s sphere of influence, so, too, is it our own back yard. Therefore, while Putin vows never to recognise Kosovo’s independence —that was only last week—the deal is that Serbia’s President Nikolic vows never to bow to EU pressure to take part in sanctions against Russia for its role in annexing Crimea.
In conclusion, as regards what we will do, I completely endorse what my noble friend Lord Ashdown said. However, I am a little less optimistic that we can revert to those better times, when he was high representative, without reform of the institutional structure. Let us remind ourselves that the EU representative does not have the powers of the high representative, even though the high representative often did not exercise the Bonn powers—but at least they existed. They were a method of leverage. When they were not exercised, we have to reflect that that was because there was not support from Brussels, which has not played a good hand in this saga.
Public opinion is now turning away from the EU in Bosnia; young people are not interested in an EU future because they do not see it coming, and they see our disengagement. I accept that the new EU plan to bring about economic and social improvements might buy us time, but the structural discrimination that is built in might just mean that what comes now may be too little, too late. I therefore hope that my noble friend the Minister will take this debate as encouragement to prod the FCO and the EU—but also, importantly, to move the United States—to engage again with this very urgent problem.
My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Ashdown for introducing this timely debate following the recent elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As he observed, the newly elected Government appear to be fairly similar to any of those of the last 20 years, but none of them has managed to expedite necessary reforms. We might therefore well assume that this Administration will hardly be any different.
That apart, in my remarks today I will focus upon the role of citizens’ groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina and how they should be encouraged. Such groups include the plenums to which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred. The more that such movements may progress peacefully and become well organised, the greater the pressure they exert on their own Government. Thereby change can be precipitated from a grass-roots consolidation which may hope to persuade their Government to move in a far better direction.
As your Lordships have already urged, the simple aim is for the country to prepare itself so that it is able to be accepted as a candidate to join the European Union. That is obviously in the best interest of Bosnia-Herzegovina itself, as it is for the rest of Europe. I declare an interest as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Croatia. Along with Slovenia, Croatia’s European Union membership since last year already provides a much improved level of stability in the region.
The Vienna conference made recommendations for Bosnia-Herzegovina to move more closely towards European Union candidature. Those are on judicial reform and dealing with organised crime, legal protection for citizens’ labour and human rights, political education for young people, transparency in civil society, better connections with the diaspora, and pressure on the politically controlled media to work for the common good of society.
Although citizens’ groups within Bosnia-Herzegovina are strengthening, they encounter a number of difficulties. Earlier this year, and due to those problems, a promising start was halted. Since then a number of European states have come together to offer support. Several requests have been put to them, including: establishing an international fund to assist citizens’ groups to cover operational costs; help with legal aid to assure the protection of labour and human rights; and the security of citizens’ movements. EU Governments already contribute towards the training of Bosnian police and security forces, yet current levels of poverty and social unrest will increase the number of street protests. The international community should urge the Bosnian Government to police these with proper respect for dignity and human rights.
Does the Minister agree that at this stage citizens’ groups present by far the best vehicle for change? However, does she consider that their actions will become effective only if, as already requested, a number of outside countries should cause them to be provided with operational funds, legal aid and physical protection? If so, what plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to give such help, along with certain other European states?
It is an understatement to refer to the suffering of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and equally so—as my noble friend Lord Ashdown reminded us—to mention the level of international frustration with its factions, Administrations and their political intransigence. In view of that, an indirect and determined approach must, therefore, now be advisable, and one which gives full backing to citizens’ groups and their grass-roots scope for achieving change.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, for initiating this debate and for demonstrating such passion for an area for which clearly he still has a strong affection to this day.
I think that it is fair to say that, prior to the elections a couple of weeks ago, the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina was not great. However, I will try to be a bit like my noble friend Lord Lea and look on the bright side. Let us look at the legacy of Dayton: what are we left with? The positives are that after three years of civil war, we have an absence of that war: and that absence has continued to this day. During the conflict, more than 3 million people were driven out of their homes and, as we have heard, more than 1 million have now gone home. Those are success stories and they should be celebrated. The problem is that the situation has not moved on much since then, as noble Lords mentioned.
