Good evening. I would like to thank the Bosnian-Herzegovinian American Academy of Arts and Sciences for inviting me to be here today, and all of you for traveling this far to demonstrate your dedication to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s two-million-person diaspora is an indispensable part of this country’s social fabric. You bring critical investment to this country. And crucially, you share knowledge and expertise – whether that be in medicine, engineering, or robotics – that you have gained abroad to advance our shared goal of ensuring a democratic and prosperous future for this country inside Euro-Atlantic institutions.
It is a sad reality that this Euro-Atlantic future looks farther away than it did when I first served here between 2006 and 2009 despite the EU decision last year to grant Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate status. The county faces a toxic cocktail of destabilizing political challenges: rising authoritarianism and secessionism from the Republika Srpska; institutional atrophy and division from the Federation; and the hollowing out of state-level institutions because of both. Corruption is endemic, and it is undermining Bosnia and Herzegovina’s democracy and its economy. As a consequence of all of this, more a half a million residents have left the country over the past decade.
How did this happen? It was not so long ago that major, structural change was possible. In the decade following the Dayton Peace Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina built several key state institutions – the Central Election Commission, the Court system, the Intelligence and Security Agency, and many other state-level ministries and regulatory organizations. The greatest of these successes was the formation of the multi-ethnic Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where today Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, and Others serve side-by-side with distinction at home and abroad, and provide security for the country and all its citizens.
These achievements did not materialize spontaneously. They required concerted international community support – and when that failed – strategic pressure and action. Political leaders who attacked peace, stability, or the rule of law faced sanctions. All this was done to strengthen Bosnia and Herzegovina and prepare it for eventual membership in the European Union – a goal we shared, and still share, with the people of this country.
Then, as now, we saw Dayton as a starting point – a foundation to build on – not, as some in the Republika Srpska portray it, as an end in itself. The United States worked hard with political leaders to build on Dayton, and back then it seemed that major, positive change was possible. The 2006 April Package was perhaps the best example of this effort.
The April Package would have strengthened Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutions and constituted a major leap forward for EU integration. It provided for a single, indirectly elected President with largely ceremonial powers and an empowered Council of Ministers, with far fewer opportunities for any one party to block state function. It moved Bosnia and Herzegovina towards a parliamentary system that would have rewarded consensus building rather than the politics of division. Most importantly, the April Package would have empowered the state to develop laws, institutions, and standards to meet the requirements for EU integration. It was exemplary of our efforts to work with those leaders who had, at the time, the political courage to build a better Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tragically, the April Package failed narrowly in Parliament – scuttled by a minority of political leaders who could not accept anything less than what they considered a “perfect” deal.
Was the April Package perfect? No, far from it. Negotiations were difficult. There were many in Bosnia and Herzegovina who felt it went too far in curtailing ethnic protections and entity privileges. There were others in the country who felt it did not go far enough. The April Package was a compromise – but one that, despite its flaws, would have transformed Bosnia and Herzegovina for the better. It is clear with hindsight that the leaders who refused to compromise and promised perfection in 2006 destroyed Bosnia and Herzegovina’s best chance to date for real reform.
Not long afterwards, the international community stepped back. It calculated that the prospect of EU integration would be sufficient to prompt Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political leaders to make the difficult compromises necessary to strengthen the country’s democracy, grow its economy, and secure its future in the Euro-Atlantic community of nations. This may have been a reasonable calculation at the time, but it turned out to be flawed. Local ownership did not, in the end, produce the changes the international community anticipated or that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina wanted. Instead, too many political leaders saw local ownership not as a call for responsible action, but rather as an opportunity to further divide the country, plunder government coffers, and roll back or weaken reforms. Painstakingly built institutions broke down because they were starved of cash and strong leadership, or because they were used as tools for the benefit of a political party. What momentum Bosnia and Herzegovina had slowed, stopped, and then reversed.
We cannot regain the lost opportunities of the past 17 years. This is a tragedy. But it does not mean that we must lose the opportunities of the next decade. It will not be easy to reverse this trend. The accumulated problems cannot be solved overnight. We must restore the strength and capability of the institutions that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens worked so hard to build, and we must constrain and respond to those who seek to destroy them. This means using the international community’s authorities and deterrent powers when necessary to defend Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutional and territorial integrity, a responsibility made more urgent by roiling geopolitical crises in Europe as well as rising malign influence from outside actors aimed at pushing the country off the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration.
We have already seen some limited successes. Over the last 18 months, the United States has sanctioned an unprecedented number of politicians and criminal figures to demonstrate that attacks against Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutions and rule of law are not without consequence. The European Union has enlarged EUFOR, providing it with much-needed additional manpower. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with U.S. leadership, adopted a set of tailored support measures designed to deepen the partnership and cooperation between the Alliance and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The High Representative’s decisions in the past year ensured that the 2022 general elections took place on schedule, thwarting those who sought to delay them by withholding funding. These decisions blocked attempts by the Republika Srpska to seize state property over which it has no rightful claim and outside of a parliamentary-led process to allocate ownership. They improved election integrity, although the widespread fraud of the October 2022 elections underscored the urgent need for further work in this area. They saved the Federation Constitutional Court from collapse. They reduced the capability of political leaders to abuse ethnic vetoes and indefinitely obstruct vital appointments in the Federation, and they led to the formation of the first new Federation government since 2014 after four years of blockage. These are indisputable facts.
