Administrator Power’s Interview with N1’s Nikola Vučić

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Interview

For Immediate Release

Friday, January 21, 2022

January 20, 2022
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

MR. VUČIĆ: Administrator Power, thank you for your time, for speaking to our public.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Delighted to be here.

MR. VUČIĆ: You're back in Bosnia and Herzegovina. How does that feel, both privately and professionally?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: That's a good way to split the question. I'd say, privately, personally, it's incredibly moving to be back in a town that showed me such generosity during the war when I was a journalist here writing about horrific events.

The warmth, the goodness, the way people opened their homes to me and to other journalists when they had nothing, when they were having to walk half a mile in order to just get water or waiting for some source of electricity once every five days. So, I just come back into the city, and I'm just overcome, in a way, by those memories and by that solidarity I think that we felt at that time.

And then, to see now the trams running and the buildings restored and the cafes open, it's just a reminder of the importance of peace. And I feel a sense of relief every time I've come since the war ended, just that people now get to live without that fear of bullets flying or of that fear that they may not be able to feed their kids the next meal. I mean, it was a very grim time. But it brought out, I think, the best in a lot of people, as well. So, that's personally.

I think, professionally, I was a journalist in those days, and so my job was to record the events of the war, and I felt tremendous helplessness in that period. I felt if I knocked on one more door of somebody, whether in Sarajevo or in Mostar or in Prijedor, and heard of a lost loved one or of a family member who was in a prison camp, and I just felt that there was nothing I could do other than tell the story. So, professionally, I feel really fortunate now because I am now the Administrator of USAID. And there's a lot we can do, and there's so many actors, agents of change here on the ground that USAID supports. And I'm able to come on this visit for the first time with a notebook in hand listening to people. Okay, what can we do to support the anti-corruption cause? What can we do to support independent media? What can we do to support women entrepreneurs, or renewable energy, or the protection of your rivers, or the growth of your tourism industry?

And I could spend my time thinking about the past, but like so many in this country, our emphasis has to be on the future. And USAID works in support of people in this country who are determined to make that future more democratic, more prosperous. A future that would keep young people in this country to work, rather than see them having to leave year after year. And, so, in that sense I appreciate very much the role of journalists and I was incredibly privileged. The experience I had here changed my life, gave me the inspiration to do all of the human rights work that I've done since. It all grows out of that experience here. But I'm glad now to have a bigger toolbox in support of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

MR. VUČIĆ: You say you have been here during a difficult time, wartime. Today, as you are visiting Bosnia, the country is undergoing one of the most serious crises. Ambassador Power, how do you see the current situation, and, in your opinion, how can the United States help to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state and Bosnian and Herzegovinian people?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, first, let me say why President Biden sent me here. I mean, he sent me to deliver a message which is the same message that the United States has been delivering over the last 26 years, if not longer, which is, we are with you. The United States is with the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina in times of crisis, for sure, but hopefully also if we can get to the other side of this crisis, in times of thinking through, again, how do we expand economic opportunity for the people of this country? So, I think whether it's President Biden, or the Secretary of State Tony Blinken, or myself, so many senior people right up to the President of the United States have such deep ties with this country that it pains us to see the kind of political impasse that has taken hold.

And it pains us to see people threatening to walk away from institutions that need to work together to bring about the kind of political and economic reforms that are required in order for Bosnia to enjoy much more economic growth and much more job growth than it has been able to enjoy up to this point. So, to see political actors not working on behalf of expanded prosperity but really kind of working on their own behalf, as we like to say, it's not ideal.

MR. VUČIĆ: Administrator Power, many citizens in this country believe that if the great powers reach an agreement about this part of the world, the problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina would be much smaller. What do you think? In your opinion, is it possible for Russia and the United States to reach some kind of an agreement on Bosnia and Herzegovina?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I mean, let's look back to the past. The whole international community came together, ultimately, in support of the Dayton peace agreement, and here we are 26 years later with peace, fortunately, but with many aspects of the peace agreement, the reconciliation process, unfulfilled. Fundamentally, the United States stands in deep partnership with the people of this country. And the European Union, and the United Kingdom, countries that were very active back around the time of Dayton as well, are very invested in the success of the people of this country, in their aspirations being fulfilled.

