Atlantic Initiative Roundtables in Bijeljina and Brčko:

{gallery}newsletters/13/5/1{/gallery}Atlantic Initiative (AI) organized two roundtables on November 8th in cooperation with the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the Brčko Vermont Youth Center and the Bijeljina Youth Center. These roundtables were held at the Economics Faculty in Brčko and the Filip Višnjić Library in Bijeljina. Participants focused their discussions on European security and BiH. The goal of these activities was to inspire an exchange of thoughts and experiences concerning BiH’s Euro-Atlantic integration, with particular reference to the role which youth can play in this process.

Many citizens of Brčko and Bijeljina took part in the roundtable discussions.  Participants included university and secondary school students, media representatives and representatives from the governmental and NGO sectors.

The roundtable discussants were:

–           Prof. Dr. Hamid Alibašić, Vice-Dean and Professor at the  Economics Faculty in Brčko;

–           Dr. Edina Bećirević,  Professor at the Faculty of Criminal Justice in Sarajevo and President of Atlantic Initiative;

–           H.E. Jan Braathu, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Norway in BiH;

–           Mićo Mićić, Mayor of Bijeljina;

–           Ambassador Fuad Šabeta, Chief of the Department for Peace and Security at the BiH Ministry of Foreign Affairs;

–           Momir Brajić, Section Chief for NATO and the Partnership for Peace;

–           Svetlana Krstic, Chairwoman of the Bijeljina Youth Center.

Dr. Bećirević informed audiences in Brčko and Biljeljina about AI’s history and activities in BiH, and explained the organization’s mission as one of “encouraging broad social dialogue on security topics related to Euro-Atlantic integration.”

“We also want to inform the public and increase knowledge about Euro-Atlantic processes and NATO membership,” she stated.

Norwegian Experience

{gallery}newsletters/13/5/2{/gallery}Ambassador Jan Braathu spoke at both roundtables about Norway’s experience as a NATO member.

“We consider that we best know and understand what our interests are. You in BiH also certainly know your interests best and do not want others to be making decisions on your behalf. We also consider that we can best care about our own security if we do so in cooperation with others. And by ‘others’ I mean all of our neighbors.

Ambassador Braathu said that Norway, as a small member country with fewer than five million inhabitants, wants to be able to influence its own security and future. “Norway wishes to be asked about all decisions, particularly those influencing our security and interests.”

The roundtables in Brčko and Biljeljina also addressed the topic of political and public support for BiH’s efforts to join NATO.

Ambassador Fuad Šabeta reported that the level of political and public support is high. “We truly have support from all political leaders, from the Presidency and Parliament in BiH. I know this because I’ve been working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since it was founded, and I can tell you that we’ve had the same priorities since late 1996, or 1997, when we started functioning together.”

Ambassador Šabeta also stated that the most recent polls indicate public support for NATO membership throughout BiH at 67.9%. “Seven or eight months ago public support was around 70%. In Republika Srpska it is currently 37.2%, which is also a very good result.”

Weapons reductions in BiH and the Western Balkans and regional cooperation were key topics for Momir Brajić.

“We have significantly reduced the presence of weapons in BiH and the former Yugoslavia and established an excellent level of trust,” Brajić said.  He also noted that at present the countries in the region have destroyed a total of 9,146 pieces of weaponry. “This relates to heavy weapons, artillery, helicopters, tanks, etc. This represented a major financial strain for all the countries, but it paid off in the end because the realization of this common goal was essential.”

The majority of participants at both roundtables were university and secondary school students. The roundtables were also attended by members of the Brčko district and Bijeljina municipality administrations.

Student Tomislav Gligorović from Brčko asked “why should BiH join NATO?”  Ambassador Braathu replied to his question, saying that “we wish you will also take part in the decision-making process when it comes to NATO’s future and how it will protect security throughout Europe. This refers to collective security, to our mutual safety. It is a fact that our mutual safety cannot be guaranteed at the someone else’s expense. We in Norway cannot feel safe if someone else somewhere in Europe feels less safe. That is why it is important for all the countries of the former Yugoslavia to be included in the NATIO integration process.”

A question posed by Srđan Abadžić in Biljeljina related to political will in Republika Srpska regarding NATO accession. Abadžić wanted to know if there were any alternatives to NATO membership. Momir Brajić explained that the “Serb member of the Presidency, Mr. Nebojša Radmanović, actively took part in all meetings and has given his full support for BiH’s integration within NATO. I personally forwarded a letter signed by Mr. Radmanović, when BiH applied for MAP, for candidate status in NATO, and I don’t think that the politics of the main leaders in BiH, of the leading political parties in Republika Srpska, will have changed in this aspect. There may be different ideas about the path toward NATO, about the time-frame, but I believe that strategically speaking, there is no alternative to this process at the moment.”

More Public Information

Nevena Todorović, a student participant in Bijeljina, directed one of her questions to Ambassador Braathu. Todorović wanted to know how much NATO membership costs and whether BiH can afford membership.

“Membership is for free,” Ambassador Braathu clarified. “What you pay to NATO are running costs, and I am sure that BiH can afford these costs and that NATO membership would not cause an increase in costs for BiH. Additionally, there is aid which you get from NATO membership, but it ultimately all boils down to not asking how much you have spent, but how intelligently you have spent this money. NATO has developed methodologies and spending systems which are shared with all alliance members.”

The roundtable discussants strongly emphasized that BiH is well on its way toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration as it has already fulfilled many of the criteria for NATO membership.  It is imperative that BiH continue to build on the progress which has been achieved.  BiH’s neighbors also support these processes since it is not in the region’s interest that BiH “remain an isolated island.”

An important conclusion of the roundtables was that citizens of BiH should be better informed about the processes of Euro-Atlantic integration and the kind of economic opportunities and improvements such integration can provide.

Text and photo: Velma Šarić, Adnan Avdagić (Sarajevo) and Svetlana Krstić (Bijeljina)