Lidija Topic – a Bosnian sculptor in Brussels

For me, Europe was the stabilising factor for the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

When Lidija Topic was a teenager, no one could have predicted that she would become one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s leading diplomats.

“When I was 18, I was going to be a sculptor. In addition to being a sculptor, I also wanted to do something that is not as isolated as working in one’s studio and that would make me financially independent. So, I also wanted to do something to support myself in life. Since my father was a dentist, I did dentistry. Politics was something I was not interested in at all. It was still the time of single-party politics and social change was not really on my student agenda.”

Lidija was born in Sarajevo in 1967. She obtained a Bachelor in sculpture from Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts, spending one year of her studies at university in the United States. Then she also studied at the Faculty of Dentistry in Sarajevo. During this time, the performing arts were her vocation. She exhibited in various places and won awards. After the 1992-1995 war, she finished her studies of dentistry, studied human rights and international relations in New York and also completed post-graduate studies in international politics in Brussels.

The war turned Lidija’s life upside down. Although she witnessed the fighting in Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 on television, she did not believe the same would occur in her own country. The war caught her by surprise and affected her considerably.

“As citizens we were not prepared. Our politicians and the media did not help us as citizens to be ready, to understand the tragedy that was coming from across the border to Bosnia and Herzegovina. So, when the shooting in Sarajevo started on the 6th of April 1992, we were just amazed. I continued to believe that this would stop in a few days just because it was so wrong. For many years, I made jokes of my own political assessment: way too optimistic!”

Lidija was shocked by the tragedy that erupted. She still rejects the concept of thinking in categories of ethnic intolerance.

“When I was going to school in Sarajevo, I knew that we were living in a multi-ethnic society, and we saw it as a wealth. We knew to whose grandmother’s house we went to for which cakes on which holidays. We respected each other. Practiced social culture was such that I did not feel that I was denied any opportunities in life because I did not come from the ethnically more numerous nations in the city where I was born and grew up. The society that we now need to rebuild is the society which we were very good at, a society that is tolerant and inclusive.”

On 14 April 1992, her 25th birthday, Lidija left Sarajevo. She moved to Zagreb, hoping that she would return to Bosnia and Herzegovina after a short time in Croatia. But she remained there for the next four and a half years. She worked for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, running programmes for refugees from her country. Her mother, a pedagogue, left Sarajevo in summer 1992, moved to Slovenia and worked for the Slovenian Ministry of Education on education programmes for refugee children from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her father, a university professor, left at the end of 1993, after spending some months in hospital due to an accident: He had fallen down the stairs to a shelter he used when the shelling was worst. The fear for his well-being weighed heavily on Lidija.

“When he was in hospital, he wrote us letters. He wrote, ‘Friends visited me, and they brought newspapers.’ We assumed that he was also saying that they did not bring any food. Later on, he told us that he had learnt to cook, that he could make ‘brodet’ for his friends, a very sophisticated fish dish. He explained that he used to mix sardines from a can of one aid package together with sardines from a can of another aid package. He did not want to leave. It was considered a sign of weakness. Most people who stayed in Sarajevo stayed because they were proud and determined to defend the city by not leaving it. We managed to convince him to leave Sarajevo after he was released from the hospital.”

In September 1996, Lidija moved back to Sarajevo and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of three ministries that were being set up at the state level under the Dayton Peace Agreement. The new institutions were supposed to represent ethnic balance of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three constituent groups, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

“I was in the first group of the Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina who joined the Foreign Service in September 1996. I joined because there was a need for people who had some international experience, and I had already worked for the UN. From my side, I had no doubt that I wanted to participate in the building of post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was heartbreaking to see Sarajevo without roofs or windows and society torn apart and exhausted by conflict.”

Lidija was soon sent to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Mission to the UN in New York, where she worked for four years, becoming the Deputy Permanent Representative at the end of her tenure there. In 2000, after returning to Sarajevo, she was appointed Deputy Minister of European Integration. At that time, the prospect for EU membership appeared to her “hardly reachable”.

“We knew and I knew that it was the only way to help us move forward and heal our wounds, but I was not sure that we would succeed and that there would be international consent. We were hopeful rather than convinced that this was what was going to happen.”

