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Belgrade Media Report 26 February

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LOCAL PRESS

• Botsan-Kharchenko: Military cooperation between two countries contributes to preservation of Serbia’s independence (Beta/Politika/RTS/RTV)
• Dacic: Solidarity, full support of Serbia to China (Tanjug/RTS)
• Arifi: Unification with Kosovo under three conditions (Danas/Tanjug/VoA)

REGIONAL PRESS

Bosnia & Herzegovina
• Quint issues statement: B&H CC decisions are final (BNTV/Oslobodjenje)
• OHR: State-level officials are not representatives of entities, but state of B&H (Oslobodjenje/Avaz)
• SNSD and HDZ B&H submit proposal of law on appointment of judges to B&H CC into parliamentary procedure (BHT1)
Montenegro
• Markovic to EP delegation: Church places itself above state and it’s unacceptable (CdM)
• European Parliament strongly backs Montenegro’s European path (CdM)
• Opposition belongs to the parliament, Montenegro belongs to the EU (Dnevne novine)
• Montenegro strongly supports Albania’s negotiations with EU (CdM)
Republic of North Macedonia
• Derkoski: It will not be possible to vote without valid personal documents (Republika)
Albania
• German Bundestag warning: Without a C. Court with integrity negotiations are at risk (ADN)

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES

• Zaev Faces Judgment Day in North Macedonia Election (BIRN)

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LOCAL PRESS

 

Botsan-Kharchenko: Military cooperation between two countries contributes to preservation of Serbia’s independence (Beta/Politika/RTS/RTV)

 

The Russian Ambassador to Serbia Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko has said that the strategic partnership between Moscow and Belgrade is rising to the highest level and that military cooperation between the two countries contributes to the preservation of Serbia’s independence, Beta reported. “The development of the military and military-technical cooperation, under the two presidents’ supervision, aims to keep Serbia independent, to autonomously decides about its fate and exists in a stable region,” the ambassador said at the ceremony marking the Fatherland Defender Day, the Russian state holiday. Botsan-Kharchenko added that the last week’s meeting of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin gave a new incentive to the cooperation between the two countries. “The modern Russian army carefully nourishes the tradition of the country’s military; it’s equipped in a most modern way and ready to help its friends,” Botsan-Kharchenko said.

 

Dacic: Solidarity, full support of Serbia to China (Tanjug/RTS)

 

