Sabina Ćudić: « It is a race against time »

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This interview is the first in our new series « New Faces ». Each month, Euro Creative will publish an interview with a rising political figure from Central and Eastern Europe. Euro Creative’s team thanks Sabina Ćudić for her participation. This interview was conducted by Ana Jovanović.

Ana Jovanović: Sabina Ćudić, it is a great pleasure to welcome you as our first guest for our new interview series called “New faces”. A series which aims at discussing with new and rising political figures from Central and Eastern Europe. As a starting point, I would like to introduce you to our readers. You were born in 1982 which makes you one of the first millennials to enter Bosnian politics. You have a very impressive resumé. You have a Bachelor from the US, Masters from Italy and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then you went on to teach at Sarajevo School of Science and Technology. You entered politics in 2012. And you are now elected to the Parliamentary Assembly, you are also President of the General Assembly of Naša Stranka, a rising political party in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is, I think, a very impressive career for someone who is so young, and you have done so much so far. Let me come back to the beginning, what was the moment when you decided to enter politics? What precisely encouraged you to take this step?

Sabina Ćudić: I should start by saying that I really, genuinely, never planned to join politics. I resisted it and I thought, because of my academic track, a lot of opportunities were possible. At that time, I believed it would be a more comfortable position to be an analyst, a commentator, kind of a public intellectual rather than taking on the public responsibility and joining politics and all the stigma that comes with it. So, like with many things in my life I think it was more defined by coincidences rather than by strict decisions and strategies. When you outline my CV, it seems so deliberate, but it is nothing like that. Anything – we need to have this in mind – happens as a result of things we did not plan. 

So, I came back to Sarajevo from the United States in 2005, I was teaching at the University, I just got a new apartment with my partner, now my husband. We were living in something like a residential area of Sarajevo. One day, in our street, I was passing-by a building and I saw what used to be a part of a cultural center being boarded-up. The windows were being boarded-up. And I discovered they were building an illegal casino in the middle of a residential area, right next to an elementary school, cultural centers, and so on. And I thought, this cannot be acceptable! I checked it, and really, truly, they were building a casino without permits, without anything. This is unfortunately common in the Balkans – the law of the stronger, the law of a kind of sheer force, not political force, but an alliance of both criminal force and all the others you can imagine. Then I did something instinctively, without necessarily thinking, I printed out hundreds of leaflets, and I called my two friends. Incognito we went in the middle of the night putting up posters all over the neighborhood informing our neighbors what was happening in our neighborhood. Then came lawsuits, threats and all kinds of things from the side of the casino, because they eventually found out who did it. I asked myself “Who can come to our rescue?” and I voted for Naša Stranka, which was at this time a tiny political party barely passing the threshold. 

I went to their local party meeting, unannounced, I just showed up, sat there and I said: “Hello, I voted for you ! How could you help me now? There is a casino chasing me and threatening my life?” They really rose to the occasion, and months later, they asked me to be their candidate for the municipal Mayor. At that time, I thought I could dedicate a month of my life, as a kind of thank-you note to them, to this campaign. But then once you get into politics you realize that, yes, there are issues that you care about, but there are so many more issues and they are so interconnected. And there are so many interest groups active in the public sphere while so many people who are on the verge of getting the life that they deserve, or getting the help they need, but they just need that little push of help. I thought in a country, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been in a permanent crisis for decades, avoiding public responsibilities is a luxury that I cannot afford. If I do have something to contribute with, if I do have some political talent, if I do have time and knowledge, then I have to do it! That was in 2011 – elections were in 2012 – so, it has been 10 years. In many ways these developments have been life changing for me, politics are life changing. All things that we dedicate our life to are life-changing, but politics are something special. 

Ana: Back to present. Now that your life has changed in such a tremendous way, you slowly gained momentum, you slowly gained power, and now you are an elected member of the Parliamentary Assembly. I know you have engaged in a number of issues from gender equality to more specific issues like the Pazarici affair. But if you had to choose 3 issues that you would like to tackle within your mandate, what would they be?

