Archive | Croatia

Croatia Chooses To Be in the EU Core

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Adelina Marini, Zagreb

Croatia made its choice for its future in the EU by choosing, out of the several options of integration, to be in the core of the EU, which this autumn begins a major overhaul that will deepen the integration in areas like defence, security, justice, the euro area. Croatia Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic announced at the opening of the regular government meeting on October 5th that in the coming weeks the government, together with the Croatian People’s Bank (HNB) will publish a roadmap for the country’s accession to the euro area. He believes membership is possible in several years.

Croatia’s accession to the currency club has been a priority for this government from the very beginning of its term (October 2016), but the European speech of French President Emmanuel Macron, which Mr Plenkovic described as “inspiring“, as well as the informal EU summit in Tallinn last week, pushed the government in Zagreb to accelerate the preparations for the country’s accession not only in the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), but also Schengen. “Our firm conviction is that we have to belong to the closest circle and thus we will have greater influence and more benefits from our EU membership“, the prime minister said. In his words, at the working dinner in the Estonian capital, the member states were practically stating their choices of integration speeds.

About an acceleration in Zagreb also speaks the fact that Finance Minister Zdravko Maric recently told euinside that for now Croatia will not be defining the dynamics of its accession. He said that public expert discussions are yet to be held on the pros and cons of the euro. Only a week later however, the premier said Croatia will join in several years.

Regarding the Schengen membership, Andrej Plenkovic said he was strongly encouraged by his talks with Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos (Greece, EPP), who was this week in Zagreb. According to the prime minister, Croatia will be ready with the implementation of the technical criteria for Schengen accession in the first half of 2019, and it will then await a political decision to join, a decision that Bulgaria and Romania have been waiting for for years. The Croatian premier has got the message of encouragement of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP), who called in his annual state of the Union address for the accession of the three countries in Schengen.

However, the implementation of the euro area criteria will take more time because Croatia is not meeting the public debt criterion. In the 2016 convergence report, which the European Central Bank publishes every two years, it is concluded that Croatia does not meet the budget deficit and the public debt criteria. The situation with the budget deficit, though, has significantly improved since then and in June this year the country exited the excessive deficit procedure. In 2014, when the procedure was launched, Croatia’s budget deficit was -5.5% of gross domestic product. Last year, it shrank to -0.8% of GDP. According to the European Commission spring forecast, the Croatian budget deficit is expected to increase this year to -1.1% of GDP but will drop back to -0.9% next year.

The situation with debt is more serious. The debt-to-GDP ratio dropped in 2016 to 84.2% from a peak of 86.7% a year earlier. It is expected the decline will continue to 79.4% next year. Croatia is meeting all the other criteria for inflation, exchange rate stability of the kuna and the long-term interest rates. In the 2016 report, the ECB praised the work of the HNB for the stability of the kuna and for the stabilisation of the long-term interest rates. In other words, Croatia could file a request to enter the currency mechanism for preparation for membership (ERMII) the minute it reduces its debt to below 60% as is the allowed maximum under the Stability and Growth Pact. Prime Minister Plenkovic recalled that the strategic goal of the government is to reduce the public debt by 10% by 2020.

When it comes to the upcoming overhaul of the EU, Andrej Plenkovic said he expected by the European elections in 2019 “a reasonably ambitious” approach to the European project, but refrained from elaborating. Plenkovic has established a tradition of reporting at the public sessions of the government and in the Sabor (parliament) about his participation in the European Council meetings, thus putting European issues on the agenda of the Croatian public. This is a rare success, especially in a country which is entirely consumed by its own domestic problems.

Emmanuel Macron’s speech as well as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan, outlined in his annual address in September, have obviously pushed not only Croatia but Hungary as well to reflect on an acceleration of integration in the euro area. Bloomberg reports that Hungary could join the currency club much earlier than its political leaders are willing to admit. According to signals coming from Budapest, the forint could be replaced by the euro by the end of the decade. The main argument why Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are delaying their membership has been economic divergences with the richer euro area countries as well as the divisions in perceptions about European integration, especially in Warsaw and Budapest.

The acceleration of the integration processes in the euro area however, especially after Berlin forms a government, is already ringing the alarm bells in the slower and more sceptic members that they might drop off of the European project if they refuse to enter deeper integration waters.

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Only in the Balkans – Reforms Theft

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Adelina Marini, Zagreb

You will probably not believe it, but in the Balkans the lack of rule of law and the tolerance of corruption have some fun aspects. This is the case with the theft of the most contentious reform in Croatia by … Montenegro. No, this is not a joke and it’s not a product of a local satiric site. This is about word-for-word copying, with the Montenegrin language features at that, of the proposal for a comprehensive reform of the content of school textbooks, which is currently under violent disputes in the Croatian public domain and even threatens the survival of the government. To find out the magnitude of the irony in one case and the tragedy in the other, we need to rewind the tape a little bit.

Who [in their right mind] in the Balkans protests about an educational reform?

The Croats. Last year, when the government of the then highly-conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) came to power, over 50,000 Croats protested in several cities across the country against the attempts to scrap the highly progressive and bold educational reform known as “curriculum reform”. The reform was prepared by an expert workgroup of 500 people led by the young doctor of science Boris Jokić. The group was formed by the then left-liberal coalition government of Zoran Milanović. The idea for a ​​comprehensive education reform is embedded in a strategy voted in by the Croatian Parliament in 2014.

With the coming to power of the HDZ, then under the leadership of Tomislav Karamarko – a conductor of ultraconservative and nationalist policies – there were attempts ideologically burdened people to be appointed. The sharp turn of Karamarko’s HDZ to the far right, accompanied by brutal changes in the leadership of the national TV and radio, the Council for Electronic Media, and other activities pushing Croatia toward the illiberal group of Poland and Hungary, has led to significant quakes on the political arena and ultimately resulted in the fall of the government.

Karamarko was replaced by former MEP Andrej Plenković, who promised to return the party to the centre-right of the political spectrum. He also promised many reforms, thanks to which he won the snap elections last September. Alas, one year later there are no reforms, and the first major challenge – the financial problems of the largest conglomerate not only in Croatia but also in the region of former Yugoslavia Agrokor – shook the government coalition. New snap elections were avoided after the liberal Croatian People’s Party (HNS) agreed to take part in government, but on condition that the reform started by Boris Jokić is implemented.

Andrej Plenković agreed to the horror of the liberals themselves, whose party split into two, but also to the more conservative wing in the HDZ, who insisted education remain in their portfolio. This happened after an anniversary of last year’s protests was celebrated on June 1st, and in the centre  of Zagreb, a few tens of thousands gathered again to confirm their demand for an education reform.

The nonpartisan Blaženka Divjak was appointed minister of education. Her attempts to implement the reform are currently the biggest political drama in Croatia after a news website with a focus on education revealed that behind-the-scenes attempts had been made to replace the reform plan by the leader of the expert group appointed by the previous government. According to Croatian media, the tension in the cabinet has already reached a boiling point and now the main question is whether Mr Plenković will fire the education minister or let her work, meaning he will have to deal with internal party tensions.

Pressure on the prime minister by media and civil society is enormous. At the same time, his reluctance to say clearly who does he support in this inherent ideological conflict is obvious. He was, however, adamant in his reluctance to see new protests. For many, at least in the Balkans, education is probably not the most important topic, although it is, in fact, vital in the Croatian context. First, in an ideological sense, it is important because if it is implemented, it will tear the country away from Church-sponsored conservatism, which is often intertwined with nationalism. In the economic sense, it is no less important, as Croatia is currently suffering from a serious brain drain. It is no accident that the organisers of the educational protest this year organised also a procession to Zagreb’s central railway station to symbolise the departure of young Croats.

It is precisely because the stakes of educational reform are too high for Prime Minister Plenković that everything surrounding it is so non-transparent. Moreover, following Donald Trump’s lead, the prime minister threatened to deal with those responsible for leaking insider information about changes to the reform plan rather than deal with the reform itself.

Who will get the reform?

The people of Montenegro. On Tuesday, the Croatian daily Jutarnji list revealed that the Montenegrin education institute has stolen verbatim the contents of some parts of Boris Jokić’s curriculum reform. Plagiarism was discovered by accident by Croatian primary school teacher Ljiljana Hanžek, who worked on writing the reform. The Montenegrin Ministry of Education refused to comment on the case at this stage, but the education institute told Cafe del Montenegro news website that the Croatian document had been borrowed, but for technical reasons citing what Croatian literature was used had been omitted.

