02 November 2022

Creating sustainable peace in BiH: Interview with Denis Žiško on environment & EU enlargement

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is at risk of conflict as tensions between factions are rising in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The fragile peace in the country is based on the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the war that erupted after the break-up of Yugoslavia. The Dayton Accords divided BiH into the Federation of BiH, with the majority of the population consisting of Croats and Bosniaks, and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.

The leader of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, reportedly has close ties with Vladimir Putin. This has sparked concerns that Russia could support him to break the Dayton Accords and secede from BiH. Tensions in the Federation flared up when the so-called Office of the High Representative (OHR), created through the Dayton Accords, controversially decided to amend the country’s election law an hour after the polls of the October 2 elections had closed. This move provoked anger from the Bosniaks, who saw it as in favour of the Croats.

While the different entities and national groups in BiH remain divided, they nonetheless experience the same problems with regards to climate, environment and energy. Issues such as air and water pollution do not respect ethnic and religious divisions. Inflation has reached record-highs throughout BiH since the war in Ukraine, including rises in fuel and food prices.

The European Union (EU) could play an important role in addressing these issues, as it is most invested in greening the Western Balkans as part of its enlargement process. BiH has been a ‘potential’ EU candidate since 2003, and in October 2022 the European Commission formally recommended granting candidate status to BiH, under condition of several reforms.

The leaders of the Western Balkan countries, including BiH, aligned themselves with the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans (GAWB) and the European Green Deal at the Sofia Summit in 2020. Among the key pillars is 'climate protection and decarbonization’, with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and aligning with EU’s carbon neutrality by 2050. The EU pledged to finance €9 billion worth of projects through the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. On 26 October the European Union promised another €500 million to improve energy infrastructure in the region, of which €70 million of short-term support for BiH.

Financial support for long-term processes concretely improving sustainability and countering unemployment could improve stability in BiH. However, when EU money is directed to short-term projects this runs the risk of locking in corruption, thereby preventing real change in BiH. PSI interviewed Denis Žiško from the Aarhus Center in Tuzla, which was established by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), to offer his views on the ongoing environmental problems and political divisions in BiH.

Could you tell us something about yourself?

My name is Denis Žiško. I work as an Energy and Climate Change Coordinator for the Aarhus Center in BiH. For the last 10 years I was working for the Center for Ecology and Energy in Tuzla, but recently I switched. My main field of work is the process of the decarbonisation of the energy sector. I am also involved in the just transition platform for coal regions.

                                                          Denis Žiško

What are the main implications of climate change for BiH? And how does the population view it?

We do not have proper seasons anymore but jump between summer and winter without a proper spring and fall. We also had a lot of extreme droughts and extreme rains and floods. Climate change does not respect religion, nationality and skin colour, but affects all communities equally.

Climate change is not really something the general population and politicians are thinking of. The main priority for people is getting a salary that helps them survive the month. We tried talking to young people about the environment, but unfortunately, this did not work. The only future they see is either to leave the country, and only after they leave they start to think about climate change and other things people think about in Europe. The youth that is still here is planning to join the political parties, nepotism and corruption that rule the country.

Could you tell us something about the environmental projects you are involved in? 

I have been working on the closure of coal power plants and the prevention of new ones to be built in the last 10-15 years. When we try to put climate change on the agenda, it does not work to talk about climate change only. That is a narrative for rich countries. When you talk about pollution that directly affects health and then squeeze in climate change it becomes a ‘side dish’.

The most successful ‘tool’ we use in our campaigns is the health issues caused by fossil companies. We use them to mobilize support for our campaigns. We try to avoid analyses and studies, but focus on concrete actions. Occasionally we produce an analysis, but only as a tool to mobilise people. In 2013 we produced an analysis that put the health damage caused by air pollution by the Tuzla coal power plant at €99 million. This led to a big reaction from the state-owned coal company. In this way you mobilise people, and then they also start talking about other sorts of pollution. At that point social media comes in. We did achieve that people are now aware that burning coal is bad.

What are the main challenges in working on environmental issues in BiH? 

The main challenge is that you are working against the whole system. The state-owned companies are owned by ministries. The ministry that is responsible for the environment works as a service agency for the other ministries. The whole system is there to protect the polluter. The justifications to keep coal mines and plants stay open are that people will lose jobs if they close, and that coal is a cheap source of electricity. We do not have the Emissions Trading System (ETS) in BiH. Pollution prevention measures and CO2 taxes are not implemented. We subsidize cheap electricity with our health and lives.

How do the Federation of BiH and the Republika Srpska work together on environmental issues? 

They do not work together much. There should be coordination between the different entities, with people talking together from both sides discussing environmental issues. Sometimes the ministers sit together. One case in which this happened was that of the Trgovska gora nuclear waste disposal. Croatia planned to dispose of nuclear waste at former military barracks in Trgovska Gora, located on the Una River, which is the border between Croatia and BiH. There was good cooperation between the governments of the two entities, trying to prevent this site to be installed.

How can the environment help to bring different communities in BiH together? 

At this point, I do not see that happening. Identity politics about the threat of the other side is too present. The first step in bringing communities together is economy. As soon as you provide economic opportunities, people will stop thinking about the threat of the other. When it comes to trade and the economy, working together goes perfectly. Once we get there, we can use the health pollution narrative to bring communities close.

On top of this, we can build the narrative of climate change. With this economic situation, it is difficult to get attention for the environment. We can still do this by squeezing it into issues that directly affect the public, such as health. As a main driver, it simply does not work.

How do EU-funded projects help to tackle environmental issues across BiH? 

It is a big problem here that all the money goes to ‘projects’. When you talk to the ministries here, especially on the state level, they talk about the projects they are involved in, not processes. What happens when the money for projects drains out? How will the country function? How will civil society function? All the EU money is spent on plans, analyses, action plans and strategies, but nothing concrete happens.

When I talk to EU officials in Brussels, I tell them we need less carrot and more stick, meaning conditionality. After the Sofia declaration, the authorities started talking about decarbonisation. There will be a development towards renewables, and in the justification for this they will include climate change. It is not really about the climate, but about getting EU money. This is where we need conditionality. The EU vision now is to keep the status quo, since now at least no one here is killing each other.

We will join the EU one way or the other. In the last decade, a million people left to the EU. This is the most productive part of society. After these elections, we will lose at least half a million of the most productive people. Bosnians are joining the EU individually, but the country is left behind. We need concrete plans, in line with the Green Agenda, to prevent this.

Photo credit: Steffen Emrich/Flickr