Friday, December 12, 2008

Journalist Peter Lippman--Travel Journal to Bosnia-Herzegovina Part I

JOURNALIST PETER LIPPMAN HAS BEEN KIND ENOUGH TO INCLUDE ME ON A DISTRIBUTION LIST FOR HIS JOURNAL REPORTING HIS RECENT TRIP TO BOSNIA. I WILL BE PASSING HIS JOURNAL ENTRIES ALONG TO MY READERS. PLEASE ENJOY.

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Bosnia-Herzegovina journal #1: Sarajevo and Bosnia

Hello friends,

This is the first of a new series of journals. I almost never send out journals unless I have been traveling outside of the United States; the last one I sent was just a check-in around December of 2007. Now, for the first time since 2006, I have traveled again. I recently came back from a six-week visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina, with a short visit to Bucharest at the end.

Note: Most of you are on my distribution list because you requested to be put there. If you don't wish to receive these journals, just let me know.

And you are welcome to forward these journals.

I traveled to Bosnia this year in order to refresh my impressions about the country, to discern new trends, and to catch up with old friends and colleagues. Since I am writing a book about the place, it's not good to stay away for too long. This visit was shorter than usual, and I had to hustle to get to the ten towns and cities that I most wished to visit, and to make the approximately 35 interviews that I made. While there's no limit to the information you can gather there - and I am a compulsive information-getter - I am fairly satisfied with what I got.

Besides general updating, I also paid close attention to the nationwide municipal election campaign that was taking place. Any election campaign in Bosnia is an occasion for the renewed, creative expression of nationalist tension, and for a free-for-all of mud-slinging and fear-mongering. Since the war, all politics has been taking place in the context of a country with a barely functioning state, carelessly administered by the international community. So during the elections, the internecine dynamics of the domestic political infrastructure, staffed by war profiteers and their political successors, come into high contrast. And the interaction of domestic political maneuvers with international officials, whose goals are much more obscure than their rhetoric would pretend, is also something worth examining.

The following journals will be about these dynamics and interactions, as I observed them during my travels through much of Bosnia-Herzegovina, from Sarajevo to eastern Bosnia, over to the Krajina (northwest Bosnia), and down to western Herzegovina. As important to me as the politics of Bosnia is the way that the ordinary citizens of the country respond, over the long term, to the wrenching changes that have taken place in their lives. As always, I have sought and found people - in no way ordinary - who are trying to work with those changes in a positive way.

Some people's personal details have been changed, in order to protect their privacy.

yours, Peter

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SARAJEVO

It is always a bit of a wonder to return to Sarajevo after some time, and to see what has been fixed. It's a beautiful city, situated in a valley among the mountains. Sarajevo is a good place for walking. All you have to do is walk a few minutes up any road perpendicular to the main street, and you can see the whole town. Foreigners love Sarajevo because of what they don't know. Sometimes, they explore more of the city than the local residents.

On my return, I walked around the city from my hillside neighborhood of Vratnik down to Bas Carsija (the old Turkish section of Sarajevo) and then to Skenderija. I spotted lots of new, little changes. The main government building in Marin Dvor has been repaired and shines sky-blue. The Americans are building an enormous new embassy up the street, where the old Tito barracks once stood disintegrating. Some other old buildings have been torn down -- some falling apart since the war, and some deteriorating for much longer than that. Investors are building a new tower by the twin-tower Unitic buildings in the same neighborhood. The most striking thing of all is the gleaming new Avaz building, a twist tower just across from the train station. It looks like a city monument on the scale of the Space Needle. It is also a monument to the outsized ego and ambitions of Fahrudin Radoncic, local magnate, ever-active meddler in politics, and owner of Sarajevo's most popular daily newspaper, Dnevni Avaz.

Closer into town, more of the old Austro-Hungarian buildings have been restored to their old loveliness, brighter than they probably ever looked since World War II. And there are many new kafanas (pubs). One near the Bas Carsija is called "Bill Gates," with his nerdy likeness displayed in a bright neon sign on the front.

The old blue Sarajka department store was demolished a few years ago. Built in 1984 for the Olympics, it was a solid contender for status as the ugliest building in town. Now the replacement building, all blocky concrete and glass, is almost finished. And they are finally restoring the stately old Evropa Hotel, where my landlord Senad worked before the war. After 15 years crumbling, its Austro-Hungarian façade is a pleasant maroon and white.

