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Belgrade Media Report 16 May 2018

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United Nations Office in Belgrade

Daily Media Highlights

Wednesday 16 May 2018


• Dacic: Criticism at UN SC session on Kosovo (Beta/RTS)
• Dacic: Serbia advocates unchanged mandate of the UN Mission in Kosovo (RTS/Tanjug)
• Vucic: Kosovo Albanians care about territory, not people (Beta/RTS)
• Djuric to Thaci: I don’t need false documents, I have the passport of the Republic of Serbia (RTS/Tanjug)
• Scott: Higher number of cancer cases is not due to NATO (FoNet/RTS)
• Lazanski: Serbia facing serious situation in negotiations on Kosovo (N1)


Bosnia & Herzegovina
• Covic: B&H will not fall into crisis; election winners will establish authority maybe even quicker than ever before (Nezavisne)
• US Embassy to B&H surprised by Covic’s statement that it is too late to amend B&H Election Law (TV1)
• Izetbegovic on Covic’s statement that it is too late to amend Election Law of B&H (TV1)
• Dodik says Serbia will not interfere in elections in B&H (Top Portal)
• Wigemark and Kljako discuss elections in Mostar (Dnevni avaz)
• Croatian President’s statement sparks reactions (N1)
• B&H CoM adopts draft action plan for solving migrant crisis in B&H (Hayat/N1)
• Zivi Zid files criminal charges against Plenkovic and ministers (Hina)
• SDP demands Prime Minister’s resignation and early elections (Hina)
• Coalition partners continue their support for Plenkovic (Hina)
• Growing optimism in Brussels about possible Macedonia-Greece name deal in June (MIA)
• Government reshuffle: Gashi’s BESA, DPA, Roma Alliance join Zaev’s cabinet (MIA)
• VMRO-DPMNE MP Gjorcev testifies in attempted murder trial (MIA)
• Maritime talks Albania-Greece, second round ends successfully (ADN)
• Rama in France for the opening of Accession Talks (ADN)
• Basha requests Xhafaj’s resignation: Prosecution to investigate (ADN)


• Turkey’s Balkan comeback (politico.eu)
• What can the UK do for the western Balkans post-Brexit? (The Economist)

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Dacic: Criticism at UN SC session on Kosovo (Beta/RTS)


The latest UN Security Council session was the first in a long while to hear criticism of Pristina from the Secretary General, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said. Dacic said the Pristina was criticized over the arrest of the Head of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija Marko Djuric, the Community of Serb Municipalities and the low numbers of displaced persons returning home, the Ministry said in a press release.   “I think this session was useful because all the members of the Security Council were informed of the situation in Kosovo,” Dacic said.

The Serbian Foreign Minister drew attention to the need to maintain a debate on the situation in Kosovo every three months because “one small incident could bring great political and security instability not just in Kosovo but in the entire region”. He recalled that some Western countries have suggested that the situation in Kosovo should be discussed behind closed door only two or three times a year.


Dacic: Serbia advocates unchanged mandate of the UN Mission in Kosovo (RTS/Tanjug)


Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic spoke with UN Under Secretary for Peace Operations Jean Pierre Lacroix on UNMIK’s role, as well as on Serbia’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations, and ways to further improve cooperation in this area. Dacic stressed that the UN Mission in Kosovo and Metohija is of the highest priority for Serbia and we advocate for her further presence and engagement in unlimited scope and unchanged mandate. He reminded that Serbia, according to the number of members of the army and police who are engaged in various peace missions, is the largest contributor in the Western Balkans region, and the tenth in Europe. Lacroix thanked Serbia for contributing to UN peacekeeping missions and reaffirmed the commitment of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to the consistent implementation of UNMIK’s mandate, as well as supporting the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. The officials discussed the possibilities for additional contribution of Serbia to peacekeeping operations, in line with specific needs on the ground.


Vucic: Kosovo Albanians care about territory, not people (Beta/RTS)


Kosovo President Hashim Thaci’s remark that he will never talk about an exchange of territories or a division of Kosovo, confirms that Albanians are interested only in the territory, Vucic said on Tuesday. Thaci said on Monday that he neither had nor he ever would talk about the division of Kosovo or the exchange of territories and that the issue popped out “to feel the pulse” of Kosovo, Serbia and the region. Commenting on the statement, Vucic said that “it seems he cares only about territories, and that the people have never been in his focus.” Vucic added that the Albanians always told him to leave the territory issue aside “because it’s Kosovo’s, let’s talk about your people.” “No kidding! Let us talk a bit about your interest in territories and then you will see that’s the only thing you care about,” Vucic told RTS from Düsseldorf. He added that the essence was in the way how the dialogue with “Kosovo’s mentors, tutors, those who let them go independent, those who bombed Serbia” would go on. “That’s our job to see can we get anything since all we have done from 1999 to 2011 was bad. Terribly bad… Not only then, many generations have made catastrophic mistakes which we are now paying a high price for,” Vucic said. He added he hoped Serbia would get something good out of it and that he was looking forward to hearing some good news from the EU Summit on Western Balkans in Sofia this month.


