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Belgrade Media Report 07 November

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LOCAL PRESS

• Falconi: Any solution accepted by Belgrade and Pristina would be satisfactory to France (N1)
• Hahn: From Serbia’s perspective, the idea of striking an agreement with Kosovo will only make sense if there is a prospect of EU accession (Tanjug)
• Djuric: Kosovo’s Kurti talk about reciprocity euphemism for rejecting dialogue (Beta)
• Russia will deliver the Pantsir S-1 missile system to Serbia in the next few months (RTS)
• The U.S. demands that opposition runs in elect ion, opposition cites fair conditions as prerequisite (Beta)
• Jeremic: Through boycott we restore people’s trust, show we are ready for sacrifice (Beta)
• Dodik: Independent Republika Srpska is no longer just a dream (Alo)

REGIONAL PRESS

Bosnia & Herzegovina
• Dodik: HR Inzko continues to meddle in things that are not within his jurisdiction (N1)
• SDA: It is unclear how Inzko got to suggest that everyone is responsible for stalemate (Hayat)
• Dzaferovic: Blockade of BiH Parliament biggest problem at the moment (Oslobodjenje)
• Ivanic assesses that Balkans is object of conflict of great powers not because of its importance but because of their mutual relations (EuroBlic)
Croatia
• Will Serbian President Vucic give a speech in Zagreb? (Hina)
Republic of North Macedonia
• Why did Macron refuse to meet the “toxic” Zaev? (Republika)
Albania
• Vasak: The decision not to open negotiations on October 18 did not close the door to Albania (Radio Tirana)

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

• Serbian opposition suspicious of Referendum Law Changes (BIRN)

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LOCAL PRESS

 

Falconi: Any solution accepted by Belgrade and Pristina would be satisfactory to France (N1)   

 

Jean-Louis Falconi, the French ambassador to Serbia, speaking about a solution to the Kosovo problem, said the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina was necessary for their European perspective. “I heard President Aleksandar Vucic saying he is ready for the dialogue, but there should be a partner on the other side. The first condition is that Pristina forms a government, and I hope that the wish for the dialogue would exist” Falconi said. He added he hoped for the resumption of talks and said the “EU has the main role in supporting the dialogue.” Falconi said that any solution accepted by Belgrade and Pristina would be satisfactory to France.

Falconi told N1 that his country wanted that “all Western Balkans state’s, and especially Serbia, join the European Union.” In an apparent clarification of his President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of “privileged partnership” instead of full membership, Falconi said Paris “has no doubts” about the Western Balkans’ membership, adding it was a process which meant certain conditions which had to be met. Commenting on the EU failure to set a date for the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, Falconi said the two countries were putting efforts, but that some conditions related to the reforms were not fulfilled. “There is no compromise with that,” the ambassador said.

He added the relationship between France and Serbia were “extremely good,” especially after Macron’s visit to Belgrade, which Falconi described as both French and EU attempt to be more present in the Balkans.

Regarding Serbia’s internal political situation, the ambassador said it was complicated. He added he wouldn’t judge “any party,” and that he respected the idea on election boycott, but said the participation in elections was a way to have a voice and that the question was how would the opposition continue to express its views if boycotted the polls. Falconi said that an essential element in the functioning of democracy was the media freedom and access to media outlets.

“The opposition must have access to media to present its views” Falconi said.

 

Hahn: From Serbia’s perspective, the idea of striking an agreement with Kosovo will only make sense if there is a prospect of EU accession (Tanjug)

 

In his report to the European Parliament on the Western Balkans, the Commissioner for Accession Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, said that the prospect of EU accession was the biggest impetus for reforms and processes in the region, and when it came to Serbia, he said that the idea of an agreement with Kosovo would only make sense if there is a prospect of joining the EU.

The outgoing Commissioner in charge of EU enlargement policy in his last address to the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee reiterated that it was a historic mistake not to decide to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. He pointed out that in the Western Balkans, everyone was encouraged by every positive step towards European integration, but also vice versa.

 

“If we do not move forward, we lose influence in the countries of the region”, Hahn said. He cited Belgrade-Pristina dialogue as an example, stating that both sides want to “make progress and keep up with the region”. “From Serbia’s perspective, the idea of striking an agreement with Kosovo will only make sense if there is a prospect of EU accession” Hahn warned.

