The Washington Diplomat / September 2006
By Larry Luxner
What's the best thing that could possibly happen to Bosnia at this moment, asks a popular refrain going around Sarajevo these days.
"An American occupation," answers Bisera Turkovic, "because then we'd become the next U.S. state."
Turkovic — ambassador of Bosnia & Herzegovina to the United States — is only half-joking. Interviewed last month by phone from Sarajevo, she said her little Balkan country is deeply indebted to the American people for putting an end to ethnic fighting that killed an estimated 250,000 people between 1992 and 1995.
"Everybody here loves the United States. That's the feeling among ordinary people," she said. "We feel that Europe betrayed us, and the U.S. saved us. Whenever you talk about progress and stability, the general feeling is that we owe whatever has been achieved to the United States."
She adds: "There's lots of sympathy for Bosnia and all that we went through. At the [Bush] administration level, there's understanding. We feel we are somehow among friends. We enjoy support whenever we knock at their door."
Bosnia, whose 19,741 square miles makes its half the size of Kentucky, is a roughly triangular-shaped country that would be landlocked if not for a 13-mile strip of coastline along the Adriatic Sea. Its capital and largest city is Sarajevo, host of the 1984 Winter Olympics and scene of some of the bloodiest fighting Europe has seen since World War II.
The embassy Turkovic directs is relatively small — only 14 employees, including six diplomats — but it's the largest Bosnia has anywhere in the world. That has a lot to do with the fact that 300,000 Bosnians live in the United States, many of them war refugees.
"In 1991, we had 4.3 million people. There's been no recent census, but we calculate that the population is now just under 4 million, because so many people were killed or left the country — all that in the heart of Europe," she said, pointing out that Germany is home to half a million Bosnian war refugees.
Australia, where Turkovic spent much of her life, is home to another 50,000 or so Bosnians.
Turkovic, who took up her post in Washington last October, holds a law degree from the University of Sarajevo and a bachelor's deree in criminal justice administration from the Philip Institute of Technology in Melbourne. She completed her post-graduate studies in criminology from Melbourne's University of LaTrobe, and has a doctorate in international relations from Pacific Western University in San Diego, Calif.
A career diplomat, Turkovic was appointed Bosnia's ambassador to Croatia in 1993, only a year after Bosnia declared its independence. She's also represented her country in Hungary (1994-96) and was s well as before the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1996-2000) in Vienna.
Among other things, Turkovic has been Bosnia's minister of European integration as well as executive director of Sarajevo's Centre for Security Studies and lecturer of criminal justice at the University of Sarajevo.
Having lived through the worst of times, Turkovic says it is essential to bring to justice such war criminals as Serbian nationalist Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, who orchestrated the massacre of up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica back in 1995.
"We must put substantial effort into preventing another holocaust," said Turkovic. "If we let Karadzic and Mladic — who are accused of the worst crimes — go free, then of course we can expect history to repeat itself. But if justice is going to prevail, then the war criminals must be punished."
In 1995, U.S.-sponsored peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, led to an agreemen that called for a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb entity within the larger federation of Bosnia. Some 60,000 NATO troops were sent to supervise its implementation, leading to an eventual cessation of hostilities and an orderly election held in September 1996.
President Alija Izetbegovic, a Bosnian Muslim, or Bosniak, won the majority of votes to become the leader of the three-member presidency, each representing one of the three ethnic groups. These are Muslims (43% of the populaton), Serbs (31%) and Croats (17%).
In December 2004, the European Union officially took over NATO's peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, which now ranks as the largest peacekeeping mission in EU history.
But what Bosnians really want is full EU membership — a dream that is still maybe a decade away.
"We expect that by year's end or the beginning of next year, we will sign an agreement on stabilization and association. We will fulfill all the conditions that have been set. After that, we will become candidates for EU membership," Turkovic said.
She warned that "this period might last rather long, maybe three years, maybe longer."
"The problem is that we have in front of us two other large countries which are waiting to become members: Romania and Bulgaria," she explained. "Croatia and Bosnia cannot go ahead of Romania and Bulgaria. But in my opinion, Europe owes Bosnia, since they allowed this war and disaster to take place. They did not intervene in time, they did not pay sufficient attention. If Europe were more pro-active, they could have prevented all the atrocities that took place in Bosnia."
The country uses the Bosnian mark, which is equivalent to the old Deutschmark and is worth roughly half a euro. Per-capita income is still a rather low $7,000 a year, though growth is humming along at 5.5% a year and foreign investment appears to be increasing. Tourism, for one thing, is growing at 25% per annum, with visitors attracted to the country's mountains and spectacular Adriatic coastline.
"There is no inflation whatsoever. People know exactly what the value of their money is. They know what they can buy," she said.
Despite former hostilities, Turkovic characterizes Bosnia's relations with Serbia and Croatia today as "neighborly and normal."
"Generally speaking, the situation is quite normal. Both countries are striving to get into the EU, so they're both focused on the same direction."
Bosnia also borders on tiny Montenegro, which declared its independence in June, marking the absolute and final death of Yugoslavia. Now, she says, all eyes are focused on Kosovo, a restive Albanian autonomous province of Serbia that has been agitating for independence for years.
"We are still waiting for a final solution on Kosovo, which is where all the fighting started 20 or 30 years ago," she said. "However, with Montenegro and Serbia splitting, all the former republics of Yugoslavia are now finally independent, sovereign states, so in that sense, the problem is very much solved."