Vucic: The Montenegrin Prime Minister is telling notorious lies (Tanjug/B92)
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the Montenegrin Embassy building was protected during yesterday’s protest. He added that Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic had been notoriously untruthful about the event, as well as when he said that Montenegro’s independence was threatened. Vucic also said that Montenegro does not have to protect its independence, because it is not threaten by anyone, but also that it cannot take Serbian holy places. “We will not threaten your independence, we will not wage war, we will not fight with you. Do not lie to your people that you have been threatened with independence, you are the ones who have endangered shrines that are not yours, which do not belong to the Ministry of Interior or the government of Montenegro, but to the people and the Serbian church,” Vucic said. Vucic said this in response to a tweet by the Prime Minister of Montenegro, who wrote that “another uncivilized attack on the Embassy of Montenegro and the Montenegrin flag” took place in Belgrade last night, that the relationship between the Serbian authorities was staggering and that Montenegro was facing another challenge of defending its independence and freedom. “How was it threatened when we were protecting the embassy, what does their ambassador know? That with the flag is not something to be praised and what we can boast about, but how could it not have been a protected embassy? The Montenegrin Prime Minister is telling notorious falsehoods, but doesn’t say how much and what they did to the Serbian people and what they do every day,” Vucic said. He emphasized that Markovic’s reaction was exaggerated and noted that the idea of the Montenegrin Prime Minister might have been to show Serbia as their only enemy before the next elections, uniting the Montenegrin parties. “It happened so many times prior to the elections, I regard it as highly irresponsible,” he noted. He stated that during yesterday’s protest by Red Star supporters outside the embassy in Knez Mihailova Street, no one tried to enter the Embassy building. “They know how much power was available to preserve that building and staff,” Vucic said. He said that now Montenegro’s only way out is to play the victim, because it is clear to everyone what they did with the Law on Freedom of Religion. “Serbia will not attack anyone, Serbia wants to have the best relations with Montenegro, brotherly Montenegro, the only thing we want is to have higher salaries,” Vucic said. He added that a few years ago, Montenegro had 150 Euros higher average salaries than Serbia, but that this is not the case today.
Montenegrin charge d’affairs called for talks in the Serbian Foreign Ministry (Tanjug)
The Serbian Foreign Ministry has called for talks the charge d’affairs of the Montenegrin Embassy in Belgrade, Tanjug learns. Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has confirmed this information and explained that Montenegrin Ambassador Tarzan Milosevic is outside Serbia, and therefore the charge d’affairs has been called for talks. The Serbian Foreign Ministry has most harshly condemned the burning of the Montenegrin flag, noting that this supports those who are trying to transfer responsibility on Serbia for the crisis in Montenegro. “Without entering into the comments of various statements from Montenegro that are trying to falsely transfer responsibility for the crisis in Montenegro on Serbia, and not because of the adoption of the Law on Freedom of Religion, which is directed against the Serb people and the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Foreign Ministry most harshly condemns the burning of the Montenegrin flag,” Dacic conveyed the Ministry’s stand for Tanjug. The Montenegrin Foreign Ministry had previously called for talks Serbian Ambassador to Montenegro Vladimir Bozovic.
Bozovic: Vucic’s visit is a strong message to Serbs (Tanjug/RTV)
“The intention of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to spend Christmas Eve among the Serbs in northern Montenegro is a strong message of support to the Serb people, who is trying to resist the seizure of the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro,” the Chairperson of the Matica Srpska in Montenegro, professor Vladimir Bozovic said. “The visit of this type, the content and level of the Serbian President to Montenegro represents strong support to our total efforts to resist this pressure, but I am not sure that this will be presented in that way in the Montenegrin, primarily regime, media,” said Bozovic. He opines that the authorities in Podgorica will not radicalize the relationship towards the Serbian Orthodox Church until the elections, which are planned for this year, as well as that the implementation of the Law on Religion will start after the elections if the current authorities achieve political dominance. “This concretely means literal seizure of the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church and putting down the Serbian Orthodox Church to the level of a religious community, which has been in this region as of recently, where a state clerk will determine the time in which the Serbian Orthodox Church, i.e. believers, will have the opportunity to use certain religious facilities,” he concluded.