There are now ATMs on practically every corner downtown, where there used to be only a few. The pickpockets, though less obvious, are always something to watch out for. They work in teams, and are especially active on the streetcars - and in the vicinity of the ATMs. On the streetcars, they take advantage of the crowded periods, which are their working hours. Sometimes they use a razor to cut the straps of a woman's purse, or simply to slit open a bag and remove the wallet. Cell phones are a most popular item to steal. I read in the newspaper that a young man whose cell phone had been stolen called his own phone number, and the person who answered said, "The telephone can be yours again, if you leave 20 KM (convertible marks, the Bosnian currency, worth anywhere between $0.60 and $0.75) on the park bench." The ransom was paid and the man received his phone back.

Besides Sarajevo's façade in reconstruction, the other thing that strikes the eye is the preponderance of campaign posters around town, leading up to the municipal elections scheduled for October 5th. Posters for SDA candidates (Bosniak nationalist party founded by now-deceased President Alija Izetbegovic) are the most common. They tend to be photos of a group of fifteen or twenty middle-aged functionaries who, from the bland and seedy look of them, I'd rather trust to run a funeral home than my home town.

There is graffiti here and there that reads, "Haris 100% izdaja," referring to Haris Silajdzic, Bosniak (Muslim) member of the presidency: "100% betrayal." The slogan of Silajdzic's party, SBiH (Party for Bosnia), is "100%," that is, 100% for employment, 100% for Europe, and so on. He was elected in 2006, and apparently, not everyone is happy with the fulfillment of his party's promises.

Graffiti in Sarajevo:
"How can I live here, when my blood pressure is higher than my pension?"

A voice from the ordinary people breaks through the election clamor. Prices on everything from fuel to bread have been rising drastically all year. My landlady Minka said to me,
"They raised our pensions 7 KM (around $3.50), but meat doubled in price, from 15 to 20 km. The politicians doubled their salaries; some of them get 10,000 km monthly. But the people are to blame. They complain and shout, but they should go to the government and throw them out. Someone calls me on the phone and says, 'are you going to vote?' I say, 'And who am I going to vote for? For another thief, another cretin?'"

When in Sarajevo I stay at Senad and Minka's house in Vratnik, on the hill above the Bas Carsija. I'm often there in the month of Ramadan, as happened this September. In this month there is an air of humility and spiritual concentration in observant homes, as people eat before dawn, fast all day, and then prepare a special meal, Iftar, for sundown. In Vratnik, the loud boom of a cannon announces the fast breaking, and the table is set within minutes. Usually there are visitors for Iftar.

In my neighborhood there are mosques in every direction. They aren't synchronized; five times a day the muezzins start their prayer call at almost the same time. The first muezzin starts, and then another, and a couple more, until you hear them near and far. And for a moment, all the dogs in the neighborhood join in a-barking, as well.

Bajram (called al-Eid in Arabic) is the several-day holiday that takes place at the end of Ramadan, which this year coincided with the end of September. A calm festivity prevails in Sarajevo, now a Muslim-dominated city, with people wishing each other a good holiday, visiting their closest relatives, and bringing gifts of sweet food.

It happened that Rosh Hashonah took place as well during these days, and I attended a service in the chapel of the ancient stone synagogue, which has long served as the Jewish museum. During the war and through the 1990s it was closed and used for storage, then refurbished and reopened a few years ago. Before leaving the building after the service, I rushed upstairs to view the huge book on display. This is the book of names of the 10,000-odd Sarajevo Jews who were killed during World War II.

Afterwards, I took part in the celebration and social gathering at the Jewish community center, located in the newest synagogue. This was built by the Ashkenazi minority of the (otherwise Sephardic) Jewish community, in 1903. In recent times it has been the only active synagogue and gathering place for all of Sarajevo's mixed, but dwindling, Jewish community. There, we shared wine and the traditional apples and honey, that the New Year may be a sweet one.

CORRUPTION

Note: this section may seem dense to some readers, but it touches upon the essence of what it takes to understand Bosnia today.

