Two weeks ago I appeared on N1. Zvonko Komsic asked me some tough and insightful questions, particularly on the political situation and what BiH politicians should do on the EU path. To several of the questions I gave the same answer – ‘They need to form governments quickly, and get on with reforms’. This repetition probably did not make for great TV. But it is the starting point of everything that needs to happen in this country. Reforms need to get going again, and that means forming all levels of government as quickly as possible. Politicians have a lot to get on with.
I have seen many political campaigns, in this region and elsewhere, but I don’t remember ever seeing one with less focus on improving citizens’ lives. Where were the concrete plans for making voters more prosperous, secure and happy? Scratch below the ‘we need more jobs / pay / justice’, and there were few ideas on show. Citizens should now expect, and call for, action.
BiH politicians don’t only need to convince their electorate that they are serious about reforms. All BiH parties are in theory committed to the EU path, but Brussels and Member-States judge a potential candidate on their actions, not their words. There has been precious little to show over the last two years, because of a lack of political will. Showing a determination to form administrations, at all levels, would be a much better start to this new mandate. BiH cannot afford a long and messy argument.
In 2014, the UK and Germany led efforts to refocus reforms and restart the EU path. The situation is different now. Some reforms were successfully implemented, and many were not, because of a lack of determination. BiH did enough to set the EU process moving again. Soon the EU’s ‘Opinion’ will issue, assessing the country’s readiness to move ahead, highlighting priority actions, especially in the rule of law. A new Reform Agenda is not needed today. What citizens need is a renewed and firm commitment by BiH politicians to further and deeper reforms.
What kind of reforms should they concentrate on? The Opinion, once it comes out, must be number one on the list. But there is a lot more to get on with, and parties in talks to form governments need to work on specific ideas which they can then implement. A good place to start would be looking at what is driving so many talented, often young Bosnians and Herzegovinians, to leave the country. BiH has many natural resources, the greatest of which is its people. Look at how much they achieve around the world. The problem is that many need to leave BiH in order to do so. Why? What can be done?
Support jobs and attract business. It is just too complicated and difficult to do business here – BiH was at 89th place in last week’s “Ease of Doing Business” report. This scares off investors, which holds back growth. Improved infrastructure would help – both physical, such as roads, and digital, such as preparing for 5G. So would removing barriers to business, like parafiscal fees, and reducing processes like business registration. UK projects like the ‘one stop shop’, providing a single point of contact for businesses, can really help. Moving up the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ list attracts investors and creates jobs.
Tackle corruption and organised crime, and improve the courts. Only 12% of BiH citizens believe the authorities are effective in preventing corruption. Serious crimes are rarely prosecuted successfully, and commercial courts have huge backlogs. A weak and unpredictable rule of law, especially when corruption is involved, hurts citizens, and scares off investment. BiH cannot move forward without addressing it.
Improve public services. Citizens, including those leaving the country, consistently talk about BiH’s poor education and healthcare. As a proportion of GDP, BiH actually spends a great deal on the health system, more than many others in the region, but it produces low quality results for patients. Schools and universities need to prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of the future, not the past, including IT and problem solving skills. Every citizen has the right to demand good value for money in the services they pay for, and plans from new governments to improve them.
Turn around failing state-owned companies. There are hundreds of companies across BiH in the hands of government, in areas from telecoms companies to pharmacies. Many of them are being badly run, filled with political party members instead of professional experts. Ultimately it is the tax payer, the BiH citizen, who pays bill for this, through higher prices or government subsidies. We need to depoliticise the companies, improve their management, and in some cases make them available for privatisation.
Many of these reforms are not new. That is because they have been only partially implemented before, or not at all. And there are many more things that could be done, to improve life in this country.
The good news is that BiH has many partners who want to help, including of course the EU, its Member-States, the US and many more. The UK has doubled its support for BiH. What we need are partners, politicians and parties who are genuinely committed to improving the lives of their citizens and putting the country first. Reforms have to start, as soon as possible. The people of BiH deserve, and should demand, much better.