Serbian churches in Montenegro ringing bells every two hours until Nativity following adoption of anti-Church law (spc.org)
A number of events will be held in the Montenegrin Metropolis of the Serbian Church in connection with the adoption of the anti-Church law that empowers the government to confiscate property from the Serbian Church. Among them, all the parishes of the Serbian Metropolis of Montenegro will ring funeral bells every two hours until the feast of the Nativity, reports the Metropolis’ website, noting that by adopting the law, the Montenegrin Parliament “buried law and justice.” Following the evening services, the clergy will also serve a special moleben to the Most Holy Theotokos in times of troubles and temptations. The controversial bill was adopted by the Parliament late in the evening of December 26-27, and was signed into law by the President the next day. His Grace Bishop Metodije of Diokleia was beaten and hospitalized by police as protests erupted throughout the country. He recovered quickly and is calling upon all Orthodox faithful and Montenegrin people to remain calm and peaceful in the face of such turmoil in the Balkan nation. According to the new law, “All religious buildings that were property of the State of Montenegro before the loss of its independence and merging into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, and which subsequently did not become the property of a religious community in the proper legal way, will be recognized as state property,” the Secretariat-General of the Montenegrin government earlier said.
Cvijanovic: RS demonstrated capacity not only to survive but to progress as well (Srna)
Republika Srpska (RS) President Zeljka Cvijanovic has said that RS will celebrate its 28th birthday as politically and financially stable and that during all these years it has demonstrated a full capacity not only to survive but to progress as well. Cvijanović has said in an interview with Srna that RS demonstrated that it can independently deal with all troubles and crisis that befell it, which was confirmed by the previous period when it was in a certain blockade because the Council of Ministers was not formed and some very important projects were halted. “The atmosphere of stability is something that definitely is a characteristic of RS and gives us prospects to draft plans for the coming period. Thanks to this stability, the government managed to plan an increase of salaries and pensions, social benefits in 2020 – it exactly calculated it and included it in the budget,” the RS President said, adding that this is the atmosphere in which RS expects the RS Day, which will be marked on 9 January. Asked if she excepts new attacks from a part of political Sarajevo because it marks this important date for RS and its citizens, Cvijanovic has said that she is certain of it, because these attacks, she says, did not occur with the intention to happen only once, for someone to attempt to belittle Srpska and abolish its identity only once, and for this to stop. “We in B&H constantly live in an atmosphere of challenges and this speaks that this atmosphere is not healthy, but on the other hand, I know that this is not something that will disturb feelings, desires, commitments, and positions of people in RS which gives us strength to do that which citizens expect us, the government, to do,” she said. She has stressed that citizens do not want to renounce their identity, their insignia, important dates which are very important as these are historical facts, and not invented stories. Cvijanovic has said that this year also, the RS Day will be marked at two central events in Banja Luka – a solemn parade and a solemn academy. Regarding prospects for the RS Day to be sometimes celebrated in Pale, the place where RS was created and all of its institutors founded, Cvijanovic told Srna that given the importance of the event, a great number of participants and logistical connections, the government is committed to marking the RS Day in Banja Luka which is the seat of institutions and the administrative center of RS. “I would never diminish the importance of any of our towns or municipalities, but Republic seats are places where large events should be organized,” Cvijanovic said, noting that this year, on 10 January, a concert of the Police Orchestra of the RS Ministry of Internal Affairs will be held in East Sarajevo on the occasion of the RS Day, and the holiday will be marked in Brcko District as well. Regarding the economic situation in RS and ways to raise the standard of living of citizens, the RS President has said that raising the standard of living is in the center of interest of all Republic institutions and that the government has mechanisms and levers in its hands to realize it by way of the budget and certain allocations.
