Despite 20 years of peace efforts and over €12 billion in official international development aid, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains at a standstill in terms of both conflict transformation and the European integration process. Political inefficiency and persistent ethnic divisions have created a climate of stalemate, political stagnation, clientelism, and corruption. The result is that people have lost faith their leaders, thus weakening the legitimacy of the political system. In 1998, seventy (70%) percent of the population voted, in 2014 only 54% voted.
For the youth in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the situation is bleak with circa 60% unemployment and an education system that while improving still provides substandard education and is corrupt. According to Transparency International, one in four students experienced corruption in their educational life. The same study shows that 50% would practice corruption to pass a class. My son who was raised in Bosnia used to tell me stories of how required readings in classes were based on the teachers own books, and students had to show a receipt of purchase to get their final grades. He has been trying for three years to get a copy of his diploma, which he lost, and has been hampered officially by bureaucratic procedures, but unofficially because he refuses to pay university officials a side fee for issuing the diploma. Every time I have offered to intervene, he has begged me not to do so for fear of retribution.
A 2014 survey of youth between the ages of 16-30 conducted by the FES and the University of Sarajevo point to youth apathy, lack of trust in the system and little belief that they can change anything in their future. Only 20% of youth claim they vote regularly. Circa 93% of the youths were not involved in any form of social or political participation, circa 75% felt their vote counts little or not at all; among the institutions they did not trust at all were BiH parliament, the BiH Council of Ministers, and political parties (50%). Most young people today grow up having little or no contact with youths from other ethnic groups. They simply do not come into contact, unless they are involved in one a projects focused on youths. Most schools are either mono-ethnic or segregated.
The country is trapped in a major political and economic dilemma. The system that was created at Dayton stopped the war and created physical peace, but it is the main obstacle to overcoming the legacy of the war. The system allows the country to essentially be run by a small group of political leaders, who gain from ethnic division and rely on ethnicity-based clientelistic politics in order to remain in power. Fundamentally changing the system would probably sweep those leaders out of power. It is not surprising that there is little motivation for the political parties to change the existing order. Ideally, voters would throw out all the corrupt politicians but even the short-lived Bosnian Spring was unable to maintain the necessary momentum to achieve a breakthrough.
Aid has not motivated the elite to undertake the necessary reforms, and conditionality by the EU failed. That leaves us with moving away from both the so-called “power mediation” and “problem-solving” mediation approaches towards what we call conflict transformation, which seeks to engage stakeholders in defining their future. If we are to transform the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we need to encourage a new generation of leaders to change their attitude of the future, their system and their role in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This can only be done by engaging with each other across ethnic lines and ending corruption.
We have seen grand political reform projects, conditionality, and revitalization initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina. If the international community is not willing to tackle corruption straight on, all initiative whether they be a Compact on Growth, the SAA, or youth initiatives will come to naught. It would be ideal if Bosnia leaders could do it themselves, but the reality is they cannot. Anti-corruption needs to be top of the international agenda. Specifically, get out the vote, voter awareness, and youth debates, forums, and political initiatives need to be started now if they are to have any real effect at the next elections.