Administrator Power at a Press Conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Speeches Shim

Saturday, January 22, 2022

January 21, 2022
National Museum
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Good afternoon, everyone. And thank you for joining us here at the National Museum. Thank you, Ambassador, for the introduction. As you noted, this is a proud institution exhibiting the rich, shared history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As with so many buildings here in Sarajevo, this museum is marked by the scars of the siege, but despite its turbulent history, this museum, as you know, did not close during the war, staying open since its founding in 1888. That is, until 2012 when political in-fighting, a dispute between the central government and the entities and economic mismanagement achieved what the war could not and shuttered this museum for three years.

The museum had survived two world wars and the conflict of the 1990s, but in the words of its deputy director, "it could not survive the peace."

Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina finds itself at yet another crossroads. And the durability of its 26 years of peace are being called into question. Investigative journalists I met with yesterday spoke about the fear people across Bosnia and Herzegovina are feeling about the potential for increasing division and instability. I also spoke with a group of survivors of wartime detention camps, all from different ethnic backgrounds, all incredibly resilient and dedicated to reconciliation, but deeply concerned by the current political crisis. Deeply concerned about divisive rhetoric and believing that their experiences and their telling of their experiences, particularly the young people, offer a reminder that this country can never go back. Young leaders, public servants I spoke with yesterday also expressed how much they love their country, but openly worried for its future, and they described the cynicism that so many people have about politicians.

I am here because leaders here are attempting to sow division and are not sufficiently focused on the challenges that affect the lives of ordinary people who just want to live in freedom, dignity, and security. President Dodik, in particular, has created a climate of tension, one that is vulnerable to miscalculation and the risk of escalation. I had a candid meeting today at the presidency. I emphasized the importance of peace and the danger of secessionist rhetoric and actions. Having met with so many young people over the course of the last couple days, I was also able to convey to the presidents what every single, every single young person I've met with has said to me, that they are fed up with politics, and that they are finding it harder and harder to see a future for themselves in a country facing so much corruption and division.

I spoke directly to each of the presidents, urging them to be problem solvers for their constituents who have actual problems, who face actual challenges in their day-to-day lives. And for the leaders, the political leaders, in the presidency to be problem solvers, not problem creators or problem exacerbators.

We discussed the need for unity and stability to drive economic growth and opportunity. And to be very frank, as a person running an agency that is entirely dedicated to the cause of economic development in this country and the inspiring and igniting of economic opportunity, I conveyed a message that the talk of the war is making it incredibly difficult. And will make it incredibly difficult to attract investment from the international community and it'll make it incredibly difficult to build a strong and enduring economy that creates jobs for young people and others who want to enter the workforce.

Finally, I offered to the presidents the message that President Biden asked me to carry here. Which is that we, the United States, stand with all the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And we want to work with them, with you to unlock BiH's potential.

Now I want to emphasize what I hope everyone knows is true, which is this is not 1992. Across 26 years, the United States has stood by the people of BiH, initially back in the day through war, or this last quarter century through peace, and we stand with you now during this latest chapter in your history. Thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of the people of this country a brighter future is possible, not just to overcome this particular crisis at this particular time, but to thrive well beyond it, to build new habits of interaction.

In order for that to happen all politicians have to put aside divisive actions and inflammatory rhetoric, to stop their attacks on Bosnia and Herzegovina's institutions. And to commit to ushering in badly needed and long overdue democratic reforms, including amending a discriminatory provision in the constitution that limits full political participation.

To be clear -- and I had the chance again to stress this today at the presidency, Dayton was always intended to be a living document, like any constitution. The citizens of this country do not want to return to the past, but they also don't want to settle for the status quo. And neither does the United States. You want and deserve a democratic future free from corruption and free from ethnic tensions. You want graduation from International supervision through completion of the 5+2 agenda and full European integration.

Some 75 percent of people in BiH support the long term goal of joining the EU. Now, I don't want to pretend that getting to any of those ultimate destinations is going to be easy. In addition to the recent political challenges, Bosnia and Herzegovina's economic challenges are immense. In the fastest growing region in all of Europe, BiH is actually losing private investment, with the public sector now representing nearly 70 percent of the economy. Young people are facing the highest unemployment rate on the continent, and so they're leaving the country at 10 times the rate of their neighbors in Serbia. And this is especially tragic because Bosnia and Herzegovina's youth are its true leaders. The key to its democratic, multi-ethnic, inclusive, prosperous future.