The case became an occasion for paraphrasing the well-known jokes about Montenegrin laziness: “The Montenegrins are lying down waiting for the Croats to make their reform”, Croatians joked on social networks and the media. However, the authors of the curriculum reform are not laughing. At first, former expert group leader Boris Jokić reacted with mockery by saying that at least Montenegrins would benefit from the reform but he now believes Montenegro must pay royalty fees.

Montenegro regularly uses Croatian experience, especially in terms of EU accession. A few years ago, Croatia set up a specialised centre to provide experts, as well as legislation and regulations texts to all candidates in the region, as languages ​​are very close. The plagiarism of a complete educational reform is something entirely new. On the one hand, it shows that even at the highest state level in Montenegro there is no understanding of the concept of “copyright” – a problem that can be seen in other underdeveloped countries, including EU members as well. On the other hand, however, the whole situation may have positive effects in both countries

Montenegro’s interest in Boris Jokić’s reform can finally provide Andrej Plenković with some insurance against internal party criticism. Conservatives in his party will find it increasingly difficult to explain to their voters and to taxpayers in general why they are opposed to such a valuable reform that has pulled out 50,000 people in the squares and has been the subject of theft by an official body of a neighbouring state. It will be a real shame for HDZ to reject a document that is considered of such a high quality by other countries. In the end, it may just turn out that Montenegro, with its plagiarism, will do a service to Croatia for which it should be rewarded, rather than made to pay compensations.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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The Day a #Yugoslavia Hashtag Saved the World

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3423123123There’s a message and a hashtag on Twitter these days that should become the biggest meme ever. If only Yugoslavia and our world could be put back together again with a damages trial against NATO, that would be poetic justice. Unfortunately, I doubt social media will turn on its ear over a court case being built against the perpetrators of forgotten war crimes from the Bill Clinton presidency – But I can dream.

Back in February of 2016 I wrote a story about Yugoslavia and an alternative future we’d be experiencing had my country and its European puppet states destroyed that key nation. The storyline was widely cited and controversial to an extent, owing to the opinions of those from the newly established countries where Yugoslavia once stood. That report was about the loss to the peoples of those nations when a potential world power was vanished by outside forces. It said very little for the deep humanitarian scars though. When Bill Clinton authorized the destruction of the cement that held together the middle of Europe, he created a never-ending nightmare that needs to be felt. Now an international legal team has set out to get justice over NATO’s use of depleted uranium munitions, and the cancer related death and illness rising across that region since 1999.

According to these lawyers, as much as 15 tons of depleted uranium ammunition from various weapons systems deployed by NATO was used, and especially in Serbia. According to the RT report on the case, Srdjan Aleksic, is a Serbian lawyer who leads the legal team formed by the Serbian Royal Academy of Scientists and Artists, that includes lawyers from the EU, Russia, China and India. They contend that more than 30,000 people have fallen sick from exposure to the munitions in this year alone. I’ll address the munitions issue in a moment, but right here I’d like to strike the same chord I did in my earlier report on Yugoslavia by quoting award winning author of 23 books, Dr. Michael Parenti, who’s an American political scientist, political economist, and historian:

“The dismemberment and mutilation of Yugoslavia was part of a concerted policy initiated by the United States and the other Western powers in 1989. Yugoslavia was the one country in Eastern Europe that would not voluntarily overthrow what remained of its socialist system and install a free-market economic order. In fact, Yugoslavs were proud of their postwar economic development and of their independence from both the Warsaw Pact and NATO.”

My father was the Attorney General of the US state of Georgia for a time, and a constitutional lawyer, and advisor to both LBJ and Nixon. I know he would make use of this assertion by Parenti in order to establish “intent”, or in courtroom rhetoric he might say; “It goes toward establishing the intent to commit a crime, your honor”. If there were a jury present, the use of the term “mutilation” would be repeatedly drummed in, in order that the real judges might discern damages. But I digress, this is a civil liability matter amplified by a criminal act.

Wikipedia’s entry about the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia contains a photograph from an exhibit where there are three depleted uranium ordinance are on public display. There’s also a map showing the sites in Kosovo and western Serbia where these munitions were used. But that’s Wikipedia, and nobody uses Wikipedia as a viable source. So, this Le Monde diplomatique piece by Robert James Parsons is a better starting point for my report. His detailed assessment includes the allegation that investigators searching evidence of depleted uranium ordinance in Kosovo were impeded by NATO operators during their searches. For the reader, in March and April of 2001, UNEP and the World Health Organisation (WHO) published reports on the use of DU in the region based largely on investigators work on the ground, and work which was tightly supervised by NATO troops. The short version for this new legal team perhaps, is that NATO could easily have diverted investigators away from the worst areas of DU use, and probably did. Parsons’ various reports strike deep into the heart of the Serbia-Yugoslavia war crimes. Depleted uranium ordinance use in the Balkans and especially in Afghanistan are a legal time bomb about to explode. Hundreds of thousands of people may have turned themselves into internally radiated toxic waste carriers because of inhaling the dust from these munitions. I won’t go deep into Parsons’ research, but I was struck by his mentioning a US munitions factory that may have been the source of the weapons used in Yugoslavia:

“In a French TV documentary on Canal+ in January 2001 (7), a team of researchers presented the results of an investigation into a gaseous diffusion — recycling — plant in Paducah, Kentucky, US. According to the lawyer for 100,000 plaintiffs, who are past and present plant employees, they were contaminated because of flagrant non-compliance with basic safety standards; the entire plant is irrevocably contaminated, as is everything it produces. The documentary claimed that the DU in the missiles that were dropped on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq is likely to be a product of this plant.”

The work of Parsons and other experts points to the United States of America using Iraq and other crisis areas for testing horrible weapons. The ramifications are staggering, if I am honest here. As an American and a veteran, having my belief system rebooted is not a comfortable exercise. Following the course the aforementioned researchers did, I’m led to a disturbing possibility, that the United States may have used depleted uranium not just for 30 mm and 120 mm armor and bunker piercing munitions like anti-tank rounds, but in smart bombs and missiles as well. Another independent investigator named Dai Williams pointed to the faulty UNEP report on DU use in the Balkans, and “a new generation of hard target versions of guided weapons (bombs and missiles) proposed in 1997 e.g. GBU-24, GBU-37, GBU-32, AGM-86D, AGM-65G, AGM-154C and latest versions of the BGM-109 Tomahawk.” Taken at face value, the purpose or mission of these weapons demands the capability supplied from using depleted uranium. Or in other words, the Pentagon needed depleted uranium to kill inside hardened bunkers etc. With reference to something called the “Hard or Deeply Buried Defeat Capability Program”, these reports are “at least” cause for an investigation – or a court case.

The question that arises is clear, sharp, and may lead to a damnable conclusion. “Does our government conceal from us the use of horrendous and outlawed weapons of destruction?” Given the Snowden revelations, the WikiLeaks Clinton and Podesta files, the WikiLeaks CIA leaks, and the mess in the world today…

The secrecy and the strange circumstances surrounding depleted uranium ordinance use in the Balkans, Iraq, and in Afghanistan point to cover up. The circumstances surrounding the initial UNEP and the World Health Organisation (WHO) point to a potential cover up. According to the investigators mentioned above, the Pentagon and NATO may well have carried out a “cleanup operation” in the former Yugoslavia before UNEP was even allowed in. The fact so few DU rounds were ever recovered there validates this thesis. Thousands of rounds fired at map locations absolutely traceable, and only a few DU munitions recovered? It may well be that the “lack of evidence” is really the evidence here. Turning to the medical side, every indication is that the people of these areas were affected. I’ll quote from a communication of Dai Williams from 2001:

“The population of Iraq appear to have had the highest DU exposure to date but they have also had the longest time for carcinogenic and mutagenic effects to appear.  Significant quantities of hard target guided weapons were used in the Balkans, including the regions policed by Italian and Spanish troops several of whom have died from Leukaemia.  With warheads ranging from 1000 lbs to 2 tons large quantities may have been used in Afghanistan – possibly comparable with the tonnage’s used in Iraq.  Medical evidence is bound to emerge whatever attempts the US and UK governments make to conceal the truth about these weapons.  If so the UN may need to revisit its recent resolution to ignore the DU issue in Iraq.”

