by Rhodri C. Williams
And let me say how honored I am that you chose my birthday for accession to the EU! I’ve had a pretty complicated relationship with you in the past, I have to admit. On the positive side, I used to flee to you when the narrow valleys of Bosnia got me feeling fenced in and I needed to pop over that last rise after the Metkovic border crossing and let that view – the burnished expanse of the Adriatic – seep physically into me. We also used to pile out to the north, going hell for leather from Slavonski Brod along the ex-Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, anything just to hit Zagreb before the only Mexican restaurant in the West Balkans announced last call.
Beyond my personal enjoyment of your charms, I was also impressed in a grim way by your ability to stick it out as a small country in a historically tough neighborhood. The sort of existential problems you faced in the 1990s were unlikely anything I could imagine, having grown up in the protected suburban vastnesses of the 1970s US midwest. The problem, in my mind, was not (only) that you didn’t have clean hands (nobody did). The problem was that you couldn’t come clean about it. Of course, nobody else could either, but you, unlike the others, just galumphed right over your historical indiscretions like so many speed bumps on the boulevard to European integration.
So what is my beef? Well, I worked on property restitution in Bosnia. So I watched as the ‘international community’ in Sarajevo turned the screws on the Bosnians until they extended restitution to cover not only all private houses but also all socially owned apartments (with a few fateful exceptions of course). And I watched as the same international community in Zagreb gradually conceded points that we had gone to the wall over in Sarajevo and started to purge terminology like ‘tenancy rights’ from documents like EU accession progress reports.
I also worked on the OSCE and ICHR friend of the court briefs in the ill-fated Blecic case before the European Court of Human Rights, and assisted the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s attempt to push for uniform restitution standards in Europe. I marveled both when the ICTY condemned the uncompensated confiscation of 30,000 socially owned apartments as part of a broader plan to remove Serbs from Croatia, and when that ruling fell on a seeming technicality. And I am left to conclude that the relatively prosperous and self-confident Croatian political elite was simply not held to the same rigorous standards still being applied to their poor and less organized cousins in Bosnia.
The bottom line is that the country that declared independence in 1991 had a 12.2% Serb minority while the country that joined the EU today has a 4.4% Serb minority, and that little statistic patches over a lot of ongoing misery and unredressed violations. Now I know its still not an easy time for you what with sliding EU support and all the commentators cracking wise about how you fought your way out of one oppressive, economically troubled confederation twenty years ago only to fling yourself into another today. So I’ll say only this. It is entirely to your credit that you have entered the hallowed precincts of the EU but it is troubling that you did so with a certain number of skeletons clanking around in your luggage.
Of course, one might as easily find fault for this state of affairs in Brussels as in Zagreb. But pressuring countries that are already in to observe such niceties as the Copenhagen criteria and the rule of law is not the EU’s traditional strong suit. In any case, that is nothing that should prevent you from finding that it lies in your own best interest to engage sooner rather than later with your past. And doing so in a clear-eyed way would, at a stroke, remove many of the excuses holding back your EU-aspirant neighbors from doing the same. And maybe leave both the EU and the western Balkans in better shape as a result. So, congratulations, and good luck as part of the European project of building a future worthy of the sacrifices and suffering of the past.