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, who is on a visit to the People’s Republic of China, today met with State Advisor and Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi. “I would like to thank my old friend, brother and fellow minister Wang Yi for inviting me to visit China again and for the warm hospitality that I and my delegation received in this beautiful city, as is always the case during our visits. It is a great pleasure to be here, but at the same time I feel great sorrow for coming to beautiful Beijing at a time of the greatest challenges facing China in its recent history,” said Dacic – who is the first Serbian Minister to visit China since the coronavirus outbreak began. He said his visit is a confirmation of extraordinary strategic relations and steely friendship, but is also the result and an indicator of solidarity and of the full confidence that Serbia has in China’s ability to combat this ‘demonic disease’ – as Chinese President Xi Jinping called the virus. “We deeply sympathize and follow with concern all the news of the sacrifice of the Chinese people and the leadership in the fight against this invisible but powerful enemy. We follow with admiration the superhuman efforts and measures that are unprecedented anywhere in the world to further prevent the spread of the virus, not only in China, but also beyond your borders, which the whole world should view with deep respect,” said Dacic. “Today, I was able to witness for myself the measures being taken, and the Minister informed me about everything. We are pleased to hear that there is a decrease in the number of patients at the national level, an increase in the number of people who have been cured, and that there are fewer and fewer new cases of the virus spreading outside Hubei province. It all indicates that the spread of this infection is slowing down, that it will be stopped and we want China to defeat this disease as soon as possible and in that, it has our strong support,” he said. Serbia is a small country, he said, but we don’t turn our backs on our friends in trouble, and stressed that true friends are there when things get hard. “You were not afraid of NATO bombs when Serbia was bombed, your diplomats were killed by the bombs aimed at Serbians, so my visit shows that we are not afraid of the virus. We wish our friends all the best and you have our full support. In line with our capabilities, we will send assistance to China in the shape of medical equipment, the government of Serbia has already made a decision about this, and it will be implemented in the coming weeks,” said Dacic. He conveyed President Vucic’s message to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people, which he also conveyed to Minister Wang Yi during the Munich meeting, saying that we are stand in solidarity, that we support the Chinese leadership in overcoming this great misfortune. He said the President expressed his willingness to visit China as previously announced, on 15 and 16 April to attend the Summit of China and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. “We look forward with great joy to your President’s new visit to Serbia, it is of historical importance for us and we are very much looking forward to it. Also, my colleague Wang Yi and I agreed to establish regular forms of communication and meetings between our two ministries, which is to have regular bilateral meetings every year,” said Dacic. Our bilateral relations are excellent, it is a strategic, steely friendship, he said, stressing that this is the right name for the relationship between Serbia and China. He recalled a number of joint bilateral activities, a large presence of Chinese companies in Serbia, which is of great importance for the development of Serbia, and that we are one of the few countries that has the privilege of having a visa-free travel agreement with China. “I wish to thank China for its principled support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of my country when it comes to resolving the problem of Kosovo. At the same time, Serbia’s support for China’s policies and China’s views on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang is firm, and we support that in all international meetings, as well as the principle of one country, two systems when it comes to Hong Kong and Macao,” he said and stressed that he was extremely happy to be able to express solidarity and point out that China can count on Serbia. “I am certain this disease will not harm China and the plans you have – marking the centenary of the Communist Party of China and the centenary of the formation of the People’s Republic of China.” Dacic said that Serbia is proud to have China as a friend and that China must know that it can always count on Serbia. “We are a small country, but we are convinced that only an independent country that takes care of its national and state interests, rejects principles of meddling in the internal affairs of others, can represent a significant factor in the international order,” he said. “We never succumb to outside pressure, we condemn politicization of this disease, which is happening in the Western media and is used to further anti-Chinese positions. We all need to help China defeat this disease because that saves the whole world. We have a saying, ‘you can tell who’s a hero in tough times’, but also who your friends are when it’s difficult, and that’s why I’m here,” said Dacic at the end of his address after a meeting with his Chinese colleague.

 

Arifi: Unification with Kosovo under three conditions (Danas/Tanjug/VoA)

 

Presevo Municipality President Shqiprim Arifi says that representatives of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja want to join so-called Kosovo, but noted the three conditions for the realization of this unification. Arifi told Voice of America that if a decision on unification is made, the municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac should join so-called Kosovo without being partitioned. “Our goal is to be a part of Kosovo if three conditions are met. First, we don’t want to be divided. The Presevo valley consists of the municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac. We don’t want one municipality to remain in Serbia and two to unite with Kosovo. We don’t want to participate in territory trade. If we unite, we will unite as a whole, if we remain, we will remain as a whole,” Arifi said. As the second condition, he said that the demarcation line should not run near towns. Arifi cited coordination with the US and Europe as the third and final condition, adding that no decisions should be made without the support of Brussels and Washington.

 

REGIONAL PRESS

 

Quint issues statement: B&H CC decisions are final (BNTV/Oslobodjenje)

 

The Quint countries (US, UK, Italy, France and Germany) issued a joint statement about the current situation in B&H. They emphasized that the situation in B&H is serious. It was also stated that secessionism, blockades and ultimatums are causing regression of B&H. Quint countries emphasized the importance of respecting the decisions rendered by the Constitutional Court (CC) of B&H and commented requests of parties from the RS to remove foreign judges from the B&H CC. “Considering the challenges that B&H is facing, the international constitutional judges, which were appointed by the President of European Court of Human Rights, in line with B&H Constitution, still have an important function. The decisions of the B&H CC are final and binding, as the Constitution reads. Considering this, we find that decisions of Milorad Dodik to block the trade within the country and work of B&H institutions and to bring in question territorial integrity of B&H, are very harmful for development of B&H and its accession to the EU,” reads the Quint joint statement.