Djuric to Thaci: I don’t need false documents, I have the passport of the Republic of Serbia (RTS/Tanjug)


“I remind the so-called president of the provisional institutions of the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija Hashim Thaci, who has cynically offered me the non-existing citizenship of the southern province of my state, that I already have the passport of the Republic of Serbia, with which, like all Serbian citizens, I can travel without visas to 119 countries throughout the world, so that I do not need the offered false travel documents. It these documents would be worth something, then he, Haradinaj and their Pristina colleagues would not be taking publicly the passports of the Republic of Albania. It is good that many of his close relatives and friends also have the passports of Serbia, but they should explain to their compatriots in Kosovo and Metohija whether the fact that the false passport is not worth anything is a consequence of the fact that their state is false and non-recognized, so the documents are also not recognized, or is a consequence of the level of corruption and crime in the false state, over which even their biggest protectors do not let them into their countries without visas,” said the Head of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija Marko Djuric.


Scott: Higher number of cancer cases is not due to NATO (FoNet/RTS)


US Ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott said on Tuesday that an increased number of cancer patients in Serbia could equally be linked to a number of other factors besides NATO bombing of the country in 1999. He added that neither in Serbia nor in any other country where the ammunition with depleted uranium was used had any health risk and that both the WHO and the UN Environment Protection Program had it confirmed. In a reaction to Serbian parliament’s decision to form a commission to deal with consequences of the NATO 1999 bombing, after parliament speaker Maja Gojkovic linked the increased number in cancer patients to the depleted uranium used in NATO bombs, Scott said that his country was ready to take part in any serious scientific research about the issue. Scott said that depleted uranium was used mainly in Kosovo and in smaller quantity in Presevo and Bujanovac. Scott said that though someone might see a political benefit from linking the increase in cancer cases in Serbia to the NATO usage of the depleted uranium, he did not know of any scientific proof of that. He added that the timing and the way how the commission was announced, as well as related statements, could suggest that a ruling had already been made regardless of possible research’s results. Scott said that the reason for more cancer patients in Serbia could be equally related to the ageing population in the country, genetics, a large number of smokers or those living an unhealthy life otherwise, or even to a number of non-regulated landfills with dangerous and carcinogenic waste recently discovered in Serbia. Scott said that he saw some statistics in Serbia showing that an increased number of cancer patients was noted long before 1999, adding that the picture was not much different than in many European countries. But, he added, the mortality rate was higher, possibly due to late diagnosis or other problems in a treatment, including a slow acceptance of the innovative medicine. He said he hoped that any scientifically based research that would take into account all possible origins would come out with the same results as the previous studies. Scott said that even the International Atomic Energy Agency said that the risk of consuming food and water was extremely low since the uranium had not entered the food chain.


Lazanski: Serbia facing serious situation in negotiations on Kosovo (N1)


Serbia is faced with a very serious situation in the negotiations on a solution to the Kosovo problem, political analyst Miroslav Lazanski told N1. Lazanski said that official Belgrade is trying to get whatever it can from the negotiations. “Serbia’s position is very difficult we are pulling out what we can. The bill has come in for years of activity or lack of activity on Kosovo,” he said. Serbia could invoke international law but Kosovo has the powerful on its side, he said. “The most powerful Western countries won’t say so directly because this is still an attempt underway but they are trying to form a Kosovo army. That army already exists only it is not called an army but the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF). NATO experts are training them and equipping them and that’s no secret,” Lazanski said adding that the weapons the KSF has shown who is arming them. “They have M16 rifles,” he said. Serbia is running against the interests of the most powerful countries in the world but will not head towards a confrontation. “We can’t head into a confrontation and end cooperation with Western countries but we are aware that they are hostile towards Belgrade and we tell them so. They accept this and that is that for now. He said he does not know what the offer on the table is, adding that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic will speak out in public once he has an acceptable solution for Kosovo. “No one is threatening us with bombs or sanctions, we are not in a state of war. They are making offers which we can’t accept,” Lazanski said.




