1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

New challenges in the Balkans

July 31, 2021

German politician Christian Schmidt is set to take office as the new high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He wants to bring the country closer to the EU and stop the brain drain of young people.

Christian Schmidt
Christian Schmidt becomes the second German to take up the post in SarajevoImage: DW

DW: On August 1, you take office as the new international High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo, at a time when the country is perhaps facing its worst crisis. Young people are leaving, there is political turmoil and the office has been weakened by your predecessors in recent years. What will you do to counter this? 

Christian Schmidt: I think we need to make three points clear. I want to warn people that I come as a politician, not as a diplomat. That means some things I say may not be quite diplomatically perfect, but they will clearly express what I expect.

First, we need to make it clear that the idea pursued in recent years that the transfer of territories could be a solution or could calm potential conflicts in the Western Balkans is not viable. One only ever exchanges one minority for another minority. That is why the territorial integrity of the states in the Western Balkans is indispensable.

The second question is: How can the working of the state be improved in a country that is as large as (the German state of) Lower Saxony, has fewer inhabitants than Berlin, but has 137 ministries? How do you achieve better governance? Where do you need to streamline and simplify?

And the third point is that the figures available to me so far show that 70% of young people from Bosnia-Herzegovina prefer to go elsewhere to secure their future. That is not good. All of us together, the EU, the High Representative, need to place an emphasis on the young generation. Just relying on graying leaders will not be enough. I'm banking on the young generation!

Graves in Sarajevo
The bloody conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina lasted from 1992 to 1995Image: Sergey Gryizounov/RIA Nowosti/dpa/picture alliance

Your start in Bosnia-Herzegovina is complicated by the fact that Russia has questioned the legitimacy of your appointment.Milorad Dodik of the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska is also unwilling to cooperate, at least for now. How do you plan to deal with this resistance so that your office is not doomed to failure right away?

The recent decision of the United Nations Security Council (Russia failed on July 23 in the UN Security Council with a motion against the office of the HR - Editor's note.) means a strengthening of the position of the office of the High Representative and its powers. It gives me a good basis to implement my understanding of the HR's role after I take office, based on the competencies that the international community has given me.

But I will never play the role of being there for someone's interest. I have to be there for everyone equally. That also applies to the Serbs. The Serbs, too, have had to endure and experience terrible fates in this region. And that is why some issues should not be seen in a one-sided way. I have to deal with all issues and all ethnic groups. That means not just those who are Croats, Bosnians, or Serbs, but also, for example, the Jewish or those of other faiths. And, that's why calm has to prevail among all the groups.

A major topic is, of course, the genocide, and another timely topic is the law against genocide denial pushed through by the outgoing High Representative, Valentin Inzko. It's an issue we're familiar with, especially in Germany, where we found a clear solution for this. What is your position on this?

If I read the European Union directive correctly, the European Union is calling for exactly such legislation, which is ethnically neutral. It is not a question of whether someone was Croatian or Serbian, but whether he did something that is culpable. It's a question that is raised repeatedly on the path to the European Union and not only by the High Representative. It can't just be written off. So let's see where this goes. I am only concerned about one thing: If you think you can change society with such a law alone, you are going about it the wrong way. You have to approach it much more in terms of information, also in terms of looking at the ethnic narratives. And, there I see an ally in the work of the young generation, which is currently being indoctrinated, partly in an unacceptable way.

USA Dayton 1995 Slobodan Milosevic & Alija Izetbegovic & Franjo Tuđman
The US-brokered Dayton Accords effectively ended the Bosnian war in 1995Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Ruthroff

You are the second German High Representative. Does that speak in favor of increased German involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina? Do you plan to bring further German support and German commitment to the region?

Definitely! It won't be just be me - I will come with a certain team and with experts from our country as well. I think the German government will also be more involved. This can be seen as having a certain political connection with the 'Berlin Process' (an initiative aimed at stepping up regional cooperation in the Western Balkans). Chancellor Angela Merkel, who recruited me for this office, has the clear vision that we have to help the region make progress with concrete measures, be it European regional economic cooperation or others. And the signal should be that we are here, we support you! We see the same responsibility for you fellow Europeans that you see for us.

Let me take this opportunity to say that I found it extraordinarily noble and respectable that the government of the Federation (the entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is populated by a majority of Bosnians and Croats - Editor's note) offered Germany support in dealing with the catastrophic consequences of the flood disaster. We don't want to have a paternalistic relationship, but rather one between equal partners. This is what the Germans are known for. And I am very grateful to the chancellor and hope that the Berlin Process will continue, because there is still work to be done!

Deutschland Westbalkan-Konferenz 2014 Berlin
A conference on the western Balkans with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in 2014Image: John Macdougall/dpa/picture alliance

When you look back at the end of your mandate, what would you like to have achieved?

I would like the brain drain to stop, so that well-educated young people see an opportunity, not just from the financial point of view, but also when it comes to quality of life, to develop themselves here. I would like ethnic diversity, which is sometimes seen as a drawback in Bosnia-Herzegovina, become an advantage here. And I would like to see the country make progress economically, scientifically and culturally.

I would be satisfied if we could contribute a bit to this so that we can say that ownership is now understood and acted upon in this way. And, not that ownership for some means lining one's own pockets, but rather the interests of the state and the citizens. That would indeed make me happy.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR) is an international entity that oversees the implementation of the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Christian Schmidt, a member of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the former Federal Minister of Agriculture (2014-2018) and a member of the German Bundestag since 1990, is the second German politician to hold the post. Christian Schwarz-Schilling of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) previously held the office from 2006-2007.

This interview has been translated from German.