BiH, Day Two: Exploring Sarajevo

26 Mar

Monday morning we awoke bright and early for our visit to the Bosnian State Parliament. But don’t let the “State” part confuse you – it is the national parliament for the whole country. This is where things get confusing – Bosnia and Herzegovina has multiple levels or layers of government: the state level has the state parliament and a rotating presidency. The Presidency consists of 3 persons, one from each of the major ethnic groups (so one Bosniak (Muslim), one Croat (Catholic) and one Serb (Orthodox). Next, below the state level is the entity level – there are two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (mostly comprised of Bosniaks and Croats) and the Republica Srpska (mostly Serbs now after the war and the ethnic cleansing that accompanied it). As you can guess, the RS is mostly located in the northern and eastern parts of the country (bordering Serbia) while the Federation contains Sarajevo and the rest of the country, extending to the south and west (bordering Croatia). The RS has 49% of the country’s land, while the Federation has 51%. The RS is very centralized; the Federation is very decentralized, as it is compromised of 10 cantons, or municipalities, some of which are majority Bosniak, while others are majority Croat, and some are mixed. This entire system can be summed up by one word: dysfunctional. The current political structure was created in 1995 at the signing of the Dayton Agreement, the American-brokered peace deal to end the war. In order to get all three parties on board, the agreement had to include provisions for a new state government in Bosnia, which eventually became the constitution, and as you can see, the many layers of government make getting anything done nearly impossible, since each ethnic group has the ability to veto any initiative. Don’t get me wrong, Dayton was absolutely necessary to stop the fighting, but by now the country should have devised a more functional system – but since Dayton essentially institutionalized the ethnic divisions around which the war centered, politicians maintain their power by stirring up fears among their constituent ethno-national groups and playing up the “us-vs.-them” rhetoric to no end, instilling a politics of fear and resentment that prevents the country from focusing on, say, improving the 43% unemployment rate (you read that right), or rebuilding public infrastructure, or bettering the disintegrated education system or cleaning up the corruption in the media. Furthermore, very small ethnic groups like the Jews and Roma lack the ability to hold office in the state parliament or presidency because they are not one of the three institutionalized ethnic groups recognized in the country’s constitution – an issue that recently came before the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled Bosnia must amend its constitution before they can move forward in the process to join the EU. Speaking of the EU:

Both Bosnia and the EU want Bosnia to join to EU, but as we learned on this afternoon, it’s not that easy. We met with a top adviser to the EU delegation in Bosnia, and she went over the process that Bosnia is required to go through in order to join the EU. There is a huge list of political, economic, social and other reforms that the country must make before they can begin the process to become an EU member, and most all of these must occur through changes in Bosnian law coming from the state (national) level. However, because of the fragmented political system, none of the ethnic groups can agree on how to make the necessary changes. But the thing that really frustrated me was the EU’s approach to the whole situation (as seen through this adviser who made her presentation to us). They said that the biggest obstacle preventing the mutual goal of EU membership for Bosnia was the “lack of political will” attributable to the dysfunctional set-up. But when I asked her what her group was doing to help build the necessary political will, or push for constitutional reform to improve the political system, she said “nothing.” This was simply not a good enough answer. This adviser kept insisting during her presentation that their role was merely to “advise” the Bosnian government on the necessary changes, and to “inform” them of the benefits of EU membership, etc. etc. But this ignores the fact that the current political system was imposed on Bosnia at Dayton, and the politicians in power no benefit from the set-up and can continue to maintain their power unless changes are made. Since the EU’s goal is Bosnian EU Membership, and the most effective way to achieve that is through a new, more functional political system in Bosnia, they should be providing support to make the necessary changes – instead they simply sit back and throw their hands up saying ‘here’s what you need to do, but we can’t help you or provide any support.’ It’s basically a covert imperialism – on the surface the EU insists that they won’t meddle or impose in Bosnian political affairs, yet they require massive changes to the political system in order of Bosnia to join the EU. But it looks much nicer if Bosnia makes the necessary changes than if the EU overtly forces them to. These are the kinds of attitudes from international actors that help preserve the status quo and keep the country stuck in the mud – and Bosnians feel similarly. The consensus from people we talked to was that Europe basically left them out to dry during the war, and as for the U.N., Bosnian refer to them as “Unless Nation” and “United for Nothing.” The only country they feel indebted to is the U.S. for brokering the Dayton Peace Agreement, even if it was largely forced and has left the country in bad shape today – the important thing is that it stopped the fighting, killing, massacres and ethnic cleansing that the rest of the world seemed content to regulate rather than help end. But that’s enough about that, back to the visit to the state parliament…

Turns out, the state parliament canceled on us (are you surprised?). So instead, we received a guiding walking tour of the city. We learned more about the history of the city, specifically how the different parts of the city are built based on the empire that ruled Sarajevo at the time. The old Ottoman Turkish part of the city still has the indoor market bazaar with several shops, as well as several streets and alleyways that have names like “Copper Alley” – each one of the 48 guilds in the city had their own street to produce and sell their crafts. Here are some pictures from the Turkish part of the city:

And look at all the houses on the hills surrounding the city – this reminded me so much of Pittsburgh!!!

