Much has been said about how complicated Bosnia and Herzegovina’s governance structure is. We hear this over and over again: ‘It was only meant to be a short-term solution’. Those who stayed, those who returned, are leaving (again), and it has become increasingly hard to find one single person who has hope that these complicated and malfunctioning governing structures will ever change (without further violence).
It was 2014 when BiH gained the Guardian’s spotlight with an interesting article, meant at ‘explaining’ the country’s system of government prior to elections, and questioning whether one could argue it was the ‘world’s most complicated’. What makes it worth of that title is the not just the awkward entities, but also its massive public sector. It is frankly a lot easier to read an explanatory article, or the Wikipedia page devoted to it, and make sense of it, but living it is a completely different story. It is hard to write a limited list of practical examples of how corrupted and frustrating the public sector can be, but here are some examples on why I think BiH’s public sector’s operation and size is abusive, and does not leave people with second thoughts of escaping it:
- The public sector is extremely corrupt. Most cases of corruption reported in BH are related to bribes for securing employment. When such instances do not involve money, they sure do involve a large-scale nepotism or party based network. Apart from employment, corruption affects citizens in almost all imaginable ways, whether it is related to someone wanting to start a business, or getting married.
- People in Bosnia and Herzegovina pay large taxes on very small salaries, which in turn funds a highly extensive public sector. Public sector employees often abuse their power. They are rude to people. They make an insane amount of mistakes on official documents (which can’t be used). They misinform the public, or simply do not know the information. As it happened to me personally, if you are a woman and your shoulders are visible, you will not even be allowed to enter the local government’s building. (Apparently it applies to men as well, though they seem to be allowed to enter when their trousers are falling down and their underwear is fully exposed!).
- You need an insane amount of documents to get something done, and these documents do not only take a long time to collect (from all relevant bodies), but they can also leave a massive hole in your wallet. Imagine you work in the private sector, officially 8 hours a day, but practically more, on 500 BAM (250 E) a month. It is beyond my understanding how these people find the time to get all of this documentation (given most work from 9-5 when the offices are open). Most times documents need to be either original or legalised copies. Copies need to be legalised even if you present originals. If you give a statement and sign it, this document needs to be legalised. It does not suffice that your document is original, and your signature is clearly visible on your ID card as well. Only few municipalities will legalise copies for free. For the rest, it’s anything over 3 BAM. A notary will even charge 7 BAM. Getting original documents also costs. And all that paper….On a side note, with the hundreds of copies I’ve had to legalise, hardly any public employee has ever looked at my original documents, or their contents, before putting their stamp on them. Could it be worse? Yes, they can legalise a signature with the person forgetting to actually sign a statement.
- What would the chances be that the public servant you need to deal with cannot understand their native language (the more technical words usually used on official documents that they deal with on a daily basis)? It did happen to me, not after a long time dealing them, but in one of the first occasions.
- On other occasions witnessed by many, those whose job is to provide information will get really angry at you for disturbing them, and possibly yell or tell you off for daring to do that. You might even get told to come back at a later time…because you’ve upset them, and they can’t deal with you any more.
- Schedules…sometimes, working hours with the public will be restricted to specific times, for example 9:00-1:00pm, 3:30-4:30 pm. There most likely won’t be an information desk to call outside of those hours. Most likely too, you might not get the right information on the phone, or in person for that matter. Things can get very confusing when two or more people give you different or conflicting information. If you are late 1 day or a couple of hours, you will be fined, because that is the law. If you are early (as it has happened to me very recently) they might get angry and upset with you and ask ‘Did you really have to come today?!?! Couldn’t you have come next week?!?!’. At this point you will realise that you cannot comment on that, even in the most polite way, because if you do, they can refuse to help you, and there is nothing more you can do about it.
- Asking you for more documents than legally required, so you can spend more money and waste more paper, and refusing to proceed if you do not comply. Just because they can.
- Asking irrelevant personal questions to provide you with documentation or information. i.e: Why do you need this? You are doing what? Why would you do that? i.e: Why don’t you get married? i.e: You’re 27?! And you’re not married?!?! On the other hand, if you need to provide a public servant with an explanation you might be stopped: ‘Why are you telling me that, tell me yes, or no’ .Most likely though, they will then ask you to come by their office 3-4 more times, so that they ask you follow-up questions whose answers you wanted to provide the first time around. Because surely you have all the time in world, right? It would after all be much more convenient for them to tell you to come over more often, paying money on transport, and wasting a lot of time, than them not having their coffee or cigarette in the very moment they feel like it. Or just having a less busy day.
- Asking you to meet with public officials for an urgent ‘interview’ in the middle of nowhere, in a village bar (while at work also) to ask you questions whose answers were never even recorded, while having a glass of spiced herb rakija (and later driving!)
- Finally given all of this, how unfair this whole thing is. Those employed in the public sector, as mentioned briefly above, will have their salaries paid by citizens, and they get paid even up to 4 times more. Then when you need their help, they will make you pay again to do their job (as in providing you with documents). In exchange for all of this, chance are you will be treated like a little piece of rubbish, yelled at, and potentially not helped at all with what you need. I remember discussing this with a friend; they confessed they did mention this to one unhelpful employee, and what followed next was not someone getting a tad angry, but a full-blown storm of a confrontation that required others to intervene. It is very strange to witness such a sense of superiority and such a strong feeling of security from BiH’s public officials, as if no attitude or abuse can ever be punished, and to also see how their position gives them so much power that no matter what they do, they will keep their jobs, their salaries, and the status quo.
Every person in BiH will have such a story to tell, and I do not think people here are in any way happy to go through this insane bureaucracy and disrespect. It is hard to imagine how beyond the incompetence, corruption, and abuse, the complexity of these structures have dragged such a heavy system for such a long time. With a shrinking tax-paying base, as a result of the emigration, but also the fact that if you make a lot of money and are friends with people with power, you can skip paying the taxes, who will then fund it?