Thank you, Majda and the rest of the USAID PRO-Future team. Hello everyone. I am happy to have this opportunity to address you today as you begin your weeklong Political Academy.
Over the next six days, you will begin your journey to becoming a politician who actively works to maintain peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is the point of the PRO-Future Political Academy: It will prepare you for political activism based on the principles of tolerance, trust building, and collaboration – across ethnic lines.
I understand that during the week, you will hear from politicians and political leaders, experts in peacebuilding, and peers who participated in previous academies. I encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity to learn from their experiences, ask questions about their political platforms, explain your viewpoints, and propose new solutions.
This is your chance to witness first-hand how those with different backgrounds and viewpoints can collaborate on shared objectives and develop long-term relationships to promote lasting peace in everything you do.
This is not about agreement. You will not always agree, and that’s ok. But you must engage in dialogue to be able to understand each other’s perspectives, to determine where common ground exists, and to identify what you can do together to create a better future for your generation and all BiH citizens.
For far too long, the politics of the past have held Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future hostage. Every day brings a new headline about a politician’s rhetoric or actions that are designed to divide the people of this country as well as stoke distrust and fear among citizens. All of these actions stem from a focus on differences in BiH society. The politics of division will erode the fabric of this country, will put its future inside the Euro-Atlantic community of nations at risk, and will enrich only the politicians engaged in it.
This has gone on for too long, and it is why so many of your peers have left or plan to leave BiH for other parts of the world so they can build “a better life” for themselves and their families. I do not blame young people for wanting to escape the problems I just mentioned. After all, my ancestors left Ireland, Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic when they were young to build better lives for themselves in America.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s past will always shape its future, but it does not need to determine it. And it does not need to drive its political leaders if that is not what the voters of this country want for themselves and their families.
This October, the voters of Bosnia and Herzegovina will decide who should lead the state, the entities, and the cantons for the next four years. This is their opportunity to shape BiH’s future. It is also their opportunity to hold accountable the politicians and political parties that have governed this country for the last four years.
Did these politicians deliver on the promises they made four years ago? Have they been guided by their constituents’ interests, or have they been driven by their own narrow personal interests? Is the country better off today than it was four years ago? These are the types of questions voters in every democracy ask themselves before casting their ballot. If the answers are “no”, then voters can make a change. That is the beauty and power of democracy.
But change cannot happen if the people do not participate in the democratic process. First and foremost, that means voting. We often take the act of voting for granted.
When we do, it is worth remembering that there are hundreds of millions of people in this world who have no ability to choose their leaders or actively shape their country’s destiny.
Second, the people of this country should demand that candidates engage on and address issues that are important to their lives, not the politicians’ political fortunes. What are their plans for advancing BiH’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic family of nations? For combatting corruption? For addressing pollution? For building prosperity for all? And for unleashing the tremendous potential of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s young people? Challenge them when you find their answers unsatisfactory.
Third, you and the voters of this country must look for and take advantage of every opportunity to organize, to express your opinions, and to play a meaningful role in political decision-making. This may mean shaping the course of your country’s politics from within the political parties themselves. It may mean working with like-minded citizens on a specific project to improve your communities, or to prevent politicians from pursuing a project that will harm your communities. Regardless, the operative word here is “participation.” Without it, nothing changes.
The challenges confronting Bosnian and Herzegovina are tremendous, and rather than focus on addressing them, the political leaders have spent the last ten years making many of them worse. It is easy when looking out over this landscape to become discouraged, to doubt the role you can play in building a better future for BiH, or to give up altogether. But as potential future leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, you do not need to settle for the status quo.
You can work together and build the trust necessary to address the war legacy issues that continue to plague Bosnia and Herzegovina today. And you can agree that you will not exploit them as your current generation of leaders do.
You can place accountability at the forefront of your political discourse and your own personal behavior. Your integrity is a precious commodity, which you must safeguard. It is a responsibility that falls on you, and only you.
You can use every opportunity, like the one that you have this week, to connect and collaborate with one another and push for change as only young political leaders can.
The U.S. government is proud to stand by you. Thank you.