Several studies from the mid-2000s showed increased levels of uranium contamination in human and environmental samples since the use of uranium weapons by US and UK forces in combat zones since 1991. Most disturbing in my research was this report from New Weapons Org that contained the following:

“… urine samples from civilians living near bombed targets in Afghanistan (UMRC 2002) showed very high levels of apparently natural uranium contamination – from 15 to 80x normal compared to the UK population (80 to 400 ng/litre compared to normal of 5 ng/litre). These observations led to the scenario that US weapons manufacturers may be using uranium alloys based on almost natural uranium feedstock instead of recycled depleted uranium.”

To sum up, I’ve alluded to a degree of “intent” being established in this current case on the use of illegal weapons in Serbia. It’s no stretch to advance the case further by showing the massive liability involved in irradiating Europe’s citizens with ordinance used in an illegal regime change at the continent’s center. Tens of thousands of people suffering health effects, no telling how many already dead, and the “motive” for covering up in such a case is immeasurable. So, if truth and equal justice is the goal of all western democracies, this new case needs to happen. And it needs to happen in full view of the people of our world. It’s time for a meme that may never come.

 

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The Summer of Balkan Hopes

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Adelina Marini

The grand event for the Western Balkans this year is the summit of the Berlin Process countries in the Italian city of Trieste on 12 July. In recent months, expectations have been seriously pumped up that this meeting will provide a major boost to the European integration of the region, which suffers from integration decay and heavy geopolitical headaches. The six Balkan countries in the region hope the EU will untie its purse to the scale of a Marshall Plan for the region, which would lift the poorest European relatives up on their feet and stop the constant brain drain and loss of labour force, with the Union in exchange hoping for a restart of the European integration in those countries, which have fallen victim to the virus of illiberalism and nationalism.

Following a nationalist winter, spring has come to the Balkans

Up until a few months ago, the region was causing serious alarm in Brussels and the capitals of member states because of the dangerous return of nationalist rhetoric from the early 1990s, hate speech, and a serious deterioration in relations between almost all countries in the region and their EU neighbours, with active intervention by Russia being seen under the surface. The situation deteriorated so much that it forced the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Federica Mogherini (Italy, Socialists and Democrats) to admit during her Balkan tour that “the Balkans can easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played”.

Following a heavy winter of questions often asked whether there was a new war coming to the Balkans, the situation today does not seem so desperate. There is no significant improvement in relations between the countries of the region, but the geopolitical conditions are considerably more favourable to the EU. Montenegro has finally become a member of NATO, despite Russia’s fierce resistance and the coup attempts of the autumn of last year. There has also been a significant change in Macedonia. After two years of political instability, the country has finally got a government, headed by Zoran Zaev, who has set an ambitious reform agenda and plans to return the country to the European road, which also includes addressing the most serious problems that have hitherto stopped it – the name dispute with Greece and the signing of a friendship agreement with Bulgaria.

There is a certain, but also rather vague change in Serbia. Following the presidential election in April, the country’s political puzzle changed. Former heavily pro-Russian president Tomislav Nikolić has stepped down from the political scene and former Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić took his seat, who has the image of a pro-European leader in Brussels. This is a very controversial qualification, which is not necessarily false, but it has many conditions attached. Aleksandar Vučić is not tired of saying that Serbia’s main goal is to become a member of the EU and works hard on opening new chapters in the negotiation process. At the same time, he has been moving his country towards illiberalism and ever closer cooperation with Russia. The presidential election, however, showed him a yellow card. More  liberal and democratic political forces emerged on the political scene endangering the political domination of Vučić’s party – the Serbian Progressive Party.

Following months of uncertainty, he finally chose his heir to head the government, the young Ana Brnabić. There is no doubt that her role is to keep Vučić’s control over the executive branch, but at the same time her appointment played a very positive role for Serbia’s image to the West, as Ana Brnabić is Serbia’s first female prime minister and besides she publicly declared herself a member of the LGBT minority. This has created expectations in the West that things are going in the right direction in Serbia, regardless of the fact that Pride parades still rather resemble military parades because of the heavy military guards. In presenting her programme to the Skupshtina, Ana Brnabić has set two priorities which are rather surprising for the region – digitisation and education.

All of this sounds rather great, but Serbia’s Western-pointed stumble with Ana Brnabić has provoked sharp reactions from Russia. For days now the press is basically concerned with what exactly did she mean when she said in an interview for Bloomberg that if pressed to choose Serbia would choose the EU, not Russia, regardless of Russia remaining a close cultural friend of the Serb people. It even got to the Serbian prime minister having to deliver a shorthand copy of the interview to the Russian ambassador to Belgrade, Aleksandar Chepurin. President Vučić stood behind his prime minister saying he saw no problem in her statement. Although it is clear that Ana Brnabić will remain under Mr Vučić’s control, her appointment may be a sign of change, though cautious and slow, in Serbia, which, along with Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, is surrounded by NATO and the EU.

Now is the time for the EU to take advantage of these changes and respond appropriately, as there are still many problems – the relations between Serbia and Kosovo, the situation in Kosovo itself and in Albania too. Nothing of what has been achieved can be taken for granted and irreversible.

Berlin+

There is also a big change on the part of the EU. On May 31 in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel delivered a speech, which was commented for months in the Balkans and beyond. In it, he made several important findings, such as “countries from outside the region try to re-establish spheres of influence through old geopolitical thinking”, or that “we can’t simply continue doing things as we did before”. In his speech, he made it clear that it is necessary to change the narrative about the EU in the region. “Of course, it also doesn’t help either when the impression is created that Europe is primarily attending to its own affairs and does not care enough about the Western Balkans”, he said and called for the narrative of the EU to adapt to reality.

This also includes an increase in EU visibility. Sigmar Gabriel has encountered an old paradox in Belgrade during his visit there earlier this year: “I don’t understand why one is greeted on the trip from Belgrade Airport into the city centre by a large poster that celebrates the Russian-Serbian friendship, while the yellow and blue of the European Union is totally invisible.” Moreover, he said, Serbs live with the impression that Russia is Serbia’s largest financial donor. Germany’s top diplomat also announced the “Berlin+” plan, which includes a serious EU financial commitment, the aim of which is to bring the Western Balkans back on the right track.

The extent to which Sigmar Gabriel was on the right track was evident from the fact that his idea has been floating around for months in Serbian media and around the Balkans in general. For the first time in a long time, news from/about the EU prevailed over those from/about Russia. For weeks, the only talk was about how much money the EU would give, that it would be a Marshall Plan of sorts, what projects are to be funded, and so on. This is quite a rare phenomenon, especially on the Serbian media scene where Russia is most often present with comments from Ambassador Chepurin or Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zaharova on all topics, and a close second is the United States, embodied by Deputy Assistant Secretary Brian Hoyt Yee, who is entrusted with the mission of taking care of the Balkans. His opinion is also often present in Serbian media, and the EU participation is limited to opening or blocking of chapters.

The “Berlin+” plan is expected to be officially presented by the European Commission namely in Trieste today (July 12). The sum in question is not quite clear. There is talk of a “substantial new funding”, which will be part of the annual connectivity package. It is also expected that the treaty for the Transport Community will be signed, which will finance the integration of transport networks in the region. Sigmar Gabriel’s words from back in May make it clear that work will be done to build motorways between Serbia, Kosovo and Albania, which will be funded by an additional Infrastructure fund.

Another important initiative expected to be officially announced in Trieste is the creation of a regional economic zone, which has also been discussed in the Balkans for months, and has even been a cause for renewed tension. The idea was launched for the first time this spring in Sarajevo, interpreted as an initiative by Aleksandar Vučić for the creation of a regional market following the model of the European single market. However, some countries, such as Kosovo and Macedonia, have seen attempts to regain Serb dominance in the region, or an attempt to replace EU membership with a regional initiative. Others support the idea, headed by the EU Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations and Neighbourhood Policy Johannes Hahn (Austria, EPP).

What is to be presented on Wednesday is an economic zone whose goal will be to boost the region’s attractiveness for investment. As Sigmar Gabriel warned in March, however, such an initiative would be successful only if work is done on establishing the rule of law in these countries, as investors will not want to invest if they do not have legal certainty. Another idea on which the Bulgarian EU Council presidency, that starts on 1 January, is working on is the abolition of roaming charges in the Western Balkans. According to a high-ranking Bulgarian diplomatic source, there is already talk about this with the newly appointed Bulgarian EU commissioner Maria Gabriel (EPP), who is responsible for the EU’s digital policy. The aim is to start a discussion on the topic first and then to come up with a concrete plan, which would be a part of the idea of ​​a regional economic zone, the source told euinside.

