What will Bosnia look like in 2025? After months of debate, a group of 20 leaders from politics, academia, education and other sectors presented its thoughts at a conference this week in Sarajevo.

Backed by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) foundation, the group offered five scenarios, represented symbolically by different train names, to stir debate and pique policy makers, not, as they emphasize, to predict the future. The point of departure is contemporary Bosnia – an unsustainable basket case where political gridlock reigns, unemployment tops the high double digits, and nationalist leaders frequently question the legitimacy of state institutions.

The first scenario, Dayton Mail – Status quo, is grim. In 2025, Bosnia is stagnating. The political gridlock that emerged from the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords – which decentralized power between two political entities, a tripartite presidency and local governments – has eased after years of further socio-economic decline that inspired modest reforms. But Bosnia is isolated, surrounded by neighbors already in the European Union or well on their way. As a result, its economy remains weak. Bosnia has EU candidate status but no near-term hope of membership, as Sarajevo hasn’t met EU accession criteria.

I won’t detail the remaining scenarios here, but a few points/assumptions stand out:

Before things can get better, they have to get much worse: The optimistic scenarios, the ones with Bosnia in the EU by 2025, foresee a period of mass unrest, interethnic violence and instability over deteriorating socio-economic conditions. As a result, leaders have no choice but to respond with wholesale structural reforms. In BiH Union Express, scenario three, Dayton is abandoned for a centralized state after NATO intervenes in 2016 to prevent civil war.

It’s the economy, stupid: I’m borrowing from James Carville here, as the report emphasizes economic factors. Foreign investment has cratered in the last three years due to political instability. (In that time, Bosnia lacked a federal government for 14 months because of political infighting.) Today one-in-two young Bosnians is out of work. Leaders already exploit these conditions to stoke nationalist rhetoric, which many observers say could spark interethnic violence and the FES group evidently fears will only worsen.

In three scenarios – again, the optimistic ones – Bosnia endures renewed inter-ethnic tensions that abate only as the economy improves. The second, Trans BiH Arrow, foresees a decentralized state that prioritizes business-friendly reform to attract foreign investment and reduce unemployment. The resulting socio-economic stability relaxes “ethnic tensions and leads to a higher level of social cohesion.”

Bosnia is traveling toward dissolution: This is the big concern today. In scenario five, Tripartite Border Train, Bosnia peacefully dissolves into three, largely ethnically homogeneous countries for the Croats, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Serbs. The international community retains a strong peacekeeping presence in each of the new countries, which are focused on state building. It’s ground zero in the heart of the Balkans.

The preconditions for this scenario range from school segregation and ballooning bureaucracy to endemic corruption and segregationist rhetoric entering the public discourse. Each exists today. Schools are segregated along ethnic lines. Over 150 government ministers go to work each day in a country of 50 percent unemployment. Bosnia ranked 91 of 183 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2011. The Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, rejects state institutions and frequently threatens secession.

The FES group says it does not favor dissolution, as some in Bosnia do, and emphasizes that dissolution is no more likely than any of the other scenarios. But, based on current trends, that looks like where the country is headed.

Picture of a train from Bosnia to Croatia from Flickr

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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