“The government cannot do it alone if it is not connected well with other institutions, primarily the parliament, which should adopt certain laws which will provide prerequisites for a better life of citizens, and with the RS President who manages many political processes or gives political and economic guidelines,” Cvijanovic said. She said that the government, headed by Prime Minister Radovan Viskovic, met most of her expectations, adding that she is satisfied with its work, but that there is room for improvement, like in every other job. Asked what she expects from the new Council of Ministers, Cvijanovic has said that for the beginning, she expects a relaxation of relations between various levels of government, which is very important for further work. “Better communication is necessary so that we could coordinate all that is important on the reform path. Entity governments have already signed a document about the continuation of reforms which is concise and clear and where they expressed commitment to continue reform processes. It is more important now to start implementing projects which were on hold in the Council of Ministers for political reasons,” she said. Commenting on the recent events at the special session of the RS parliament where the B&H’s Reform Program was discussed, Cvijanovic has said that this was a thought-out and planned action with the aim of creating problems and belittling the highest legislative institution. She has said that the RS parliament did not deserve it. Wishing a Happy New Year and RS Day and Merry Christmas to RS citizens, Cvijanovic expressed the conviction that holidays will be celebrated with much faith and hope for a better future. “In order for our future to be better, we must work together – both institutions and citizens. Institutions must respect all citizens and their expectations, and citizens must respect institutions, since if there are no institutions there is no RS and their and our expectations cannot be met,” Cvijanovic said. She says the RS took a safe road forward and that it has recorded increasingly better results every year.
Croatia takes over six-month rotating presidency of EU Council (Al Jazeera Balkans)
At a press conference in Zagreb on Thursday, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic presented the program of Croatian presidency of the EU Council during the next six months. On this occasion, Plenkovic stated that the motto of the Croatian presidency of the EU Council is ‘Strong Europe in a World Full of Challenges’ and underlined that it will be based on the principle of Europe that develops, connects, protects, and has influence. According to Plenkovic, the major issues that will mark the Croatian presidency are Brexit and creating the framework for the beginning of talks with the UK after it leaves the EU on 31 January, talks on a seven-year European budget, the conference on the future of Europe and the summit on the EU enlargement to the Western Balkans due to take place in Zagreb in May. Speaking about the summit on the EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, the Croatian Prime Minister explained: “We systematically want for the leaders’ meetings to take place every two years. That political dimension of meetings at the highest level encourages the political dynamics of relations of countries of South-East Europe and the EU. In our consultations before the leaders’ meetings, we will strive to enable overcoming and unblocking of what, unfortunately, was not decided in October 2019 i.e. to find a way to open negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. That is our political goal, in consultations with the new European Commission (EC) and all other member countries.” The Croatian Prime Minister was unable to clearly say how realistic it is to expect the beginning of the EU negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in the first half of 2020. However, he announced the intention to personally insist on solving this issue. Plenkovic stressed that it is especially important for Croatia for B&H to make progress on the path towards membership in the EU. He recalled the recent meeting between Croatian Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Gordan Grlic Radman and newly-appointed B&H Minister of Foreign Affairs Bisera Turkovic which, according to Plenkovic, shows commitment to cooperation. Plenkovic further said that given the good relations that Croatia wants to have with B&H and historical and physical connection of the two countries, economic relations and the fact that Croats are a constituent people in B&H, Croatia has an obligation to do as much as it can for B&H’s European path.
President’s Cabinet: There has been no official confirmation of Vucic’s visit (CDM)
We have no official confirmation of Aleksandar Vucic’s private arrival to Montenegro, and, therefore, we cannot comment on that matter either, said today representatives of Milo Djukanovic’s cabinet. Earlier, Serbian media stated that Vucic would spend Day before Christmas together with the Serbs in the north of Montenegro. Novosti reports that three points of Vucic’s visit are being considered. However, there has been no official information on the town he’s going to visit. According to other Serbian media, it’s a delicate political move carrying safety risks. Representatives of the Montenegrin movement explained that the announced arrival of Vucic was aimed at further aggravating the situation in Montenegro and repeating the 2016 scenario and provoking chaos in Montenegro.