The idea is not new, but it also has a favourable environment available after the abolition of roaming charges within the EU itself. Several years ago, telecoms in the Western Balkan countries had attempted to agree to the removal of roaming charges in the region or at least to lower prices, but that ended with no result.

As is usually the case at Berlin process summits, it is inevitable that the strained bilateral relations emerge. It is possible that the issue of the border dispute between two parties in the Berlin process – Slovenia and Croatia – will attempt to take over the agenda, as it happened at the annual Dubrovnik forum a week ago. Expectations, however, are that economic benefits will prevail over petty Balkan quarrels. This can only happen if the amount of the financial commitment turns out to be serious enough. This package has the potential to be game changer in the region.

The countries in the Berlin Process from the EU side are Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. The Trieste summit will be a debut on the international stage for Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić. Next year will be the last meeting for the Berlin process. It will take place in London. Some have already expressed scepticism and even criticised the idea that a leaving Britain would host such a forum. But this is unjustified criticism. Britain has always been heavily engaged in the Western Balkans, and there is no reason for it to change its policies towards this region even after exiting, as Prime Minister Theresa May’s behaviour has clearly shown in recent months.

What is more, holding the summit in London is a strong signal for the future foreign-policy relations of the UK and the EU. London hosting it is also a good example of the fact that EU developments should not be overly dramatised. If countries are aware of their national interests and strategic goals, dialogue and mutual cooperation are fully possible. Something the Western Balkan countries still fail to learn.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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Appeal: Dutch Govt Partially Liable for 300 Srebrenica Deaths

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  • Bosnian Muslim woman prays near a grave before mass funeral in Memorial Center in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 11, 2016.
    Bosnian Muslim woman prays near a grave before mass funeral in Memorial Center in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 11, 2016. | Photo: Reuters
The men were among around 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the massacre, ruled a genocide by the international courts.

On Tuesday a Dutch appeals court ruled that the government was partially liable for the 1995 deaths of 300 Muslim men murdered by Bosnian Serb forces.

RELATED: Black People Are a ‘Genocide Project’ in Brazil Says Researcher

The ruling somewhat upholds the 2014 civil court decision that found the state fully liable for the deaths of the men in the Srebrenica massacre.

The Hague Appeals Court’s presiding judge, Gepke Dulek, explained that Dutch soldiers became culpable once they had released the men and other shelter-seeking refugees seeking from the secured compound, “they were deprived of the chance of survival.”

Dutch U.N. peacekeepers turned over the men to Serbian forces, who trucked them away, executed them and dumped their bodies in mass graves.

The men were among around 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the massacre, ruled a genocide by the international courts.

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Croatia: A New Round of Instability for the Sake of Stability

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Adelina Marini, Zagreb

Last fall, when snap elections took place in Croatia due to the crisis in the senior coalition partner – the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), and the collapsed coalition was repeated, but with renewed, more moderate leadership, it seemed like the former Yugoslav Republic, despite the general trends in Central Europe and the EU in general, was heading towards normalisation. The former member of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and head of the Delegation for Relations with Ukraine, Andrej Plenković, assumed leadership of the HDZ and the government with a promise of moderation, rule of law, abandonment of the division rhetoric (Ustaše against Partisans) and for reforms.

Changes in HDZ, like coupled vessels, brought changes to the other big party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), where young Davor Bernardić won the leadership. The new political force MOST of Independent Lists (MOST NL) seemed ready to play the constructive role of a balance maker and a corrective. This was welcomed with relief by society. The media also reacted positively. It seemed like Croatia would finally break away from the grip of the past and deal with the future, which is facing serious problems, one of the most important of which is the rapid brain drain from the country after the fall of restrictions for Croatian nationals in some EU countries.

Being a Brussels man, Andrej Plenković quickly introduced the European agenda in Croatian society by starting to report regularly in Sabor (the Croatian Parliament) after each European Council meeting, and his debut at a EU summit ended in the highest of Brussels standards – with a long briefing for journalists. All he had left to do was to consolidate his party and get rid of the far-right current in it, which at the very beginning showed that it would lower its head until a more opportune moment came to rise again. This current was personified by the controversial former minister of culture Zlatko Hasanbegović.

Through the minefields of Croatia

Optimism and hope did not last too long. Inherited problems in the party, which considers itself to be state-building, and around the country began forcing the prime minister into taking hasty actions in the name of consolidation of the party. This was the case with the state-owned oil company Ina. The Ina case is deeply linked to the HDZ after the party itself and its former leader and prime minister Ivo Sanader were convicted of corruption. Ivo Sanader was doing prison time on charges of taking a bribe to sell a larger share of the company to the Hungarian oil company Mol. Because of these allegations, Croatia filed an arbitration case, which it lost in December.

This led to Prime Minister Plenković’s first premature decision, which surprised many. Right on Christmas Eve he announced the government’s intention to buy back the Hungarian stake and return ownership of Ina to Croatia, an idea that had no good market and even less fiscal argumentation. In the process of sever fiscal adjustment, money for such a purchase cannot be found without this leading to an even greater increase in public debt, which is expected to fall to 81.9% this year, or else a raise of taxes. It was quickly evident that this decision was not feasible and five months later it is not even discussed. Ina, however, remains an unresolved problem that will play the role of a mine for every government to follow. Around it, there is a thin thread of geopolitical element, for Russian company Rosneft had appetites for the company at the beginning and over the years the Hungarian company has been threatening to sell its stake in Ina to the Russians.

Right into Andrej Plenković’s face blew up another mine – the one with Slovenia about the Gulf of Piran, which had also been planted a long time ago – back in 2001, when the prime ministers of Croatia and Slovenia at the time – Ivica Račan and Janez Drnovšek – signed an agreement to settle the border dispute around the Gulf of Piran, providing Slovenia with access to international waters. The agreement has never been ratified by Croatia and was one of the most serious obstacles for the country on its way to EU membership. After Slovenia blocked the negotiation process with Croatia, an agreement was reached with European Commission mediation to settle the dispute by arbitration.

In 2015, however, Croatian media revealed that the Slovenian member of the arbitration tribunal had exchanged information on the course of the case with the Slovenian foreign ministry. The government of Zoran Milanović, with the full support of all political forces in the Sabor and the media, decided to withdraw Croatia from the arbitration tribunal. Changes voted in December, agreed on with the participation of Prime Minister Plenković, in European and Schengen legislation about strengthening control at the EU’s external borders in response to the increased risks of terrorism, have led to a new cause for tension between the two countries. Slovenia stepped up border controls, which led to the formation of mile-long queues at Croatian-Slovenian border crossings. At peak times, travellers waited for hours to cross the border. The problem again was resolved with EC intervention, with the mediation of which an agreement was negotiated at the extraordinary European Council on 29 April.

Too big to survive

The cherry on the cake, however, was the near-collapse of the largest Croatian conglomerate, Agrokor, which has subsidiaries throughout the region of the former Yugoslavia, and employs more than 60,000 people. Dark clouds on the horizon emerged in January when credit rating agencies downgraded Agrokor’s credit rating due to doubts expressed by some of its biggest lenders about the ability of the group to service its debts. It is not easy to navigate the complex story of the conglomerate downfall, but there are a few things that are undoubtedly clear: Agrokor is a legacy of the ever-difficult transition from a Communist economy to a market one; the state, consciously, unconsciously, or both, has closed its eyes to the unnatural expansion of Agrokor to a conglomerate of systemic importance for the economy; throughout the whole story runs a solid geopolitical element; and an unpleasant dose of politicisation.

The mine in Agrokor was planted with the model of privatisation. The company began to absorb key monopolistic companies over the years, thus turning the state monopoly into a private one under the tacit consent of the state. The conglomerate owns Dijamant a.d., the largest producer of edible oils in Serbia, one of the largest meat processing companies in Croatia PIK, the largest salt producer Solana Pag d.d., the largest agricultural company and winemaker Belje, Serbia’s largest ice cream and frozen food company Frikom, Croatia’s largest producer of mineral, spring water and beverages Jamnica, Croatia’s largest ice-cream and frozen food producer Ledo d.d., the best selling water in Bosnia and Herzegovina Sarajevski kiseljak d.d., the greatest edible oils producer in Croatia Zvijezda d.d.