Sabina: First of all, let me start by saying that we have, and not many people know that – even Bosnian students cannot fully understand it – an incredibly complex system.  But, I won’t be able to demonstrate it in a couple of minutes. Just to illustrate, we are a country of approximately 3 million people. To show you how complex our political structure is: we have 13 Ministers of Education, 13 (!) and not a single national Ministry of Education. And imagine the number of the administration personnel… 

On my side, as you mentioned in the introduction, I am a member of the Federal Parliament. In my job, there is one particular issue that I have been working on for several years – even before joining the Federal Parliament – it is maternity leave. We, the Federation of BiH which represents 51% of the territory of BiH, we are the only region, the only administrative unit, in the entire Europe, that does not have regulated maternity leave. Here, maternity leave and its financing at the federal level is entirely up to the employer to decide whether or not he wishes to include it. Because there is no legal obligation for the state or for the employer to pay it… More specifically, for unemployed mothers there is no legal obligation to receive anything, literally nothing. So, what I have been working and pushing for is the creation of a kind of maternity fund at the federal level which would equalize the maternity pay for all women. As for now, the only privileged employed women in BiH are those who are working for the state. Because the state gives a full salary for the duration of the maternity leave. Hence, we have an incredibly complex administrative apparatus and privileges are all for – myself included – civil servants and members of the legislative bodies. And those privileges do not trickle down and are not reflected or shared with the rest of the population. It is amazing how little awareness there is about this in BiH and how little uprising there is from women. 

I am here to make women more angry about their position within the society. I am trying to raise awareness and to make them realize, comparatively to other parts of Europe, how much they are lacking in their own country.

In that regard, I wanted to say in relation to the pieces of legislation I am working on, besides the reform of the social welfare system, we still have very archaic institutions that no longer exist in most countries in Europe, and certainly in any of the European Union. That kind of isolated, closed type of institution where children with disabilities are kept. 

In addition, what I am working on is also to raise awareness among women about their own rights. I think it is more important to be aware of the rights you have rather than necessarily have those rights. It is terrible to have rights and not fully enjoy them. One example: the state is not even obliged to inform women about their maternity leave’s rights. So, if you go to the municipality, it is not their obligation to give you information about the rights you have. 

In that sense, I think it is one of the most important aspects of my work. I would put it bluntly, I am here to make women more angry about their position within the society. I am trying to raise awareness and to make them realize, comparatively to other parts of Europe, how much they are lacking in their own country. And it is not due to a lack of money, but to a lack of vision as well very strong patriarchal narratives that are still being perpetuated.

Ana: You are one of the most prominent figures of Naša Stranka, which is, as I said earlier, an innovative and rising political movement in BiH. Your party refuses to play by the ethno-nationalist game, which is so prevalent in Bosnian politics. Quotas, systems, origins, systems, etc… Could you tell us more about Naša Stranka and its main characteristics?

Sabina: When it comes to ideology, we are a social-liberal political party, but you have to look at it in a specific context which is Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Europe, we often say that our liberals would perhaps be considered as Marxists in the US. Considering how skewed their ideological line is in relation with the European definition of social democracy. In that regard, we are social-liberals because of BiH. 

We refuse two types of narratives. Not only the ethno-national narrative which came as a result of aggression, war and everything that happened in the Balkans in the early 1990s but we also refuse the narrative of Yugonostalgia. I am not saying that people are not nostalgic, my father for example is extremely yugonostalgic. I personally grew up in Sarajevo and I lived many years in Belgrade so I would have many reasons to be yugonostalgic as well. We all went to the coasts in Croatia, we all traveled across our big country, we were successful in sports and recognized in many different fields at the international level. However, we cannot rely today on two narratives of the past to lead us into the future. No matter how prevalent and powerful those narratives are. In many aspects, Naša Stranka is considered as the biggest enemy in BiH and we receive more hate than any other political party – which is disproportionate compared to our size. I would say that we are the biggest threat to the status quo and past oriented politics both in terms of Yugonostalgia and in terms of victimhood.

Why social-iberal? As I already said we are incredibly socially aware but at the same time we understand that the state is not necessarily the best enterprise in terms of owning businesses, managing those. And the past three decades showed the consequences of mismanagement for example as the level of corruption has been incredible. We are looking at new models that would provide greater individual freedoms in balance with collective rights. Naša Stranka’s orientation is deeply rooted in individual rights and human rights. We were the first ones, literraly the only party in BiH, already more than ten years ago supporting gay marriage. And we lost so many voters because of that. So we often do things at our own political expense. Because we perceive primarily ourselves as an emancipatory force which has the responsibility to deliver a sort of advent truth. 

Now, how to balance that with political growth? How to keep that attitude while at the same time having responsibility regarding political growth? It sounds easier than it is, but trust me it is a big challenge. However, people who do not agree with our ideas generally recognize how principled we are. Some of our voters even say “I turn a blind eye to some of your policies because they are too liberal for me but you are so anti-corruption and so principled that I am willing to vote for you considering who the other side is.” It is interesting and we are clearly surprised by who our voters are sometimes. They are not the stereotypes that we would imagine. A lot of people who do not necessarily fit into Naša Stranka’s mode and this is actually representing our emancipatory strength as Naša Stranka has the ability to expand the horizons of people. I am not demonizing people who do not agree with us, I think, in a country which has suffered so much, we need an incredible amount of empathy. Also with those who do not agree with us. 