 

One of the questions of MEPs, to which Johannes Hahn did not respond, concerned the justification of a possible request to Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence through a final agreement with Pristina. “How can we ask Serbia if five of our member states have not done the same” MP Thierry Mariani had asked. Speaking about the situation in Serbia, Hahn said that the opening of accession negotiations led to increased foreign investment in the country.

 

Asked about relations between Serbia and Russia, Hahn stressed that one of the key issues was the alignment of Serbia’s foreign policy with that of the EU, noting that both Serbia and EU member states could hear misinformation when it comes to relations between Moscow and Belgrade. “Hardly anyone knows that Serbia organizes more military exercises with NATO than with Russia. Moreover, completely different information can be heard in Serbia. Everyone has to send the right information to both partner countries and member states” Hahn said.

 

Talking about reform of enlargement policy, Johannes Hahn said that there is much talk about the rule of law and that the opening of accession negotiations does not automatically mean EU accession. He assessed, however, that the EU already has a number of instruments at its disposal to respond to developments in the enlargement process. “It is important for us to continue the dialogue with the member states, but also to provide support for the economic development of the region because economic growth affects the development of the rule of law” Hahn said. He reiterated that he believed that the EU internal reform and enlargement process could and should go hand in hand. “If you just focus on internal reforms, once when that is over, we should go back to enlargement, the Western Balkan countries expect a postponement of the EU perspective for the next 30 years, which is neither realistic nor credible” Hahn says.

 

Johannes Hahn said that reforms in the Western Balkans would not happen without EU pressure, or citizens’ desire to join the EU. He also warned that the brain drain is undermining the social development of the Western Balkans. “The Western Balkans is not a suburb of Europe, but part of Europe. We cannot have a situation where the population is leaving the country. This will contribute to a vacuum, that can create a security risk” Hahn concluded.

 

Djuric: Kosovo’s Kurti talk about reciprocity euphemism for rejecting dialogue (Beta)

 

Marko Djuric, the head of Serbia’s Government Office for Kosovo, said that the leader of the Self-Determination movement and most likely Kosovo’s next Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s idea on the reciprocity with Belgrade was just a euphemism for rejecting the further talks on the normalization of relations, the Beta news agency reported on Thursday.

 

In an interview with N1 held in Pristina, Kurti said his government would lift the 100 percent import tariffs on goods from Serbia that stopped the dialogue after introduced last November if Belgrade made some moves which he considered discriminative. Kurti told N1’ Pressing political hard talk that his government would replace the tariffs through reciprocity, what, he said, was “the principle for healthy constructive relations”. “We will draw up a list of everything needed for reciprocity with Belgrade,” he said. According to him, Serbia has to do something in other fields before the tariffs are revoked and only then should dialogue be prepared. “We do not have the luxury of allowing another dialogue to fail” he said.

 

However, Djuric said that “in that way, Kurti announced he would abolish possibility for selling Serb goods in Kosovo even with the paid taxes” Djuric said in a written statement. “Belgrade will continue to give the dialogue a chance, but it is difficult to have any productive talks with a man whose ideology is made of hatred and political anachronism” Djuric said.

 

Russia will deliver the Pantsir S-1 missile system to Serbia in the next few months (RTS)

 

Russia will deliver the Pantsir S-1 missile system to Serbia in the next few months, in accordance with the signed agreement, said the director of the Russian Defense Import and Export Agency “Rosoboronexport” Alexander Mikheyev. Mikheyev emphasized that everything was going according to plan and that there would be no delays, as well as that these systems were already being produced and that Serbia’s crews were in training. The contract will be completed in the next few months, and after the training is completed, Russia will begin delivery of the system, Mikheyev said. The Pantsir S-1 is an artillery-and-missile air defense system capable of operating with missiles up to 20 kilometers and cannons of 30 millimeters. Each Pantsir has an observation and sight radar and a fire control system.

 

The U.S. demands that opposition runs in elect ion, opposition cites fair conditions as prerequisite (Beta)

 

Opposition representatives who met with U.S. envoy Matthew Palmer on Nov. 5 have confirmed that they were openly told the U.S. wants them to participate in the regular parliamentary polls due next spring. They say, however, that they cannot accept this demand unless all or most of their earlier requests for the creation of fair and democratic election conditions have been met, and that, otherwise, they will boycott the polls. The opposition representatives contacted by Beta also said that such position of Washington was worrying and disappointing. They added that during their meeting with Palmer they reiterated that it would be good to change the format of the ongoing dialogue between the authorities and the opposition, and that they proposed that representatives of the EU and U.S. hold separate talks with representatives of the ruling bloc and the part of the opposition favoring the boycott if the requests for fair election conditions are not met. “We were told that Washington is serious, that we could count on having access to the RTS public service. We reiterated that the boycott is not our goal and that we want to participate in the vote but that under the existing conditions that is not possible. We will now wait to see how the situation will develop” an opposition source told Beta.