Covic: B&H will not fall into crisis; election winners will establish authority maybe even quicker than ever before (Nezavisne)


Croat member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) Dragan Covic said that it is too late for changes to the Election Law of B&H, but he underlined that B&H will not fall into crisis. “We have talked about the Election Law for a long time, for no less than two years, and no one wanted to support this story. It is too late for changes now, but we should continue talking about the Election Law and clearly say that B&H must not fall into crisis. I can assure you that B&H will not fall into crisis before the elections, and especially not after the elections”, Covic told journalists. He added that winners of the upcoming general elections in B&H will quickly establish authority, possibly quicker than ever before. “And that is my message to all those speculators, who want to turn my every glance, my every eyebrow movement into an event. I do not know who they read non-verbal signs which I am sending, but I will clearly tell them not to be concerned about Croat people of central Bosnia and B&H”, Covic said.


US Embassy to B&H surprised by Covic’s statement that it is too late to amend B&H Election Law (TV1)


The US Embassy to B&H stated on Tuesday that it is surprised by statements of Croat member of the B&H Presidency and HDZ B&H leader Dragan Covic, who said that amendments to the Election Law of B&H are “out of question” after the elections were called. “Delayed solution is better than no solution at all, if it means that it will be possible to form the authority after the elections. It is even less democratic to be unable to hold the elections. If leaders want to prepare a draft of a one-off solution, that is their choice and would not be a precedent as such,” reads a statement issued by the US Embassy to B&H.


Izetbegovic on Covic’s statement that it is too late to amend Election Law of B&H (TV1)


Commenting on the statement by Croat member of the B&H Presidency and HDZ B&H leader Dragan Covic, who said that it is too late to amend the Election Law of B&H, Chairman of the B&H Presidency and SDA leader Bakir Izetbegovic stated on Tuesday that such move came as a surprise, referring to a different attitude that was evident during the talks at the US Embassy to B&H or with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “None of us should give up until the very end. This is the way to cause a crisis in B&H. I hope he will give up and we will move on, as we expect the people from the Venice Commission to come in order to help us. I think there is still a chance to do that. There are five months left until the elections,” Izetbegovic said. He assessed that Covic tends to say some things when he is “angry”, and then he softens his stance. “I do not think there will be any kind of risky moves by Mr. Covic. I think he will work with us for things in this country to get stabilized after the elections, rather than creating a crisis. There have been too many crises,” Izetbegovic concluded.


Dodik says Serbia will not interfere in elections in B&H (Top Portal)


Republika Srpska (RS) President Milorad Dodik said in an interview to Top Portal that Serbia respects the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) and constitutional order in B&H and continues to assist the RS. Asked to comment on most recent claims of certain analysts who said that the West requested Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to “get rid of Dodik”, Dodik said that only people can relieve him of duty and said that such claims are merely speculations. “Serbia will not interfere in election process and Serbia cares about stability in the RS,” Dodik added. Asked to comment on claims on “various scenarios” of influence on the October elections, Dodik said that “USD 12 million was secured through American programs and through the US Embassy in Sarajevo for support to media and non-governmental sector in B&H, as well as additional USD 6 million for so called prevention of Russian influence which will be directed against the RS and Serbs”. Dodik also said that SNSD and Patriotic Bloc will win the general elections and announced: “Serbs will get the seat of the Chair of B&H Council of Ministers in next convocation and this will be a challenge both for the RS and for Serb people”.


Wigemark and Kljako discuss elections in Mostar (Dnevni avaz)


Head of the EU Delegation to B&H and EU Special Representative Lars-Gunnar Wigemark met with President of SBB B&H in Mostar Anel Kljako on Tuesday and discussed the issue of elections in the city. The two officials also discussed the amendments to the Law on Elections of B&H. Kljako informed Wigemark about the role of SBB B&H in the process of amending the Law on Elections, and he promised to continue constructive talks to ensure elections for the citizens of Mostar.


Croatian President’s statement sparks reactions (N1)


A statement given by Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic during her latest visit to B&H, according to which Croats in B&H are not minority and that B&H is their second homeland, sparks reactions in the public. Commenting on the issue, B&H Presidency Chairman and SDA leader Bakir Izetbegovic told that Grabar-Kitarovic has the right to her personal opinion, but that his opinion is quite different. “This is the first homeland to Croats in B&H – not the second one. Me or Grabar-Kitarovic do not need to tell people how they should feel. I think that Croats in B&H feel like first-class citizens and this is their first homeland, and then possibly Croatia as the second homeland”, Izetbegovic concluded. Former member of the Presidency of B&H Zeljko Komsic underlined that B&H is the only homeland for Croats in B&H.


