What Europe Can Learn From Bosnia and Herzegovina

Interview with Ambassador (Rtd.) Dr. Wolfgang Petritsch, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1999 to 2002

Download PDF

Wolfgang Petritsch studied history, German studies, political science and law at the University of Vienna, where he received his doctorate in 1972. From 1977 to 1983 he was secretary to Federal Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. During his term of office as Austrian Ambassador in Belgrade (1997 to 1999) he was appointed European Union Special Envoy for Kosovo. In this capacity he served as the EU Chief Negotiator at the Kosovo Peace Talks in Rambouillet and Paris in 1999. From 1999 to 2002, in the capacity of the International Community’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, he coordinated the reconstruction activities in that country. From 2002 to 2008 he was Austria’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the specialized UN agencies in Geneva and subsequently served as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the OECD in Paris from 2008 to 2013. Currently, Petritsch is the Joseph A. Schumpeter Fellow at Harvard University.

Petritsch was also Chair of the Board of the European Cultural Foundation in Amsterdam from 2008 to 2012. Under his aegis and in the context of its focus on South Eastern Europe,  the Foundation developed the publication “The Heart of the Matter” as well as the grants scheme “Balkan Incentive Fund for Culture”.   In 2007 Petritsch was awarded the European Human Rights Prize in Strasbourg.

The interview was conducted by Gottfried Wagner of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture, formerly director of the European Cultural Foundation.

One has the impression that the creative potential of this “poor country” is extraordinary. What should (other) Europeans know, see, hear and read about it? Bosnia’s version of the “century of extremes” – to paraphrase Eric Hobsbawn – has undoubtedly brought forth outstanding artistic achievements. Ivo Andrić, the only Yugoslavian Nobel Laureate for Literature, gave virtually unparalleled expression to the contradictions of this multi-ethnic country. The imperial power plays of the Ottomans, Austrians and French on Bosnian territory in the 19th century, so impressively described in “Bosnian Chronicle”, or in the epochal saga “The Bridge on the Drina”, to mention only two literary gems, communicate the complex history of this country that was controlled by foreign powers for many centuries. “Sarajevo 1914″ as the subject of innumerable books, plays and films (with more to appear in 2014) has undoubtedly assumed a role of considerable magnitude in world history. Both the myth of the creation of Tito’s Yugoslavia and the country’s ultimate dissolution a mere half-century later had their geographic centres in Bosnia. The Hollywood film “The Battle of Neretva” (1969) marks the Western acceptance of the anti-fascist resistance and contrasts with the destruction of cultural diversity in places like Sarajevo, Mostar and Srebrenica, which was equally accepted by the West. This existential discourse finds its continuation in contemporary art. The works of Šejla Kamerić correlate the almost inconceivable brutality with the European context of violence, bringing Anne Frank or the Holocaust, the dubious role of the UN peace troops and the humanitarian intervention into the range of themes in both aesthetic and critical terms, similarly to authors who have achieved considerable fame and recognition in the European and American diaspora, such as Dževad Karahasan or Aleksandar Hemon. The visual arts in Bosnia today are a part of the remarkable tradition of the erstwhile film metropolis of Sarajevo and at the same time are creating something entirely new that has universal legitimacy. Even Hollywood has recognised the quality of film production in this country, conferring the 2001 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film on Danis Tanović’s grandiose and absurd tragicomedy “Ničja Zemlja” (“No Man’s Land”). This marked the beginning of the new Bosnian film industry. Filmmaking, incidentally, is a profession in which Bosnian women have found new possibilities for expression, in encouraging contrast to the traditional macho culture. Today, the Bosnian film industry – often taking the form of co-productions with Austrian and other European producers – is one the best worldwide. In many of these films, facets of the personal context become metaphors for our whole existence. Pjer Žalica’s “Gori Vatra” (“The Fire is Burning”) – with a brilliant Hubsi Kramar in a leading role – is a scathing satire on the dubious role of the “internationals”. I feel a personal connection to Jasmila Žbanić’s impressive epoch “Grbavica” (released in the United Kingdom as “Esma’s Secret: Grbavica” and in the USA as “Grbavica: Land of My Dreams”), since my office was located in that very district of Sarajevo for three years. The artists belonging to the generation of that epoch of violence take the building blocks of this Balkan edifice, constructed out of conflict, destruction, and recovery, and reassemble them to create new – profoundly European – insights. The authenticity and immediacy of their works are moving and demonstrate once again the magical impact of art and culture in the allegedly so arbitrary postmodern 21st century.