 

OHR: State-level officials are not representatives of entities, but state of B&H (Oslobodjenje/Avaz)

 

The Office of High Representative (OHR) issued a statement reading that presence of state-level officials at the gathering organized by member of B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik in Istocno Sarajevo on 20 February is unacceptable and that these state-officials are not representatives of entities. “Also, it seriously undermined professional, ethic and personal integrity of attendees and the perception of independence of the institutions they represent. Heads of independent institutions are legally obliged to ensure the independence of the institution from political interference and to refrain from any action that may undermine the institution they represent”, reads the statement. The statement also reads that High Representative Valentin Inzko reminded that the state-level officials in B&H institutions who are elected and appointed from the territory of entities are not representatives of the entities but of the State of B&H.

 

SNSD and HDZ B&H submit proposal of law on appointment of judges to B&H CC into parliamentary procedure (BHT1)

 

Representatives in the B&H House of Representatives (HoR) from SNSD, HDZ B&H and the Serb Caucus have submitted into parliamentary procedure a proposal of the law on the appointment of judges to the B&H CC, which stipulates termination of mandate of foreign judges in the B&H CC. The abovementioned proposal was signed by 14 MPs, not including PDP and SDS MPs. In accordance with the proposal of the law on the appointment of judges to the B&H CC, judges of the B&H CC who were until now appointed by the President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) would be appointed by the B&H Presidency, while their mandate would be confirmed by the B&H House of Peoples (HoP). At the same time, the mandate of the foreign judges in the B&H CC would be terminated the day the new law comes into force. This proposal of the law will go into regular procedure and the document says that the intention is for B&H to ensure its own sovereignty. SNSD representatives stressed that despite of stances of certain legal experts that the Constitution does not leave room for removal of the foreign judges, but only room for the possibility of their different appointment, “these interpretations are unfounded.” Head of SNSD Caucus in the B&H HoR Snjezana Novakovic-Bursac (SNSD) said that the European Commission (EC) explicitly and clearly said in its Opinion that it is necessary to solve the issue of international judges. Representative of the Serb Caucus in the B&H HoR Nenad Stevandic (United Srpska) said that B&H’s sovereignty is not derogated by the RS. “That sovereignty is being derogated by the institutions of the High Representative and the CC which is conceived on the possibility that three foreign judges determine the fate of legal and political acts by supporting one of the three peoples,” Stevandic underlined. On the other hand, SDS and PDP MPs, who did not sign the abovementioned proposal of the law, claim that one did not comply with the initial agreement because the plan was for the RS parliament to take part in the appointment of one judge from the RS, while the two judges from the FB&H would be appointed by the FB&H parliament. PDP leader Branislav Borenovic stressed that the solution that was submitted into the parliamentary procedure is different from the initial proposal and contrary to the interests of the RS, adding that it is not good that the RS parliament was excluded from that process. Although they are yet to read the proposal of the law put forward by SNSD and HDZ B&H, representatives of SDA have said that their position is clear and that it unlikely that it will change. Speaker of the B&H HoR Denis Zvizdic (SDA) said that as far as SDA is concerned, there were no talks on this law. “We stick to our position and it is completely precise and clear – the B&H CC is a constitutional category and its competences are not prescribed by the law,” Zvizdic stressed.

 

Markovic to EP delegation: Church places itself above state and it’s unacceptable (CdM)

 

The Church in Montenegro places itself above the State, not recognizing its sovereignty and independence, and expressing its ambition to decide on political actors, that is, impact the election of government. It is wrong, unacceptable and intolerable in a civilized world,” Montenegro’s Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said at the meeting with the European Parliament delegation. He emphasized that Montenegro understands the European context and works in line with commitments as a modern country that is being developed democratically and economically as part of Europe. “We will preserve peace and stability in Montenegro as we have done over the past 30 years, while respecting freedom of every citizen, but also preserving the constitutional and democratic order,” Markovic underlined.

 

European Parliament strongly backs Montenegro’s European path (CdM)

 

Montenegrin parliament speaker Ivan Brajovic met with the delegation of the European Parliament headed by the MP Vladimir Bilcik, co-presiding over the meeting of the European Union – Montenegro Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee, SAPC.