B&H CoM adopts draft action plan for solving migrant crisis in B&H (Hayat/N1)


The B&H Council of Ministers (CoM) adopted on Tuesday a draft action plan for solving the migrant crisis in B&H in a humane and dignified way. The draft action plan consists of a set of emergency measures aimed at ensuring better control of the border, more efficient fight against illegal migration in the territory of B&H, implementation of the Agreement on Readmission and strengthening readmission capacities and capacities in the area of asylum, as well as intensifying activities on preventing smuggling of migrants. In accordance with the draft action plan, accommodation capacities in B&H for illegal migrants and vulnerable categories will be increased in cooperation with non-governmental and international organizations. Furthermore, the B&H CoM will ask relevant institutions in Serbia, Montenegro and the European Union to take action in order to address the migrant crisis in B&H. B&H Minister of Security Dragan Mektic told the press after the session that B&H will not allow itself to become a victim of the migrant crisis. He added that the country will even close its borders if necessary. “Some of the countries on this migrant route and in our neighborhood do not take this problem seriously and they easily let migrants in, and then they arrive in B&H. Now we have serious problems towards Croatia since this country closes this area. We do not want to be an area where a large number of migrants will gather without any solution”, Mektic stressed. Republika Srpska (RS) President Milorad Dodik reminded that the RS authorities have clearly said that the RS’ economy and social system cannot cope with the migrant crisis, and that it would be the best to prevent the arrival of migrants in the territory of B&H.


Zivi Zid files criminal charges against Plenkovic and ministers (Hina)


The Zivi Zid opposition party pressed criminal charges against Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic, who resigned earlier on Monday, former emergency administrator in the Agrokor conglomerate Ante Ramljak, and Finance Minister Zdravko Maric over the Agrokor mail scandal. “Martina Dalic isn’t that important anymore in this entire process but the Prime Minister’s responsibility is important, as he has executive authority, he has executive and command responsibility, and in the entire process he must have known and the emails show that he did know,” the party’s secretary-general Tihomir Lukanic told reporters, referring to correspondence between Dalic and the consultants and lawyers who had worked on the law on emergency administration in systemic companies, dubbed Lex Agrokor after the ailing Agrokor conglomerate. The criminal charges were filed for abuse of office and power, abuse of insider information, trading in influence and not reporting the preparation of a criminal act. Lukanic believes that the government no longer has legitimacy considering the fact that the Prime Minister has been contaminated in the process. “Considering the level of the Prime Minister’s responsibility, if he had any honor, he himself would resign, but we see that this won’t go in that direction,” he said, adding that the State Prosecutor’s Office must investigate the prime minister’s responsibility “which, as of today, is not just political, but criminal too.”


SDP demands Prime Minister’s resignation and early elections (Hina)


After Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic resigned in the wake of the Agrokor email scandal, Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Davor Bernardic called for Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic‘s resignation, saying that charges should be pressed against all those responsible in the scandal and that a snap election should be called. Addressing a press conference, Bernardic accused Plenkovic of covering up a criminal act, claiming that in normal, European countries, the prime minister’s resignation would be a matter of political responsibility. “I can say to the prime minister that this isn’t the end of this story but just the beginning. Considering that this is a public admission, I call on the State Prosecutor’s Office (DORH) to react in accordance with the Croatian law. We call for those responsible to be punished and call for a snap election,” Bernardic said.


Coalition partners continue their support for Plenkovic (Hina)


Speaking to the press before a meeting with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic on Tuesday, coalition partners said that it was necessary to end the settlement process in Agrokor and added that they did not consider Plenkovic to be responsible for the Agrokor email scandal which led to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic‘s resignation. The deputy speaker of parliament and deputy leader of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) Milijan Brkic said that Dalic’s resignation was a logical and politically responsible decision. “This situation isn’t pleasant and no one could have wished for it. We don’t need to gloat over this situation,” Brkic said. With regard to Plenkovic, Brkic said that, as far as he was aware, Plenkovic didn’t know what the so-called Borg email group was doing. Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS) leader Darinko Kosor said he was no longer interested in the reasons for Dalic’s resignation but rather whether there was any criminal responsibility of any other individuals who exploited this for their own personal gain. He added that politicians always have responsibility, but he believes that Prime Minister Plenkovic has “clean hands,” and that is why he will support the government. It is necessary to identify who showed favoritism and how and as a result gained personal benefit and they need to answer for that, he added. The head of the regional HDSSB party Branimir Glavas said that the Prime Minister had the support of all coalition partners and the government’s survival was not in question. Glavas added that he didn’t think HDZ members would turn against Plenkovic. Christian Democratic Party MP Branko Hrg said he expected to hear what phase the restructuring of Agrokor was at and what would happen next, and possibly be informed of who Dalic’s successor might be. He too believes that Plenkovic is not responsible for the latest developments. The president of the Reformists party Radimir Cacic said that the main point now was who would take over the economy portfolio. “If someone from the inside is to take over, then it is logical that that be the incumbent environment protection and energy minister Tomislav Coric,” Cacic said. A government without a deputy prime minister for economic affairs would be a serious problem, he added.


