Sunday, 2 December 2012

Croatia and Bosnia, neighbours a world apart

A few hours drive away: The current state of many buildings in
BiH on left; Croatia's Vodice beach on the right. 
Picture it.

It's seven in the morning as you drive past crumbling and bombed-out buildings, dodging stray dogs on the street and waving away gypsies tapping at your car window looking for change.

Fast forward five hours. Now it's midday. The sun is shining, and you are soaking it up on a beautiful, pristine beach. The sea-side cafes are brimming with people. There are no gypsies to bother you. Just the sounds of the various and interesting languages spoken by the dozens of holiday-makers strolling past at you every minute.

No, you did not jump into Emmett Brown's time machine sports car made famous in Back To The Future. You just took a simple drive from central Bosnia to Croatia's Adriatic coastline.

And that is no dig at my adopted and beloved Bosnia, nor is it to say that all of central Bosnia is as described. But there's no hiding from the sad reality of the current stark differences in quality of life between these two neighbouring nations.

So, how is this situation possible? How can Croatia and Bosnia be so close, yet so far apart?

Lets start with where exactly lies these differences. Yeah, there's the obvious - the infrastructure, the surrounds - but that's just the end product of a number of other complications.

First, there's the huge deficiencies when it comes to the rate of unemployment in the two countries (courtesy of figures obtained from the CIA's World Factbook).

A snapshot of the unemployment figures between Croatia
and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In 2011, Croatia's estimated unemployment rate sat at 17.7 percent. Whilst compared to Australia (5.1 percent) it may not sound fantastic, it is a world better than Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has an unemployment rate of .. wait for it .. a whopping 43.3 percent!

No, that was not a typing error. Forty-three-point-three percent. This effectively means that almost half of Bosnia's population is without a job!

But wait, it doesn't stop there.

Even those who do have work struggle to receive meaningful payments. The average net monthly salary of a citizen in the Federation of BiH stands at around $510 AUD. If you think of a typical family of four with just one so-called 'breadwinner', it's not a lot to get by on.

When you jump across the border, the net monthly salary looks much brighter, with the average Croatian pulling in around $912 AUD each month. (Granted, goods and services tend to be marginally more expensive in Croatia compared to BiH - but not enough to make up for the gap in incomes.)

Pretty sizeable difference, eh?

(For those who are interested in BiH's other neighbour: Serbia's average monthly net payment equates to $457 AUD - less than both BiH and Croatia. However, its unemployment rate is 'just' - for want of a better term - 23.7%.)

OK, we're getting to the point now. Money.

Obviously, if social standards and quality of life are to improve, money is of key importance. As I have just pointed out, Bosnian citizens are hardly generating a high amount of income for themselves. So, what about money coming in from outside of its borders? For example, through tourism?

Whilst tourism does generate a bit of flow to BiH's economy - with tourist arrivals on a steady increase over the last few years - it is another area in which Croatia blows its counterpart out of the water.

Without work, many Bosnians have been
forced to take to the streets and beg
for money.
Taking a look at 2011, BiH received 686,148 tourist arrivals, morphed by the 11.2 million who travelled to Croatia's shores. Effectively, Croatia took in 15 times as many tourists compared to Bosnia.

Another pretty good economy booster for the Croats, don't you think?

(Mind you, is it really fair to compete with a nation with a large chunk of the beautiful Adriatic coastline at its disposal?)

In fact, Croatia is so far ahead of its neighbour (as well as - bar Slovenia - its other neighbours, such as Serbia), that it is even due to join the European Union next year! Such a proposition for Bosnia in the near future remains an elusive goal - or, in Layman's terms, unthinkable.

I could go on to a number of other factors where the two nations differentiate (crime rates, environmental degradation, etc), but I think you understand my point by now.

Bosnia is a long, long way behind Croatia in many facets, particularly when it comes to upholding socio-economic levels, and this is why the visual differences between the two - such as the crumbling buildings compared to the pristine beaches - are so pertinent.

Now, I know what you're thinking. I have provided enough of these facts and figures crap. What's the solution to this problem?

When it comes to the nation that is Bosnia and Herzegovina, that is no easy question. Believe me.

One key stakeholder - perhaps the most important of them all - which has been left out of this discussion until now is the government(s) of BiH. What about them? Surely they must be held accountable for some of this?

Many locals place the blame on their political elites for the current situation in Bosnia.

'Criminals'. 'Corrupt'. 'Thieves'. They're all words that you'll hear from time-to-time when Bosnians describe their politicians, with many believing they are content with their paid-positions in office, and are not doing enough to create jobs and encourage opportunities for their constituents.

Politicians - such as Zenica Mayor Husein Smajlovic -
have received the ire of locals for not taking enough
action to create jobs.
Whether those descriptive terms are fair or not is debatable; but can they be doing more to help their citizens and improve the overall quality of life?

Prominent Bosnian painter and musician Damir Niksic certainly thinks so.

Niksic voiced his opinion during a group discussion which featured as part of Al Jazeera's 'The Cafe' program in 2011, the main topic of the talk centring around how to create a stable Bosnia.

Much of the discussion up until the painter opened his mouth had been dominated by other various Bosnians which were present at the meeting - a Muslim politician, a Serbian novelist/activist, and a Croatian sports director, to name a few.

Mostly, they were arguing between each other over ethnic hostilities. You know, the usual: reasons why Serbians, Bosniaks and Croatians can't get along; who is to blame; how to reunify the nation; and so forth.

It wasn't until the tail-end of the discussion that Niksic piped-up and echoed the words which many others across the country have been saying for years.

"I don't care about country, I care about people and society," he firmly stated.

"I'm completely broke. I couldn't even to pay for the taxi to come (to this meeting) ... You are the politicians - show me the money.

"Make me do something. I mean, whatever. If you want a better country, I'll paint you a better country ... Put your money where your mouth is. If you want a better society - invest in a better society."

The beauty of the people: Bosnian Muslim imams and
Catholic priests come together for a charity football 

match in Zenica two weeks ago. Take a hint on the act of 
goodwill, politicians.
When I watched 'The Cafe' program with my Bosnian fiancée  'Hear hear!' were her claims upon hearing Niksic's words. I am sure many others across the nation feel the same way.

People in Bosnia are willing to work. But they need the jobs available, and they need the money.

One thing is for certain: It's time to revive Bosnia and to bring it back into the 21st century. It cannot afford to linger around in this state for much longer.

I want to see the small pockets of beauty I already see in central Bosnia - the people; their character; their kindness; their goodwill - spread like wildfire to other areas. Areas which can be seen with the naked eye. The streets. People at work. The infrastructure. Everything.

I, like many others, am sick of hearing people putting Bosnia down and then feeling vindicated when they see photos and read the statistics.

Change is long overdue.

If Emmett Brown's time machine car is out of the equation, maybe taking on the advice from people like Damir Niksic can help Bosnia pick itself up and catch up to its Balkan neighbour.

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