Brajovic stressed that both the SAPC meeting and this one represent a great opportunity for open exchange of views on the achieved progress of Montenegro and further challenges in the accession process with the MEPs. He touched on the results of work of the parliament of Montenegro over the past period, indicating the importance of the Committee on Comprehensive Reform of Election and Other Legislation. Brajovic also expressed confidence that all parliamentary parties, while taking part in the work of the parliament and working bodies, will show the required level of responsibility towards the citizens of Montenegro. The Member of the European Parliament emphasized that the EP will continue to provide strong support for the enlargement and accession process of Montenegro to the EU, having in mind the significant contribution Montenegro has been giving for the stability in the region. Both sides agreed that the enlargement policy should remain the top priority of the EU.

 

Opposition belongs to the parliament, Montenegro belongs to the EU (Dnevne novine)

 

Co-chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of the EU and Montenegro for Stabilization  and Accession Vladimir Bilcik said that rules applying to Montenegro in the EU negotiations would remain the same. During the session of the Committee, Bilcik said that if the EU failed to implement enlargement policy, it would be a failure for everybody. “The whole region will be unstable and more exposed to destabilizing influences. We don’t want that. After 2013 and the last EU enlargement, we haven’t seen any tangible results and I think it must be changed,” Bilcik said. He pointed out that the European Parliament had expressed its position in the resolution on Montenegro and provided recommendations concerning steps necessary to respond to big challenges and implement reforms.  Bilcik said that Montenegro was leader in the integration process but suggested it had to “run faster” for which it required important and tangible results.

As far as the new methodology is concerned, Bilcik said there was some good news. “Negotiation framework won’t change. That wouldn’t be fair. At the same time, role of the Committee for Stabilization and enlargement will be strengthened. Enlargement will be technical, not political activity,” Bilcik said. He stressed that there were some challenges related to the fight against corruption, media work and human trafficking, and that the Committee was worried about the boycott. Montenegrin parliament speaker Ivan Brajovic, said that the view of the European MPs was very important, as they all opposed to the slowdown of the enlargement policy and adopted a set of resolutions stipulating that integration of South East Europe be effective, clearer and more credible, closer to citizens and based on the regatta principles.

As he said, everything we heard from the European officials so far gave cause for optimism.

“We expect further process to confirm political dimension which represents European future, stability, safety and connection of the European continent,” Brajovic said. He adds that Montenegro will continue to be reliable EU partner. Main EU negotiator Aleksandar Drljevic said that the government was focused on all relevant organizations which could help in the integration process. Ambassador of the EU to Montenegro Aivo Orav said that the new methodology should improve the accession process and open possibilities for more dynamic process. He said that elections years were not usually good for reforms, but there were still possibilities for producing visible results and reaching political compromise. Paolo Rangel, European MP, said that opposition should not be outside the parliament. DPS member Andrija Nikolic said that election and composition of the new EP was good news for Europe, the region and Montenegro. DF member Slaven Radunovic said that the problem in Montenegro came up the moment the rule of law should be displayed. His counterparts Milan Knezevic and Nebojsa Medojevic reiterated their views on the government, calling it totalitarian. SDP member Ranko Krivokapic said that “if we manage to resolve rule of law, we will settle all other problems”.

 

Bilcik: Dialogue is a must

Bilcik said that everybody is concerned about the way the situation is developing after the adoption of the Law on Freedom of Religion. “Implementation of laws must be in accordance with democratic principles,” Bilcik stressed. They are aware that the government had consultations with the VC but there are still some open questions that need to be addressed.

“We hope that these issues can be settled through dialogue,” Bilcik said.

 

Montenegro strongly supports Albania’s negotiations with EU (CdM)

 

Foreign Affairs Minister Srdjan Darmanovic received the delegation of the Albanian Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, headed by the Chair, Mimi Kodheli. During the meeting, it was noted that Montenegro strongly supports Albania’s negotiations with the EU. Darmanovic welcomed friendly relations between the two countries, while Kodheli reflected on good relations and intensified cooperation between Montenegro and Albania in all areas of mutual interest. She indicated the importance of regional cooperation in the area of European integrations, as well as providing support for implementing reforms.