Growing optimism in Brussels about possible Macedonia-Greece name deal in June (MIA)


Top EU diplomats have been briefing about an optimism prevailing within the Union ahead of the Sofia Summit involving a deal to be concluded by Skopje and Athens next month.

A high-ranking diplomatic source, close to the European Council, held Tuesday a press briefing about preparations leading to the EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia, where the EU leaders are said to be expecting good news from Skopje and Athens regarding the name negotiations.

“There is still no happy ending and there won’t be any this week, but some good progress is made. What’s important is to see a solution to the Greek-Macedonian dispute in early June, which might play a key role in the European Council reaching a positive decision in June,” said the diplomat. In June, the EU heads of state and government will meet in Brussels for a summit dedicated to enlargement in which the recommendations of the European Commission (EC) presented in April will be discussed including Macedonia’s recommendation for the opening of accession talks. “It’s a timeframe that we need,” stated the diplomat. The leaders of Macedonia and Greece in Sofia on Thursday will brief about the negotiations. If Macedonia and Greece reach a name agreement, ‘a positive spillover’ can be expected in the other countries in the region. “The general atmosphere will be affected, as well as the decision involving Albania,” the diplomat noted. The European Council points out the 2017 Bulgaria-Macedonia friendship treaty as an example of how two countries in the region are able to settle differences. “We witnessed the treaty between Macedonia and Bulgaria. There have been many disputable issues, but they managed to solve this problem. This should serve as a model,” the diplomat said also pinpointing the border demarcation between Montenegro and Kosovo as the second ‘positive example’ in the Western Balkans. Asked whether the EU was considering an alternative for the opening of negotiations without a final compromise over the name issue, the diplomat responded: “What we need is a positive signal from the bilateral relations. We are still very hopeful that an agreement can be reached in June and we hope (PMs) Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras will justify our optimism even more.”


Government reshuffle: Gashi’s BESA, DPA, Roma Alliance join Zaev’s cabinet (MIA)


The Afrim Gashi-led BESA, DPA and Amdi Bajram‘s Alliance of Roma People will join the government as the new junior coalition partners. “We have reached a deal with BESA, led by MP Afrom Gashi, with DPA and the Alliance of Roma People of Amdi Bajram, who has acted as an independent deputy in the past few months,” Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told reporters on Tuesday. Negotiations are under way with some other people, he said failing to reveal any names. “It is a matter that should be discussed first by party bodies.” “The parties themselves will most probably announce the names of the candidates they nominate. I’ve talked with the candidates and I pay utmost attention to their personalities, it’s what matters to me most,” Zaev said. Motions on the appointments will be sent to Parliament by the end of the week, according to him.


VMRO-DPMNE MP Gjorcev testifies in attempted murder trial (MIA)


VMRO-DPMNE MP Vlatko Gjorcev was called to testify in a Skopje court Tuesday by the defense lawyers in a hearing involving the attempted murder of MP Zijadin Sela during the violent storming of Parliament on 27 April 2017. Gjorcev told the court that when he came into the Parliament’s press center he saw the MPs bleeding after being attacked by an angry mob of protesters. “Right there and then I decided that I should defend them by standing in front of them with my arms spread wide.” In the press center, he said, I saw (MP) Sela in the corner with the other MPs. I don’t know what happened to him, but I think it was him lying on the floor minutes later. Gjorcev told the court that after he had evacuated the MPs attacked by the defendants into his office he heard that Sela was badly injured. “I found Sela in an office on the third floor. He was barely speaking,” the opposition lawmaker testified adding that he had written Sela’s blood type with a pen on his sweatshirt to help the doctors save his life. MP Sela was evacuated out of the Parliament’s building through its parking lot. 10 men are standing trial for attempted murder of MP Zijadin Sela on 27 April 2017. They pleaded not guilty.


Maritime talks Albania-Greece, second round ends successfully (ADN)


The second round of talks between Greece and Albania on delimiting maritime zones was concluded this Tuesday, May 15 in Athens. The meeting was constructive and took place in positive, cooperative climate, both foreign ministries of Albania and Greece reported.

At the end of the first meeting in Crete, the two foreign ministers have shared a common statement with general terms on the progress of the meeting. “Significant progress has been made towards achieving sustainable and long-term solutions to outstanding issues, mutual benefit of both countries and their citizens, in line with European values and norms.”


Rama in France for the opening of Accession Talks (ADN)


Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, was received on Tuesday by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron in the premises of Elysse Palace. His visit there comes in the framework of meetings in important EU countries in order to convince these states to approve the progress report of the European Commission on the opening of accession negotiations with Albania.