When you think about two or three special artists/works from BiH that mean a great deal to you personally, what, in your opinion, could they have to say to an interested EU citizen about “BiH in Europe”? There are many that I could mention. Apart from those I’ve already talked about, I value artists such as Edin Numankadić, who only managed to survive the war by internalising texts by Adorno and other philosophers and integrating them into his own artistic production. He did this during the intolerably long years in his home city of Sarajevo under siege; for his wife, however, the war experience was too much to bear.   The artist duo Kurt and Plasto are completely different. Their sarcastic interventions in the poets’ haven of Sarajevo continue the long tradition of ideological instrumentalisation of art under dictatorial conditions. Among the younger generation, I consider Maja Bajević and Danica Dakić particularly promising. Without the incredible Dunja Blažević, whose “Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art” seems to survive by feeding on air, Sarajevo would not be a metropolis of the arts. Dunja belongs to that rare species for whom culture is life itself.

Few people have experienced BiH at such close quarters as you: You have seen progress and a great deal of desperate stagnation. What does your “clinical expertise” say about future developments in BiH, and what does your heart say? What causes progress to fail and where/how can it happen?   Bosnia will be stuck in a post-war era for a long time, I fear. Despite having so many gifted people – who are pursuing careers in other countries but see no opportunity to do so at home – the country seems to be paralysed. On the one hand, the Dayton Agreement impedes the country’s development within Europe in economic, social and political terms. Dayton ended the war but offers no adequate basis for the development of a modern state. We need to do our part to change this. On the other hand, the government of BiH has to be reminded of its own responsibility. Ultimately, in view of the progress in the region – from Serbia and Kosovo to Croatia – Bosnia will face the question: What do we want to be, a European state or a Vilâyet of the past? I am firmly convinced that more citizens’ responsibility, combined with assertive challenging of the country’s policy makers, will ultimately bring Bosnia to Europe as a fully integrated entity; the strange thing is that the achievements of the country’s artists have been among the best in Europe for a long time – but where are the achievements of the political and economic elites? What things should we not expect of the people of this country, at least not in the near future?

What things are nevertheless expected on the way to the EU? There is no question that our total lack of understanding for the traumas caused by this war – which, after all, was ultimately a war between citizens living one and the same “Yugoslavian” lifestyle – has left these people in the lurch. We have more or less managed to rebuild the physical infrastructure, but we have given the people no help at all in overcoming their psychological injuries and the disruptions of their civilisation. The generous European and American aid would have achieved much more if it had entailed much larger investments in education and culture and greater patience and empathy. This has to be rectified now. All of us, the EU as well as European civil society, should keep in mind the long years needed for recovery after that great breakdown of civilisation.

How, in particular, could the EU and its societies benefit from what BiH has to offer? We ought to realise that there are more similarities than differences between the people “down there in the Balkans” and ourselves here in the affluent West. This construct of division distorts our view of what connects us – to the detriment of all. Bringing the countries of the so-called Western Balkans closer to the EU needs to be a more political process overall; it has to become part of our vision of Europe. Possibly Bosnia, with its history of conflict as well as its multicultural society, reminds us too much of our own “Europe”; perhaps this is a perception that irritates us.

What does the EU need to do? (three things?) 1. Recognise Bosnia in its complex reality as a typically European country 2. Productively unloose the energy of its citizens, energy that is still paralysed by the war 3. Learn to appreciate Bosnia as Bosnia.

What can the commemorative year 2014 bring for the European future of BiH and for the European future WITH BiH?  Undoubtedly, the commemorative year holds both pitfalls and opportunities. A good result – to phrase it in down-to-earth terms – would be better mutual appreciation and relations as equals on an ongoing basis.

And what does that have to do with art? Art is the lynchpin of our existence…