There has been criticism from some quarters after each of these decisions, as there has been in the past whenever the international community has acted in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Generally, the critics argue that the international community is choosing sides, or choosing the wrong side, or even switching sides. These comments invariably come from political leaders and parties who passed up the opportunity to resolve these impasses themselves. Intervention is never the first course of action, but quite frankly, the international community has often been far too patient and tolerant of obstreperous political leaders who are intent on pursing narrow political interests at the expense of the people of this country. The international community’s lodestar in these and all instances is a functional democracy, a prosperous economy, and institutions that operate in the interests of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, not in the interests of a specific political leader or his party.
Some critics claim that the High Representative’s decisions reinforced divisions in this country, but this mistakes cause and effect. Bosnia and Herzegovina – in its government and in its society – must account for its multiethnicity even as it works to reduce, if not entirely eliminate, the frictions and mistrust within its body politic. This is a journey, not an end state magically wished into being. The political leaders of the last 17 years have, for all intents and purposes, refused to embark on it. They have instead fostered division by accusing other groups of trying to deny the members of their own groups a brighter future. And they have done this, in part, by purposefully blurring the lines between parties, party leaders, and ethnic groups in ways designed to maintain mistrust. This is designed to narrow the possibilities for outcomes that favor all of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s people. This makes it especially incumbent in the debate and negotiations over these matters to remember that Bakir Izetbegovic is not SDA, and SDA is not all Bosniaks, that Milorad Dodik is not SNSD, and SNSD is not all Serbs, and Dragan Covic is not HDZ BiH, and HDZ BiH is not all Croats, even if these leaders present themselves otherwise.
It is not enough to want a new, reformed constitutional structure and to pronounce yourself principled and committed to reaching this destination. You must actually work towards it. An all or nothing approach to building a more functional, less ethnic state structure, as we learned in 2006, is just as toxic to Bosnia and Herzegovina as the nationalism we all abhor. This means participating in negotiations in good faith, not undermining them from within or playing the role of spoiler from outside. It means seeking to build consensus, and it means compromising.
This is especially important when it comes to implementing the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decisions in Sejdic Finci and related cases. The United States has engaged in multiple efforts from 2006 to 2022 to bring political leaders to a consensus on how best to accomplish this objective, which requires agreement among a super majority of political parties in the state-level parliament. The international community, including the High Representative, does not have the legal authority to change the state-level constitution given that it is part of Dayton. Changes to the state-level constitution require working from a position of trust among Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constituent peoples, which remain a feature of the country’s constitution, law, and society.
So, what does all this mean? It means rebuilding an environment where political leaders can reform and strengthen – not just sustain – Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutions. This means passing crucial reforms to strengthen Bosnia and Herzegovina’s rule of law and tackling corruption. This means passing economic reforms that will create space for the private sector-led economic growth that is critical to future prosperity. This means strengthening election integrity and the civil society and independent media institutions that help hold elected leaders accountable. Political leaders willing to provide this leadership will find strong support from the United States.
For my government, the ambition of the United States in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the same as it ever was – to see this country stable, democratic, prosperous, and firmly ensconced in Euro-Atlantic institutions. My team and I work hard every day to realize these goals.
The United States is the largest single-country donor to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since 1995, we have invested more than $2 billion to support Bosnia and Herzegovina’s democratic, social, and economic progress. From building more capable institutions to supporting local reconciliation to boosting tourism, we have been proud to invest in Bosnia and Herzegovina, its Euro-Atlantic future, and its hard-working citizens, whose resilience and fundamental decency are this country’s strength.
Strengthening the Armed Forces of BiH is a key pillar of our support. From supporting training for officers, to procurement of vital equipment and supplies and conducting joint military-to-military engagements, the United States has been the AFBiH’s closest partner over the past two decades, consistent with our commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NATO path.
Fighting endemic corruption is another key priority. There are few things worse for a citizen’s faith in their country than when they must pay a bribe just to receive a basic public service, or when they believe they cannot make a living wage without connections. This is why the United States invests heavily in the rule of law. We train those law enforcement and prosecutors willing to stand up to entrenched corruption, and we fund Anti-Corruption Offices to support them in their vital work of creating a Bosnia and Herzegovina where no one is above the law.
Much of our support serves as a force multiplier so that those committed to a brighter future for Bosnia and Herzgovina – people like you – can make a difference. In February of this year, I launched a new U.S. government Diaspora Invest project, a follow-on to our first highly successful diaspora program that ended last year. This new project aims to leverage at least $50 million in new diaspora-led private investment; create 2,000 new jobs in diaspora-related companies; support 600 diaspora micro, small, and medium enterprises; and encourage at least 30 local communities to seek out diaspora knowledge and capital.
It is true, the challenges facing Bosnia and Herzegovina are considerable, but Bosnia and Herzegovina does not stand alone. The United States is proud to stand alongside Bosnia and Herzegovina, as it always has, to push for a brighter future. No other country has been more committed to that future, nor invested more in its fulfillment, than the United States. That will not change.
Thank you again.