Martina Mlinarević Sopta: Czech companies have no problems adjusting in Bosnia and HerzegovinaYou can be a great mentor for us
In her country and beyond, she is well known as a journalist, writer and activist. She has published six books, has 130,000 followers on Facebook, and more than 4,000 on Twitter. How does she apply all this previous experience in her diplomatic work? Why does she think Bosnian-Czech relations have great potential? We have talked to Martina Mlinarević Sopta, who is Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Czech Republic since January 2020.
As a journalist and writer turned diplomat, how do you benefit from your previous jobs in your current role?
At the very beginning of assuming my office, I said I would try to follow the postulates of modern diplomacy, which is open, transparent and intense. The geopolitical picture of the world has changed completely in recent years, the diplomatic profession became a measurable effort, and not only a ceremonial activity. Modern diplomacy takes place on social networks, through everyday branding of the country, positive PR, high-quality ideas and actions. So I think my earlier career has helped me a lot.
As an independent journalist in BiH, I have met many foreign diplomats who have worked in our country for years. It is wonderful to have them for friends and support even today, and I am very grateful to learn from them and follow their advice in my day-to-day work. I have used everything I have done and experienced so far in the best possible way to represent our country in the Czech Republic. And as a writer, there is no better place to live than Prague, a city which offers everyday magical inspiration.
You have been the Ambassador to the Czech Republic since January 2020. How have relations between our countries evolved since Václav Havel visited Bosnia and Herzegovina as the first foreign president?
The Czech Republic is considered a true and stable friend of our country. Our good relations date back to the medieval times, but a big milestone took place in the early nineties, as the then Czech and Slovak Federative Republic recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence soon after the referendum, thanks to president Václav Havel. Your country did a lot to help raise awareness of the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war and develop international solidarity. You also accepted many of our war refugees, who are today fully integrated in Czech society, considering the Czech Republic their second home.
As you mentioned, Václav Havel was the first foreign president who visited our country after the war, and today’s Czech Republic fully supports Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Euro-Atlantic integration and can be a great mentor for our country on its path. I would also like to mention that there are currently more than one hundred BiH students in the Czech Republic on the basis of a scholarship given by the Czech government. During university studies, our students have the same status as Czech students, and that is a huge thing for our country and our young people.
I want to help build a positive image of Bosnia and Herzegovina in all segments
What are you proud of in terms of our relationships and cooperation?
Shortly after I assumed my office, the world as we know it turned around overnight. We worked all day, several weekends in a row. Our phones were available 24 hours a day, and thanks to my activities on social networks, our citizens from different countries got in touch with me. We tried to do impossible things to find proper solutions for our people who were stuck somewhere around the globe at this most difficult moment. I am very thankful to Czech official institutions for all the support and cooperation during this difficult year.
What is your vision of where our mutual cooperation should go?
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s global image is still burdened by war associations, ethnic divisions, and dysfunctionality of the state. I want to help build its positive image in all segments. I think that our mutual cooperation can further leverage the existing great cultural, educational, tourist, and economic potential. My mission in the Czech Republic is to intensify our cooperation in science, business, tourism and culture. Although these pandemic times were not favourable for personal meetings at business forums and conferences, we hope that with the continuing vaccination and adopting safety measures, things will get better for all of us.
We have a humorous but hard-working nature, like Czechs
What should Czech businessmen keep in mind to help them succeed in the Bosnian market? Which Czech companies are already active in BiH?
Over the past couple of decades, following the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, BiH has made impressive economic progress and reforms, and offers many business opportunities to Czech companies. At the same time, it is a market where good knowledge of the local environment is very important.
Living in the Czech Republic, I find many similarities in our mentalities: both nations have a humorous or even cynical spirit but are also very hard-working by nature. Czechs are extremely respected in our society, so I think that these conditions, along with the historical ties and similar languages, should make it fairly easy for Czech companies to start business in BiH. They won’t have any problems adjusting. Our country has a long tradition in different industry branches, abundance of industrial zones, available production facilities, highly educated and price-competitive workforce, which are all all very important factors.
Some of the Czech companies who are already doing business in Bosnia include OHL ŽS, AŽD Praha, PRO.MED.CS or Bluetherm.
How is the current political and social stability in the country? What reforms need to be adopted to increase BiH's attractiveness for foreign investment?
I will give you a broader answer: Bosnia and Herzegovina must focus on economic and public administration reforms. We need to create a transparent economic environment and therefore the responsibility of politicians is necessary. The most important thing is to strengthen the rule of law and good governance, and in order for that to happen, it is necessary for politicians to have these reforms as their priority and to serve the citizens.
BiH is relatively unique in Europe due to its religious and ethnic composition – three large ethnic groups, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats, roughly correspond to three religious denominations, Muslim, Orthodox and Roman Catholic. Is this something that an ordinary foreigner – a businessman or a tourist – can recognise at all when they visit the country?
In the Western Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina represents a bridge between East and West, a crossroad of civilizations and cultures. We are very proud of our centuries-old multiculturality: Christians (Orthodox and Catholics), Muslims and Jews have been living in BiH with one another for ages. Their coexistence has led to a unique, rich and enchanting mix of cultures which attracts visitors from across the globe. Sarajevo is often called the “European Jerusalem”: during a short stroll through the city centre, you’ll see Orthodox and Catholic churches, mosques and synagogues, and you’ll discover firsthand why this city can serve as a model of coexistence for all of Europe.
How is Bosnia and Herzegovina coping with the covid-19 pandemic? How does the government help small and medium-sized enterprises in particular?
The year of the pandemic was difficult for every country, including ours. The large number of deaths for a country that does not have a large population and which has already suffered huge human losses during the war, is really a big blow from which we are slowly recovering. The government was quick to help small entrepreneurs, as they received aid to cover ongoing operating costs and maintain their business activities. In their most recent report, the World Bank estimates that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s GDP has shrunk by 3.2% in 2020, due to the covid-19 pandemic, while predicting a recovery of 3% in 2021. I want to believe that the worst is behind us and that the times ahead will bring us health, stability and success in all fields.
We aim to re-establish a direct flight between Prague and Sarajevo
You recently met with the Governor of South Moravia to discuss cooperation with the Herzegovina region, among other things. Are there any similar initiatives of knowledge exchange planned also for other BiH regions?
It was a mutually very beneficial meeting with the governor of the South Moravian region. Herzegovina is geographically similar to South Moravia, and I thought it would be important to connect these two wine and agricultural areas. The exchange of knowledge, experience and potential is one of the best ways of bilateral cooperation and of course we have planned similar for other regions. Already in June, the newly elected mayor of Sarajevo, Benjamina Karić, will visit Prague and meet with the mayor Zdeněk Hřib, to jointly open an exhibition dedicated to Karel Pařík, the famous Czech architect who built some of the most important buildings in my country, particularly in Sarajevo.
Your country has a huge tourist potential. What is your office doing to promote tourism in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Are there any conferences, programmes, events or the like?
I agree that BiH’s tourist potential is inexhaustible and I think it is an ideal destination for Czech tourists who love adventure, untouched beauty of nature and historical heritage. On top, there is also an attractive blend of different cultures and building styles or amazing gastronomy. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we were not able to promote our tourist offer at trade fairs, but we do it every day through all of our activities. In addition, we aim to re-establish a direct flight between our two capitals, which has not been in operation since 2007 and which has tremendous potential.