 

Jeremic: Through boycott we restore people’s trust, show we are ready for sacrifice (Beta)

 

The president of the People’s Party, Vuk Jeremic, has stated that the main reasons for the election boycott were to make it clear who is the true opposition and who is not, and to unite the voters who are against the regime. “The fake election in spring 2020 will show that not quite everyone is the same and that there are those who are ready to make personal sacrifices in order for changes to take place in Serbia, i.e. that not all of us are in politics for the sake of positions and allowances. Until that happens, it will not be possible to restore the people’s trust and, without trust, there can be no will that is required for awakening the strength of the people for changes” Jeremic stated. He stressed that, because of the completely irregular election conditions, it is absolutely impossible for the opposition to win in any city or municipality at the forthcoming “fake election.” “We will not back down from the decision to boycott the election. Those who do participate, will quite certainly lose, and will then have difficulties in being able to convince the people that they did not participate to win privileges” Jeremic said.

 

Dodik: Independent Republika Srpska is no longer just a dream (Alo)

 

SNSD leader and member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) Milorad Dodik saidfor Belgrade-based Alo that each arming of para-military by SDA is illegal, as well as military exercises on Mt. Vlasic and in Cazin. According to Dodik, SDA leader Bakir Izetbegovic spoke several times about increase of production in the military industry in B&H, under ‘God forbid’ phrase, which led Dodik to say that is something “we will be following”. In this context Dodik said ‘they’ think that a time will come when they, with the help from NATO and jihadists, will destroy Republika Srpska (RS), which led Dodik to say the RS has a system on how to defend itself.  The SNSD leader further noted that a special session of the RS National Assembly will discuss everything related to behavior of the High Representatives (HRs) in the past, about deception called the Bonn powers and about the lawlessness imposed by the HRs “who we will sue because they were big scammers and criminals”. Dodik is also carried as saying that he never stopped dreaming about independent RS and that he is now more convinced about it. “If they do not give us the return to the Dayton position in line with international documents, we will request the right to self-determination. Still, there will be no war here. There is no more interventionism, no formal possibility for war” said Dodik.

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina

 

Dodik: HR Inzko continues to meddle in things that are not within his jurisdiction (N1)

 

After Wednesday’s session, Serb member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) Presidency Milorad Dodik said that three Presidency members have only a small number of topics they actually see eye-to-eye. Dodik told reporters that SNSD will not propose any more meetings for discussion on the formation of the state-level authorities, nor will it back down when it comes to its opposition to B&H’s path towards the NATO. N1 reporter notes that Dodik tried to convince the other two members that B&H’s EU integration process has no connection to the country’s path towards the NATO, which is why these matters must be viewed and discussed separately. It seems he was unable to change their minds and their stances remain set in stone. Dodik said that he arrived at Wednesday’s session of the Presidency with a dose of optimism, hoping some things could be resolved, but his optimism was shattered when Bosniak member of the B&H Presidency Sefik Dzaferovic refused to support appointment of Serb members to the Steering Board of the Central Bank (CB) of B&H. “There are no solutions here” Dodik emphasized, adding: “I am ready to talk, but I will not just sit and be quiet. If they believe I will sit here and be mocked by the ‘carsija’, they have another thing coming”.

 

Dodik also said that High Representative (HR) Valentin Inzko, while presenting his regular six-month report on the state of affairs in B&H, “massively deceived” the UN Security Council (UN SC) by presenting a series of falsehoods about many things in B&H. Dodik called the report “false and malicious”, emphasizing that he interpreted the country’s paths towards the EU and the NATO, even though he is not authorized to meddle in such matters. The fact that Inzko, once again, blamed Republika Srpska (RS) for everything wrong in B&H, proves that he is the ‘extended hand of Bosniaks’ and always takes their side in any matter, Dodik concluded.

