In basketball, as in diplomacy, you have to reach high to score. It’s something Branko Neskovic, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tall, hoop-shooting Ambassador will keep in mind when his country submits its formal application for EU membership later this month.
It will be a historic moment for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), coming 20 years after the Dayton Accord brought to an end the bitter Balkan wars that tore Neskovic’s country apart.
And it has been a long slog to get to this point, admits Neskovic. While neighbours Slovenia and Croatia have already joined the Euro-Atlantic clubs, the remaining nations of the Western Balkans have lagged behind. “The region faced three critical situations,” explains Neskovic. “The problem of Kosovo and Serbia; the issue of Macedonia’s name [with Greece]; and the functionality of BiH.”
In the case of BiH, the goal of EU membership kept getting entangled in internal politics due to the country’s complex constitutional arrangements, a legacy of the peace accord to ensure a balance of power between BiH’s ethnic groups and their state entities.
Because of this decentralisation, the EU also felt that a central coordinating mechanism was needed to establish cooperation between all the levels of government during EU talks, says Neskovic.
Back on track
In the end it took an ‘assist’ (to use a basketball phrase) in late 2014 from Britain and Germany, who offered to help clear a path around ethnic blocks that were holding up EU membership progress, in exchange for BiH agreeing to a comprehensive Reform Agenda that included good governance, rule of law, sound public finances, and social, economic and administrative reforms. A financial package of around €1.5bn was also pledged by the EU to support the implementation of these deep structural reforms.
“The German-British Initiative really put the wind behind our backs and helped us move forward,” smiles Neskovic. The long-stalled Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU entered into force in June 2015, and in December the report from EU’s Stabilisation and Association Council said BiH’s path to European integration was back on track.
“Applying to become a member of the EU is the next big step,” says Neskovic.
Keeping Britain’s support during the EU talks will be an important priority in his mission and Neskovic, a sworn Anglophile, is ideally placed as an interlocutor. Not only is he a seasoned diplomat (he served as Ambassador in Bucharest from 2006-11 and as Ambassador-at-large, where his role was to reach out to BiH’s neighbours), but he is also a well-connected political operator, who has worked at all levels of government.
He was a member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Srpska (RP), where he chaired the Commission for International Relations; he was a ministerial adviser in the RP’s Transport Ministry; he served as an adviser to the cabinet (also called the Council of Ministers) when former RP Prime Minister Mladen Ivanic served as President of BiH’s rotating presidency in 2014-15; and he was Chief of Cabinet to two RP Prime Ministers (2004-06), which he describes as “the hardest job I have ever done”.
Neskovic says his country is grateful for Britain’s continued diplomatic efforts, particularly as guarantor of the Dayton Accord and a member of the Peace Implementation Council. “Where diplomacy falls silent, wars start. I sincerely hope that in the Balkans there will not be more wars,” he says.
Describing the Balkans as a “geopolitical node” at the confluence of east and west and faiths (Orthodox and Catholic Christianity and Islam), the Ambassador says a peaceful, stable Balkans is vital for stability in Europe, adding: “A wise man once said: ‘He who rules the Balkans rules Europe.’”
Painting a new picture
But there is more to the UK-BiH relationship than geopolitics, he adds. As an economist, the Ambassador will be capitalising on the business opportunities opened up by the new EU approach to the Western Balkans. Bosnia has a growing IT sector, and the agriculture and tourism industries are ripe for British investment.
With fond memories of studying in the UK, Neskovic also wants to strengthen academic ties and secure more scholarships for BiH students to study in Britain. Having travelled widely, he will be working on visa facilitation to open up the horizons for the next generation of adventurous Bosnians.
Another of his projects is to reconnect with the BiH diaspora. He plans to set up honorary consulates around the UK and host meetings at the Embassy to find ways to use their talents to help the country of their birth advance.
As a keen painter, Neskovic is eager to transform his embassy into a cultural hub for exhibitions and performances that paint a different picture of the emerging Bosnia and Herzegovina. “It’s been 20 years since the war ended and we don’t want to keep looking at my country through the prism of war,” he says. “We are a land of beauty, opportunity, good and hospitable people, wealth and energy.”
To achieve all this – and set up a basketball league for diplomats with his friend and colleague the Ambassador of Austria – will be a tall order. But with a diplomat of the stature and experience of Ambassador Neskovic, it should be a slam dunk.