But beyond his attempt to do so, the President Macron did not give to him a definitive answer, if he will support Albania or not.


Basha requests Xhafaj’s resignation: Prosecution to investigate (ADN)


Leader of Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha accused Minister of Interior Fatmir Xhafaj that he is hiding legal and political responsibility regarding the criminal activity of his brother. Basha said on Tuesday for the media, that Xhafaj should immediately resign from his post so Prosecution can investigate him, noting that, “Albania does not deserve to go from Tahiri issued to Xhafaj’s.  “In the name of opposition, I request Fatmir Xhafaj’s resignation”. Basha ended his speech by accusing Minister of Interior that he is preventing the implementation of anti-mafia law against his brother and himself. Opposition will have a loaded political action until Thursday’s Parliamentary session. After a meeting they had with allies, DP announced that on Wednesday they will protest outside the Ministry of Interior requesting Minister Xhafaj’s resignation.  Opposition have also announced the blocking of the parliament’s session.




Turkey’s Balkan comeback (politico.eu, by Valerie Hopkins and Andrew Gray, 15 May 2018)


While the EU frets about Moscow’s role in its backyard, Ankara has also increased its influence there.

A century after the Ottomans lost the Balkans, the empire’s heirs are making inroads once again.

As the European Union seeks to increase its sway in the western Balkans, the bloc will not only have to contend with a more assertive Russia, but also with the growing ambitions of Turkey.

This Thursday, EU leaders will meet their counterparts from six western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia — in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. At the first such summit since 2003, the EU will restate that its door remains open to the region, while the Balkan leaders will pledge to undertake the reforms needed to become members one day. The EU’s renewed interest in its southern backyard has been prompted partly by fears about Moscow’s role there — from giving fighter jets to Serbia to an alleged role in a coup attempt in Montenegro. But Russia is not the only power with a long history in the region exerting greater influence once more. European leaders have expressed concern over Turkey’s expanding influence in the western Balkans, particularly since the country has taken a more authoritarian turn. Speaking to the European Parliament last month, French President Emmanuel Macron put Ankara and Moscow in the same bracket, saying he did not want the Balkans to “turn towards Turkey or Russia.” That remark ruffled feathers in Ankara, even prompting a rebuke from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself. Turkey considers the Balkans part of its natural sphere of influence as the former imperial power, with the Ottoman Empire famously stopping only at the gates of Vienna at its peak. During Erdoğan’s 15-year rule, Turkey has invested significant effort and money into gaining an ever greater political, cultural and economic foothold in the western Balkans. It has provided development aid, led major infrastructure projects, opened universities and restored mosques, encouraged Turkish businesses to invest in the region and fostered dialogue between divided communities. But Ankara’s political reach has a darker side too. Erdoğan and Turkish ministers have pressed western Balkan countries to take measures against followers of the U.S.-based imam Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara blames for the 2016 attempt to overthrow the government. In March, the Turkish intelligence agency brought six suspected Gülenists from Kosovo to Turkey — apparently without the knowledge of Kosovo’s prime minister, who fired his interior minister and spy chief over the affair. Relatives of the men described the deportation as a “kidnapping.” Erdoğan’s plan to hold a rally in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on May 20 ahead of Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in June also demonstrates the extent of his influence in the region. Western European countries banned similar rallies before Turkey’s constitutional referendum last year. Yet many in Turkey, including critics of the government, argue that their country’s role in the western Balkans does not compete with the EU’s plans there, but rather complements the bloc’s efforts. “Turkey is not Russia,” said Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and visiting fellow at think tank Carnegie Europe. “Turkey is not in the business of trying to dissuade the western Balkan countries from converging with the EU — on the contrary.” An official in the Turkish foreign ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, struck a similar note about the EU’s worries. “I don’t understand, to tell the truth, why they are getting anxious about Turkey’s influence in the Balkans,” he said. “We’d like to establish good relations, we’d like to trade with them, we support Euro-Atlantic integration. It’s a win-win situation.”


Shared history

Over centuries of Ottoman rule, a mix of forced population transfers and voluntary migration between the western Balkans and what is now Turkey created large diasporas on both sides. The cityscape of Istanbul is littered with remnants of that era, with place names such as Arnavutköy (“Albanian village”) and Belgrade Forest. “Whenever you go to a social occasion [in Turkey], just find a group of 10 people and half of them will have family links to the Balkans,” said Bahadır Kaleağası, the CEO of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSIAD).