And they, regardless of ethnicity or identity, are exactly who the United States wants to empower and lift up. As the ambassador mentioned, since 1996, the United States has provided $2 billion dollars to aid the people of BiH, assistance that has gone to all its regions. Despite claims that we hear from time to time of U.S. bias, one third of USAID's assistance each year goes to support the citizens of Republika Srpska. Across the country, across the entirety of the country, we spent hundreds of millions to rebuild infrastructure that was damaged during the war and to reconstruct housing to enable the return of - then refugees. We've helped tens of thousands of farmers ramp up their harvests, increasing agricultural exports by nearly 40 percent over the last decade. And in just the last year, we have cleared over 6 million square meters of land mines in and around Sarajevo and East Sarajevo.

Moving forward, we will continue our support of independent anti-corruption offices to uncover and root out the rampant corruption that exists throughout the country. We will invest in a stronger, freer media environment, supporting investigative journalists who uncover misdeeds and speak truth. We will invest in the diversification of BiH's economy and in clean power generation, and we will work to help turn Bosnia and Herzegovina into Europe's next tourist destination, a place where you can ski and hike, raft, and bike. Eat some Cevapi, either Banja Lucki or Sarajevski, sip Slivovitz, and experience the history of this crossroads of cultures. That is the peaceful, democratic, vibrant future the young people who stay here in Bosnia and Herzegovina can help build with partners like the United States by their side. But it can only be realized if the country’s politicians listen to their people, embrace peace and reform, and fight the corruption that chokes off BiH’s prosperity and drives its youth to emigrate.

After this museum closed its doors, it was Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens who came together to reopen it. You must remember, students chained themselves to the pole in the lobby and held sit-ins in front of the building. Civil servants continued to show up to work to protect the holdings here, knowing even that they wouldn’t be paid. And a public effort, “I am the Museum,” drew nearly 3,000 people to guard the country’s cultural heritage until politicians finally bowed to public pressure. And with the assistance of the United States, reopened and renovated the museum. Now it stands stronger and more economically secure than ever before, open to all of this country’s citizens. I wish the same for this country.

And with that, I will take your questions. Thank you.

QUESTION: [via translation] Mrs. Power, Milorad Dodik held a press conference after the meeting in the BiH Presidency. He thanked you because USAID will continue its projects in the RS entity too, but he also added that the American diplomacy and diplomatic officers still have a hidden agenda in BiH, which, according to him, is centralization, or unitarization of BiH, something that the U.S. has never given up. Also, alluding to the sanctions against him, he said that following American orders, I quote now, the Prosecutor's Office was digging for some old charges against him, which is the reason why his name was again on the list of sanctioned politicians, because of allegations for corruption, but nothing was found. Your comment, please.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you for the question. The United States takes very, very seriously the process and the evidentiary basis for sanctions. The process leading up to sanctions, the inquiry into the evidence. We recognize the gravity of sanctions and the impact that they have on individuals’ financial holdings, on their travel, and on their reputations. The evidence that gave rise to the January 5th sanctions is sound.

With regard to your first question, which I think was referring back to an attempt to draw a distinction between USAID and all the wonderful programming that we do across the country, including, as I mentioned as well, in Republika Srpska, and our diplomats, including our esteemed Ambassador here. We are one government. We work in lockstep. USAID missions all around the world, including here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, work under the Chief of Mission authority.

We view development in every country as a three-legged stool, and I had the chance to say this at the presidency today as well. Three legs: one of them, governance, the rule of law, an end to corruption, respect for human rights, that’s one leg. A second leg: economic opportunity and ultimately, prosperity. And the third leg: physical security and peace. If any one of those legs is off kilter, we know what happens to a stool. And the same thing happens here.

The fact that people perceive peace as being in jeopardy, the Dayton peace agreement as being challenged now, undermines our ability to draw economic opportunity to this country. The fact that the rule of law is often not enforced, and that there is so much corruption - that impedes our ability to work with the people of this country to attract private investment, to draw tourists, to support small and medium-sized enterprises as USAID does across the country.

We cannot achieve the economic development aims that USAID advances without diplomacy, without strengthening democratic political institutions. And that is the cause of the entire U.S. government, and it’s the cause of democracies around the world who also stand behind the Dayton process, and in opposition to division and efforts to go back in time.

QUESTION: [via translation] Good evening. You said that one third of the USAID investments went to the RS, but also that you take sanctions against Milorad Dodik very seriously. Do U.S. sanctions against Milorad Dodik, and individuals and companies that are connected, have impact on amount and type of USAID investment in the RS?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: So, let me step back for a second from your question and underscore a point that I hope is always clear here, which is that USAID is working in support of the people of this country. And again, with the metaphor that I’ve already introduced in mind, that includes support for independent media and for accountability mechanisms like the anti-corruption offices in Sarajevo and Tuzla and other cantons.