At the recommendation of the European Commission, the Ministry of European Integration became the Directorate for European Integration, and Lidija was assigned other posts at the Foreign Affairs Ministry. In 2003, when a new government took office, she became the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs. This period was a turning moment for Lidija’s confidence in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future in the EU.

“I did not see EU membership as a tangible possibility until the Thessaloniki Summit [in June 2003]. It still sounded like we were dreaming about something very unreachable. Thessaloniki then gave us confirmation that the whole process was real and that Bosnia and Herzegovina could take its own seat as an EU member sooner rather than later. Until then we had hopes, we had dreams, but we did not feel that the process was as tangible as after Thessaloniki.”

The new prime minister of Bosnia, Adnan Terzic, assembled a team of people who were committed to moving Bosnia and Herzegovina closer to the EU. Lidija became a member of this team, which also included Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic and the head of the new Directorate for European Integration, Osman Topcagic.

Their first task was to convince the European Commission to conduct a feasibility study on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s preparedness for a Stabilisation and Accession Agreement (SAA) with the EU. The Commission gave them a questionnaire with 350 questions in March 2003. Based on the answers provided by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s administration the Commission announced the results of the study in November 2003: it declared that the country had to achieve progress in 16 areas before negotiations could be opened. This led to a major reform effort in Bosnia and Herzegovina to meet these conditions.

“We were a team that shared optimism and enthusiasm. Of course we had lots of problems that we were dealing with in the Council of Ministers, but we didn’t need to be taught that consensus mattered in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For me, the EU membership perspective is the stabilising factor for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

In 2005, Lidija went to Brussels as the head of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Mission to the EU. The SAA negotiations lasted from November 2005 to November 2006, during which she served as a member of the negotiating team. She was also one of the negotiators for the visa facilitation and readmission agreements between Bosnia and Herzegovina and the EU. Both negotiations were successful.

“Overall, the SAA negotiations were great. Of course, they were a lot of work, but we could show that we could move the agenda in a positive direction. There was huge doubt whether we in Bosnia and Herzegovina had the capacity to do this, and it was a success for us to show that we could.”

Many officials from the EU institutions and the representations of EU countries in Brussels came to respect and appreciate Lidija as a dedicated, hard-working, smart and charming ambassador of her country.

However, she was recalled at the end of 2007. Although she refuses to discuss it, media widely reported on her case and a similar case in Vienna. It was narrow-minded party politics and envy that led to the recall of the two ambassadors.

Lidija decided to leave the Foreign Service and stay in Brussels, not least because of her then 9-year old son. She first worked as a Senior Advisor at the European Policy Centre, a think-tank and platform for political debates in Brussels. In July 2008, she joined the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), the successor of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe.

“I was challenged to work in a wider context. Now I am dealing with economic and social development, transport and infrastructure, building of human capital and cross-cutting issues, parliamentary cooperation in the wider context of South East Europe. Regional cooperation is not only part of the Commission’s conditionality for accession of the Western Balkan countries and Turkey, but functional regional cooperation is also an obvious need to meet the development goals of our countries.”

Lidija has not given up on her dream that she will see Bosnia and Herzegovina join the EU one day, although progress towards EU accession has slowed down in her country. She also refuses to believe in enlargement fatigue in the EU.

“Looking from outside, everyone is a friend of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and everybody wants Bosnia and Herzegovina to make progress … Once the necessary reforms will be carried out and if enlargement fatigue becomes an issue for the country, it can be discussed and dealt with. But I don’t think that it is an issue at this stage.”

She believes that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future depends on the country itself and its citizens.

“In an extremely ambitious scenario, Bosnia and Herzegovina could join the EU in some medium term perspective, possibly next eight to ten years; hopefully a critical mass of people will come together who can move the agenda forward.

I see myself as part of the critical mass. Even when I am not involved as a leading diplomat, I see myself as part of it, all of us, the citizens with the right to vote, are also part of it. The fact that I am working outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina does not mean that I am not part of it. The job is not done yet, and I think we can’t just give up because it is difficult.”

7 February 2011