“There’s that family relationship, and it influences decision-making in the business community as well. It’s an emotional issue,” he added. Turkish investment and trade has ballooned across the region. Murat Uğur Ekinci, a Balkans analyst at SETA — a think tank close to the Turkish government — said official statistics show a remarkable increase in Turkey’s trade with the western Balkans, from $435 million (€364 million) in 2002 to $3 billion (€2.5 billion) in 2016.

Despite the increase, the western Balkans make up only a fraction of Turkey’s trade. Its trade volume with the EU, for instance, is around €145 billion. Ankara, however, has high hopes for expanding economic relations with the region. Kaleağası said the Balkans are attractive for Turkish businesses because both Turkey and the countries of the region have been trying to align regulations to those of the EU, as fellow membership candidates (although Ankara’s accession bid has largely stalled in recent years). But he added that most Turkish investors prefer to do business with Balkan countries already in the EU, such as Bulgaria, the host of Thursday’s summit.


Serbian surprise

Close cultural, historic and religious ties make Turkey a natural partner for western Balkan countries with a sizeable Muslim population, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo. More surprising has been a blossoming trade and political relationship with Serbia, where anti-Turkish sentiment was once widespread. A drive along Serbia’s main highway, part of the artery linking Turkey with Western Europe, illustrates the change: In recent years, billboards in Turkish have sprung up advertising hotels and restaurants for weary truck drivers. Signs pointing out the nearest mosque tend to use the Turkish mescit rather than the Serbian word džamija. Economic interests have persuaded both countries to set aside old enmities.

Serbia’s trade volume with Turkey last year reached nearly €1 billion, according to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce. Just two years earlier, the figure stood at €745 million. When Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić visited Erdoğan in Ankara this month to discuss infrastructure projects and other issues, he proclaimed that Turkey is “the biggest power, the strongest country in the Balkans.” He also thanked Erdoğan for bringing investors to Serbia. But Turkey’s economic presence is generally not what worries Ankara’s European allies. They fear that Turkey may gain political influence at the expense of Brussels. With Ankara, Moscow, China and the Gulf states all showing economic and political interest in the region, western Balkan governments can form close relations with partners less interested in democratic standards than the EU. Ankara has, however, repeatedly voiced support for the western Balkan nations’ EU membership plans. And Turkey does not have a “competing political model” to offer, unlike Moscow, said former diplomat Ülgen. “It would be wrong to look at this as a zero-sum game between Turkey and the EU in the Balkans,” he said. For their part, countries with close ties to Turkey insist these do not affect their desire to move toward the EU.  “For us, there is no alternative to EU membership,” Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati told reporters in Brussels last month, noting his country adhered to EU foreign policy. “Of course we do have very good relations with Turkey. This has not precluded us from … in some cases, having a different position from that of Turkey.”


Rhetorical repercussions

Yet some analysts fear that Erdoğan’s combative approach to politics could heighten tensions between and within ethnic groups in the western Balkans. The Turkish president employs tactics such as questioning the validity of border treaties to appeal to ultra-nationalists, on whose votes he depends to win the election. That is dangerous territory in a region that still bears deep wounds from the wars of the 1990s that tore Yugoslavia apart. “Those things may be meant for domestic consumption, but that way of speaking has repercussions,” said Vessela Tcherneva, who heads the Sofia office of the European Council for Foreign Relations. Pushing nationalist and religious buttons “has much graver consequences in the Balkans than elsewhere,” she added.

She finds Erdoğan’s plan to hold a pre-election rally in the Balkans particularly worrisome. Suha Umar, a former Turkish ambassador to Belgrade, shares Tcherneva’s concern, telling the website Al-Monitor that such a rally would be “highly risky.” But others say stirring up trouble is not in Turkey’s interests. “Any conflict or tension in the region would reduce Turkey’s ability to develop better ties and economic relations in the region, and those are Turkey’s priorities,” said SETA analyst Ekinci. Most analysts argue that it would, in any case, be futile for the EU to try to reduce Turkey’s presence, given the longstanding historical ties. Ülgen sees little difference between Turkey’s relationship with the Balkans and the United Kingdom’s relationship with Commonwealth countries, for example. “The EU needs to adjust itself to this reality that Turkey’s influence is not something that they can prevent,” he said. “The outlook should be: ‘We acknowledge Turkish influence, so how can we work together towards common objectives?’”


What can the UK do for the western Balkans post-Brexit? (The Economist, 16 May 2018)


The western Balkans’ problems include weak economies and institutions, high political risk, and organised crime and corruption. Growth since the 2008 global crisis has been weak and the region is falling further behind. The distance between average western Balkan incomes and EU15 levels was bigger in 2017 than in 1989—representing 35% of the EU15 in 1989 and 28% in 2017. Relatively slow or volatile rates of economic growth, widespread poverty, the brain drain of the professional middle classes and high levels of youth unemployment also explain problems in political development.