 

Derkoski: It will not be possible to vote without valid personal documents (Republika)

 

The State Election Commission President Oliver Derkoski urged Tuesday the citizens to use all the opportunities of the institutions and to obtain personal documents, to enter or change certain data in the Voters’ List. As SEC we will make every effort to enable all citizens to exercise their right to vote, but we cannot allow voting without any documents, said Derkoski, who called on some 38,000 people who did not collect their personal documents in the Ministry of Interior to do so because without them they will not be able to vote in the early parliamentary elections on 12 April. According to the election timetable tomorrow starts the inspection of the Voters’ List and the collection of signatures for candidates for MPs. Derkoski says that the State Statistical Office has received the revised Voters’ List and that tomorrow all citizens interested in participating in the elections will be able to check their data through the SEC website and at regional offices. There are currently 1.817.028 registered voters in the Voters’ List.

 

German Bundestag warning: Without a C. Court with integrity negotiations are at risk (ADN)

 

The senior advisor of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Hans-Joachim Falenski, made it clear in Tirana on Tuesday that without a Constitutional Court with integrity the opening of the accession negotiations talks are at risk. During the awarded ceremony by the Albanian President Ilir Meta with the Knight of the Skanderbeg Order, Falenski mentioned the nine conditions of the Bundestag, hoping that Albania will improve situation starting from the Constitutional Court and the High Court that must be able to perform their respective functions by providing a sufficient number of vetted judges. “The question is not only whether the sufficient number is met. Much more important is whether this is done in full compliance with every single stipulation of your constitution and is not biased. And this includes not only the process of the selection of the vetted judges but also the process of making decisions or – for example – the ceremony to make the judges take their oath on the constitution. If the respective stipulations of the constitution are not fully complied with at this crucial moment of a new beginning how can we trust that the future work of the Constitutional Court will be carried out in full agreement with the constitution?,” he underlined.

Below the full speech on the occasion of the award ceremony

 

Mr. President!

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Many thanks for this very special award, Mr. President.

It is a great honor to receive this important medal as a political adviser to a foreign country. This award goes to me here in Albania – the foreign country that is closest to my heart because of the great people I have met here, with whom I have spoken and with whom I have had the privilege of working. At the same time, Mr. President, you are also giving me the great task of continuing my work in support of Albania’s EU integration so that your country can meet the conditions for opening the first cluster and chapters of the enlargement negotiations. But this demands more rule of law, but also more freedom of the media for example. Incidentally we are also worried about media freedom, which with the approval of the new package is doing steps backwards and creating a worrying precedent for trying to neutralize the voices of the media. The Bundestag is also following the discussions on a new set of laws that have been widely discussed here and some presidential decrees that consider these laws to be unconstitutional. A candidate country needs a democratic system with functioning checks and balances. All powers just in one hand in most of the cases are dangerous for democracy and do not bring you any closer to Europe.

Therefor it is urgently necessary to create a functioning system of checks and balances here.

This is the idea and the political conviction behind the 9 conditions of the Bundestag. We hope that now things are on the way to improve the situation. You know that we are setting two preconditions that must be met before the first Intergovernmental Conference can take place.

The first one is: The Constitutional Court and the High Court must be able to perform their respective functions by providing a sufficient number of vetted judges. The question is not only whether the sufficient number is met. Much more important is whether this is done in full compliance with every single stipulation of your constitution and is not biased. And this includes not only the process of the selection of the vetted judges but also the process of making decisions or – for example – the ceremony to make the judges take their oath on the constitution.

If the respective stipulations of the constitution are not fully complied with at this crucial moment of a new beginning how can we trust that the future work of the Constitutional Court will be carried out in full agreement with the constitution? The second precondition is as you know: an electoral reform must be adopted. The new law has to be in full accordance with the recommendations of ODIHR. And the new reform must ensure that the funding of political parties and electoral campaigns is transparent. We very much welcome the fact that the drafting process now takes place in an open and inclusive dialogue involving all political forces.

