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Advancing Unity in the Aftermath of War – Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Mid-1990s

Foreign service officers typically must demonstrate adaptability and proactivity to accomplish their missions smoothly and effectively, but sometimes they find themselves thrust into circumstances where they must take their capacity to adapt and develop innovative, proactive solutions to the next level.

Dayton Agreement, 24 November 1995 : (Bosnia and Herzegovina). (1995) United States Central Intelligence Agency | Library of Congress Geography and Map Division
Dayton Agreement, 24 November 1995 : (Bosnia and Herzegovina). (1995) United States Central Intelligence Agency | Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

Razvigor Bazala found himself in such circumstances during his service as Public Affairs Officer (PAO) with the United States Information Agency (USIA) in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the mid-1990s, after four years of armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia. There, he would face the challenging task of advancing Bosnian national unity in the deeply divided country following the Dayton Accords, the negotiations that had arranged for the end of the armed hostilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

One of the initial challenges confronting Bazala during his service in Sarajevo was the need to work with Bosnians to help mitigate the interethnic strife that had sparked immense violence following Yugoslavia’s breakup, with the object of helping Bosnian civil society institutions begin to regain stability and vibrancy. Bosnian teachers looked to Bazala for assistance in developing a fresh civic education program to teach high school students about the rule of law and norms of governance in a democratic society. Bazala also worked with Bosnian media outlets to promote independent journalism that would strive for objectivity. Helping Bosnian media with its transition into the post-communist environment would require cooperation among reporters, media editors, and broadcasters throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a significant degree of patience, determination, and mutual understanding.

The excerpts included in this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History” illustrate how Bazala rose to these challenges in such a way that his performance evaluation upon his departure referred to him as a “hero.” With the aid of the Center for Civic Education (CCE), Bazala helped arrange a successful training program for Bosnian teachers, providing insights that paid dividends in the students’ positivity and understanding toward the civic principles relating to democratic governance. Furthermore, Bazala engaged with media editors and private broadcasters of Bosnian television to incentivize them to maintain reporting standards that would be free from outside control and bias, as well as, in the case of the television broadcasters, to encourage them to air certain programs in common. Bazala’s efforts ultimately helped bring about the establishment of the Open Broadcast Network (OBN) that fulfilled the aim of securing a Bosnian television network that would be national in scope.

Throughout his time addressing these issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bazala repeatedly demonstrated the adaptability and proactivity needed to achieve the goals of his service as a public affairs officer. Even though his career took him across the world, he found himself returning repeatedly to the Balkans—serving in Belgrade, Yugoslavia from 1979 to 1982, in Skopje, North Macedonia in 1994, in Belgrade, Serbia in 1997, and in Pristina, Kosovo in 2000, as well as serving in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1995 to 1996, in 1997 and 1998, and from 1999 to 2000.

Razvigor Bazala’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on July 19, 2011.

Read Razvigor Bazala’s full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s check our moments about the Dayton post-conflict reconstruction, the moral dilemma of refugees, the horrors of the Balkan war, the collapse of Yugoslavia, and the Dayton Peace Accords.

Drafted by Evan Clark

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Excerpts:
“We spent much time just touching base with people on the ground and this put a significant segment of the Bosnian population, its educators, into direct contact with American civilians, which I think was very useful and important in the immediate post-war period.”

Furthering Civic Education:
BAZALA: The overarching core issue immediately after the signing ceremony in Paris was whether the Dayton Accords had any chance of minimizing interethnic hatreds in Bosnia, which it was impossible to eliminate, to a level at which institutions of civil society could be re-established and prevail. To that end, one of the first things I was involved in was developing a civic education program for Bosnian high schools at the request of Bosnian teachers who realized the country was on the cusp of major political and economic changes but had little comprehension of what that entailed.

They all knew about the conduct of elections, of course, but nothing about the substance of the electoral process, which in Yugoslavia was employed over four decades only to reaffirm communist authority. So the teachers were interested in learning about what was required to establish an environment in which election results did not degenerate into armed hostility against the parties elected [to] form a government, but rather motivated unsuccessful parties to prepare to campaign for the next election as in Great Britain or the U.S. for example. To reach that point after what Bosnia had just endured would require much hard work. The mindset of an entire generation would have to be radically readjusted.