I take issue with the question of whether we are trying to rush things here. I do not think that we are trying to rush things and I will give a picture of why we are not trying to do so. This weekend I thought that I would swot up on Yugoslavia. I have a copy of the amazing BBC series, “The Death of Yugoslavia”, in which all the key players talked about their experiences and what happened during the conflict. Of course, I could not play the programme because I have it on VHS, which went out with the dark ages. That gives an indication of how long the problem has been going on.
The problem is that Dayton also caused problems: it stopped the war but bequeathed to the countries one of the most complicated electoral systems in the world and reinforced and entrenched ethnic divisions, engendering the political paralysis that we see to this day. Instead of pushing forward and capitalising on the hard-fought gains of the last decade, we have seen a stalemate develop. It seems that international pressure has been reduced, as the world has been distracted by problems all over the world. However, we cannot allow this to slip back further. We have to focus on how to improve the lives of the people who live there.
One of the problems with the set-up of the recent elections is that the nature of that political structure means that things are not likely to change. The same players who were in place before the elections are in place after them, with not much chance of them being replaced. Of particular concern is the continued support for Dodik in the Serb part of the country. Time and again he has asked for Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina—although I think that he had his wings clipped a little in the recent elections. We will not know the final outcome for a while: the shape of the coalitions that may or may not develop. Last time it took 15 months to form a Government. We can only imagine what kind of message that is giving, and the instability that it is creating.
There are real challenges ahead for whoever takes over. The economy is absolutely in the doldrums. We have heard about the dire economic situation, with massively high unemployment, particularly among the youth. The situation is so bad that there were riots in the country at the beginning of the year in which 200 people were injured and government buildings burnt. If that did not shock the political class, I am not sure what will. On top of all that, the country was hit by huge floods in May that caused £2 billion-worth of damage and cost the country 15% of its GDP. Let us imagine this country having to cope with a cut of 15% in its GDP as a result of a natural disaster. It is bad enough in a developed country; in a place such as Bosnia it is absolutely dire.
It is important that Bosnia-Herzegovina develops a better-functioning market economy. The EU’s progress report does suggest that moderate growth has resumed but notes that the recovery remains very weak. There are also structural issues that need to be addressed, in particular relating to competition from EU countries. The complex procedures for business entry and exit create difficult problems for foreign investment, and there is a real lack of confidence in the judicial system. If you are thinking of investing in the country, how sure can you be that contracts will be honoured? Have our Government made any assessment of the ability of any political group after the election to tackle these terrible problems?
The other big problem is corruption. It is incredibly difficult to address anything while such endemic corruption exists. Very little seems to have been done to reduce the scale of political patronage. As the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, stated, the salary of lawmakers is six times the average wage. People might not have a problem with that if they were doing really well—but they are not doing well at all.
We have to see reform of the judiciary. There is a question over whether judicial reform can occur without political reform. The European Commission has expanded the Structured Dialogue on Justice to include additional matters, including the fight against corruption. Does the Minister have any idea of what more can be done to secure an increased level of convictions? None of this will be easy, and we need to be realistic in our ambitions for the country.
There is an urgent need to improve the economic situation. The EU’s Compact for Growth and Jobs is an attempt to do this by kick-starting these reforms. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether she thinks that that is likely to be a route through which we will see things develop.
There is an assumption that the eventual path to progress will be via EU membership—although clearly this does not seem to be enough to inspire the politicians of Bosnia-Herzegovina. There seems to be an absolute lack of political will to change, and there has been very little progress in adopting EU-related legislation. Probably one of the first things that should be done is to look for a co-ordination mechanism that will allow decisions to be made and positions to be reconciled on the many issues that are culturally, politically and ethnically difficult. Does the Minister have any thoughts on what the mechanism for co-ordination could look like?
Perhaps the Minister will also elaborate on whether there are two visions within the EU of how things could move on. Is there a difference between those who believe that Bosnia-Herzegovina is still at risk of falling back into conflict, and therefore believe that there is a need to maintain and promote the EU military mission, with executive powers to intervene if there is no longer a safe and secure environment, and other EU member states that perhaps believe that the only way to achieve progress in Bosnia is to move on from that Dayton logic to an enlargement logic, and which think that while the external international rescue mission is on standby, politicians in Bosnia-Herzegovina will not take responsibility themselves? At the start of this week the European Foreign Affairs Council agreed to support the continued presence of military support in the region. I presume that this will be endorsed by the UN in the coming weeks.