A host of problems

The region is characterised by high geopolitical risk. Security risks include many bilateral disputes; lasting enmities from the wars of the 1990s; the threat of Islamic fundamentalism; and—for the West—geopolitical competition from China, Russia and Turkey. Factors that predispose the region to political risk and instability include ethnic fragmentation; low public trust in government; a history of conflict; high unemployment; access to small arms; risk of terrorism; international tensions; human rights abuses; the existence of group grievances; and large numbers of refugees and displaced persons.

Democracy in most of the region has been backsliding for a decade. The formal institutions of democracy are in place; however, rulers operate through informal power structures, patronage and control of the media. The region’s polities are characterised by weak checks and balances and politicised judiciaries. Surveys consistently reveal low levels of public trust in political institutions and deep dissatisfaction with the post-communist transition after 1989.


The role of EU membership

The prospect of EU membership has generally played a positive role in encouraging reforms and promoting political stability. From this perspective, increasing enlargement fatigue in the EU and negative signals emanating from the bloc about the timing and even possibility of enlargement are sowing doubts in the western Balkans about the chances of joining the EU, and engendering fears about the adverse consequence of being left in limbo. Adding to these concerns is the impact of Brexit on the region’s accession prospects. The Brexit negotiations are expected to divert the EU’s attention and energy from enlargement. The UK is considered to be an enlargement-friendly country, and its forthcoming departure from the bloc is seen by many in the region as a loss of an important ally.


July Balkans summit

Despite Brexit, on July 9th‑10th 2018 the UK government is hosting the fifth annual western Balkans summit in London. The summit will bring together the leaders of the six western Balkan states and those of the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Austria, as well as representatives of the EU and the international financial institutions. It is part of the so-called Berlin Process, an inter-governmental initiative launched in 2014, the goal of which is to help the development of the western Balkans by focusing on investment, connectivity, infrastructure and regional co-operation, with the ultimate aim of the countries in the region joining the EU. The UK will be at the forefront of advocating EU membership for the western Balkans at the summit. Paradoxically, a country that is preparing to leave the EU will be advocating the benefits of EU accession. A country seeking to “take back control” from Brussels will advise others to relinquish part of their sovereignty to the EU. A recent report in the House of Lords (the upper house of the UK parliament) on the UK and the Balkans concluded that “EU membership is the most reliable path for western Balkan countries to achieve security, stability and prosperity. Post-Brexit the UK must continue wholeheartedly to support the accession ambitions of western Balkan countries”. Many in government and the diplomatic service in the UK, especially those who supported remaining in the EU, find it very difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of a useful, independent role for the country in the western Balkans separate from the EU. In particular, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has traditionally been very Europhile and finds it difficult to conceive of an independent British foreign policy in the region. This suggests a lack of confidence among important sections of the UK elite and a fear of exercising sovereignty. Links between the UK and the western Balkans are relatively weak. The number of people living in the UK who were born in the western Balkans is small. According to the 2011 census, there were fewer than 75,000 (although this widely believed to be a significant underestimate) individuals from the region living in the country. The trade relationship between the UK and the western Balkan countries is tiny. No country in the region features in the UK’s top 50 export destinations or sources of imports. British investment in the region is dwarfed by investment from other EU countries. In the context of Brexit, it may be hard to see how the Department for International Trade would want to expend energy on such a small and relatively poor region.


Post-Brexit opportunities

Despite this, the potential for a positive UK role in the region post-Brexit is considerable. Even though the UK does not have deep trade and investment links with the western Balkans, it has certain historical ties, the big advantage of the English language and its role in NATO, and its cultural diplomacy and educational ties. Despite Brexit, the UK still has substantial things to offer. The country is and will remain a major global actor. It has the largest defence budget in Europe and the second largest in NATO (after the US). It is a major aid donor, with a commitment to invest at least 50% of development spend (0.7% of GDP) in fragile states and regions such as the western Balkans. The UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a leading member of other international organisations such as the IMF, the World Bank, the G7, the G20, the OECD and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). These are multilateral forums through which the UK can continue to work in the western Balkans.  The UK is respected in the Balkans for its parliamentary system, rule of law and creative industries, including music and film and digital skills, all of which present opportunities for engagement. Post-Brexit, the UK will no longer have to give preference to migrants from EU states. Whatever immigration policy it adopts, there will be a level playing field for potential migrants from the western Balkans and other non-EU countries.

Above all, the UK will be able to influence the region in a positive way, not via the EU’s confidence-sapping and dependency-inducing policy of conditionality, but through the of power of example, of the functioning of its centuries-old democracy and the example of the exercise of sovereignty and taking responsibility for its own fate.


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