Dare to dream – lessons from Sarajevo in times of war and peace

Felix Martin's "Real Money" column.

Survivors of the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica look at the photographs of those who died. Photograph: Getty Images

Don’t dream dreams.” That was the infamous advice dispensed by David Owen to the people of the besieged city of Sarajevo during one of his missions there in 1992. Don’t believe that the outside world will save you; don’t imagine that there really is such a thing as an international community – let alone that it will guarantee your human rights. Every time I visit Sarajevo, as I did a few weeks ago, I am reminded of Lord Owen’s chilling warning; of Sarajevo’s magnificent refusal to heed it; and of the many profound lessons that beautiful city still has to teach the world.

In the two decades since Lord Owen’s visit, Sarajevo has had three distinct periods. First, there was the war. For nearly four years between 1992 and 1996, a city of 400,000 people one hour’s flying time from Vienna was subjected to shelling, starvation and a relentless campaign of terror from a vicious and well-equipped army dug into the hills encircling the city. The outside world temporised as more than 11,500 civilians were killed.

So desperate was the Bosnian government that it resorted to releasing thieves and murderers from Sarajevo’s jails to man its defences. The great criminals were up on the hills, however, hoping that the living hell they had created would turn the city’s multiconfessional population against one another and so produce the rationale that their monstrous actions lacked. But Sarajevo did not crack. Like Londoners during the Blitz, Sarajevans understood instinctively that allowing the war to destroy their communal lives and their basic humanity would mean that the aggressors had won.

Everyone who knows the city has a story that captures its spirit of resistance. My favourite is from my friend Haris Pasovic – one of Yugoslavia’s star theatre directors, who crossed the front line to return to Sarajevo in the first months of the siege and promptly organised an international film festival. “You’re crazy,” a UN official objected, “holding a film festival in the middle of a war!” “What do you mean?” Pasovic replied, pointing up at the hills. “These people are crazy, holding a war in the middle of a film festival.”

When the siege finally ended in 1996, another phase in Sarajevo’s existence began. As part of the Dayton Peace Accords, an international civilian administration was established in the city alongside the Nato military presence. The idea was that as Nato enforced the peace, the so-called Office of the High Representative would bring democracy and dev - elopment to Bosnia, aided by an alphabet soup of other international organisations.

A generation of well-meaning young Europeans descended on Sarajevo, allegedly to teach its citizens about global best practice in good governance, economic development and human rights. They were there to facilitate what was in those days vaguely invoked as “transition”. This implied moving from A – presumably the idiosyncratic, pre-war, Yugoslav system of socialist self-management – to B, presumably a western-European style liberal democracy and market economy. None of the new arrivals knew much about A, however; and as most were either diplomats or fresh out of graduate school or both, few knew much about B, either. I should know: I was one of them.

The results were mostly farcical. We fresh-faced apostles set about attempting to convert the natives to the Good News of anti-corruption initiatives, evidence-based policymaking and good governance. Our main tool was the interminable incantation of bureaucratic development jargon every bit as impenetrable as the overblown newspeak of the old socialist regime. To top it all, there even was another benevolent dictator – the high representative – to replace Tito.

A decade before the postwar debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq exposed at terrible cost the deficiencies of overambitious international interventions, Sarajevo showed just how counterproductive attempting to establish a “government of leading strings” run by latter-day liberal imperialists could be. Once again, it was my friend Haris Pasovic who summed up this second lesson from Sarajevo best when he complained to me that people had been much better off under Tito. “Ah, yes,” I said, “but that was during the cold war. The Americans were paying for that.” “The Americans are paying for this, too,” was his deadpan response, “and let me tell you: it’s much worse . . .”

Today, the international circus has moved on. Sarajevo has returned to what it once was, the provincial capital of a small Mediterranean country. It may be an enchantingly beautiful city, rich in the cultural heritage of two great empires and four great religions – but it hardly seems the sort of place that has any lessons for us in the UK any more.

After my recent visit, I am not so sure. Like much of eastern Europe, the destination of Bosnia’s transition proved to be an often ugly combination of asset-stripping oligarchs with a dishevelled and demotivated state. The standard of living has fallen for much of Bosnia’s ageing population for most of the past 20 years. And yet, the ideal of a civil society clings tenaciously on.

I wonder if we in the UK will manage to do as well. The economic and social starting points for us are vastly different but the trajectory is not entirely dissimilar. When I lived in Sarajevo, many diplomats never wasted an opportunity to lecture the locals on the poor job they were doing of facing up to their reduced circumstances. Fortunately for Sarajevo’s citizens, they had long ago learned to ignore improvident warnings against dreaming dreams. Life – as one discovers under siege – is made of little else. As we enter the sixth year of what looks increasingly like a lost decade for the UK economy, I hope that is one more lesson we can learn from Sarajevo.

Felix Martin is a macroeconomist and bond investor. His book “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Bodley Head, £20) is out in June