 

“The High Representative put himself above the Constitutional Court when he forbade the Constitutional Court to discuss his measures. All of this is international crime under the auspices of the High Representative. The NATO integration does not concern the High Representative. It is not written anywhere in the Annex 10 that he is in charge of the NATO integration in his mandate and yet he talked about it a lot in his report. He is not in charge of the European integration either” Dodik stressed.

 

Commenting the formation of a new convocation of the B&H Council of Ministers (B&H CoM), the SNSD leader reminded he already told SDA and HDZ B&H leaders, Bakir Izetbegovic and Dragan Covic respectively, that they have ten days to sort things out and approach the process of authority formation seriously. “I will not hold any new meetings nor attend any negotiations”, Dodik stressed. Dodik noted that he was trying for hours to reach an agreement with Komsic and Dzaferovic about the appointment of the B&H CoM Chairman on Tuesday evening.

 

He added that he will no longer be the one to initiate the talks about formation of new authorities, nor will he give consent to submission of the ANP to the NATO. “We will not accept and we will not give consent to the ANP for membership in the NATO. The moment you submit the ANP for the first time, you are determined to become a member. Our decision not to support the integration into the Alliance is clearly specified in our resolution on military neutrality and protection of the constitutional order, which was adopted by the RS National Assembly (RSNA). That is our right and decision that I respect. As for the previously adopted decisions, nobody is denying them, of course. It is very clear to us that we cannot bring them into question, nor have we submitted a request for the previously adopted decisions to be revoked. What we are doing is that we do not want to give our political consent to new decisions of this kind. That is the difference” Dodik explained.

 

SDA: It is unclear how Inzko got to suggest that everyone is responsible for stalemate (Hayat)

 

SDA stated on Wednesday that although the latest report that High Representative Valentin Inzko submitted to the UN Security Council (UN SC) contains a number of correct assessments on situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H), it is completely unclear how he got to suggest that everyone in the country is responsible for the stalemate. The statement reads that Inzko should have used precise, clear and specific expressions when it comes to description of the policies. By using ambiguous expressions, Inzko paved the way for creating wrong perceptions and making it look like the policies are equal regardless of whether they protect or undermine the Constitution and laws, according to the statement issued by SDA.

 

Dzaferovic: Blockade of BiH Parliament biggest problem at the moment (Oslobodjenje)

 

Member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) Sefik Dzaferovic said that the blockade of the Parliament of B&H represents the biggest problem at the moment, as well as lack of unblocking mechanism, i.e. penalizing those who refuse to do their job. “With regards to the Presidency of B&H, we are stuck on a very important issue, which is the issue of the rule of law. We must have full dedication to respecting all the existing laws and decision. We are probably not going to move until this issue is resolved… Stances of HDZ and SNSD are known. Their policy is mostly synchronized and they support each other. That support does not consider rule of law principle, because the first (SNSD) refuse to respect the existing laws, and the second (HDZ B&H) would like to impose changes to the existing laws as a condition for authority formation. All of that is against the principle of the rule of law” said Dzaferovic and confirmed that they are trying to find a way out of the situation with the help of the international community, but they are yet to find acceptable solution.

 

Asked to comment a decision of the EU not to approve beginning of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, Dzaferovic said that the decision has been disappointing to all the countries in the region, and it is a serious mistake made by the EU as the membership of the Western Balkan countries in the EU means road to stability and progress. “For BiH and all other countries of the Western Balkans, this means slower and more complicated toad to EU membership. This decision, however, must not discourage us. All the institutions of BiH must work on meeting the membership conditions with dedication. EU and NATO membership remains our main foreign policy goal.”

 

Ivanic assesses that Balkans is object of conflict of great powers not because of its importance but because of their mutual relations (EuroBlic)

 

Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) Mladen Ivanic (PDP), speaking about strengthened US presence in the Western Balkans, said that the Balkans turned into an object of conflict between great powers and explained that the stronger US presence in the Balkans was not caused by the importance of the Balkans but it was caused by their mutual relations. “It is obvious that this international political conflict, if I may call it like that, will last. I do not expect to see any major changes, especially when it comes to B&H. There is no chance for the basic framework of organization of B&H to be changed within a short period of time. There are only two ways to do that. The first one is to have ourselves agree on that, and it is clear we cannot do that because Bosniaks would immediately want to have B&H without entities, Serbs would want to have an independent Republika Srpska (RS) while Croats would want to have the third entity. Also, it is hard to expect that Russia, America, EU and – for the sake of their special interests – Croatia, Serbia and Turkey could agree on some new B&H. Nothing major will take place when it comes to reorganization of B&H in the next 15 or 20 years”, Ivanic said. Asked whether “Americans might still twist arms like in past”, Ivanic said that this might happen in individual cases but it is hard to expect to see it happen through the Office of the High Representative (OHR) because both Russia and EU countries are against such policy. Ivanic went on to say that B&H should maintain close relations, but not too close, with USA, EU, Turkey, Russia and China and noted that results will depend on their skill to manage under such circumstances. Ivanic said that he opposes the idea to bring in connection the status of the RS with Kosovo issue because both the RS and Kosovo are spaces where Serbs claim their rights. “If one is connected to the other, then this would mean we would have to renounce of one of those” Ivanic explained.

 

Croatia

 

Will Serbian President Vucic give a speech in Zagreb? (Hina)

 

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic on Thursday refuted speculation that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic would deliver a speech in the Croatian parliament during a European People’s Party congress, saying Vucic had the right to attend the congress because he was invited by EPP president Joseph Daul. He was commenting on media reports that Vucic would speak in parliament because he is scheduled to speak at the EPP congress taking place in Zagreb on November 19-21.

“It’s not good to tell lies which others then relay. This is very important for freedom of the press and professional reporting” Plenkovic told reporters. He is confident there will be no drama about Vucic’s arrival, although reporters remarked that there were protests when Vucic last visited Zagreb in February 2018. “Today we will be in Geneva together. We see each other at many international meetings.” “He and his party are an associate member of the EPP… He was invited by president Daul. If he wants to come, he’ll come” Plenkovic said. He said the EPP congress would be the biggest meeting of any European political group ever held in Croatia.

Plenkovic went on to say that the EPP Political Assembly would meet in parliament, “a body which meets every four to six weeks.”

The congress will be held at the Arena sports center, which can host the 2,000 prime ministers or party presidents from the EPP group that have been invited. “Many have confirmed their arrival. As far as I know, Vucic hasn’t yet.”

After N1 television said Vucic would speak in the Croatian parliament, Plenkovic’s HDZ party too said Vucic would not speak at a session of the EPP Presidency and Political Assembly to be held in parliament on November 19. Vucic is scheduled to speak at the Arena center the next day as one of 60 speakers, according to the official mobile app of the congress.

 

Republic of North Macedonia

 

Why did Macron refuse to meet the “toxic” Zaev? (Republika)

 

The French President for five months refuses to meet with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, and immediately agreed to meet with President Stevo Pendarovski as early as next Tuesday. Lider analyzes: Why does Macron refuse to meet with the “toxic” Zaev?

The Prime Minister himself confirmed last month that he had been waiting for four months to meet Macron, but he refused his requests. For four months, I have been requesting a meeting with the French President Macron, through the French Ambassador Christian Thimonier and the Macedonian Ambassador to France and other diplomatic channels, but I have not received a response so far. I want to meet with Macron, he is our great friend, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said on October 19.

According to Croatian journalist Ivan Brodic, who closely follows developments in the European Union, it is logical that Macron would prefer to meet Pendarovski instead of Zaev – because the president, unlike the prime minister, reacted sharply to the “Racket” case.

Remember, Pendarovski reacted very sharply to the possibility of corruption at the government leadership in the “Racket” case. He demanded that all responsible be punished. Perhaps that part of the answer to your question may be hidden, journalist and analyst Ivan Brodic told Lider.

The analyst added that when Slovenia blocked Croatia’s accession to NATO, then the US diplomacy threatened Slovenia by refusing credit reprogramming and so the blockade fell. According to Brodic, this anecdote shows that NATO is a geostrategic alliance. Unlike NATO, the European Union is value creation. It is completely unthinkable for the EU to admit countries where the very government leadership is very close to the biggest corruption scandals and in which political opponents are sentenced to higher prison sentences than returnees from the Islamic State, Brodic analyzes. According to him, it is very tragic what has been happening in our country for the last three years.

The latest set (meaning SDSM and Zoran Zaev) has devalued European standards in a country that, as a reminder, was the first in the Balkans ready to join the Euro-Atlantic integration, Brodic says.