For some operators in politics and business, the coming year is sure to be a sweet one. These people tend to be members of political parties and/or informal clans formed during or even before the war, and they rose to power and riches in the turbulence of the 1990s. It is not an exaggeration to say that the newspapers print a story nearly every day about some instance of corruption, large or small. Since most of the newspapers are, at least unofficially, affiliated with one political party or another, the cases they treat pertain to members of other parties.

One figure whose name is very often associated with corruption these days is Nedzad Brankovic, the current prime minister of the Bosnian Federation (one of two "entities," along with the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska, that comprise Bosnia). Before entering the government, Brankovic was director of Energoinvest, one of the Federation's strongest state-owned companies. While holding that position, he participated in selling off rich assets of the energy production and management company at ridiculously low prices. He also blocked development of Bosnia's oil terminal on the coast, leaving oil import prices subject to extortion by foreign providers. Brankovic was thus considered responsible for the outlandishly high price of fuel in Bosnia this fall, at a time when the world price had fallen around forty percent.

Brankovic, closely connected to the conservative wing of the SDA, has consistently taken measures that prevented development of the oil refinery and distribution infrastructure in the Federation, and in general prevented the revitalization of the energy sector, in favor of criminal privatization deals that helped his own business associates. A proposal for industry reform, submitted by managers of one section of the oil infrastructure, stated, "There is not a single reason why the oil economy in the Federation should be controlled by a group of private businessmen and other suspicious interests."

The obstruction of development by Brankovic and his cronies has cost the Federation hundreds of millions of KM in revenue. A mid-level director in the oil distribution system commented on Brankovic's participation: "On the legal level, the state has done nothing to prevent chaos in the oil market or to sanction the behind-the-scenes plunder of the citizens, and to take the situation under control. However, it is not a simple thing to prevent Brankovic, together with his 'competent' cadre, from continuing to plunder, destroy, and sell off the property and development potential for the construction of the Federation's economy." (Some of the information on Brankovic is from Dani #597, November 21, 2008)

Meanwhile, Brankovic has purchased a fine apartment for himself, and decorated it ostentatiously with expensive artwork. None of this makes the prime minister popular with people in Bosnia. In fact, Brankovic possesses a country mansion, a five-bedroom apartment in Sarajevo (bought for him by Energoinvest and the Federation government), an apartment in Slovenia, and a hefty foreign bank account. Brankovic's declared monthly income of around 6,000 KM is not enough to explain his extensive wealth.

A friend of mine said of Brankovic, "As soon as you see him, you know he's going to steal something." Shortly after the October elections, there were widespread rumors of his impending removal by the head of the SDA, Suleiman Tihic. However, Brankovic's close ties with powerful conservative figures in the party, including Bakir Izetbegovic (son of the deceased former president), prevented this move.

Journalist Senad Pecanin characterized the lesson of Brankovic's dealings as follows: "Inasmuch as you are sufficiently arrogant, unscrupulous, and cynical, and you belong to the ruling political structures and/or the leadership of the religious community, your criminality will remain unsanctioned, unless you commit armed bank robbery -- and then only if you kill more than two people." (Dani, Sept. 12).

And Brankovic is not even a major player in the economic finagling that constantly takes place throughout the republics of the former Yugoslavia. The majority of lucrative business deals, as in Brankovic's case, center around privatization of the socially-produced wealth inherited from the Tito era. Much of this privatization is crooked. When you hear the word "transition," this is key.

One of the richest such profiteers of transition is the billionaire Serbian "tycoon," Miroslav Miskovic. He has been called the "true owner of Serbia." Miskovic is the owner of four large retail chains in that country, and he has worked tirelessly to expand his empire into the rest of the former Yugoslav republics. To date, Miskovic owns property in Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia, and he has a business partnership with a wealthy Croatian investor.

A crucial element in the process of the rich getting richer is trade protection -- that is, whether it exists in a given area, and how effective it is. In the postwar transitional phase, the former Yugoslav republics have to contend with pressure from the EU to open their markets. However, for a small country, opening markets to foreign traders can mean something like letting sharks into the swimming pool. If a domestic market is not strong, and if there are local actors (such as Brankovic) who are willing to sell off the state's assets at a low price for their own profit, then the country in question is doomed to end up with a third-rate economy that cannot support its citizens in anything like the standard of living they knew before the war. That is Bosnia, where the classic model of "transition" is to sell off the valuable parts of the state's wealth; the managers and politicians keep as much for themselves as they can get away with, and the ordinary people live an insecure existence..

