Career & Education

Oliver Štoffa reports about his mind-moving experiences during his exchange semester in Sarajevo.

“But seriously, why did you guys come to study here? Even my grandma couldn’t believe that…” was the question followed by a horse-laugh of my two Bosnian classmates, interrupting work on our school assignment for a good few minutes. This burst of emotions left me thinking, although I had to get used to clarifying this conundrum as a daily routine during my exchange semester in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the autumn 2014.

After spending one awesome Erasmus semester in Finland, I could not simply sit still without trying to find my way to another international experience. Although the range of possibilities was pretty wide, nothing seemed more attractive and challenging than the beauty, temperament and chaos of Western Balkans – the labels I had in my mind before and during my stay, and I could use them without big adjustments even today. My patience-testing quest for classes held in English turned out to be a fine filter resulting in a single choice – Faculty of Economics at University of Sarajevo. Here comes my first advice for potential followers: It is never too early to start researching about course offers. Yet it doesn’t give you any guarantee that during the first month of your stay you won’t be coming back from your faculty unsure about courses you can take. For some of my friends it turned out to be quite frustrating, because they weren’t even sure whether they could participate in their exchange programmes.

My first encounters with the city, its people and culture were well guided by my awesome Bosnian flatmate, who made it hard for me to imagine a better start of the exchange. Instantly submerged into joys and troubles of local life, I learned very soon what makes people fall in love with Sarajevo, and, on the other hand, what makes many want to leave.

Already before my arrival, he had been a great help for us to find a common accommodation – a cosy apartment near the very centre of the city. In general, it is relatively easy to find a decent place to live for any time period, sometimes with the only obstacle being the language barrier. With student dorms rumoured not to be in the best shape and with rather strict curfew, most exchange students opt for private apartments.

The first two weeks before the semester began were dedicated to our orientation consisting of miscellaneous trips and activities arranged by Erasmus Student Network (ESN) Sarajevo. Together with an intensive Bosnian language course it formed a rather tight schedule with a strong team-building effect, as the total count of exchange students was not more than twenty. The fledgling branch of ESN seemingly having more members than that certainly had a tough role entertaining our small, rather untypical ‘Erasmus cohort’. Sadly, after the very intensive start only few of them had spare time for their realization within ESN and besides one or two short trips, our contact with them was limited to hanging out at dinner parties or bars. Yet, to my knowledge, they have been making certain progress in balancing their workforce and activities.

The less can be more, and so it was with our ESN caretakers. Some have become closely connected to us, as it in general goes easily with warm and welcoming personalities of locals in Bosnia.

What people also treasure about the ambience of the local culture is the relaxed lifestyle based on abundance of coffee and cigarettes, where probably the only legitimate reason to hurry somewhere is warm burek (pastry stuffed with beef) or its variants with cheese, potatoes, etc. I am not sure, if I ever met anyone who wouldn’t love these gems of local cuisine, unless calories set priorities.

So what keeps locals fit enjoying dangerously tasty greasy pastries while sports are not really a part of daily grind? “We have a lot of stress with our authorities and all the bureaucracy, that’s where most of our energy goes to” I once heard somewhere.

Bosnian bureaucracy. That was a big pain also for us foreigners, as many of us agreed that we hadn’t seen it on such ridiculous levels anywhere else. Not to get lost in verified copies of verified documents needed for verification of copies of other verified documents proved to be sometimes quite challenging. On the other hand, the detailed requirements for residence permit made me feel confident that I did not bring HIV into Bosnia. Thank you, the ministry of foreign affairs.

When it all gets too frustrating, you just have a cigarette. No matter where you are. That is why, unfortunately, one must simply forget about tolerance for non-smokers.

I could discourse on pages describing the beauty of diverse nature of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Having my mountain bike with me, I was lucky to discover many marvels in the mountains literally surrounding the city. Besides that, most of the country situated in Dinaric Alps gives ideal opportunities for various trips, even if you are free only on weekends. The luckier ones will appreciate the proximity of other, normally only difficult accessible Balkan countries.

Although I can’t say that this experience makes me want to spend my life in Sarajevo, I do believe that only few places in Europe offer such an interesting and diverse exchange semester. And such good burek.


Campus Europe Goes BalkansVideos

Some people argue that Bosnia & Herzegovina is the most complicated country in the world – for us, it was at least one of the most interesting ones!