But it is ultimately the future of this country is going to be decided by the people of this country. So it's true that international divisions don't help, but international unity alone, without people here being willing to make hard choices, take political compromise, give up the path of corruption which so many, unfortunately, have pursued, looking out for themselves over the welfare of their constituents.

That's what the political leadership -- that’s what is required. There's no panacea that comes from some backroom deal between foreigners, and that's not going to bring the kind of deliverance that people are seeking. But, at the same time, it would be a mistake only to look to the politicians here. Because what we are seeing is that the most significant investigations, for example, into corruption here in this country, which every person who is not themselves corrupt hates. But the most significant investigations are coming from citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. People who are themselves willing to risk their careers, risk lawsuits, and even risk their lives to uncover corrupt dealings, that is incredibly important. That's part of building a nation for the 21st century.

The entrepreneurs in this country, the people who want to grow the tourism industry and create those kinds of job opportunities so that people don't have to emigrate. Right now, 49 percent of the people of this country live in some other country. That's not what people who love this land, who love the culture, who love the traditions -- that's not what they aspire to.

So, it is, again, private sector actors, civil society actors, investigative journalists. It is others, as well, who by leading and by putting pressure on those who are technically the leaders -- the politicians are often described as the leaders, but leadership can come from other quarters, as well. And I think that's what USAID tries to do, is to support the checks and balances, to support decentralized leadership that is going to take Bosnia and Herzegovina this next step.

MR. VUČIĆ: How can you comment, to that stroke, to the influence of Russia in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, what I would say is that all the polling shows that two thirds to three quarters of the people living here want to pursue the path of Euro-Atlantic integration. They understand that doing so requires investments in the rule of law, requires a sustained fight against corruption, requires all kinds of economic and political reforms to make the environment here more attractive.

And there are actors outside this country's border that don't want to see that happen. That fundamentally view the world in zero-sum terms. Who believe that a gain for Europe or a gain for the people of this country that sees them enjoying more rule of law, more economic opportunity, that is a loss for them. If you view the world in that kind of Manichaean zero-sum way, then you will often resort to disinformation and to efforts to undermine necessary political and economic reforms.

And let me say this, with the divisive rhetoric and with the pulling away from state institutions that we have seen in recent months, what is the consequence of that? The consequence of that is that the problems that the citizens of this country are facing are not getting dealt with by the politicians. In other words, you can view it as being about Dayton this, or Dayton that; there's a pandemic here. There is corruption here; there are not enough jobs for young people here. That is what politicians should be focused on; what can we do to put our heads together to address those seminal challenges of our time.

And so, any outside actor that is undermining the political and economic reforms and supporting these kinds of secessionist overtures, they're doing so knowing that the effect is going to be on the welfare of the citizens of this country, it's a negative effect.

MR. VUČIĆ: You mentioned corruption. Corruption is one of the most acute problems that Bosnia is facing. Your country has invested a lot in trying to empower citizens and institutions to fight corruption, to fight against corruption. Are you satisfied with the results here in Bosnia?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I'm incredibly inspired by the people who are doing the work here. And I've only been here a short time, but I've met with anti-corruption journalists, investigative journalists, who have risked life and limb to publish these exposés, who have faced, in one instance, I met a journalist who has been sued more than 50 times because of his exposés. I mean, you know, when I think about the journalism that I did, back when I was a journalist, I think, gosh what I did was so easy, I didn't have to worry that I was going to be sued for telling the truth.

So, we, at USAID, we in the U.S. government, we believe that these investments have borne fruit. And, you know, with every one of those articles that are published, it causes someone to say, uh-oh, I might end up in an exposé in that publication; or uh-oh, I might end up on the sanctions list at some point, and that may interfere with my travel plans, or it may make all of my ill-gotten gains vulnerable to an asset freeze.