It has over the years included judicial training, and it does often entail work as I did today with, for example, Ministers of Tourism. I met today up on Trebević with the Minister of Tourism from the Federation, as well as the Minister of Tourism from the Republika Srpska. We do work in order to try to attract tourists to this country, and that entails working with specific individuals or specific offices that are official, that are in the public sector.

And we choose who we work with very carefully. So it is really important that we, who are spending U.S. taxpayer money, and have been now for 26 years or more, that we can answer questions about who we are giving money to and make sure that that money is being spent transparently. And we, the U.S. officials up here, we are accountable to our people in spending money in support of helping the people of this country ensure that their institutions are accountable to their people.

So if individuals in any part of the country are caught up in corruption, if they are requiring, if they are paying kickbacks, or if they are requiring people to pay bribes, or if they are stealing resources from the people, absolutely that will affect our calculus about how much work we can do together. But I will say, again, that our target is never any particular institution, per se. It is, what is the most effective, efficient, productive route to advancing the aspirations and helping the people of this country fulfill their aspirations.

And I really want to stress that, because there is a long tradition here, and even with all of the state employment, of kind of looking to the politicians for the answers. I tried to stress in my remarks that leadership often does not come from above. The reason this museum is open, right, was not because the politicians figured out their business. It was because the workers here kept coming to work. It was because the people of this city didn’t want to allow politics to get in the way of the enjoyment of this culture. And I think that’s true across this country, and it’s certainly true in my country, as well.

QUESTION: Daria Sito-Sucic, Reuters News Agency. Mrs. Power, can you tell us if the policy of the United States is to talk to the officials who are sanctioned for corruption and destabilizing the country? Because this is something that people here are really wondering, because officials are coming and talking to the officials who are accused of corruption, and that’s why sanctions. But, still, they are talking.

And, after that -- as my colleague said, Mr. Dodik, for example. Today, again, like many times before, after talking to international officials, he just continues with the same rhetoric and saying that he would continue with the same policy. So, I wanted also to ask whether the U.S. is considering another round of sanctions against the circle of these people, and not only the Serb Republic, but anybody, all officials in this country who are involved in corrupted activities in all ethnic folds. And, just another question, sorry. Just building on what you said about these three things, how would you say the U.S. sees the crisis in Bosnia? Is it peace being endangered? Is it human rights being endangered? Because we are seeing, also, the spike in hate incidents across the country. Is it possible economic collapse, you know? So, what will be the priority? What is the worst thing of all these?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Okay. In turn. On the question of whether we meet with sanctioned individuals, President Biden asked me to make this trip to this country in order to deliver the message that I hope has been heard across the country, which is that the United States stands with the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as we long have, that the United States is watching and very, very concerned about the political crisis, the political blockade and obstructionism that has occurred. And especially the consequence of the blockade and the obstructionism, which is both in an effort to wind back the clock and unwind progress that has been made toward moving this country in a constructive, progressive direction, in a way that will allow it to integrate in Europe. So, it is obstructing that.

But it is also that obstruction means that the state institutions are not tackling the problems that people are facing in this country. And they are diverting, in fact, from the need to tackle a once-in-a-century pandemic, from the need to tackle such acute and pervasive corruption that almost every young person I’ve met with over the course of my short visit here mentioned just the corruption as one of the main factors for why they didn’t see their future here. These are the problems that leaders need to address, and instead, they are jeopardizing, and specific individuals, of course, are jeopardizing the framework that exists to make progress, to bring a sturdier democracy, to bring more economic opportunity to this country.

So, I was asked to deliver those messages. President Biden expects the state institutions in this country to function, and I was able to deliver that message to individuals who are impairing the functionality of those individuals. We, the United States, have respect for the institutions of this country, and the meeting occurred under that rubric of investing -continuing to invest in state institutions that the people of this country need to work on their behalf. That was on your first question. On the second question, regarding whether the United States is considering more sanctions, the answer is yes.

On the third question, on how we see the crisis, I’m probably repeating myself, but we view it as dangerous. We view the actions to pull away from cooperation across the entities through the state institutions as reckless, and we view the crisis as diverting some really important political leaders in this country from their core business, what should be their core business, which is looking out for the welfare of their people. So, that is how we view the crisis.