The longtime political actor Nikola Srbov shares a similar opinion, who reminds that the French ambassador Timonier has repeatedly, in a very direct way, alarmed about what is happening in Macedonia. The refusal of French President Macron to meet with Zoran Zaev is the result of criminal-corrupt affairs that came to light during that period, with indications that the government leadership was directly involved. We must realize that the president of one of the world’s leading states, in this case, the French president, is quite well informed about the developments, especially of such major affairs. On the other hand, President Pendarovski was sidelined by those events to the point of holding a rather fierce pre-conference on the topic immediately after the affair came out, Nikola Srbov told Lider.

As an additional reason why Macron refused to meet Zaev, Srbov cites the fact that the Macedonian government is doing absolutely nothing in the context of those indications of a deficit in European values.

On the other hand, analyst Stefan Vasilevski of the Conservative MK political center claims that Pendarovski has skillfully manipulated his “meeting with Macron”, given that it will happen on the sidelines of the “Paris Peace Forum”. The Paris Peace Forum aims to strengthen global policies with an emphasis on multilateralism. As a host, Macron will receive all guests including heads of about 30 countries. Pendarovski skillfully manipulates this moment to sell it as talk of our European integration. Zaev, on the other hand, is not aware that serious politicians do not change their positions easily and hence I do not understand why he requested a meeting at all. He simply had homework for a date that he didn’t do, Vasilevski told Lider.

In the end, whether Pendarovski got the meeting on the sidelines of the peace forum or he was honored by his French counterpart, the fact remains that Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is practically boycotted by the leader of one of the most powerful EU countries. After Macedonia was left without a date for negotiations, it was announced that Macron would visit the country, but French Ambassador Christian Timonier practically buried Zaev’s hopes of meeting Macron, saying that if his president came to the country it might mean interference in the pre-election process.

 

Albania

 

Vasak: The decision not to open negotiations on October 18 did not close the door to Albania (Radio Tirana)

 

Christina Vasak, the French ambassador to Albania, said the decision not to open negotiations on October 18 did not close the door to Albania. Although the negotiations were not opened after Macron vetoed, the French ambassador said from Elbasani that the President of her country would support Albania and Macedonia, while leaving a door open for the Zagreb summit next year.

“The CoE decision does not close the door to Albania. There is a meeting left at the Zagreb Summit, which is important. We must have something clear that all states will play a part in this decision, as it must be unanimous. The meeting is essential, as it will be discussed about Albania and other countries. France and Macron have clearly expressed their support for Albania and the candidate countries for opening the negotiations” she said.

 

INTERNATIONAL

 

Serbian opposition suspicious of Referendum Law Changes (BIRN)

 

Serbia’s Ministry for Local Government has put proposed changes to the Law on Referendums up for public discussion until November 22 before the law then goes to parliament. The ministry said the changes, which are expected to be adopted, will revive the use and frequency of referendums in the country by making the rules easier and more in line with the constitution.

“The aim is to establish rules to conduct referendums and people’s initiatives with the active participation of citizens,” the state secretary at the ministry, Zoran Kasalovic, told a public discussion in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad on November 6. He explained that a more modern referendum law would also allow signatures to be gathered electronically.

 

Pathway to changing the constitution?

 

The official explanation of the changes says the current law, adopted in 1994, is restrictive, outdated and inconsistent with Serbia’s 2006 constitution. It adds that it is also not properly aligned with best practice in many EU countries, referring to “major shortcomings”, which it said is why “referendums and people’s initiatives are rarely used”. The main change will get rid of the current threshold, which is the participation of 50 per cent of all voters plus 1, for a referendum to be deemed successful and the result valid. However, while the government says the only aim is to make referendum rules clearer and easier, the opposition fears the real reason for abolishing the threshold is to make it easier for the government to push through an unpopular compromise over Kosovo – the former province that declared independence in 2008. They fear the changes are designed also to pave the way to changing the 2006 constitution – which firmly restates Serbia’s claim to Kosovo. In its opening preamble, it defines Kosovo as an “integral part of the territory of Serbia”.

 

“This is a preparation for the change to the constitution” insists Borko Stefanovic, former head of Serbia’s negotiating team with Kosovo and now vice-president of the opposition non-parliamentary Freedom and Justice Party. His party’s program focuses on “respect for the Serbian Constitution and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244” – referring to the UN 1999 resolution that affirmed Serbia’s continued sovereignty over the former province.