Miroslav Miskovic has been buying weak companies in various places and, often as not, turning their prime real estate into shopping centers. He did this in Podgorica (the capital of Montenegro). In Serbia, Miskovic's sway is such that foreign companies that wish to build shopping centers in Belgrade are forced to build them on the periphery of the city, giving Miskovic an effective monopoly in the more lucrative areas -- where he prices his goods at 20% above the market rate. Miskovic is said to control 70% of Belgrade's retail market.

No such problem for Miskovic in Bosnia. There, he recently bought the furniture company "Standard." Now, he is planning to tear down most or all of it, and build a shopping center. This repeats the ongoing process of wiping out productive employment and putting large numbers of workers on the street. Meanwhile, grandiose retail establishments, such as the Slovenian-owned "hipermarket" Mercator, sell imported goods to Bosnia's jet set and produce precious little income for the domestic economy. And domestic ownership of the retail sector is somewhere around 10%!

Not long ago Miskovic bought a shop in Ferhadija, the pedestrian zone in the center of Sarajevo. There are several reasons why his incursions into the Bosnian market upset people in Sarajevo. Miskovic was a deputy prime minister of Serbia for a time under Milosevic, and also served as Milosevic's main economic advisor. Since Milosevic's fall in 2000, Miskovic has donated funds to various political parties, including the Serbian Radical Party (SRS). This is the SRS that, led by Vojislav Seselj (now on trial at The Hague) organized paramilitary formations that rampaged, murdered, burned, and committed rape during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

And Miskovic's shop on Ferhadija is not far from the place where, during the siege of Sarajevo, a bomb landed in 1992, killing dozens of people waiting in line for bread. So the investment and Miskovic's presence in this symbolic area just don't feel right. It feels like the continuation, through economic means, of the war goals of Serbian expansionism. (Some of the information on Miskovic is from Slobodna Bosna #619, Sept 25, 2008, and Dani #589, Sept 26, 2008.)

To make matters worse, the above-mentioned home-grown tycoon Fahrudin Radoncic (actually originally from Serbia himself) earlier this year formed a business partnership with Miskovic. Radoncic is the owner of the Sarajevo daily newspaper Avaz, and he constantly publishes articles promoting one Bosniak nationalist politician or another, manipulates readers' ignorance and their fear of Serbs -- and apparently puts profit before everything else. It is interesting that in 2002, Radoncic opposed an attempted economic incursion by Miskovic into Bosnia on political and moral grounds. At that time, he mounted a media campaign against Miskovic, with the considerable resources at his disposal. Now, he is campaigning in the same way in favor of his new partner's various investment schemes.

These last several pages about corruption and the financial wrecking of Bosnia may seem abstract, or obscure. However, they illustrate the essence of the aftermath of the war in Bosnia. In addition to being a case of aggression, and after all the atrocities we know about, the war was also a campaign by the elite against everyone else, and the elite won. Now they are cooperating with each other across ethnic lines and across borders, and reaping the benefits of "transition."

What I have written here about Brankovic, Radoncic, and Miskovic is just a drop in the ocean, not only as far as their own exploits are concerned, but also as far as the entire vast scene of corruption in Bosnia. I listed off some names of well-known politicians to a friend of mine, concentrating on those with a reputation for their non-nationalist speech. My friend is a long-time official in one of the financial inspection agencies, and knows the details of economic corruption thoroughly. His response regarding the names I mentioned was overwhelmingly negative. And when he has tried to lodge complaints against some of the higher-up figures, including Brankovic, their cases have, more often than not, been stalled forever, or otherwise made to disappear.

Here's what another friend of mine says about the situation:

"Brankovic steals from Bosnians, not from humanitarian donations. In Croatia, on the other hand, Croatia is a state, there is law, every day you hear about how something was given to [Prime Minister] Sanader, and there is an ongoing investigation of these gifts. And you hear how they fired seven doctors for corruption, and so on. Here, there are so many cases before the court, at least a million, that no one can get anything prosecuted.