Markovic: Uncivilized attack and terrible reaction of the Serbian authorities (CDM)
Another cruel, uncivilized attack on the Embassy of Montenegro occurred in Belgrade last night, said Montenegro’s Prime minister, Dusko Markovic, and pointed out that he was astonished with how Serbian government reacted to it. “And once again, Montenegro is faced with the challenge of defending its independence and freedom. We’ll protect our Montenegro despite a frenzy of hatred,” said PM. Last night, supporters of the Serbian Orthodox Church and Red Star fans tried to destroy Montenegrin flag in front of the Embassy by shooting from the fireworks rockets.
MFA reacts to Russian MID comment (Montenegrin Foreign Ministry)
The comment of the Department of Information and Press of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (MID), regarding the Law on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Legal Status of Religious Communities once again, after a certain lull, unfortunately confirms the continuity of Russia’s unacceptable, difficult understanding and flagrant interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign, secular, the European country, a NATO member and the EU candidate country. All this happens only because Montenegro, as an independent and sovereign country, passed a legal act. Which abolished the ideological 50 years old law and replaced it with a law that is in line with all known international standards governing this area. The law is in full compliance with the opinion of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and all religious communities and their representatives in Montenegro, except the Serbian Orthodox Church, are agreed with it. Contrary to the Russian MID’s allegations, the passed law regulates democratically all issues in this area in Montenegro, including the ownership of religious facilities, which does not endanger anyone’s right to use them. We hoped that lessons had be learned from the evens of the October 2016 and that relations between Montenegro and Russia were moving more cautiously and step by step, towards a normal path. The Russian MID comments, such as the one in question, seriously undermine this trend.
Montenegro isn’t a threat to anyone (Pobjeda)
Montenegro’s Defense Minister Predrag Boskovic said he didn’t believe that there was an armament race in the region, despite the fact that “our neighbors are serious about modernizing their military capacities”. In the interview for Pobjeda, Boskovic said that he was following what states in the region were up to in the context of modernization.
Not long ago in Israel, you signed the agreement on the upgrade of armored vehicles, worth $35 million. How’s this purchase going to be financed and where the equipment will be used?
Boskovic: Agreement with the Israeli is worth €31,6 million. Israel is going to finance it. We expect the fight stations of the vehicles to be installed within a month from the day they arrive to Montenegro. Our priorities are, first and foremost, national. As NATO Member State, we are guided by national needs, national priorities and then we harmonized them with NATO. These vehicles will be used for the purposes of defense and security. In case of missions and military exercises, they will go cross border. Their use is multiple.
You’ve mentioned the procurement of four new helicopters, Bell 505 Jet. How much will they cost? Have you meanwhile sols some of the “gazelle” helicopters?
Boskovic: Unfortunately no, we didn’t sell “gazelles”. It will be difficult to get the price we expected. We should find some other modalities. We’ll see if we can use “gazelles” in some other way. We’ve got 13+1 “gazelle” and we can use it. We can use other four with additional investment, but the biggest problem is that we lack spare parts. “Gazelle” isn’t produced anymore and that’s why last summer we decided to land them and purchase BELL helicopters. We’re still negotiating. I’m pretty sure that, in the middle of 2020, we’ll have several, maybe even all four helicopters in our army.
The parliament has approved of the deploying two soldiers in the NATO mission in Iraq. Have you established the rotation rules and do you plan to increase the number of soldiers?
Boskovic: We haven’t thought about increasing the number of soldiers. We did that for our own interests, nobody asked us to do so. We are trying to bring logistic capacities to a higher level. We want to build some professions that do not exist in our units. The idea is to send one member of the army, with the possibility of rotation.
NATO anti-hybrid team has recently visited Montenegro. What was their task?
Boskovic: NATO has recognized Montenegro as state that is under constant hybrid threat. This was the first NATO team to be referred to some state. Experts from Montenegro exchanged experience and information with the team and they drew up a great number of conclusions. Institutions in Montenegro are working on the implementation of the conclusions.
Armed Forces of Montenegro have modernized land forces and aviation, but haven’t invested much in the Navy. Do you have any plans to do it?