Politicians like Stefanovic fear the proposed changes to the law will be used to validate a government-backed “secretly agreed solution for Kosovo”.

 

An umbrella group of opposition parties, the Movement for Changes [Pokret za preokret] has also denounced the proposals, scenting “a new possibility for changing the constitution regarding the position of Kosovo and Metohija, i.e. creating opportunities for its recognition as an independent state and its membership in the United Nations without the will of citizens of Serbia”.

Politicians representing the small and beleaguered Serbian community in Kosovo itself are even more fearful that changes to Serbia’s referendum law may pave the way to a sell-out on Kosovo.

 

Marko Jaksic, a former opposition deputy in the local assembly in the Kosovo Serb bastion of North Mitrovica, said he suspected they “may be linked to more easily securing citizens’ support for a possible solution to the Kosovo issue”. He noted that the law changes were being made “in a situation when a large part of society and political parties are against Vucic’s solutions for Kosovo,” as he told BIRN. For him, the proposed amendments, especially concerning the threshold, show that the government fears that most people will not support its “Kosovo solution”.

Another small political formation in Serb-run northern Kosovo, the People’s Movement of Serbs from Kosovo and Metohija Homeland, said in a press release on November 6 that the main goal of the proposed amendments was to enable the Serbian President to “give up Kosovo in a democratic way”. “In order to avoid prosecution for the criminal act of national treason, Aleksandar Vucic wants to hand over Kosovo through a referendum,” the movement claimed in a strident press release, Jugpress website reported.

Surveys suggest most Serbs would indeed consider concessions over Kosovo treasonous. According to a survey by the NGO Centre for Social Dialogue and Regional Initiatives, published in October 75 per cent of its citizens think Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s independence would be treason.

The same survey showed 65 per cent of them accept that recognition of Kosovo is a condition for EU membership – but 71 per cent were still against recognition in exchange for EU membership.

In reality, Serbian officials have not referred at all to Kosovo in the context of the proposed referendum law changes. However, President Vucic has more than once promised a referendum on any eventual agreement about the status of the former province. While Vucic himself has offered no compromise on Kosovo, whose independence he firmly rejects, he is under strong pressure from the EU, which Serbia wishes to join, to settle the dispute.

On May 2, Vucic again said that any final solution for Kosovo would require a referendum. “We will ask people to say what they think about a possible compromise solution in a referendum,” he said. A few days earlier, he said that Serbia’s citizens would “be given an opportunity to voice their opinion on what we think is a rational and compromise solution” for Kosovo.

Rasim Ljajic, Tourism Minister and head of the Social Democratic Party, a junior party in government, in January also backed the idea of a referendum in Kosovo.

“A referendum in which citizens declare [their views] about the Kosovo issue is not an option to resolve this issue but rather a way for citizens to express themselves freely and democratically about a solution proposed by the politicians,” Ljajic was quoted saying by Serbia’s Tanjug news agency on January 28.

 

Questions of democratic legitimacy

 

While the opposition in Serbia frets about a possible sell-out on Kosovo, which is then validated by a referendum conducted under new rules, Nemanja Nenadic, from the Serbian branch of Transparency International, said the proposed changes to the Referendum Law were an attempt to avoid repeating mistakes made in the past. He recalled the referendum held in 2006 on the new constitution, whose content and the way it was passed into law were criticised by the public and legal experts; there was no public hearing before the constitution was adopted, and some parties boycotted the vote. “In order not to have this situation happen again, they [the government] have decided to propose changes” Nenadic told BIRN. However, he added, if the referendum rules are changed by lowering the threshold, the result may be more open to challenge. “It is a matter of democratic legitimacy whether to accept a referendum in which not even half the voters participate” he observed.

Serbia might draw lessons from the September 30, 2018, referendum in neighboring North Macedonia on the “name” deal with Greece – which was deemed invalid due to a low turnout that fell below “50-per-cent-plus-one” threshold. While a number of countries in the region stick with a 50-per-cent turnout threshold, to ensure changes have proper support, such thresholds create problems of their own.

But Nenadic said it was still important for referendum results to be based on the support of clear majorities. He urged the government to focus more on cleaning up the electoral roll – and to continue to link the success of a referendum to the clearly expressed opinion of the majority.

“The healthiest way would be for it to be confirmed by the majority [of registered voters],” he added.

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Belgrade Media Report 20 November 2019

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