So, again, the work that is being done by local actors, often at great personal sacrifice, we're just incredibly proud to be able to support it. And we believe that the greater the number of individuals and institutions who move in this reformist direction, the brighter the prospects for the country as a whole.

The other thing I will say is that, while it's true that there is still very significant corruption in political leadership circles and within political parties, and far too much self-dealing when it comes to private investment or permitting or procurement, all of that is just an endemic problem. It's really almost a crisis. It's a corruption crisis.

At the same time, one of the things that USAID does on behalf of the U.S. government is we work with reformist government officials at the canton level in Sarajevo, and Tuzla and elsewhere who are willing to build these institutions where, if at the central level, it's not working, or it's not possible, it is still possible, again, to see the judicial process kick in where a journalist writes a story. Ideally, that just doesn't produce a story; it produces a prosecutor saying, ooh, there might be something here, I should look into this. And that then sets up a situation where a judge is in a position to hear the evidence because, again, everybody's entitled to due process. And courtroom processes provide individuals with that opportunity. But that sort of assembly line of justice doesn't exist in a lot of places in this country.

And so, what we are trying to do, in addition to supporting non-governmental actors, is to find those pockets of reform, strengthen them, show that it is possible, because one citizen says, hey, wait, if I actually bring a complaint, somebody is doing something about it. That's incredible. Who knew? That then can inspire them to be activated, and to speak out, and maybe the next time around not to pay that bribe? Or to actually go to the anti-corruption office and file a complaint. Whereas it's a loss of confidence in institutions in this country that have perpetuated this crisis because people just believe, well, what's the point, they're all corrupt? Well, they're not all corrupt. And so, it's really important that we support, with training and resources, those actors who want to fight corruption from within.

MR. VUČIĆ: Recently introduced the sanctions to Milorad Dodik and others part of these efforts, and in your opinion, are they giving results?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think, certainly, we see one example in the recent batch of sanctions where we've already seen somebody lose their job because the coalition that the individual was working with insisted that he no longer be president of the party. So, that is a very concrete and specific impact. I also think it sends, the batch of sanctions send a signal that nobody is immune, not only individuals who are themselves using positions of high office, in order to, in effect, steal resources from their people, but also the enablers, those who are standing side by side, and facilitating corruption, I think maybe before this last batch of sanctions, there would have been some thinking, well, okay, I may be helping him out, but I'm not vulnerable because I'm not the prime agent here.

And so, again, that kind of footstep effect of sanctions is really important. And President Obama, who I used to work for, as part of the Obama-Biden Administration, as his UN Ambassador, he has a saying that I will share with you in the hopes of inspiring your audience. He used to say a lot, "Better is good." And what he meant by that is, in this instance, we're not going to, with sanctions, solve the political crisis, or the corruption crisis overnight in this country. We're outsiders, fundamentally, it's going to be the people of this country who solve the problems of this country.

But what we can do is use these tools to reinforce the efforts of people in this country to make the situation better. Again, it's not going to go from where we are now too perfect. It's not going to go from where we are now to unity and reconciliation everywhere. But what we can do is use sanctions to deter the kind of obstructionism, the kind of divisiveness, and the kind of self-dealing that have impeded the ability of the people of this country to reach their full potential.

MR. VUČIĆ: And finally, what is your message for people in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: My message is the same that it has been since I was this tall. As a reporter, since I was a young reporter in my early 20s in this country, which is that the United States is with you, the American people are with you. You can do this. I saw during the war the resilience and the creativity of people in this country. And channeling that resilience and that creativity and that dynamism into tackling this, the latest crisis that Bosnia and Herzegovina has faced but not the worst crisis. You can do this.

MR. VUČIĆ: Thank you very much, Your Excellency, for this little conversation about big and strong messages to Bosnian and Herzegovina.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, Nikola.

Last updated: May 19, 2022

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