To advance that cause, USIA offered me the assistance of the Center for Civic Education [CCE] in Calabasas, California which had conducted civic education programs in American schools over the past several decades and was prepared to assist in promoting democratic norms through civics courses in Bosnia’s secondary schools. Our objective was to teach teachers to teach the courses rather than trying to conduct civic education classes ourselves. In February 1996 CCE had a group of ten American teachers come out to train a group of Bosnian secondary school teachers from various regions of the country that we had hand picked. They focused on teaching principles of democratic governance, the rule of law and tolerance.

That initial small-scale program was enormously successful. It was not easy to arrange, however, when intercity communication in Bosnia was still very tenuous. You couldn’t make phone calls between cities. Without cell phones or the Internet widely available we had to venture out into the country and meet people face to face. We spent much time just touching base with people on the ground and this put a significant segment of the Bosnian population, its educators, into direct contact with American civilians, which I think was very useful and important in the immediate post-war period. I consider that the American teachers were real heroes, making pioneering efforts to deal with challenging circumstances in Bosnia’s early post-war days.

The CCE program started with five American two-teacher teams working with Bosnian teachers from five cities. We tried to get Serbs involved and eventually were able to encourage two to join us in Sarajevo. They received a warm round of applause from the Sarajevo Bosniaks when they entered the training room several minutes after the program began. Getting into Sarajevo was a significant challenge for them early in 1996. After week-long training sessions our teams of trainers followed the teachers back into their classrooms where we found student receptivity to the ideas that their teachers were presenting just overwhelming. Their open-mindedness made the American teachers and me very optimistic about the prospects for introducing democratic governance in Bosnian politics right away. The kids got the point about a democratic electoral process involving tolerance of the view of others.

I anticipated back then that if every Bosnian secondary student learned about the basics of democratic governance under the rule of law, politics in Bosnia might look much different a decade later. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case even though CCE continued to conduct an increasing number of civic education seminars across the country for the next several years including in the Serb Republic. It became clear that the electorate continued to vote for candidates on the basis of ethnicity rather than their commitment to governing Bosnia as a unified society. While I found that deeply disappointing, I was not naïve enough to regard that outcome as unexpected. There are forces in any society that motivate voting behavior more strongly than a few civics courses in high school. I just hope the substance of CCE’s program remains part of the educational system in Bosnia. Someday a large enough segment of the electorate may get the message and vote accordingly.

“We understood that local equivalents of the Times of London or the New York Times would not spring up overnight. . . . . Attempting to reshape post–communist media was a major challenge and the transition was difficult.”

           
Heavily damaged buildings in the Sarajevo neighborhood of Grbavica in March 1996
Heavily damaged buildings in the Sarajevo neighborhood of Grbavica in March 1996

Motivating Media Objectivity:
BAZALA: In addition to democratic governance under the rule of law, U.S. policy objectives dictated that USIA develop programs to influence public attitudes towards tolerance and freedom of expression. Among the first things I did was meet with as many media editors and reporters as I could and selected from among them individuals who I thought would be the most promising participants in the International Visitors Program that would take them to the U.S. for between three and six weeks. We hoped they would return with fresh ideas and enhanced skills to reshape media production and content in Bosnia.

USIA media exchange programs in all post-communist European nations involved people with no previous journalistic experience who were being hired by newly formed newspapers, radio, and television stations across the region. We also developed programs for visiting American media experts to Sarajevo, some of whom remained in the field for several months, to provide media personnel technical knowledge and an understanding of the functions of independent media in a democratic society.

USIA also used SEED funds to provide grants to people interested in establishing independent radio and television outlets. Across Eastern Europe there emerged a good mix of non-nationalist stations that aired programs similar to broadcasting on public media in the U.S. At the same time, it was interesting to see how rapidly advocacy media emerged in these countries. A number of media outlets represented the views of specific political groups, promoted their agendas, and sought to enlist public support for their views and ideas among like-minded people. While they were technically free and independent, their coverage of internal events was not objective and they could not be considered reliable providers of unbiased public information. We understood that local equivalents of the Times of London or the New York Times would not spring up overnight. For one thing, championing media independence and objectivity were not the top priorities of the firms that advertised with them. Government media of course supported the agendas of the political leadership which colored their coverage. Attempting to reshape post–communist media was a major challenge and the transition was difficult.

In encouraging the emergence of freedom of expression in Bosnia I let editors and producers know that USIA’s objective was not to restrict the content they produced. If I provided a grant to media that did not adhere to a few general standards, unbiased reporting covering all sides of a story, for example, I could terminate what generally were one-year grants that did not exceed twenty-five thousand dollars. It was not USIA’s objective, however, to have media it funded tow a U.S. government policy line. Certainly PAOs and information officers in the field could convey concerns about the scope and nature of coverage to the media organizations USIA funded. Just reminding them that USIA resources were limited and that I had other priorities generally was all that was necessary to keep grantees from wandering too far off the reservation.