And here’s the iconic fountain, located along the main trade route between Istanbul and Europe. Legend has it that if you drink from the fountain, you will return to Sarajevo (this was quite accurate back during Ottoman rule, because the people coming through the city and drinking from the fountain were traders who were constantly passing through). Also, Sarajevo had running water in public bathhouses and underground sewage systems 100s of years before many major cities in Europe – so while places like Copenhagen smelled like shit, Sarajevo was relatively clean and odor-free:

Also, here’s something unique – the below different streetcars are all old used streetcars from cities around the world which were donated to Sarajevo after the siege. The oldest one is the red-streetcar from Vienna, circa 1964. When I went to Vienna the next weekend, I saw some still in use – talk about crazy! The same streetcar in two totally different places!

And here’s a really good story: so this house:

Used to sit on the site of the current National Library (which was shelled during the siege burning all the books inside), but before it was the National Library it was the City Hall. Austria-Hungary built it, but before they could build it on this particular site, they had to convince the owner of this small house to sell so they could demolish it and build the new, grandiose city hall. The owner wouldn’t budge – no amount of money could convince him to sell his priced possession and watch it be torn down by the occupying empire. So Austria-Hungary agreed to move his house – brick by brick – across the river to its current spot, where it serves as a small restaurant where we ate our last meal in Sarajevo (lunch) on Friday.

Next were houses of God – there is actually a Catholic church, Serbian Orthodox church, Mosque and an out-of-use Synagogue all within a few blocks of each other. Sarajevo has long been a point where East meets West, and despite the war, it has had a long history of peaceful co-existence among these different traditions (example, when the Catholics kicked the Jews out of Spain in 1492, many came to Sarajevo because of the relative tolerance the Ottoman rulers showed for other religions. They brought with them an ancient copy of the Torah and during World War II, members of the Muslim community took the book into safekeeping to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Nazis, and it is preserved today as the world’s oldest book I believe). Our guide’s name was Mohammed (the only way you can tell people’s ethno-national identities is by their first name, because it is determined by their religion – “ethnicities” aren’t even accurately distinctions, since EVERYONE in Bosnia is technically descended from the Slavic tribes that invaded in the 6th century) so he filled us in on the Islam in Sarajevo: Bosniak Muslims are Sunni (as were the Ottoman Turks) and they are about the most casual Muslims in the world. None of them eat pork, many will give up drinking beer for Ramadan in respect of the older members of their family, and many women (but certainly not all) wear the head garments, but otherwise, they drink, smoke like chimneys, and don’t often attend services (even though Sarajevo has the most mosques per person in the world, due to the flood of money from the Islamic world during and after the siege). This picture sums it all up well:

You have an outdoor café right outside of a mosque – so the call to prayer is made while people from 3 or maybe even 4 major world religions sip their coffee and smoke their cigarettes below. Catholics and Orthodox are similar in that most don’t actively practice their religions.

Oo, and about coffee – someone told us that coffee is the most commonly practiced religion in Bosnia – and from what I saw, this is true. Everyone drinks coffee, all the time. Every café has small copper or tin coffee trays and cups outside on its tables – it’s so ingrained that if you have guests over to your home, you traditionally serve three rounds of coffee, and the third round is the “Farewell” serving, acting as a social cue for the guests to leave soon. This shows just how ingrained coffee drinking is and that it is something truly universal here that cuts across all three cultures.

And here’s a shot of the big chess game in the square outside the Orthodox church – there’s always a huge crowd to watch and wait to play. It’s teams of two, and at sundown, the team currently on the board is in charge of locking the set up, taking the key with them and then showing up right at sunrise to unlock the set and resume playing (if you haven’t figured out by now, the Balkins are a place heavily influenced by tradition – if engaged in an argument, citing a historical event from 7 centuries ago is perfectly legitimate here).

To end our day, we decided to eat at the Sarajevo Brewery, home of the local favorite brew, Sarajevsko. The Brewery has a heavy history: it is build on a spring, so it provided the only access to drinking water for the entire city during the siege. Countless people died trying to cross the city to simply fill up a bucket of water from this brewery – so there is much more to it than beer. Here are pictures from the Brewery:

And that wraps up our Monday in Sarajevo and this entry. I’ll try and keep the future blog posts shorter – I’ll never get to Vienna at this rate…

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Rachel in Denmark

[American] Expat living in Copenhagen

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