I was frustrated with politics in my hometown. Then I went to Bosnia.
Best known among Americans for the genocidal wars of the 1990s, the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina today is a safe, fascinating place to visit with rich culture, great scenery and excellent food. Yet the divisions left over from the war are just below the surface and recovery has been painfully slow.
What I saw reinforced the importance of government. We live in an era when the public sector is maligned for so many problems, yet it alone can set the table for private enterprise and the productivity of individuals.
As a former candidate for public office, I think it's important for competent people to run and we all benefit if strong professionals want to work in government. Sometimes it's tempting to think that voters get what they deserve. But if enough good people try, then the odds of good policy improve.
In Bosnia, as other places, politicians cave to and facilitate ignorance. It's easy to see how a war started along the historic divisions between Orthodox Serbs, Muslims Bosniaks and Catholic Croats.
Today the only signs of Muslim heritage are a cemetery and a mosque that was recently rebuilt after being destroyed in the war. One man told me that the United Nations forced them to rebuild it. Meanwhile zealots are marking their territory by building new Orthodox churches across the countryside. I counted at least five new churches in the 15 miles from the city center to a farm where relatives live.
Few Bosnians travel widely so their perceptions about other people and places are up for grabs. For example, there are only two slow buses a day between Bijeljina and Sarajevo, the national capital, and most people on the buses are getting off somewhere in between. I met many people whose opinion of others could be turned sour. An 83-year-old farmer near Bijeljina has never visited Sarajevo, which is located in the predominantly Muslim part of the country. A 35-year-old college graduate told me that she has visited Sarajevo but is scared to go there because of potential Muslim hostility.
Prejudice and suspicion is exacerbated by the patchwork of overlapping governments resulting from the 1995 peace agreement. The memoir To End A War details the difficulty of establishing any peace at all and how it was supposed to be a temporary framework until local leaders could work out better structures. In retrospect, the biggest mistake was keeping the name for the half of the country that was controlled by the Serb separatists, Republika Srpska. It still feels like a country within a country. Recently during a dispute over whether the central government or the Republika Srpska should issue birth certificates the country simply stopped issuing them. When a baby needed medical attention outside the country but couldn't do so because it didn't have a birth certificate people took to the streets to protest the dysfunction!
Over the years everyone has dug in. In Republika Srpska road signs are written in Cyrillic or both Cyrillic and Latin letters, while in most of the rest of the country there's little Cyrillic. In the west, near Croatia, some Cyrillic letters are spraypainted out by vandals.
Friction keeps Sarajevo, a beautiful city filled with stylish people, from its potential. Surrounded by mountains that were occupied by snipers during the war, its buildings remain pockmarked by shrapnel and many former parks are now cemeteries. The tax system doesn't provide enough revenue to properly fund streets and parks. In a vacuum, Muslims abroad have funded some rebuilding, including new mosques and a luxury condo/hotel complex that looks straight out of Dubai. The foreign destination with the most frequent nonstop flights is Istanbul, not elsewhere in Europe. A Saudi cultural center offers computer courses, using job skills to bring people closer to their extreme religious fold.
To be sure, there are plenty of Serbs, Muslims and Catholics who believe in a prosperous, multi-ethnic future where religions peacefully coexist. A 29-year-old man told me about growing up during the siege of Sarajevo, where there was no running water or food. He refuses to leave and is optimistic that Bosnia can flourish if politicians in Republika Srpska stop trying to separate from the country.
The point is that politicians tend to play off the groups rather than tackle high unemployment and rudimentary infrastructure. In a stuck economy, politicians have some of the best-paying, secure jobs and the incentive is to hold onto what you have rather than fix things.
Bosnia has all kinds of promise. It could be a tourism dynamo. Its wine is just waiting to be discovered. And it's relatively low costs could drive growth. All it needs is stable politics.