"And how can anyone live? Say you earn 400 KM a month. Half of that has to go to upkeep of your apartment. Then they think of some other way to get the other half. You go to a doctor. The doctor says you'll need a heart scan, immediately. You say ok, let's do it. He says, you can do it in eight months, everything is booked up. You say I'll be not only dead by then, but rotten in the grave. He says, ok, come by my private practice this afternoon and we'll do it. Then you have to pay extra. And 95% of the medicines, you have to buy yourself. The owner of the medicine company charges a 300% markup on the medicines, and pays five people to keep up his lawn.

"I stay here in Sarajevo out of heroism, although some people say it is masochism. This country makes me sick. Something has to give. Only the Arab countries are supporting us, and they are driving us into the ground, only building mosques. Meanwhile, Croatia is jumping through hoops to join the EU. And with all the conditions they give us to do so, we say ok, and then don't do anything. I hope we will join the EU. And then we will wreck it."

And here's a story that shows how one of these post-war operators became rich during the war (and I promise I'll stop talking about corruption...pretty soon...for a while ...).

My old friend Marc told me that one tycoon said, "I earned everything that I own by honest means. Just don't ask me how I got my first million." Marc commented, "With the politicians, the problem is not that they steal, but that they steal everything."

Here's some wartime background: I heard a story about a commander in the defense of Sarajevo during the war who was planning an attack on Stup, a place in the western part of the city, that was under the control of the Serb extremists. He was going to go try to liberate Stup. An officer in that military unit had more experience than the commander, and he didn't feel the attack was being planned well. So he gave the commander some serious tactical advice. Then, when the group of soldiers got to the outskirts of Stup, they stopped and raided a bottling plant, taking all the wine and spirits. The commander set up a speakeasy in the basement of a hotel in the center of the city, and got rich, still during the war. Later he emigrated to Australia.

In late September, Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, announced the results of its global Corruption Perception Index. Out of 180 countries surveyed, Bosnia-Herzegovina took 93rd place, near Algeria, Lesotho, and Sri Lanka. As such, Bosnia had not moved much from previous years. But it is significant that it has been left behind by its neighbors (including Albania), who moved up the scale (towards honesty). In its region, Bosnia is at the bottom of the scale.

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Next -- Bosnia-Herzegovina journal #2: Sarajevo and Bosnia, continued: Elections, Queer Festival.

3 comments:

jelena markovic said...

This is an important post! I rarely comment, i still have to get used to doing it...
It is important to spread the truth about Miskovic, as far as I am concerned. I may add, that not only has he sponsored the Radical party in Serbia, but his sponsorship is expended to almost all of them/political parties, including the so called democratic wing, that is firstly swollowed by its own moderate stands which relativase any truth, the one on war crimes by Serbian war criminals included, and then is swollowed by being dependant on the sponsor - Miskovic. So who runs the country neighboring Bosnia that was aggressing it for years, and still does in more ways then just denial of the past/Serbia that is.
I am shocked to read how deeply Miskovic has rooted his wealth and economic power in Bosnia.
Here in Serbia i have joined all petitions agains Miskovic. But one must come from Bosnia too, conserning Miskovic's "attack" on it and knowing his appetite... plus all the analyses given in the text already, which tell mr clearly that Miskovic holds responabilities for the agressor war of Serbia against Bosnia.
Miskovic must be stoped. At least in Bosnia (here I suppose we get what we deserve, but we should really becoma a quarantine so that scum and criminals from Serbia stop invading around in all ways possible!)
I would be the first to sign the petition on Bosnian initiative.
I am again ashamed of my country and fact that all the worst things origine from it!

Kirk Johnson said...

Jelena,

It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

Kirk Johnson said...

[Owen placed this comment in a different post; he has asked me to move it this. I am not quite sure how to do so, and rather than spending time right now learning how, I'm merely copying it:]

Thanks, Kirk. Peter's account is a wonderfully informative account of the substance behind the often-repeated generalisations about corruption in Bosnia. Privatisation = asset-stripping wherever you are in the world, but Bosnia's democracy seems to have been particularly vulnerable to the determination of economic opportunists to consolidate political influence as well.