This was requested from the Bundestag based on the recommendations of the ODIHR report of September last year. We hope that this is a good sign that for all parties the country’s future is the main priority and not a political calculation. At the end it is crucial for us to have the political will here of all parties to find an agreement as requested by the Bundestag and to fully implement the new reform as it is intended. As ODHIR states: political will is the key to free and fair elections. With your permission, Mr. President, I would like to add some words concerning buying votes: Our 5. condition says, that investigations by the prosecution service and, where appropriate, judicial proceedings against persons connected with vote-buying in elections have to be initiated and it has to be ensured that the proceedings are conducted rigorously and expeditiously. For the Bundestag buying votes is the worst case in a democracy. For this reason the Bundestag has followed the development of files 184 and 339 with priority but also with concern until the last few days. That is why this condition No. 5 is the condition on which everybody in my party group will ask: is this condition fully met? In other words: It is at the top of our priority list! But I have to say for the time being: Neither is this task conducted expeditiously nor is it conducted rigorously. To fulfil this condition you should use the best suitable institutions you have. And you have them. Please use them! These cases are a real test whether the newly created justice institutions function properly as stipulated in the Bundestag condition No. 6.

Mr. President!

You know how difficult it was to obtain the support of my party group for the Bundestag motion with the 9 conditions. Many were against a positive decision. In the end we got the support because the MPs in my party group have confidence in our members working in the field of foreign policy and European affairs and in me that we will ensure that all 9 conditions are fully met before we will give the green light to the Intergovernmental Conferences. And I know that your great people also have confidence in us. So I can give you one promise: In the interest of your country’s EU perspective for my party group I will control whether the 9 conditions will be fulfilled as I have said and I will support you in that process. I will therefore do my best to ensure that this is the case before I have to leave my party group as a pensioner!

 

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES

 

Zaev Faces Judgment Day in North Macedonia Election (BIRN, by Sinisa Jakov Marusic, 25 February 2020)

 

The April elections will be a moment of truth for Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev – who won praise for reviving his country’s Euro-Atlantic hopes – but also criticism for ducking reforms at home.

As the contours of the April 12 general elections in North Macedonia begin to take shape, the Social Democratic Union, SDSM, under Zoran Zaev, intends to emphasise its success in putting the once strife-ridden country firmly back on the Euro-Atlantic track. In just two-and-a-half years, under difficult political circumstances, Zaev’s centre-left government signed a historic friendship treaty with neighbouring Bulgaria and an even more important agreement with Greece over its name. These successes paved the way to what looks now like imminent NATO membership, and gave it a strong chance of starting EU accession talks soon. But for every up, there has been a down; for all its triumphs abroad, Zaev’s government has not lacked blunders and scandals at home. The amnesty it offered in 2018 to those who staged a bloody rampage in parliament the year before, the escape that year of former PM Nikola Gruevski from serving a prison sentence, and the ongoing “Extortion” affair – which has resulted in the now former chief special prosecutor Katica Janeva going on trial – to name a few, have diminished faith in one of Zaev’s key promises. This was to restore the rule of law and tackle high-level crime. Whether Zaev has fulfilled his promise to bring about a sharp upturn in the economy and raise wages is also contested. Most experts acknowledge some progress had been made on the economy, but also say it has not been strong enough to be felt by ordinary people.

 

Hopes placed in Zaev were ‘unrealistically high’:

Zaev formed his new government in May 2017, after emerging victorious from a three-year-long political battle with the authoritarian regime of former VMRO DPMNE leader Gruevski.

Formation of a new government took months longer than expected, after VMRO DPMNE refused to step down and acknowledge its loss in the 2016 elections. In April 2017, in a desperate attempt to cling to power, Gruevski’s supporters had stormed the parliament, injuring reporters and MPs, including Zaev, and worsening the atmosphere of civil unrest. Zaev’s coolness under fire made him an even greater hero to his supporters. “There was a sense of poetic justice. The ‘good guys’ had finally won,” said Vesna Shopar, a communications science professor at the Skopje Institute for Communication Studies. “Hopes were unrealistically high that the new government would make a sharp and uncompromising turn towards restoring democracy, free up the judiciary and other institutions from political grip and punish wrongdoers,” she said. Not forgetting his main promise to restore the country’s stalled progress on Euro-Atlantic integration, Zaev encouraged hopes in other areas as well. He made a highly populist promise to erect a counter in the centre of Skopje that would count the money being returned to the state from various corrupt officials being put on trial, for example. It never happened. Another unfulfilled promise was to shake up and vet the judiciary, which remained under the influence of Gruevski’s party – and was trying to stall court cases against former officials. One of the biggest hopes was that with VMRO DPMNE gone, the Special Prosecution office, SJO – formed under an EU-brokered political agreement in 2015 to investigate high-level crime – would finally be able to do its work unhindered. Zaev later insisted he had to abandon judicial reform, as it risked leaving the country short of judges. Instead, he expressed the hope that the judges would start acting more professionally if they were left alone, without political interference. He also pledged to bring about a sharp increase of the average monthly wage, from 300 to 500 euros, by the end of his term in office, which should have ended this autumn. While the government has indeed raised the minimum wage, pensions and average salaries in the public sector, the average monthly wage is still sort of 500 euros, especially in the private sector. In reality, Zaev’s government had a key Achilles Heel right from the start, – its feeble majority.