Travelling from Belgrade to Tuzla, Bosnia’s multicultural city in the North, to its capital Sarajevo and back eastwards to the Republika Srpska, we experienced the many different faces of the country.

Bosnia – a country caught between three national groups with three different religions, divided socially and politically, but still with vibrant centres and the hope for a better future.

But well. Just have a look yourself!

Campus Europe Goes Balkans

by Admir Čavalić

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country with 4 million people, located in the heart of the Balkan region, sharing borders with Croatia in the West and North, with Serbia in the East, and with Montenegro in the South.

It has a very rich history in which we had Illyrian and Slavic tribes, the Roman Empire, Bogomil heretics with their Bosnian Church, several Bosnian kings, the arrival of the Ottoman Empire and the spread of Islam in Europe. Afterwards the Austro-Hungarian Empire, followed by the beginning of World War I in Sarajevo, the birth of the Yugoslav state, then World War II with Partisans fighting in hilly Bosnia, later communist Yugoslavia with its charming dictator, in 1992 the declaration of independence. But also the start of the four-year war with the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995. Since then and until today – the era of transition and Euro-Atlantic integrations.

The political complexity

What makes Bosnia and Herzegovina politically so interesting is the complex administrative-territorial system of the country. Basically there is a state-level government with three presidents, under which there are two entities with their governments, and as a third part a district called Brčko. The first entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina covers 51% of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina and is mostly populated by Bosniaks (mostly members of the Islamic religion) and Bosnian Croats (mostly members of the Catholic religion). The Federation is further divided into ten cantons (following the Swiss model), where each canton has its own government and budgets. Cantons are formed by cities and municipalities.

The other entity is called Republic of the Srpska and is accounting for 49% of the territory and is mainly inhabited by Bosnian Serbs (mostly Orthodox religion). Unlike the Federation, which is highly decentralized, the Republic of Srpska is centralized and below the entity government there are only cities and municipalities.

Finally, the Brčko District is independent of two entities and is often referred to as a Hong Kong of Balkans. All in all, the above-described structure implies that we have a total of 14 governments, 13 Prime ministers and 136 ministers. The head of the state is made by three presidents, each of the three constituent nations by the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats).

Economic paradoxes

The political complexity of Bosnia and Herzegovina is further forced by frequent political conflicts that are mainly inspired by nationalism. This leads to the country’s economy being totally ignored, and the existence of some remarkable paradoxes. Regarding the labour taxation for example, Bosnia and Herzegovina is among the first in the World (on 100 euros, the state takes 72 euros). This is one of the reasons why the country is the world’s record holder in youth unemployment, with a rate of 57.9% of young people unemployed. There are also lots of other problems of course, from the labor market and tax policy to bad legislation and business conditions. Let us add that the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are the least economically free in Europe, and on the 97th place worldwide on rankings by Index of Economic Freedom.

However, one sphere of economy is among the healthiest in Balkans. At the same time it is the only sphere that local politicians do have no control of. It is the monetary sphere, ie, printing money. The local currency called the convertible mark (BAM) is pegged to the euro through the Currency Board. Bosnia does thus not have the ability to control its currency, which is therefore extremely stable and always worth 1.95 against the euro (1 euro is 2 KM). Interestingly, the currency uses the name „mark“ because during the war the German mark became the dominant currency of confidence among various nations.

EU integrations

Where we can be optimistic and hopeful for Bosnia and Herzegovina is the determination of its citizens to join the European Union as a full member, and to integrate further with NATO, too. Therefore, the ultimate political goal of any political party, regardless of whether they are left or right, moderate and extreme, is the European Union. The level of support among citizens is incredibly high, with more than 80% of citizens supporting EU membership. Therefore, the 2015 is often called the year of reforms for Bosnia and Herzegovina, because this year we signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, but also started serious reforms within the framework of the so-called reform agenda which was created with the help of EU.

The aim of the reforms is the liberalization and deregulation of the domestic economy, and the reduction of fiscal liabilities with the of increase fiscal discipline and privatization of the rest of commanding heights of the Bosnian economy. Ruling political parties that are center-right are working on this, although the unions and the public are often opposed.

In the long term, the vision is that Bosnia and Herzegovina becomes a competitive EU mini-states that will offer its relatively cheap and skilled labor force, but also actively compete with their companies in the European internal market. Even today, many Bosnian companies are doing subcontracting work for multinationals and EU companies. By joining the EU this trend will increase, and we will further work on economic integration as a long-term condition for peace and prosperity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as generally on the Balkans.