QUESTION: [via translation] Mrs. Samantha, a question for you - when exactly do you expect unblocking of all processes in BiH, unblocking of all political and integration processes in our country, since after the meeting with you, BiH Presidency member Milorad Dodik said that he would continue with the process of transfer of competencies from the state to entity level? Thank you.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I can make no predictions on timelines, nor can I characterize President Dodik’s intentions vis-à-vis the state institutions. I got a brief readout of the press conference, and the statements that he made in the press conference diverged in some measure from the conversation that we had, or at least, let me put it a different way, he said things in the press conference that were not said in the meeting. So, again, I can’t tell you what he will do, but I can tell you that he spoke at some length about the importance of economic development in Republika Srpska. He spoke at some length about the tragedy of mass migration from this country. I mean, that is the greatest symptom of the failure of political leadership, is the fact that 40, more than 49 percent of the citizens of this country live in other countries. A point that I made, but that was not disputed, either the statistic or the fact that this is not something that politicians or leaders, people who call themselves leaders, can be proud of. So, what is clear is that the path of attempting to reclaim authorities that belong to state institutions are only going to further undermine the economic vulnerabilities of the entity that President Dodik says he is advocating on behalf of.

There is not economic or functional viability. If Republika Srpska is pulling itself- should pull itself back from state institutions, it's not going to work for the people of Republika Srpska. So, it's not only damaging for the sake of the departure from Dayton and not only really problematic from the standpoint of people who consider themselves part of the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But it's really problematic in terms of the viability of Republika Srpska itself. And so, the idea that you can kind of put politics and political cooperation to one side which I think there are some who seek to do and continue to opt out of state institutions but continue to try to draw investment and tourism and achieve economic development for your people.

The political and the economic go hand in hand. And so my hope is that, that realization that in order to serve your constituents, there's a way to do that, that puts you in a position where you can help your people achieve the economic opportunities and the dignity, a lot of talk about dignity and about, about sovereignty and about agency, but there's no dignity if you can't find work. Or if the business deal you were just about to strike falls apart because somebody, a foreign investor just says, "Wait a minute, what's going on over there, that looks like a mess, I think maybe I'll go to Croatia or to Serbia to invest, or there are lots of places I can invest. With all this talk of the government not meeting and not making decisions and all that corruption and that failure to deal with the corruption, I'm just going to take my money and these jobs elsewhere." I mean there is no economic or functional viability to the path that at least on the basis of the press conference he appears to be, at least for now, on.

QUESTION: [via translation] Mrs. Power, you said yesterday at a press availability that the U.S. would not hesitate to undertake new steps, if they are necessary. I assume that you had sanctions in mind. Today, you gave us new information that the U.S. would announce, new, expanded sanctions. The list, from January 5 by your Treasury Department, was also connected to individuals from the BiH justice system. Have you noticed any changes since then? Have you seen any changes after meeting with BiH Presidency members and if the sanctions are the sole instrument that the U.S. plans to use, or if you had some other steps in mind?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you. I might let the Ambassador weigh in on the question of sanctions more broadly, but just since he is here tracking the ins and outs of the situation day to day, but I do think it's significant in the case of Mirsad Hadžikadić that because of the sanctions there was an insistence on his resignation from his party's presidency. That is one very tangible impact. I think that while others who were sanctioned and this is quite typical, we're often talking about, ah, there's no harm, I didn't want to travel to the United States anyway, I wasn't planning on going to Disneyworld, it's okay, it's not a big deal. For people who claim not to care about the effect of the asset freezes or the travel bans, they certainly spend a lot of time talking about how they don't care about the sanctions; the sanctions seemed to have registered. And again, back to the exchange that we had earlier as we seek to draw economic investment and really unlock European and American capital here, the sanctions matter. The sanctions are a barrier for sanctioned individuals and institutions to doing business with people that they, I'm sure, are very eager to do business with.

So I think that impact on individuals is real, I think we've seen it around the world. It was very important to us that the sanctions be oriented toward individuals where it was not, by any -- it was about avoiding any kind of perception of collective responsibility, but really tailoring those sanctions on individuals because we want, of course, the economy of this region, as a whole, to improve. So, these are intended, again, to be very specific to the individuals against whom the evidence has been amassed. But I'd let the Ambassador weigh in as well.

AMBASSADOR NELSON: Thank you, Madam Administrator. As I've said often, we find that sanctions work because they are a measure of accountability, especially where otherwise there is none. In a country where there is no penalty for corruption, these sanctions truly resonate. We also see sanctions as a deterrence, as a deterrent to those who would support destabilizing actions and high-level corruption.

Sanctions are also a call to action and the call to action primarily goes to the judiciary, which otherwise is absent from the fight against corruption in this country to the great, great frustration of the citizens of this country. The outcome of the sanctions so far in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I think, are illustrative of the impact they can have. The fact that Mr. Hadžikadić was compelled to resign the presidency of his party because that party decided that was important for them to maintain their integrity and the coalition in Tuzla Canton saw that as critical for them to maintain their integrity in the face of citizens. So, yes, sanctions have an impact and that's why we're using them and we will continue to exercise them as appropriate. Thank you.