The conglomerate is also the owner of the largest chain of supermarkets in Croatia and the region Konzum d.d. The last big expansion of the company was the purchase of the Slovenian state-owned trade mastodon Mercator in 2014. Analysts believe that with this acquisition Agrokor was virtually overeating. The purchase happened a year after Croatia’s accession, when its market joined the single European market and competitive pressure grew considerably. This is always a challenge for companies with monopoly power and, in general, for countries that have failed to complete the transition to a full-fledged market economy. According to a survey from last year of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs, Croatia has a large and diverse portfolio of state-owned or partially state-owned companies.

The government is a majority shareholder in 85 companies and holds minority stakes of over 25% in another 50 companies. The remaining 600 companies are identified as being under state control as they are under the control of regional or municipal authorities. According to this study, the public corporate sector has a significant share in the Croatian economy. Agrokor is a private company, but it is determined to be systemically important, that is, it employs many workers, has a dominant position on the market, many companies are connected to it, and has enjoyed privileges over the years. Its total share in the gross domestic product of the country is about 4%, with decreasing trends. This means that an uncontrolled bankruptcy of the company could lead to turbulence in Croatian economy and the region in general.

According to the latest report [in Croatian language] by the Croatian National Bank (HNB) on financial stability, the situation in Agrokor has increased the risks to the economy, despite growth in the economy and good macroeconomic indicators. In its spring forecast, the European Commission also referred to Agrokor as a source of risks to the economy. “Industrial production, however, deteriorated somewhat – particularly in the consumer goods segment. This was possibly related to the distressed food processing and retail group Agrokor – Croatia’s largest employer – which faced severe difficulties in (re)financing its liabilities earlier this year”, says in the forecast on Croatia.

Government actions in the Agrokor crisis were quick, cool and resolute. For a record time, a law on the restructuring of systemic companies was adopted, which faced criticism about being unconstitutional, but it helped avoid a disorderly bankruptcy with unpredictable effects for the entire economy, which had just emerged from a 6-year recession two years ago. That would have been a huge blow to the economy and especially to the level of unemployment, which is already high in Croatia – expected to be 11.6% this year.

The rapid mastering of the situation was also dictated by the need to avoid a geopolitical moment – again the role of Russia. The Kremlin-sponsored Sberbank is Agrokor’s largest creditor. Croatian media reported that the crisis in the conglomerate was actually provoked by Russia because of Prime Minister Andrei Plenković’s position on the conflict in Ukraine. Several publications in Croatian media have indicated that the fall of Agrokor started  the moment Russian ambassador to Zagreb Anvar Azimov declared the company unable to pay its debts. This also led to a downgrading of its credit rating.

In the very beginning, when the company began having liquidity troubles, Sberbank demonstrated its will creditors to take over the management. A possible acquisition through debt would have provided Russia with a significant presence on the Croatian and regional markets. However, the newly adopted special law requires the company to be run by a government-appointed commissioner whose role is to supervise the process of restructuring. The law also defines the order in which the debt is to be paid.

The Plenković gambit

It would have all ended beautifully, had it not been for the finance minister. The young and capable Zdravko Marić, who was finance minister all the way back in the first government of HDZ and MOST NL, led by Tihomir Orešković, was until recently one of the most positive figures. With his expertise, he managed to bring Croatian finances to stabilisation and to the exit from the excessive deficit procedure, which was announced on Monday (22 May). His problems began with being a former senior employee of Agrokor and the opposition, including coalition partners from MOST NL, saw this as a conflict of interest. They accused him of being aware of the state of the company, but not taking the necessary measures.

Thus the situation was a great opportunity for the opposition to gain points against the background of the Social Democrats’ declining rating under the leadership of Davor Bernardić. The Social Democrats and the Liberals demanded that the minister resigned. They were also joined the junior partner MOST NL.

Day X for the government was April 26, when the prime minister and almost the entire government attended an official lunch organised by the Croatian Employers’ Association (HUP) where the government’s measures to tackle the Agrokor crisis were commended. Unlike previous meetings with government officials, this time employers refrained from criticism. One of the reasons was that many of the members are suppliers to the conglomerate and hope to cash in their claims. The prime minister began by saying that the most important thing was to ensure political stability. He explained that the emergency situation required emergency measures and promised that the government would take on other vital reforms for Croatia, especially in the field of education.

On the next day, government was expected to announce its decision on Zdravko Marić’s future. Contrary to any expectations, instead of sacrificing him for the sake of political stability, Andrei Plenković decided to protect him at the cost of serious political instability. In addition, the prime minister, without blinking an eye, fired the coalition partner’s ministers, which provoked sharp reactions and accusations of authoritarian practises. The debates on the motion for Mr Marić’s resignation went on for almost 24 hours and brought considerable losses to the government. MOST NL lost its speaker position of the Sabor, and the government is in a stalemate, as it is still unclear whether they have a sufficient majority in Parliament to continue governing.

Prime Minister Andrei Plenković announced that the seats of the coalition partner in government will be filled after the local elections, the first round of which took place on Sunday. The results, however, do not give much clarity. Virtually everyone is losing. Moreover, the crisis has led to the re-opening of the HDZ division lines. The far-right stream saw a great opportunity for itself in the local elections. Zlatko Hasanbegović was supporting the nomination of the Croatian Marine Le Pen – Bruna Esih – for mayor of Zagreb. Andrei Plenković refused to take serious steps against the rebellious Hasanbegović, counting on him filing his own resignation, as he did. Bruna Esih’s results in the first round were twice higher than the HDZ candidate Drago Prgomet. She won 10.98% of the votes, and Prgomet – 5.60%.

Bruna Esih entered the Sabor in the parliamentary elections on September 11 through the HDZ list, gaining 16.77% of the votes thanks to the preference option. After her result at the local elections, Zlatko Hasanbegović announced the creation of a new party. This could lead to others with rather nationalistic views leaving the HDZ. Despite the debacle in Zagreb, the HDZ performed better than at previous local elections elsewhere in the country. The big losers in the first round are SDP, who are going to a second round in Zagreb thanks to the Liberals’ candidate Anka Mrak Taritaš. SDP claims that, thanks to their support, Mrs Taritaš has won 24.48%, but SDP results across the country tell a different story.

MOST NL has also suffered considerable losses, in its fortress in Metković at that, where their candidate goes into a second round. There she will compete with the HDZ candidate. MOST-ers lost their full majority in the municipal council, where they have 40.65% of the votes, followed closely by HDZ with 38.13%. These elections may be the beginning of the end of the party. The Eurosceptic and populist party “Living Wall” is completely obscure in these elections.

This picture shows that all parties have to seriously analyse their state and the reasons for the results at the local elections. They also show a 50/50 probability for snap elections. One needs to wait for the second round so one can better judge the prospects for new elections, which no one has any interest in so far. The HDZ remains the strongest party, but its stability is shaken, and certainly will not be able to win sufficient majority to be able to govern alone. The SDP, with its leadership, has no strength to confront the leadership of the right. Its weakness gives HNS, their permanent coalition partner, a chance to play alone and raise their price after they experienced a significant drop in support in the years of governance with the SDP (in some cases as much as 2%).

Zagreb will be decisive, as mayor Milan Bandić’s party has representatives in parliament, and if he wins in the second round he could help Plenković stay in power. Invincible Milan Bandić, who was suspected of corruption on numerous occasions, but never has enough evidence yet been gathered to accuse him, won the most votes on Sunday – 30.87%. If elected in two weeks, it would be his sixth consecutive term. A possible victory for Anka Mrak Taritaš will feed new energy into the HNS and raise the price of the party on the parliamentary stock exchange. The eventual fall of the government and new elections would mean a new cycle of uncertainty over Croatia, another postponement of vital reforms, and a boost for growth in nationalist sentiments that have become more and more noticeable over the past two years with the HDZ coming to power.

All this is followed by an increase in the outflow of Croats to richer and more settled countries in the EU. The latest hit on the music scene these days in Croatia is the Detour band song “I Choose” that best sums up the situation. “I choose you are gone, I choose not to be angry anymore. Guess where we go, when we are ruled by goons and in-laws, keeping cities hostage, building temples. So I finally cracked like a popcorn and f*ck them all money-chasers, plagiarists, wrapped in the flag”.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in CroatiaComments Off on Croatia: A New Round of Instability for the Sake of Stability

Is Crisis in Macedonia Coming to an End?