Ana: You actually already partly answered our next question regarding the most important challenges you face both at personal level – you as a young politician and as a female – and at the party level which is trying to challenge the current state of affairs. Are there any other challenges you would like to mention other than these attacks from the media or political rivals as well as conservative backlash ? 

Sabina: As I said, we are a small country with many young and well-educated people leaving the country. In that sense, Naša Stranka has a big challenge! In many ways – I am trying not to sound too dramatic – it is a race against time to provide people enough reasons to stay and for us to recruit enough progressive, ambitious, educated and innovative people. You keep saying I am young, in politics maybe, but in real life I am not. I am now middle aged and I have lost some of my energy. I am still inspired to get up and do the job but I wish there would be more people in the room. In a sense that we need people with the spirit I had when I joined politics: at that time it seems to me that everything was possible. And then I understood what the procedures are, what the legislative procedures are, how many rounds of public discussions you need and then talks at the House of Representatives and then at the House of People, and so on… Sometimes in that process, you get exhausted and you are wondering “Will this ever end?”. This is the kind of question we all have and I think we should be more open about it. We need to talk openly about our personal and collective failures to create change in a timely manner. If something lasts seven years to produce, were those seven years lost? Could have it be done faster, sooner?

In many ways, there is a lot of sense of responsibility. I do feel an incredible amount of pressure… Not from the outside – I am really resistant to the outside pressure – but there is a lot of inner pressure. The type women are particularly keen to feel.

So I think the two main challenges for me are to inspire people and to secure more chairs in the room for women – this is what I always say. I need more women in the room! I need to see on the horizon who will come after me or together with me. This is such a small country which has so many issues. Negative aspects of BiH are being seen on a daily basis with very little to hope for. To create this inspiration is a daily challenge. And in many ways, there is a lot of sense of responsibility. I do feel an incredible amount of pressure… Not from the outside – I am really resistant to the outside pressure – but there is a lot of inner pressure. The type women are particularly keen to feel.

Ana: At the end of last year, we commemorated the 25th anniversary of Dayton Agreements. In that context, as you have been in politics for 10 years, you were not able to have any influence on post-Dayton politics. How do you see the situation now ? The first 15 years were crucial, but now we are standing in a landscape which is still difficult.

Sabina: The narrative we had in the past decades really leaves little room for imagination. Sadly, I believe imaginary potential has been taken away from us because there is always the looming threat of war. So if you say “Why cannot we think out of the box in terms of constitutional reforms?” you will be pushed back by people saying “Yes the constitution is not a perfect system, yes power sharing is not a perfect system however it stopped the war and we need to keep it in order to prevent the war from happening again.” And I think this is the biggest tragedy of the Dayton Agreements: taking away from our young generation the political imaginary potential. 

I do not believe that it is up to any generation by itself to create change. I think it is a very hypocritical position to say to young people: “We have screwed up so now you should fix it!” I was very upset when my professors were telling things like that in high school in Sarajevo in 1996 right after the war. There was this narrative among my teachers that the young generation was going to change the world. But I was thinking at that time “No you changed it, you did it, you changed Bosnia and Herzegovina, not us. We will help you but you cannot let us alone…”. I am not in favor of that narrative.

However, what I support is to think about the objective potential that BiH has. We are a tiny, geostrategically well-placed country with an incredible amount of natural resources from our forests and rivers. We also have a mobile and well-educated population which is able to improvise and find ways to survive without the help of any authority. On top of that, we have something which is often seen here as an obstacle: our diversity. Our children are writing both in cyrillic and latin alphabets, they are learning different languages as well. Of course, we can still argue if those languages are different languages or not, but still, it offers the possibility to work outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to go to Croatia, Serbia or anywhere in Europe. We are part of Europe, not members of the EU, but clearly part of Europe. 

I see Dayton as biodegradable, it can fall apart organically, not through political means, but it can fall apart when we build enough trust, when we will no longer need very strict quotas in terms of representatives.