QUESTION: [via translation] During this visit to BiH you said that Milorad Dodik is the politician who is the biggest obstacle to economic prosperity of the country. Today, some media outlets published a story that an investigation has been opened about Milorad Dodik purchasing a house in 2007 in an elite part of Belgrade for 750,000 Euros. Do you know anything about that case? And, also, do you believe that the BiH justice system has enough capacity and independence from politics to process high ranking politicians without producing new tension in this already heated surrounding?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I don't know if the Ambassador wants to take your first question. I can't comment on that particular report. I think the question you pose about the judiciary is a very fair and reasonable question. And I guess what I would stress is that in the short, medium, and long term, there is no workaround for the judiciary. In other words, every country that wants to grow its economy, draw investment again, be integrated into Europe, and achieve the economic fruits of that integration needs a functional judiciary with independence and integrity. And obviously, that is a work in progress in this country.

But I want to be clear, as your question, I think, suggests ideally -- for example, when the U.S. Treasury sanctions an individual because they have evidence of corruption, as the Ambassador said, that that would be a flare, and that an independent judiciary would pursue an investigation and there would be judicial accountability alongside this, you might say, financial and reputational accountability.

So, that is why USAID, for so many years, has been invested in trying to build the rule of law. And we are doing so more and more as well on the Canton level, not just through the anti-corruption offices, but in a range of programs, again, that are about investing in what we know is going to be critical for Bosnia and Herzegovina to take the steps that it needs to take, and where progress has been woefully insufficient so far over these last 26 years.

But having said that about the core of accountability really does need to be through the rule of law, through domestic judicial accountability. So, I agree with that. But it is also really important for us to recognize the importance of other forms of accountability. And these will be obvious to you, but I really think it's worth stating, because sometimes, again, we look up, and we don't look around. We look up to leaders and to government institutions -- again, with good reason -- but we should look around as well. So, the other forms of accountability are fact-based investigative journalism, of the kind, as well, that USAID supports. The other forms of accountability are citizen action.

I met yesterday with a group of young women in East Sarajevo who were outraged by the corruption that had led to the provision of permits around a hydroelectric project that clearly had not been scrubbed. No environmental assessment had been done. No assessment about whether it was going to flood the neighboring community. No assessment of the effect on fishing or the entire river system, a beautiful river system in this country that extends well-beyond this country. And these young women spoke up, mobilized other young people, and instituted their own form of accountability for this wrong that was perpetrated in their country to their land, and ultimately to their people. So, that's a form of accountability, and that's why we support environmental activism and, in that instance also, the cases that are being brought in the judicial system in order to put in place injunctions to prevent future corrupt permitting. So, that's a form of accountability.

But the most important form of accountability, alongside the rule of law, is electoral accountability. And that's where supporting efforts to mobilize voters so that if they don't like the way the country is being run, or, for that matter, the way the canton is being run, or the town is being run, that they exercise that democratic privilege that we are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy, which is that they hold their politicians accountable for their transgressions as well, in that way.

So, criminal accountability is really important. Civil accountability in a courtroom, depending on the circumstance, is important. But one of the things that USAID, here and all around the world, is dedicated to is these other forms of accountability, where in order to combat that culture of impunity that we know impedes democratic progress and economic development.

Do you want to take the first part?

AMBASSADOR NELSON: Regarding the first part of your question, we have no information on that specific case, but it sounds like a case that could be repeated with many different names and many different locations of the villa. It's the kind of case that you would hope to learn about from effective, engaged prosecutors or empowered investigative journalists, or citizens who have the courage and the protection to be a whistleblower. And those are all important actors in uncovering and attacking corruption. The U.S. Embassy, as we stated this week, we do not interfere in specific cases. And our engagement and assistance of the judiciary follows due process and rule of law. And I agree with the Administrator that the challenge here is the lack of independence for the judiciary, that prosecutors and judges too often are working for political masters or private interests.

And that's why we stand side by side with the European Union and other partners to urge reforms that are essential to strengthen rule of law, like a better conflict of interest law that matches EU standards. And the Ministry of Justice continues to produce an inadequate draft, despite our intensive assistance with the EU. That includes an update of the public procurement law, where everyone knows there is so much waste and fraud and abuse. And above all, it requires reforms to the High Judicial Prosecutorial Council of Law, to begin to restore integrity and independence to that fundamental critical institution. Thank you.

Last updated: January 22, 2022

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