NOVANEWS
Adelina Marini

At long last there are some good news coming from the Western Balkans, shaken in recent months by a constant rise in tensions, renewed sabre rattling, readiness for new interethnic conflicts and, of course, with Russia’s helpful role. Macedonian President Georgi Ivanov has finally handed opposition leader Zoran Zaev a mandate to form a government five months after the snap parliamentary elections in the country. Five months, marked by a violation of the Macedonian Constitution, a bloody attack on the parliament of the former Yugoslav Republic, a fuelling of interethnic hatred, and a vague attempt to renew EU presence in the country and the region in general.

Under pressure by the international community and Macedonian society, the president handed over the mandate after he received guarantees from Mr Zaev that he would work to preserve the territorial integrity of Macedonia and will respect the Constitution. The reason for demanding guarantees were the Albanian parties, who supported the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), after signing a platform in January in Tirana, demanding full equality, in accordance with the Constitution, which included linguistic equality – that is, bilingualism – holding a debate about the flag, anthem, and the state coat of arms of Macedonia, so that they reflect the multi-ethnic character of the country. The platform also called for the adoption of a resolution in Parliament, which would condemn the genocide over the Albanian people in Macedonia in the period 1912-1956.

Among other demands in the Tirana platform is strengthening of the rule of law and the implementation of reforms related to the European integration of the country. Support is also sought for the Special Prosecutor, who is investigating the recordings leaked by the SDSM, which accuse former rulers, led by Nikola Gruevski, in a number of violations. The document also seeks to resolve the dispute with the name of Macedonia, establishing good relations with neighbours, and accelerated integration into the EU and NATO. The document has sparked sharp reactions across the region, not only in Macedonia, as it is linked to increasingly frequent statements by Albanian political officials about the creation of Greater Albania.

In an interview for the regional television channel N1 (a CNN affiliate), Zoran Zaev stated there was no room for larger countries either in Europe or in the Western Balkans region. According to him, the future of Macedonia is in the EU, where there are no borders and the freedom of movement of citizens is guaranteed. The parties which Zoran Zaev is yet to negotiate with to form a government are the Democratic Union for Integration of Ali Ahmeti, the Alliance for Albanians and Besa. Some of these parties were already part of government, only in a coalition with Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE. Zoran Zaev has promised that within ten days a government will be formed and it will be voted in parliament.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (Italy, Socialists and Democrats) and EU enlargement negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn (Austria, EPP) welcomed the decision of the head of state to give Zoran Zaev a mandate as “an important step in the process of government formation”. The EU expects a swift formation of a government willing to stick to the Pržino Agreement and the reform programme. The Pržino Agreement of 2 June 2015 was negotiated with the EU’s mediation in order to put an end to the crisis, provoked by the facts revealed by leaked recordings of conversations of senior state officials, including then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

With this agreement, all political parties commit to putting the country’s interests above everything else; respect democratic principles; and work to improve relations with neighbouring countries. Almost two years after the signing of the agreement, it appears that the country is ready to emerge from the crisis. The damage and the challenges, however, are great. For the past almost 12 years, ever since Macedonia was granted candidate status, the country has failed significantly in terms of democratic standards, including freedom of speech. According to this year’s Reporters Without Borders index of press freedom, Macedonia is ranked 111th. In 2005, when the European Commission granted it candidate status, Macedonia was 43rd in this ranking.

In this period, according to the The Economist Intelligence Unit‘s democracy index, the former Yugoslav Republic has taken a huge step backward – it has fallen out of the flawed democracies group and into the one of hybrid regimes. This is the last step before a full-fledged authoritarian regime. The decline raises the question of whether Macedonia still qualifies as a candidate for EU membership. The same question stands for Turkey, as euinside recently reported. The task faced by the new government, part of which will be parties that have been involved in governance throughout this

process of democratic decline, will be extremely difficult. No less challenging will be the behaviour of the now oppositional VMRO-DPMNE. In order for Macedonia to progress, it needs a national consensus on the way forward. Building such a consensus is yet to come.

It is also very important for the EU to play its role adequately. During her visit to the Western Balkan countries in March, Federica Mogherini found out first-hand how far the EU is from what is happening in the region. She tried to draw the Union’s attention to the problems, but much more needs to be done. The EU must be as committed as possible to the region and, in the case of Macedonia, to do its part. The promise of accession negotiations must be embodied by a specific commitment, one that includes Greece as well, which has not yet lifted its veto off the opening of negotiations with Macedonia. The former Yugoslav republic has experienced a severe crisis that could have a great cost to it, but also to the entire region and the EU, and now needs the full support of the Union in order to manage to get out of the political crisis for good.

The Berlin process summit, which will take place this year in the Italian city of Trieste, will be a good occasion to support Macedonia’s efforts to return to the path of European integration. But it will be a mistake if the EU decides that with the formation of a new government the challenges facing Macedonia and the region in general have disappeared. The difficult part is yet to come, especially in the complex geopolitical context in which destabilising factors are already much more than the stabilising ones. Not one of the many tasks in the region can be resolved without the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue expanding into a dialogue between Serbia and Albania, again with EU facilitation. As President Trump’s administration continues to be unpredictable, the EU is in fact alone in the challenge of coping with another rise of tensions in the Balkans.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, SerbiaComments Off on Is Crisis in Macedonia Coming to an End?

Kosovo Serbs ‘Terrified’ by Proposed Creation of “Greater Albania”

NOVANEWS
 

Fresh calls for a Greater Albania, incorporating the southern Serbian province of Kosovo, have led to an angry backlash from politicians in Belgrade.

Sputnik Radio’s Mark Hirst talked to Marko Djuric, Director of the Government Office for Kosovo and Metohija.

Such a move by Albania, if acted upon, could plunge the entire region back into a bloody and costly war on a scale not seen since the 1990s.

Marko Djuric said that Serbia will not allow the creation of a Greater Albania in its southern province and that it is not alone in opposing the idea, which stems from the times of Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia.

When asked whether this inflammatory statement by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was a tactical move, rather than a serious claim, Djuric said that if it was actually translated into concrete action, then it would be a blatant violation of international law.

“For us and for a large part of the international community, including the UN, Kosovo and Metohija are an integral part of Serbia. There was no kind of a democratic procedure in Kosovo’s secession from Serbia,” he emphasized.

Meanwhile, the EU, a body to which both Serbia and Albania eventually hope to join, remains silent over the Albanian prime minister’s controversial comments.

Residents of Pristina holding a new flag of the self-proclaimed republic of Kosovo

“Unfortunately, we saw silence when Pristina decided to stop the dialogue, and we don’t see a sufficient EU reaction to these claims. During the past years the Pristina authorities have failed to bring about any economic growth in the region where the unemployment rate is 65 percent and 45 percent of ethnic Albanians live below the poverty line even though the EU has invested over 60 billion euros into our southern province,” Marko Djuric continued.

He added that the local Serbs, who have suffered numerous pogroms in the past 20 years, were “terrified” by the prospect of being “swallowed” into “Greater Albania.”

“We should also bear in mind the fact that two-thirds of Kosovo’s pre-war Serbian population remain refugees and only about 120,000 still live in Kosovo and Metohija in poor economic conditions and political isolation, while over 200,000 now live in central Serbia,” Djuric pointed out.

He added that the EU was doing nothing to help the Serbs to return to Kosovo.

“The return of Serbs who were expelled from Kosovo has been an utter failure by the international community. The rate of their return is the lowest in any post-conflict zones in modern history, even lower than in Rwanda and Burundi.”

Marko Djuric added that whatever assistance the returnees get comes from Serbia, which pays monthly allowances to those who want to return.

“What we can’t provide without the assistance of the international community, however, is a political climate and access to property.

Over 80,000 houses and apartments in Kosovo are now used by other people and, together with security problems, these are the biggest obstacles preventing the Serbs’ return to Kosovo,” Marko Djuric said.

Earlier in the week, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama made a statement that Albania and the partially recognized republic of Kosovo, also inhabited by Albanians, could reach a “union.”