“The idea of a network held, . . . and eventually the Office of the High Representative [OHR] . . . picked up on the idea and expanded it into something called the Open Broadcast Network [OBN] that reached across the entire country. It was privatized in 2000. I was just pleased to have played a substantive role in getting the ball rolling toward that objective.”

Providing the Groundwork for a National Television Network:
BAZALA: I considered the establishment of a national television network another activity that could promote the emergence of a unified Bosnian state and devoted considerable attention to that objective beginning during my first days in Sarajevo in November 1995. I discussed a range of ways it might be achieved with media representatives across the country eventually including one in Banja Luka. Government TV was not the answer. During the war, the facilities of Yugoslavia’s state radio and television network fell under the control of local authorities in Sarajevo and virtually no Serbs tuned in. Furthermore, Serb shelling had knocked out most of its transmission towers, limiting the reach of its signal.

A month after implementation of the Dayton Accords began, it was impossible to think of a single national television network covering the entire country with a simultaneous signal available to affiliates in cities around the country. My initial idea was to encourage the private television broadcasters that had popped up in Tuzla, Mostar, Sarajevo, and Banja Luka in the RS [Republika Srpska] to consider airing a portion of each others’ local productions to give viewers current and accurate images of developments elsewhere in the country. In the early post-war period my idea of a network involved little more than carrying videotapes from one station to the next with the idea of providing Bosnians a broader picture of events across the country.

The idea did not take hold, however, largely because private broadcasters in the major cities knew very little about each other and had very limited production capabilities. By the end of that winter my thinking changed as the situation on the ground evolved rapidly. Things had moved far beyond the primitive notion of a network based on videotapes bicycled among independent broadcasters. USIA’s International Visitor Program had already taken a number of radio and TV production personnel from different broadcasters who happened to participate in the same programs to the U.S. This increased professional capabilities at several stations and helped establish links among them.

In early spring, leveling the playing field among them became my top priority. I proposed that SEED funds be used to provide grants that would offer five stations equal packages of contemporary audio and video equipment, which I thought would make them willing to commit to interaction and the sharing of video productions. Washington experts proposed a modest fifty thousand dollar package of equipment suitable for each station. On a lovely warm and sunny Sunday in May at a restaurant overlooking the Neretva River in Mostar, owners of the five stations and I gathered over lunch to conclude an agreement committing them to cooperate in the production of programs that they all would air in return for the grants of equipment I provided them. The owners, all with differing views, perceptions, and attitudes on how to go about this, agreed on a basic document within a couple of hours, but by the time I got back to Sarajevo to put it in final form, it had already become a source of contention among them. While all the equipment my grants provided was immediately put to good use, there was little subsequent evidence that the stations were cooperating in program production.

The idea of a network held, however, and eventually the Office of the High Representative [OHR], the ad hoc international institution that to this day (2014) serves as ultimate civilian government authority in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, picked up on the idea and expanded it into something called the Open Broadcast Network [OBN] that reached across the entire country. It was privatized in 2000. I was just pleased to have played a substantive role in getting the ball rolling toward that objective.

I departed Bosnia after the September 1996 elections and returned to Washington a “hero,” according to my performance evaluation. Hero though I may have been, the title did not immediately facilitate getting an onward assignment. While the director of the European division promised me I could have whatever assignment I wanted, assignments had already been made to posts I was interested in. With Sylvia [Razvigor Bazala’s wife] in the middle of a domestic assignment at State, I decided to wait things out at home until the next overseas assignment cycle. Just a little over six months later, however, I was Brcko bound.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in History, Rutgers University 1961–1965
MA in International Studies, Johns Hopkins University 1965–1967
Joined the Foreign Service 1970
Belgrade, Yugoslavia—American Center, Director 1979–1982
Skopje, North Macedonia (Macedonia)—Public Affairs Officer 1994
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina—Public Affairs Officer 1995–1996
Belgrade, Serbia—USAID Survey Team, USIA Representative 1997
Brčko, Bosnia and Herzegovina—Office of the High Representative, Media Advisor 1997
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina—European Regional Public Affairs Officer 1998
Pristina, Kosovo—Regional Public Affairs Officer 2000