Boskovic: Currently, that’s Ministry’s greatest challenge. The Navy is a very expensive toy, it requires huge funds. But we are tackling that problem as well. We are planning to get rid of the two big ships and two frigates and to acquire two patrol ships. We count on the US donation for four patrol ships. It’ll take some time, but we are going to improve this part of the army as well.
Do you believe in the story of armament race in the region? Serbia has acquired Russian helicopters, Macedonia is going to get 110 armored vehicles. Croatia is buying Israeli F16 squadrons that cost almost half a billion Euros.
Boskovic: I don’t believe that. Given the fact that we all draw same YPA capacity, it comes as no surprise that soldiers had to be provided with high-quality material basis for the performance of their duties. As far as Montenegro is concerned, it’s not part of our policy to be part of any armament race.
Do you think we aren’t able to take up that challenge?
Boskovic: I think that financial funds do not allow us. We must use our resources wisely. We didn’t want fight helicopters, we opted for those that could serve us. We didn’t want expensive armored transporters, but we wanted those that could adapt to the military. I firmly believe that we can effectively respond to any challenge, any form of aggression, with what we currently have.
What’s your comment on Aleksandar Vucic’s statement that he keeps the records of what Montenegro purchases? Do you do the same?
Boskovic: We must be informed about what our neighbors do. Montenegro isn’t a threat to anyone. In everything we do, we are guided by national interests.
When is the radar expected to be installed? Could NATO donate other equipment as well?
Boskovic: It’s important that we take over the control of our sky. We managed to convince NATO that it would be a good thing. We emphasized the need for being in control since we have a high-quality aviation-operational center in Golubovci. They accepted the radar and gave it to us. I can’t tell when it’s going to be used. But hopefully, the installation will begin in the next 12 months.
Zaev resigns (Republika)
Zoran Zaev resigned as Prime Minister of the Republic of Macedonia this morning.
His resignation is part of the agreement between the main political parties, to ensure that the public administration will no longer be abused for the benefit of the ruling SDSM party in the run up to the elections. Zaev agreed to the arrangement in October, when his request to open EU accession talks was denied by the European Council, but then tried to get out of the deal and postpone the elections. But, eventually the deal held and a new government is expected to be appointed today. Following Zaev’s resignation, President Stevo Pendarovski is supposed to nominate a mandate holder, who would then propose an interim government to the parliament. According to the agreement, Zaev will be replaced by his loyalist Oliver Spasovski as interim Prime Minister with a mandate of 100 days, until 12 April when the elections take place.
VMRO-DPMNE nominated former Intelligence Agency director Nake Culev to replace Spasovski as the interim Interior Minister. VMRO also appoints interim ministers or deputy ministers in the Finance, Labor and Welfare and Agriculture departments, all of which have a high potential of being abused in the run up to the elections, with payments of subsidies or welfare. If all goes well, the interim government could be appointed by the end of the day.
Zaev’s resignation letter submitted to the parliament (Republika)
Zoran Zaev’s resignation letter was submitted to the Macedonian parliament today. In it, he notifies Speaker Talat Xhaferi that he is resigning, and won’t use the option to elaborate his resignation before the parliament. The letter will then be submitted to President Stevo Pendarovski, who announced that he will nominate Zaev’s loyalist Oliver Spasovski as the next Prime Minister. Upon this notification, Xhaferi needs to call up a session of parliament to elect the interim government, which will include a number of VMRO-DPMNE nominated officials in positions important to ensure that the public administration is not abused in favor of SDSM in the run up to the elections. This government is called to organize the elections planned for 12 April, and it should be voted in by the end of the day.
Albania takes over OSCE chairmanship (ADN)
Starting from 1 January, Albania took over the OSCE Chairmanship. The news was made public by the acting minister Gent Cakaj, who added that Albania will be seriously engaged in the war against corruption and organized crime. “A very interesting year, full of challenges and responsibilities,” says in Twitter Endri Fuga of the Premier’s office, publishing a photo of the Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama as OSCE chairperson-in-office. Albania took over the OSCE Chair from Slovakia on 1 January 2020. The crisis in Ukraine and the consequences of the 2008 conflict in Georgia will feature high on its agenda. During the Albanian Chairmanship particular attention will also be given to the role of women in peace processes. “The Albanian Chairmanship will focus on the worrying reality that women continue to be disproportionally affected by conflicts in the OSCE area,” said Cakaj, adding that situation of women is of concern not only in conflict area, then for all women in region. The Albanian OSCE Chair will also prioritize the revitalization of dialogue within the Organization. “Albanian Chair looks forward to using its full potential to increase trust and lay the ground for further OSCE achievements,” Cakaj noted. Acting Minister Cakaj also highlighted the importance of the fight against corruption and promotion of good governance, promoting the adoption and implementation of measures to combat trafficking in human beings.
INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES
Patriarch Bartholomew: We will never give autocephaly to the “Montenegrin Church” (orthochristian.com, 31 December 2019)
Istanbul, The Patriarchate of Constantinople will always stand with its Serbian brothers and sisters and will never give autocephaly to the schismatic “Montenegrin Orthodox Church,” Patriarch Bartholomew stated in a recent interview with the Serbian outlet Kurir. Even if the Montenegrins themselves ask for us, the Patriarchate will not grant it, the Patriarch says.
“Miraš Dedeić will never be able to get autocephaly for his false Church… For us, Dedeić is just a priest excommunicated from the Church. I repeat, we will never give autocephaly to the so-called ‘Montenegrin Orthodox Church,’” Pat. Bartholomew assured. Dedeić is the current head of the “Montenegrin Church” who was suspended by Constantinople for adultery, embezzlement, and creating a separate Serbian community within his Greek parish. He was tonsured as a monk and elevated to the rank of archimandrite by the schismatic “Macedonian Orthodox Church” and consecrated as a bishop by the schismatic “Bulgarian Alternative Orthodox Church,” after which he took over the “Montenegrin Orthodox Church.” In 1997, he was excommunicated by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. “No, no, and no! The Church in Montenegro is the Serbian Orthodox Church, and there will never be any changes,” the Patriarch said when asked if he would give autocephaly if the Montenegrins demanded it. Pat. Bartholomew also denied the parallels between the schismatic Ukrainian church and the schismatic Montenegrin Church, asserting that the so-called “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” received its autocephaly just as did the Serbs, Greeks, Czechs, Albanians, and others.”
He also characterized the new law adopted by the Montenegrin Parliament as an unjust infringement upon the rights of the Serbian Orthodox faithful. “I told President Milo Đukanović about this. The only canonical Church in Montenegro is the Montenegrin-Primorye Metropolis of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the only canonical Archbishop is Metropolitan Amfilohije,” Pat. Bartholomew said. “I fully support Metropolitan Amfilohije, at whose request I wrote a letter to the President of Montenegro Milo Đukanović, in which I urged him not to take further steps in the adoption and implementation of laws on religious communities,” the Patriarch added. Pat. Bartholomew wrote to the President in June, urging him to give up his dream of achieving a canonical autocephalous Church in Montenegro. “No single Church … will recognize or support the anti-canonical fabrication of Dedeić,” the Patriarch wrote. Like Dedeić , Philaret Denisenko was also canonically defrocked, excommunicated, and anathematized by the Russian Orthodox Church, which was acknowledged and accepted by Pat. Bartholomew himself, though in the same interview with the Serbian outlet, the Patriarch blames the Russian Church for Philaret’s personal choice to become a schismatic. Despite these universally-recognized canonical sanctions, Denisenko and the “hierarchs” consecrated by him were rehabilitated and welcomed into the Patriarchate of Constantinople last October and became the basis for the new “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” created by Pat. Bartholomew and ex-President Petro Poroshenko in January. The schismatic “Montenegrin Orthodox Church” was also in communion with Denisenko’s schismatic “Kiev Patriarchate,” and the OCU has also concelebrated with Montenegrin schismatics.