Soon afterward, President of Kosovo Hashim Thaci said that if Brussels “closed [the] door on Kosovo,” all Albanians in the region would unite into one state.

The Albanians are one of the Balkan peoples constituting the majority of population in Albania. However, significant numbers of Albanians live in the territories of former Yugoslavia, neighboring Albania itself, such as Kosovo and Montenegro.

A number of politicians, such as Rama, have voiced the idea of a Greater Albania in order to unify all the territories inhabited by the Albanians within a single state.

Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008 and is recognized by over 100 UN member states. Serbia, as well as Russia, China, Israel, Iran, Spain, Greece and some other countries do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Posted in Croatia, SerbiaComments Off on Kosovo Serbs ‘Terrified’ by Proposed Creation of “Greater Albania”

EU Is Trying To Restart the European Integration of the Western Balkans

NOVANEWS
Adelina Marini, Zagreb

There is some good news and some bad news for the Western Balkans in the past few weeks. The good news is that the European Union has finally come to realise that there is something rotten in the Balkans and has matured to a change in the narrative. The bad news is this is too late and too little. For months the region has been shaking in instability and so far just verbal conflicts, which are raising the tension to the levels of prior to the bloody disintegration of former Yugoslavia. Macedonia is imploding into a severe political crisis, which has the potential of becoming an inter-ethnic conflict, the tension between Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina has risen dangerously together with inflammatory rhetoric, unilateral provocative actions, and claims that Dayton is dead; Serbia is in a constant election campaign with the price constantly on the rise, thus emitting signals that inflame old wounds across the region. In addition, the campaign has a heavy geopolitical twist as well.

Montenegro is desperately trying to reach the NATO shores, but the long arm of Russia is trying to pull it back into the Russian sphere of influence through brutal interference in its domestic policy. Kosovo is a victim of its relationship with Serbia and the inability of its politicians to work in their nation’s best interest. Albanian politicians have finally realised what they need to do in order to walk out of the blockade that they themselves pushed the country in, but they got carried downstream by the geopolitical current. So, for the first time in the newest history of EU enlargement the European Council closed the year with no conclusions about candidate states. The overall global sense of insecurity is being felt much sharper in a region, which bears the label “powder keg” by no coincidence.

The Balkans can easily turn into a chess board

Tension in the region has first been noticed by the European Parliament, where Slovenian MEP Ivo Vajgl (ALDE) requested that a special debate were held in the foreign affairs committee, but it was conducted without the participation of key players. The wind of change came with the tour of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (Italy, Socialists and Democrats) through the six Balkan states in the beginning of March. Federica Mogherini’s goal was sending a few otherwise very important messages to the six countries, but her trip turned out to be a clash with reality and sobering up to the true problems these countries face. In Montenegro, her invitation to a debate was disregarded by the opposition, led by the Democratic Front, which has Russia’s support.

In Macedonia, her conversation with President Georgi Ivanov was long and hard, for she had to explain simple facts about what is democracy and convey a message by NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg in a similar spirit; in Serbia, on the other hand, her speech in the Skupština was accompanied by incessant shouts by Šešelj’s radicals in support of Russia and against the EU. The shouts did not cease for a full twenty minutes. The former Italian foreign minister dealt with it well undermining the performance by reminding that having been a member of the Italian parliament she is quite used to such scenes. Moreover, she said, such things are normal in other EU member states as well. “Maybe some of my interlocutors today in parliament were not ready to face the fact that I was ready to manage political relations in a complicated environment”, she said later at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, who was apologising profusely on behalf of Serbia.

Following her return from the Balkans tour Federica Mogherini admitted that for the first time she had realised the extent to which this region is exposed to various challenges and tension. “The Balkans can easily become one of the chess boards where big power game can be played”, she said following her report on the trip’s outcome to the EU foreign ministers. She also said that she is concerned about developments there, but at the same time expressed hope that a favourable outcome is still possible. “Yes, I came back from the Balkans worried in some cases but also full of optimism and hope because whenever you meet students, the citizens, civil society but also so many political and social forces in all the region you see the enormous support and trust in the EU”.

A sizable count of ministers also expressed concern about developments in the Balkans and even admitted that over the last few years the EU had practically pulled out of the region and the vacuum is being filled by other powers. Croatian Foreign Minister Davor Ivo Stier stated that the EU needs to get more committed to the Western Balkans. He was fully concentrated on explaining to his colleagues how serious the situation in BiH is and how important it is that leaders in the country be encouraged to commit to amendments to the election code by June. “The situation in the Western Balkans is such that it requires a much more pronounced commitment by the EU. There was also talk about having states outside the EU increase their presence over the last few years. It is important that the South-Eastern Europe region is not a territory of conflict, but of cooperation”, were the words of the Croatian minister, who avoided naming Russia, despite a journalist’s concrete question.

His French colleague Jean-Marc Ayrault expressed his concern about developments in the region, especially after last year’s regular meeting with the six countries in Paris in the framework of the Berlin process, which, in his words, was very constructive. He believes there is a possible risk of escalation, keeping in mind, however, that the region is in an election period. He urged for being moderate and constructive. The most critical was Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, who is a former EU representative for BiH. “Everyone pointed out the fact that recently the EU has abandoned the region and the result we see is a weakening of pro-European forces in those states and opening up space for other players, which is not normal”, he said following the foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on March 6.

Lajčák  added that the ministers agreed it is necessary to bring back trust in the enlargement process. “I do believe that this will have a clear effect on the region through our political presence, through having the process be less technical and more political, through us ceasing to pretend we are offering a European perspective and the states pretending they are seriously committed to reforms. And we start being serious with each other”, urged Slovakia’s top diplomat.

Ministers hailed the change in rhetoric which Federica Mogherini suggested. In the capital cities of the six Balkan states she explained that she does not like the term “enlargement”, but prefers the term “reuniting”. Another message she sent out was that the EU is what it is now because member states have chosen cooperation after World War Two, instead of confrontation. Her third and very important message was that her visit right after the presentation of the White paper on Europe’s future by Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP) represents a wish for including the Western Balkans in this debate. Something euinside has called for in many articles.

A conclusion can be drawn from her visit that in a way she has given up on Balkan politicians, so she was focused on getting her messages through to the young people and civil society. In her speeches in front of university students she sent out an appeal to the young generation and the civil society to cease being patient and tell leaders what they want. “No, I am not calling for demonstrations, not at all”, she said, but reminded during her lecture in the University of Tirana that young people are not only the future, but the present as well.

She sent out similar messages in the rest of the countries. Federica Mogherini reminded that often the feeling is created that the process of European integration is being driven from the outside, by Brussels, by the institutions, but in fact it is a mutual choice. Brussels does have things to change, but countries of the Western Balkans too have a lot to do in order to become a society, to build institutions, independent judiciaries, to introduce the rule of law. “And it is a path that we walk together. It is about shared decision and a shared journey we do together”, she said.

The EU foreign ministers have approved the change in approach and narrative. In its conclusions, the Foreign Affairs Council placed an accent on the need for a more serious approach to the region’s population through public diplomacy, a better clarification of the benefits of the European way, namely the rule of law and transforming societies in an economic and social sense.

Juncker’s message was a mistake

The Western Balkans subject made it on the agenda of the EU spring summit, held on March 9. Leaders of the 28 member states discussed the issue over dinner. This is news by itself, only showing how deeply involved the EU is with developments in the Western Balkans region. In a way it also explains why the leaders’ message was a lot softer and more general. As weird as it may sound, the most engaged leader with this subject was British PM Theresa May, who stated prior to the dinner that she intended to share with her colleagues the extent of the danger of increasing instability in the region, which represents a risk to “our collective security”.

She also stated that she will call upon the international community to do more about fighting organised crime in the region. Theresa May paid special attention on Montenegro in the context of the failed coup d’etat attempt in October. “I will call for us to do more to counter the destabilising Russian disinformation campaigns and raise the visibility of the Western commitment to this region”, was the adamant stance of the prime minister of a country, which is expected any day now (March 29) to commence negotiations for leaving the Union. In this sense, there is one more message Federica Mogherini conveyed in the six states that needs noting. She assured that although Great Britain is about to leave, the EU will not stop at 27.