The SDSM and their allies held only 62 of the 120 seats in parliament. For a wafer-thin majority it relied on the support of ten MPs from a junior coalition ally, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, an ethnic Albanian party, which – before it shifted sides – had been allied to Gruevski.

 

Honeymoon period marked by breakthroughs:

While the government’s honeymoon period lasted, it had a number of important successes.

The first came in August 2017, when Zaev signed a landmark friendship treaty with Bulgaria, a country with which North Macedonia has had a complex relationship and which, during Gruevski’s time, had threatened to join Greece in blocking its EU and NATO accession.

In October that year, the Social Democrats celebrated a landslide victory in the local elections over VMRO DPMNE, which had previously dominated local authorities for almost a decade.

In January 2018, in response to a demand by all ethnic Albanian parties, parliament passed a new law on languages, which expanded the official use of Albanian. Zaev endorsed this, insisting it would ease ethnic tensions in the multi-ethnic country. The biggest breakthrough of all came in June 2018. After months of tough talks with Greece, the two countries signed a historic agreement, ending the decades-long dispute over Macedonia’s name, to which Greece had objected and which had poisoned relations. Under the terms of the deal, Skopje agreed to change its official name from Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia, while Athens pledged to lift its blockade on the country’s EU and NATO accession bids. While VMRO DPMNE nationalists cried foul, accusing the government of treason over the deals with Bulgaria and Greece, and over the language law, Zaev won plaudits from Western capitals, and acquired a reputation, atypical for Balkan leaders, as a brave and determined problem-solver. With the “name” deal signed, NATO in July 2018 invited North Macedonia to become its 30th member – on condition that its parliament adopted the agreed name change.

 

Referendum flop and Gruevski’s flight:

It was one thing to strike landmark deals abroad, however – another to implement the provisions arising from those deals at home. To incorporate the “name” change into the constitution, Zaev needed a two-thirds majority in parliament, or at least 80 of the 120 MPs, which his government did not have. Encouraged by the landslide victory in the local elections, however, Zaev called a nationwide referendum on the “name” change, slated for October 2018, hoping victory in this would compel the opposition VMRO DPMNE party to accept the Greek deal. But things did not turn out as planned. Despite widespread endorsement by the Western powers, intended to persuade voters to accept the “name” change in exchange for a more solid Euro-Atlantic prospect, only 36.87 per cent of registered voters cast ballots, far below the 50 per cent needed for the referendum result to be deemed binding. It was a bitter-sweet moment for the Social Democrats and their allies. On the one hand, they had garnered a historic record amount of votes for any cause – 605,000 “yes” votes. On the other, they had failed to reach the turnout threshold, due to the opposition’s success in encouraging a “silent” boycott. Political tensions remained high when it became clear that, despite the failure of the referendum, the Social Democrats would still try to get the “name” change through parliament, by persuading a few individual rebel VMRO DPMNE MPs to endorse it – while the opposition refused to budge, despite the international pressure to do so. As tense talks continued into November, the public was shocked to hear that former PM Gruevski had avoided serving a prison sentence by fleeing to Hungary, where he obtained political asylum. Gruevski was by then no longer the leader of VMRO DPMNE, and had been entangled in several high-profile corruption cases, led by the Special Prosecution under Katica Janeva. His trials were seen as a symbols of the hope that the country was restoring a real justice system. Following his mysteriously simple escape, speculation run rampant that the authorities had allowed him to escape as part of a secret deal to persuade VMRO DPMNE to endorse the “name” change. Zaev denied this. But, although an investigation was promised, it was never revealed who helped Gruevski to escape justice. It did not help the government’s reputation when, in December 2018, MPs passed a partial amnesty for some of those involved in the 2017 rampage in parliament, in exchange for the “yes” votes of several VMRO DPMNE MPs – some of whom had been charged with participation in the rampage. On January 11, 2019, parliament finally passed the constitutional amendments needed for the “name” change to take effect, with a wafer-thin majority of 81 MPs, one more than was needed. The votes of eight opposition MPs, who were immediately expelled from their party for disobedience, had been vital. According to Shopar, Gruevski’s escape and the amnesty offered to those involved in the 2017 attack on parliament were “a symbolic turning point”, when Zaev’s popularity began to slide. “Many now reassessed their trust in him from that point on, as the entire situation reeked of shady dealings,” she said. Responding to accusations that he was trading away the rule of law to get the “name” change through parliament, Zaev pleaded necessity; concessions had to be made for the greater good of the country. “I am willing to pay the price if need be,” he said.