When my friends are coming from the US, the UK or Germany, none of them are immune to recognize the incredible potential of BiH. In this small country, we can make a u-turn incredibly quickly. I am convinced that with three to four years of decent governance on both federal and national levels we can create a lasting change, despite Dayton. And I am not saying ‘because of Dayton’ but ‘despite Dayton Agreements’. And that does not mean that the Dayton Agreements do not need to be changed. But I believe that within this framework, people can have radically better lives. So yes, let’s give credits to Dayton where it is due, it stopped the killings, it stopped genocide, it stopped the war. It created a political system that caused an incredibly small amount or almost no backlash. There were no fighting after Dayton, there were no mass killings after Dayton, there were no terrorist attacks. Hence I see in Dayton a foundation for organizing a system and opening it up to the possibility of change in the future. I see Dayton as biodegradable, it can fall apart organically, not through political means, but it can fall apart when we build enough trust, when we will no longer need very strict quotas in terms of representatives.

In Naša Stranka, we do not have quotas, we do not count how many Serbs we have in our Presidency. It just happens that the President is a Serb and has three deputies, two of whom are Bosniaks and another one is Serb. Honestly, we only noticed it when other people pointed it out. When you look for quality and when you do your job decently, representation happens naturally. In that sense I see a potential space for change. But we need good elections’ results in order to have some experience in governing like we are doing right now in Sarajevo canton. But of course, when this opportunity occured, the pandemic happened. That is the story of Naša Stranka (laughs)… Once after ten years, you eventually get the opportunity for change then the world breaks apart. But overall I am optimistic about the possibility of change in my country. 

Ana: As someone who grew up here, it resonates! You obviously made interesting results during the last local elections (Autumn 2020). Next year, General elections are coming up, do you have any personal goals in that regard? What about your party? 

Sabina: Next year is incredibly important! Not just for Naša Stranka but for the whole country ! All the disappointment accumulated over these past years will erupt next year, politically, socially, economically. Personally, I feel an incredible amount of self-responsibility, not so much for my own personal political goals, but for organizing our party, our future coalition, working with parties which are not necessarily ideologically in line with us but which are dedicated enough to anti-corruption that we can create a kind of united front. Giving a real possibility for change in BiH!

There is a lot of international pressure as well from the outside for changes of pieces of legislation which are not necessarily in line with EU values. Hence creating resistance towards  outside and internal pressuring forces and at the same time managing the coalition: here are our objectives. And it is as complex as it sounds. Also, aftermaths of the pandemic have to be taken into consideration. All of that requires a great amount of planning but also some improvisation considering last year. It proves that not everything can be planned and that we need to learn and to adapt as we go. 

On top of that, my personal goal is in line with what I was saying before, getting new energy, attracting new people, giving them a space to make mistakes and to take us in another direction. Concretely, to challenge us the way I challenged people when I arrived in Naša Stranka. I think we constantly need an influx of people who say “We can do it”. Hence, bringing new energy is my personal goal in order to inspire and engage those who do not necessarily feel like belonging to this table. I guarantee: everybody belongs to this table when it comes to decision-making. This is something I will be working on this summer and leading into the next year. 

Ana: As we talked a lot about internal developments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I would like to focus for this last answer to external ones and especially to the EU. Are you confident about it? 

Sabina: Naša Stranka was unanimously voted as a member of ALDE. In many ways, we are ‘the darlings’ of the Liberals in Brussels because we are creating no trouble for them. They see how difficult it is in this context to promote the liberal agenda. In that sense, we do have kind of partners from abroad that, even in the context of non-papers emerging from Slovenia, manage to immediately come to support us with press conferences, meetings, declarations, etc. We got assurances from Brussels as well, we know we can get all the help we need from our friends. 

I think that in many ways – and I do not want to sound too philosophical but I must – we forgot to think about what kind of BiH we want. What is the best thing about us? What is it that makes you stay here? What inspires you or what do you miss when you leave? 

When it comes to BiH’s position, we have to think at another level. From all the daily things I do, I am sometimes forgetting to think about the bigger picture. What are we working towards? What kind of country do we want in terms of values? We cannot just refer to which piece of legislation we need or how we should elect members of the House of Peoples. I think that in many ways – and I do not want to sound too philosophical but I must – we forgot to think about what kind of BiH we want. What is the best thing about us? What is it that makes you stay here? What inspires you or what do you miss when you leave? 

We need to think at a higher level in terms of relations between BiH and the EU as well as between BiH and its neighbouring countries when it comes to regional cooperation. Regarding this last point, I think we need to build the self-confidence of BiH regarding Croatia and Serbia and at the same time exploit the potential that we have. Yes we have Croats, Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina and we should translate this fact with close ties with many countries around the world. There are a lot of questions, but one at the time I guess. The objective now is to transform this big level of thinking into daily activities. This is, I believe, how to plan a strategy for concrete change.

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