It is interesting to ask about Russia and to what extent it is trying to exert its influence in the region. Perhaps the Minister will touch on what is happening in the wider region. We can see that Serbia is making progress towards accession—even Serbia has said, “We don’t want any truck with this Republika Srpska secession”—and now even Kosovo is taking steps towards EU membership, which is interesting. If even this does not stimulate politicians in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I am not sure what will.
The question is: how quickly do we push Bosnia-Herzegovina to move on? Are there more urgent levers or sticks that we can use to encourage political change, or does the Minister think that the Compact for Growth and Jobs will do the trick? Have the riots done something to make the politicians sit up and realise that time is ticking for them? The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, talked about the coalition agreement. One of the key planks of foreign policy was that we want to see the promotion of stability in the Balkans. I wonder, when we are coming to the fag end of this Government, whether the Minister thinks that stability in the Balkans has been achieved.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ashdown for calling this timely debate in the shadow of the elections a week ago. I pay tribute to his tireless efforts for peace in the region; he was a remarkable high representative between 2002 and 2006. Reference has been made to his successors holding firmly to what could be achieved. I know that he used the Bonn powers effectively and perhaps feels some frustration that subsequent high representatives have not quite done the same. In concluding, the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, referred to the position of strength and how one influences the whole process. Clearly, there is still a role for the high representative and EUFOR, and for making sure that we do not simply pull out those levers. It is important that they are there as a guiding force.
My noble friend Lord Ashdown showed his frustration in his eloquence. Bosnia and Herzegovina is at a standstill—there is no doubt about that. We share his frustration, but we are determined to work forward. There is no fag end; I do not smoke. This Government are still active; like a fire, they are alight under policies, and we will continue with determination because we need to in every sphere and especially, of course, in the resolution of what happens in the Balkans, with the essential proposal that it must look towards the path of Europe, the EU and NATO. Therein lies its security and, in a wider sense, there lies ours.
It is clear that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina want reforms. We heard today about the demonstrations earlier this year. They want increased prosperity and jobs, and they want a functioning government who listen to their concerns and who can deliver justice, freedom and security, and all the other benefits of a modern state. I was grateful to my noble friends Lady Hussein-Ece and others and to the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, for the way in which they couched today in the story of yesterday and the conflict of the 1990s. We will never forget that, and the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina will certainly never forget that. They remain in a state where ethnic division is part of life and where rhetoric is about ethnicity. I was grateful to my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece for raising the issue of Srebrenica; we must remember. We have to move on, but we have to remember.
It is certainly right that, if you are not a member of the three major ethnic groups, Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs or Bosnian Croats, you are diminished. You do not even have rights to stand for election. Of course, it is important that we work towards a position where the constitutions change and they have the right to participate in their own Government.
We have already heard about the protests that broke out across Bosnia in February. Sadly, the elections on 12 October showed that the political debate remains overshadowed by the same ethnic partitions of yesteryear, and the results of the elections are not clear. When a Government are formed, it may take months. We are urging that a Government should be formed as quickly as is reasonably possible, because the country needs some momentum forward.
My noble friend Lady Falkner of Margravine and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, referred to corruption, unemployment, the difficulties with the delivery of justice and the problems of the economy. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, that judicial reform is crucial. We have long been a staunch supporter of true state-level judiciary, a crucial prerequisite for a functional state. Our support for the judiciary through capacity building and training has all had a significant and positive impact, but so much more needs to be done. One can say the same in the matter of how to deal with corruption and particularly how to get structural reforms going. Many noble Lords referred to proposals about how the debate can go forward. My noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece asked about the recommendations of the International Crisis Group for a new constitution. We recognise the crucial importance of improving the functionality of the Bosnian state, especially if the country is to make progress towards the EU. We are committed to working with partners in Europe and Bosnia itself to help the country to improve its functionality—but we cannot do it in one step. If we could do that, we would have done it by now, and we would not only have encouraged those involved in the Governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina to do so but found a way to achieve it.
My noble friend Lord Ashdown noted that change requires Bosnia’s leaders to commit to reforms, and the frustration has been that they do not do so. So often they look to personal aggrandisement of power and money and not to the benefit of either the Republika Srpska or the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. That remains a canker at the heart of how this state is not—
I am grateful to my noble friend, because her answer is extensive, but may I gently say to her that we make this mistake every time? We blame the fecklessness of Bosnian politicians, but this is not true. Bosnian politicians stood firm in favour of change. We never blame the fecklessness of the international community in not using the levers that it has in support of those Bosnian politicians who want change. You may continue to blame the Bosnian politicians for not committing to change but allow me to blame the European Union for failing to use the levers that it has to support those who do.