Western Balkans left ‘betrayed’ by EU over membership talks (The Guardian, by Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Shaun Walker in Budapest, 1 January 2020)
Croatia questions decision not to begin formal dialogue with Albania and North Macedonia
The European Union’s refusal to open membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania has left feelings of betrayal in the western Balkans, Croatia, which takes over the bloc’s rotating presidency on 1 January, has said. Gordan Grlić Radman, the foreign minister of Croatia, which in 2013 became the last country to join the European Union, questioned whether the decision of EU leaders at a summit in October, led by France and backed by Denmark and the Netherlands, was correct and fair. The country, which is taking the EU presidency for the first time, is seeking to revive the EU dream for North Macedonia and Albania. North Macedonia had hoped to get approval to open membership talks after ending a 30-year dispute with Greece over its name. Albania, which filed an application to join the EU in 2009, had also hoped to start formal negotiations. Membership talks between these countries and the EU will take years. Both countries were told they had a future in the EU in 2003, but years of crisis and internal division inside the bloc, as well as the weakening rule of law in some member states, have dampened appetite for more members. Radman said North Macedonia had met all the preconditions. “Now is it correct and fair? They made a lot of efforts,” he said referring to the historic deal to change the country’s name, made with the assumption that EU and Nato membership would follow. “The people in North Macedonia were not happy with this change of name … And now the cold shower. They lost from all sides, they feel betrayed.” North Macedonia’s foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, said the deal “was a small miracle in this part of Europe and needs nurturing”. He said the Croatian presidency could be a good chance for the discussion to get back on track.
Croatia hopes EU leaders can reach agreement on reforming its enlargement process in March, prior to a summit between the EU and six western Balkan countries in May. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, insists the EU enlargement process should be overhauled to include a provision that countries can be required to redo earlier stages if there is any backsliding on commitments to the rule of law. Radman said Croatia would be an honest broker, but also questioned whether it was fair to change the rules for countries that had begun talks under the existing system, such as Serbia and Montenegro. “It is not possible to change the rules during the play,” he said. “The opening of accession agreements doesn’t cost the European Union,” contended Radman, an argument dismissed by Macron. “Just to open negotiations: of course it does not mean they will become members tomorrow.” Leaders of the EU institutions declared the decision of the leaders’ summit not to open accession talks as a “historic mistake”. Critics of Macron’s approach have pointed to the growing influence of China, Turkey and Russia in the western Balkans and say that by stepping aside, the EU will allow other players to move in. “A serious debate has now started, but the mood in the region is very depressed. There’s a general worry about whether enlargement is going to continue, or whether there will there be further obstacles at every step,” said Florian Bieber, a political scientist at the University of Graz. Ruslan Stefanov, a director at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, said Macron had a point, that the EU needed to treat enlargement as a political, foreign policy challenge, not a technical process. “There is a strong political angle to this accession process and this requires a much more assertive foreign policy on the side of the EU.” This meant, he said, that EU delegations in western Balkan candidate countries should be vocal “on a daily basis” if a government is failing to live up to its promises. “If something happens that is not in line with what should be happening then we should say. We should not wait to say this in six months time in a report … We should say on the news locally.” He said neither North Macedonia nor Albania could count on getting approval in the first part of the year, citing the troubled Franco-German relationship. Germany remains a strong advocate for EU enlargement in the Balkans, but was not able to convince France. “I haven’t seen the chemistry between Berlin and Paris on this after the so-called historic mistake,” Stefanov said. “I haven’t seen the stars aligning, I haven’t seen much practical work.” Bieber said Croatia was a supporter of accession for Albania and North Macedonia, but cautioned that the country “has its own agenda when it comes to Bosnia and its own tensions with Serbia, so in that regard it’s got issues with its neighbours that don’t make it easy to promote enlargement”. Croatia will have support in its pro-enlargement agenda from Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s far-right prime minister. Hungary’s Olivér Várhelyi is in charge of the enlargement portfolio in the new EU commission, and Orbán has long been an advocate of enlargement, favouring the EU admitting countries without making demands on democracy and rule of law. “It’s very important that in the upcoming period those of us who want enlargement give these countries our support,” said Orbán, in a recent interview with Croatian media. “Croatians and Hungarians agree that the European Union should admit as many countries as possible as rapidly as possible, according to uniform standards. This would not only benefit them, but also Croatia, Hungary and European security in general.”