On Thursday, December 14, 1995, the Dayton Accords were formally signed in Paris, ending the bloody war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. On that day, a US military officer entered the facilities of the TV station for the UN peacekeeping forces, UNTV, in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, where I was working at the time.
He said he had a question about his next deployment. Since 1992, the Blue Helmets had tried in vain to stop the war in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. Now, a NATO contingent to which this officer belonged was meant to keep the peace there.
"I have heard that there are proud Muslims, Croats and Serbs there. But who are the Bosnians?" he asked.
By this time, my UNTV colleagues and I had been reporting about the Bosnian war for 3 1/2 years. The republic, which had formed part of Yugoslavia until 1992, was in the news every day all over Europe. So we all laughed heartily at the American's naive question.
Later, however, I realized that this US officer had put his finger on precisely the dilemma in which Bosnia-Herzegovina remains stuck to this day: Too many of its 3.5 million citizens are not just lacking pride in their state, they don't even want to be Bosnians.
To this day, the word Bosnia brings to mind the time from April 1992 to December 1995, when armed forces from the country's three biggest ethno-religious groups — Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs — fought each other in the small Balkan state, with the support of neighboring Croatia and Serbia. Some 100,000 people were killed and millions more displaced.
The Dayton Accords and the constitution that went with it preserved Bosnia as a state, but one that is a complicated construction of ethnically defined "entities" governed by nationalist parties that waged war against one another 25 years ago.
Because the Dayton Accords also call for unanimity on many decisions, politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina can only function to the satisfaction of its citizens if politicians show great willingness to compromise. But this willingness is exactly what is missing, as the ruling nationalists have established themselves firmly in the existing system.
And the conditions in Bosnia-Herzegovina can only be described as miserable: the country is largely deindustrialized, the official unemployment rate is 25% and some two-thirds of people under 25 are without a job. The standard of living has stagnated at around one-third of the EU average. Poverty, corruption and pollution are the order of the day.
Despite all the elections, these conditions have not changed since the end of the war. As a result, tens of thousands of Bosnians emigrate every year, particularly those who are young and well-educated. That is bad for the country, but good for the nationalists. They are afraid, and with good reason, that the anger of the young at having their futures stolen from them could explode at any time. Emigration stabilizes the power of the nationalists, who continue to control the few jobs there are in the country, distributing them among their loyal supporters.
All of this has made it clear for years what Bosnia-Herzegovina needs: massive investment and reindustrialization to raise the standard of living.
It is obvious why the nationalists do not want this to happen: It would mean an end to their power. And the non-nationalist parties are not in a position to create prosperity because they are never in power long enough. That means change will not come from within Bosnia-Herzegovina. It will have to come from the outside, in the same way the peace established by the Dayton Accords did.
In 1995, it was the United States that played a leading role in peace negotiations. After European countries had tried for years without success to end the Bosnian war, President Bill Clinton used a mixture of threats and offers of aid to persuade the conflicting parties to come to an agreement at the Wright-Patterson US Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
But since then, Europe's role in Bosnia-Herzegovina has become increasingly important. Today, there are EU peacekeeping forces in the country instead of NATO troops. That makes sense, as the region is in Europe. And now it is time for Europe to take on more responsibility for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
After many years under European supervision, Bosnia-Herzegovina is now to officially become an EU protectorate. This will be for a limited time and with a clearly defined goal: to make the small Balkan country ready for EU accession. And, at the same time, to at last give the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina good reasons to be happy that they are Bosnians.
This prospect seems an unlikely one in view of the present conditions in the country and the current problems in the EU. But it is not impossible. And it would be much better for both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Europe than to continue with the present agonizing situation.
In 1932, the German author Kurt Tucholsky wrote: "A Jewish man once said: 'I am proud of being a Jew. If I am not proud of it, I am still a Jew, so I may as well be proud of it!'" This attitude would be a good one for many Bosnians to adopt. And for other Europeans, too.