My Lords, we will continue to work through the European Union to ensure that the levers that we can press will certainly be pressed. I agree with my noble friend that we have to be active and the European Union have to be active, but those in Bosnia have control of their own destiny, and that is where they must take action.
Of course, it is going to be in the interests of the wider region as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina that it creates a move forward towards European Union membership. In a globalised world, instability in that region can have a profound effect on us. That is why we have been very clear that, now that the elections have taken place, matters must move forward. Many noble Lords have talked about how we might have some constitutional dialogue. My noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece talked about that, as did my noble friend Lord Dundee—about citizens groups, in his case. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton spoke about the proposals that NGOs are discussing on holding a national dialogue. He asked for an immediate response as to whether in this country or through the European Union we will provide specific help to that group and funds. We ourselves, and through the European Union, work very closely with civil society to see where we can give advice and support to enable that kind of discussion to take place.
Throughout the debate, noble Lords have referred to the shadow of Russia. My noble friends Lady Hussein-Ece, Lord Dundee, Lord Ashdown, and Lady Falkner, and the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, referred to that. Russia does have some influence in the Republika Srpska, one of the two entities that makes up the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It still remains unclear to what extent it has sought to consolidate this in recent months. We are aware of the fact that Dodik has visited Moscow recently and signed a loan agreement for €87 million. All I can say is that the conditions for that remain unclear. One can think of darkness and greater darkness—it is a concern. However, we assess that Russian influence in the rest of Bosnia is minimal at present. It remains to be seen to what extent this, perhaps one might say, moderate financial influence has led to political influence. We know that small sums can make great differences.
We must be clear to all in Bosnia that its future lies firmly within the EU and NATO. The route to prosperity and democracy is towards Brussels, not Russia. Therefore, it is important that we make rapid progress with delivering the reforms we need through the EU path. Those include the socioeconomic reforms set out by the EU’s Compact for Growth as well as a wide range of reforms aimed at improving Bosnia’s day-to-day functioning on the rule of law and public administration.
As has been referred to today, the UK did, indeed, take the lead in delivering substantive EU Foreign Affairs Council conclusions on Bosnia in April. We had further discussions yesterday which my right honourable friend Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, attended, so the Foreign Affairs Council remains an active organisation in this matter. We are certainly committing to driving the approach forward during this period in government. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Lea, wishes to intervene. I am aware that I have two minutes left. I have an answer I would particularly like to give to the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, which I think the House would like to hear, so unless the noble Lord, Lord Lea, has something urgent to raise, which he clearly does—
I asked whether the Minister would agree that, in some respects, the third leg of the tripod with the Bosniaks is Turkey, investment-wise and in other ways. It is very interesting in terms of the future of Europe that you have this Islamic link. I am surprised that the Minister has not answered that question.
Perhaps I may save time and jump ahead to that issue, which was to have been covered later in my speech. I will leap to it immediately.
We certainly believe that it is important for Ankara to play a positive role in encouraging reform. We believe that both Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina share a common EU future. When they have met all their requirements for membership, they will, I hope, enter the EU, and I look forward to that day. I hope that that assists the noble Lord. He is right, though, to point to the influence of other countries bordering and near Bosnia and Herzegovina on the development of that whole area and the importance of its security.
I will skip a bit of my speech as I have just one minute left. It was important to hear from noble Lords about the importance of civil society—something to which we will return. It is also vital that we reflect upon the importance of having Operation EUFOR Althea in place for the security of the area. We are proud to be active supporters of that mission, with a company of troops on standby and more than 90 soldiers on the ground.
The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, referred to the matter of visas. I am aware, of course, that not all members of the group from Srebrenica travelling to the UK were able to secure visas on that occasion. There were problems about the technicalities of this but I specifically welcome the noble Lord’s efforts. I hope that in future we can seek to rearrange that programme. It is not over.
In conclusion, it is clear to me that we have so much to do to make sure that Bosnia can become a prosperous, stable and united country, but there is a path towards that—its path is towards the EU and NATO. We have a job to do, and we will do it with this House’s help.
House adjourned at 8.03 pm.