Theresa May backed her words with concrete actions by stating that the next summit, dedicated on the Western Balkans, will be held in Great Britain in 2018. This year the host will be Italy. According to European Council President Donald Tusk, the situation in the region is out of control, partly due to “unhealthy external influences, which have been destabilising several countries for some time”, he said prior to the start of the Western Balkans debate. Following their conversations, defined by many as being of high quality and constructive, leaders came up with a declaration, which is considerably below expectations. In a few sentences it says that the region is unstable, that it is important to continue on the road of reforms and good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation. At the end, it reaffirms the European perspective of the countries of the region.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani (EPP, Italy) stated that the region needs more Europe and a stronger commitment to political and Economic cooperation. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in turn had to answer the uncomfortable journalist question about his 2014 statement that there will be no further enlargement within the duration of his term in office. “I don’t think this was a mistake, when I announced back in July 2014 that there will be no enlargement during the mandate of this Commission, because, as a matter of fact, no candidate country is ready to join. We didn’t stop enlargement negotiations. I have appointed a commissioner for enlargement negotiations, Mr Hahn, and he’s doing a good job”, was his reply.

Several days later during a debate in the European Parliament Mr Juncker did however admit that his 2014 statement did in fact cause confusion in the Balkans and that the region is the most complicated in Europe. He appealed for a restart of the European integration process. Most leaders, however, concentrated on the external influence on countries of the region. According to Angela Merkel, the European perspective of the Western Balkans is there, but it is not unconditional. Currently, Russia and Turkey are trying to take advantage of the situation in the region, but the EU needs to continue with its projects. “I think it is very important that we make it clear that we as member states of EU not only take an interest in this particular region but want to draw it ever closer into the European fold”, was the message of the German chancellor.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni also pointed out that there is no way to overlook the “fundamental interests of geopolitical factors” in the region. He believes the geopolitical risk and increase of other risks is absolutely plausible. “The problem is not when which country will join the EU. The problem is sending a clear message that the road to accession is open”, he said following the end of the summit on March 10.

What does European perspective mean?

Actually, despite statements, the European Council again is somewhat distanced in a situation that requires much more than a confirmation of the European perspective – a vocabulary, which had some meaning back in the distant year 2003, when it was used at the Thessalonнki summit. A lot has changed since then and the bets have risen considerably. It is a fact that most countries in the region are walking along the European path, but it is also true that instability has come back and with it the destabilising external factors. Geopolitical shifts in turn have reminded the European elite how strategically important they are for the continent.

The EU blueprint for European integration does not work well in a region with so many inherited and unsolved problems, the main one being the constant pushing off of democracy and fallbacks to the past. It is also difficult to implement under such geopolitical pressure. Ten years after the Thessalonнki summit, when a full support was stated for the European perspective of Balkan states, there already was a need for restarting the process. The European enlargement commissioner at the time, Štefan Füle (Czech Republic, Socialists and Democrats), attempted to breathe new life into enlargement, for the process was practically completely stopped. His attempt turned out not to be too successful, because it was not supported loud and clear at the highest level – by the European Council, where Greece’s veto on negotiations with Macedonia brought the former Yugoslav republic to a failed state condition.

During her visit to Skopje Federica Mogherini established that the political crisis in the country could grow into an inter-ethnic conflict. A thing we all thought was avoided during the disintegration of former Yugoslavia. And now, instead of Macedonia being on the threshold of membership, or even a member already (it was supposed to begin negotiations in 2005 together with Croatia), the country is in a precarious situation. This is a lesson that could cost the EU itself dearly as well, not just Macedonian people. The EU slept through developments in Serbia as well, believing its mediation in the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština is a totally sufficient condition for dealing with the situation. However, this is a dialogue that could go on endlessly if the final goal is not talked through – recognition of Kosovo or something else? If it is something else – what would it be? Such procrastination of making a decision on an issue that is constantly fuelling the fire and being used by irresponsible politicians for gaining electoral dividends will later be paid with interest on top.

In Montenegro, the EU found itself in the uncomfortable position of choosing between a democrature with a pro-European facade and Russia. And having Kosovo be the sole problem for the EU in Serbia, the Union slept through the ticking bomb in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this sense, closest to a real assessment of the situation was the Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, who stuck a finger in the wound – we are pretending to be integrating them and they are pretending of being integrated. As this website has reported on numerous occasions, the current accession blueprint just does not work in such a complicated and geopolitically loaded environment. The EU will have to do much more than agreeing on a declaration, reaffirming the European perspective of these countries, whose leaders are using this perspective only for electoral purposes.

First off, an end must be put once and for all to the power of veto of a single member being used as a tool for resolution of bilateral issues. A second step should be the increased presence of high-ranking European officials, who are to talk in detail about what the EU is already doing for citizens. Such an attempt was made by Federica Mogherini, when she explained in the Serbian parliament what the size of European investments in the country is. Later, the Serbian PM added to her statement by saying that Germany alone is providing jobs to 33 thousand people in Serbia, Italy – 23 thousand, and Austria – 20 thousand. The EU is the most secure market, further stated Mr Vučić. The decision of Mrs Mogherini to address predominantly the young and the civil society is a good idea, which needs to be continued, but this does not discard looking for an approach towards the political elite as well.

The EU also needs to consider investing in a medium, which would have its own profile and which would be working in the local languages, similar to already existing Al Jazeera Balkans and N1. The function of this medium needs to be fighting the disinformation and Russian propaganda by providing correct information about the EU, the enlargement process in detail, European investments in these countries, the movement of local citizens towards the EU, their educational opportunities in the EU etc. This is the best way of ensuring more visibility of the EU in this region.

The EU is about to enter a new phase of discussing its future. This debate has to be carried through at the highest level in the six Balkan states as well, so that opposition forces and the civil society can be drawn into it. Lastly, European parties and political leaders need to quit supporting failed politicians and parties. This never ends well. Last but not least, the situation in the Balkans needs to be monitored on a much more regular basis than it currently is and reports are to be made to foreign ministers and leaders in the European Council at each of their meetings.

The EP foreign affairs committee is inviting high-ranking representatives of some countries more and more often, but much more can and needs to be done – plenary hearings of these countries’ leaders, the opposition, and members of the civil society following what is being done regularly for Hungary or Poland. This would allow for hearing points of view, which are being silenced by the controlled media environment in these states.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in Europe, Bosnia, Croatia, SerbiaComments Off on EU Is Trying To Restart the European Integration of the Western Balkans

Bosnia- Herzegovina “Referendum Caravan” against NATO and Euro-Atlantic Integration

NOVANEWS
 
Bosnia and Herzegovina

Activists of the opposition political forces and public organizations from Montenegro initiated a rally from Podgorica to Brussels. According to the organizer of the action, the head of the movement “Hopeless Resistance” Marco Milachich, the activists are to declare in front of the international community about the necessity of a referendum on the country’s accession to NATO.

The event “Referendum caravan” which was launched on February 20 will end on March 3. After Belgrade the activists still have to overcome the way to the capital of Belgium through the city of Banja Luka, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Vienna, Prague and Berlin.

One of the stop on the way to Brussels was the city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Banja Luka is the capital of one of the two national entities within the country called the Republic of Srpska (RS). The Montenegrin opposition expected to get considerable support from the Serbian population, negatively related to the prospect of accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to NATO.

According to the official position of Sarajevo, the most important issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina external policy is to create conditions for the early entry into NATO and the EU. This policy of Euro-Atlantic integration is welcomed in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where 50-70 percent of the people support country’s membership in NATO. In the Srpska Republic, the vast majority of the population does not support the idea of accession.

The protests against the country accession to NATO have been held in Banja Luka before. Residents of city often gather on the main square, to remind of the bloody NATO military actions in Yugoslavia in 1999.

According to the leader of public patriotic organization of the Republic of Srpska “Our Serbia” Mladjan Djordjevic, the West is actively working to maintain artificial separatist movements inside the RC. Moreover, the West is providing active support for Sarajevo, to deprive Banja Luka sovereignty and the right to resist the policy of Bosnia and Herzegovina to join NATO. At the same time, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina actually lives on external funds. The corruption reaches colossal scales, and the authorities have become puppets of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, despite the political pressure from the West and the official Sarajevo, the Srpska Republic, headed by its national leader Milorad Dodik, continues to protect its sovereignty and legitimacy. They actively supported the rally on February 24 in Banja Luka.

Posted in Bosnia, Croatia, SerbiaComments Off on Bosnia- Herzegovina “Referendum Caravan” against NATO and Euro-Atlantic Integration

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