 

‘Extortion’ affair does more damage to trust:

Paying that political price came sooner than he expected. The result of the first round of the April-May presidential elections in April and May 2019 rattled the government when the Social Democratic candidate, Stevo Pendarovski, barely outpolled the opposition challenger, although he did eventually win in the second round. The ruling party’s candidate won 323,000 votes, far fewer than the over 600,000 “yes” votes that the pro-Western political alliance had polled in the “name” referendum only six months before. Trying to restore some of its fading credibility, the government stepped up efforts to pass a key law on the judiciary that would have prolonged the life of the Special Prosecution, allowing Janeva and her team to continue pursuing corrupt officials. The government hoped that passage of this law, along with receipt of a start date for EU accession talks by the end of last year, would pull it out of its hole. It again faced a brick wall from the opposition for over a year, which refused to support a law that would untie the hands of the Special Prosecution, which it insisted was politically biased. Then, as the standoff continued, the so-called “Extortion” affair erupted last summer, spelling doom for the Special Prosecution and damaging the government as well. Janeva – once a symbol of hope of the fight against crime – was now charged with conspiring with a showman-turned businessman to extort money from another businessman entangled in a special prosecution case, in exchange for ensuring him a lenient verdict. Janeva was arrested and put on trial, but Zaev’s government also suffered enormous political damage, having backed the Special Prosecution to the hilt. It now had to counter opposition claims that Janeva could not have taken part in an extortion scheme without the government’s complicity, or even instructions. The Special Prosecution is now practically defunct; its cases await transfer to the regular prosecution. A Skopje-based political analyst, Ismet Ramadani, said the verdict on Zaev’s term in office will be inevitably mixed. “Zaev has definitely made a stark change compared to his predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, by promoting ethnic dialogue at home instead of tension, friendship with neighbours instead of hostilities and true efforts to join the EU and NATO instead of declarative ones,” he said. “But one cannot shake off the feeling that, to get an election victory [in April], he will have to combat the somewhat present notion among his own supporters, that he did not do enough to satisfy the everyday expectations of citizens on restoring justice, combating crime and a better life.”

 

Good news from Brussels would boost his chances:

Yet more bad news came in October last year when, at the European Council in Brussels, France sunk North Macedonia’s and Albania’s hopes of getting a start date for their EU accession talks, insisting on reforms of the enlargement process first. Unable to offer to open talks, the Council only said it would revert to the issue before the EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb, Croatia, in May. Chastened by another major setback, Zaev called early elections, set for April, and resigned to give way for a multi-party caretaker government tasked with overseeing the polls.

In the meantime, however, his prospects have brightened somewhat. First, parliament finally passed the long-awaited law on the judiciary, at the last moment, before it dissolved this month.

In Brussels, meanwhile, the European Commission presented a revised enlargement methodology, raising hopes that Zaev might get a much needed boost on that front just before election day. Unnamed diplomatic sources in Brussels told MIA news agency this week that the Commission plans to present its updated progress reports on North Macedonia and Albania at the start of March. The theory is that a positive report on North Macedonia, which notes the adoption of the judiciary law, along with the revised enlargement methodology, may persuade France to allow the offer of a start date for membership talks. After one setback after another, Zaev may well think it’s time he got some positive news.

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