Much debate has taken place with regards to the economic and security implications of both EU and NATO membership for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Debates concerned with EU ascension have focused largely on economic affairs, whilst those for NATO membership are primarily concerned with security issues; however, security and economy are not without a certain degree of overlap.
Numerous projections have been made regarding the outcomes of these potential developments. However, many prominent business people in Vitez do not think that significant changes will take place.
Indeed, when asked about the consequences of Bosnia’s membership of the EU and NATO, the Assistant Chief of Entrepreneurship and Local Development and member of the Advisory Board of the company “Princip” Muhamed Rehibic, said he does not think there will be any significant changes.
He further explains that the company “Princip,” once a leading part of Yugoslavia’s military industry in producing explosives and fuses, ceased many of its activities leaving a third of Vitez’s population unemployed.
“Our technology is outdated, our plants destroyed. We lost our employees and it is simply impossible to return to our pre-war production levels. The situation becomes more difficult every day. It is hard to bring a dying man back to life,” says Rehibic.
The industry for military equipment used to be one of Yugoslavia’s leading branches of production, with annual export rates reaching billions of US dollars. Now there are only ten companies operating in the military sector within the Federation of BiH, employing a total of just 1,963 people.
The municipal council president, Tomislav-Bosnjak-Matic, also a former engineer at “Princip”, thinks that Bosnia and the municipality of Vitez must take a leading role in reviving such industries, but he has little confidence in their capacity to do so.
“Bosnia’s path to the EU is a long one. I’d be happiest if Bosnia was capable of taking matters into its own hands. We need to understand that no one will deal with our issues if we are not willing to do so ourselves. Surely NATO means security, but I do not support anyone coming into our own backyards and telling us what to do,” says Bosnjak-Matic.
Furthermore, Ismet Trako, the mayor’s Assistant of Civil Defence in Vitez, thinks that not even a NATO membership would result in the restoration of the same level of employment for “Princip” as before, adding however, that he believes at least a branch of “Princip” could be re-established in compliance with NATO requirements.
When it comes to security and BiH’s NATO membership, people in Vitez believe that much has been done in the past 20 years concerning reconciliation and intergroup relations, and the internal effects of NATO membership may thus be noticeable, but not transformative. “In a small, multi-ethnic city such as Vitez, NATO membership could definitely increase tolerance among its citizens. It is, however, not necessary, since a lot of work has already been done over the past 20 years towards reconciliation and reducing ethnic and religious tensions,” Trako points out.
According to the citizens of Vitez, joining NATO would be more of a psychological guarantee of peace and stability for Bosnia. No one wants another war, they simply want to live independently and peacefully.
It is not difficult to understand the public perception that NATO membership can create the preconditions for necessary economic stability and growth in foreign investment. Examples of other new NATO members have shown that the perception of security does, indeed, attract investment and lead to economic development.
Almin Jašarević, a manager at the furniture factory “Divan”, has not seen any significant short-term effects on the local community as a result of Bosnia’s potential NATO membership. He believes that in the long-run foreigners will recognize Bosnia’s potential and will start investing, regardless of membership. “In my business the most important things are prices and good furniture models. Europeans are only looking at price and quality. To them, it is not of much importance whether the country in which the company is operating belongs to NATO,” assesses Jašarević.
Vitez already has many foreign companies that are co-owned by domestic and foreign investors. Regardless, according to data from the Institute for Employment, out of a total of 26,000 inhabitants,, 4,353 citizens remain unemployed.
The general conclusion of businessman in Vitez is mixed. Some believe that domestic industries are mature enough and ready to compete in the foreign market, while others highlight Bosnia’s complex structure and situation as a primary contributing factor to industrial decline.
A common thread that links many of these diverse opinions, however, is that if Bosnia were to become a member of the EU, the process of competing in foreign markets would be significantly easier.