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Belgrade Media Report 21 December

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• Trump to Vucic: We value your leadership, seize this moment (Tanjug/B92)
• Serbian president thanks Putin for stance on Kosovo (Tanjug/B92)
• Dacic: Trump’s letters are support, but also slap to those who are stopping (TV Prva/RTV)
• Odalovic: Pristina endangered dialogue, important to use the following days (RTS)


Bosnia & Herzegovina
• Thaci: Customs tariffs are consequence of behavior of official Sarajevo towards Kosovo (Dnevni avaz)
• Bosniak political factor obstructs formation of B&H CoM (RTRS)
• Wigemark meets B&H HoR Collegium; Radmanovic criticizes Mogherini (Hayat)
• Radoncic with Wigemark (Dnevni avaz)
• Cristian Dan Preda: B&H must earn EU candidate status (BHT1)
• European Commission publishes report on fulfillment of visa-free requirements by Western Balkans countries (Nezavisne novine)
• B&H’s Commission for NATO Integration holds session, no quorum for adoption of decisions (ATV)
• Dodik: RS citizens will decide about NATO integration of B&H (ATV)
• Zvizdic: Those who are against NATO membership base their conclusions on decisions of bodies which are not competent for international policies or NATO integration (FTV)
• Zvizdic: Croatia is not B&H mentor (FTV)
• Plenkovic rejects proposals to ban Serb minority political party (Hina)
• Croatia announces another round of aid for Croats in B&H (HRT)
• Maslov: Russia doesn’t oppose Macedonia’s new name, it opposes NATO membership (Meta)
• Islamic Republic of Iran responds to expulsion of diplomats from Albania (ADN)


• Balkans in 2019: Change Must Come from Within (BIRN)

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Trump to Vucic: We value your leadership, seize this moment (Tanjug/B92)


US President Donald Trump has sent a letter to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, which Tanjug agency on Thursday said it had seen. The letter, dated December 14, “stressed that the unique opportunity to reach a solution for Kosovo should be seized.”

According to Tanjug, it reads as follows:


“Dear Mr. President,


It was a pleasure to see you in Paris during the Armistice Day celebration. The United States values your leadership, especially in securing the full normalization of relations with Kosovo.

As you enter the final phase of reaching an agreement with Kosovo that will bring long-sought peace to the region, I encourage you to seize this moment and to exercise the political leadership in making decisions to balance the interests of both countries. It would be extremely regrettable to miss this unique opportunity for peace, security and economic growth.

I also urge both parties to reach a normalization agreement as soon as possible and to refrain from actions that make one more difficult to achieve. A peaceful, productive relations between Serbia and Kosovo would be a milestone for the region. The United States stands ready to assist.

An agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is within reach. I look forward to hosting you and President Hashim Thaci in the White House to celebrate what would be an historic accord.”

Trump sent a similar letter to Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, which Thaci published on Facebook earlier in the week, reading, among other things – “I urge you and the leaders of Kosovo to seize this unique moment, speak with a unified voice during the peace talks, and refrain from actions that would make an agreement more difficult to achieve.”

Speaking in Brussels on Wednesday evening, Vucic commented on the issue to say that in his opinion, a solution between Belgrade and Pristina was “not close at hand” – but that Trump’s letter showed “the extent of the US interest in reaching such an agreement.”


Serbian president thanks Putin for stance on Kosovo (Tanjug/B92)


President Vucic on Thursday congratulated his counterpart Vladimir Putin on Russia’s day of security services employees. Vucic also thanked Putin for Russia’s principled position on the issue of Kosovo and Metohija, and expressed his satisfaction with Putin’s forthcoming visit to Serbia. In a telegram in which he referred to Putin as “friend,” Vucic further stated: “Allow me to congratulate you sincerely on the Day Security Services Employees of the Russian Federation – not only as the president of the Russian Federation, but also as a man who began his brilliant career in the state security organs. Since its inception, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (Cheka) has been the basis of the state security system of your country, and the traditions, which have been established so far, represent one of the most important elements of the Russian statehood. Protecting national interests and security of citizens has always been and remain the main, key priority of a country, so I wish to you, dear friend, that the security authorities of the Russian Federation work with great dedication for the welfare of your country in the future as well. Let me also express my gratitude for the principled position of Russia on the issue of Kosovo and Metohija and the active support in international organizations, and especially in the United Nations Security Council. I look forward to your upcoming visit to Serbia, which will be not only a confirmation of the strong Serbian-Russian friendship, but also an opportunity to talk about cooperation and concrete projects for the future.”


Dacic: Trump’s letters are support, but also slap to those who are stopping (TV Prva/RTV)


Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has stated that the letters of US President Donald Trump to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo President Hashim Thaci are support to the peace process and a slap to those who are slowing this down. He told TV Prva that the US was ready to organize the signing of a Belgrade-Pristina agreement, as they did in the past between Israel and Palestine, but added that it could be seen from everything that has been happening lately that there would be no solution any time soon. “They were ready to organize the signing at a moment when we agree, because they are not part of the dialogue and don’t determine the time for that, but all this that is happening with Haradinaj and the measures and unreasonable decisions from Pristina, speak of the fact that the solution will not be quick,” said Dacic. According to him, this is the reason why these letters followed, as some kind of lending of support to the peace process and a slap to those who are stopping a solution. He recalled that he was one of the rare and first ones who spoke about delineation as a possible solution, at a time when nobody dared talk about it and when it was not popular to talk about it. “Today, too, I think this is the only realistic possibility for a quick solution, on the other side, this solution respects the interests of both the Serbian and Albanian people, and on the third side, the approach changed with the US administration, with the change of the president and his closest associates a possibility appeared for the Kosovo issue not to be considered final and resolved,” said Dacic.

Asked about the possibility of early general elections in Serbia, he said he did not expect them next year. “They would suit the parties, but not the state,” Dacic said.


Odalovic: Pristina endangered dialogue, important to use the following days (RTS)


On the occasion of the letter sent by President Trump to Vucic and Thaci, the General Secretary of the Serbian Foreign Minister Veljko Odalovic has told RTS that now is a very important moment for the entire process of the dialogue that is in crisis thanks to Pristina’s unreasonable decisions. “I think now with this letter it is clear the US, which has power and influence, will organize some relations in Pristina as well,” says Odalovic, adding somebody will have to bring reason to Pristina and Ramush Haradinaj to give up from provocations and decisions that can endanger peace, security and much more. He says that Trump’s letter also stems from a serious and good quality support of Russia and China to the process. He says the great powers unambiguously support Serbia and that this is one of the reasons the US is getting involved this way in the entire process. He notes that many things will depend from the internal political situation in Pristina, especially from the orders of the Special Prosecution for War Crimes that has already recognized a group of people and invited them in mid-January to The Hague for giving statements.




Thaci: Customs tariffs are consequence of behavior of official Sarajevo towards Kosovo (Dnevni avaz)


President of Kosovo Hashim Thaci said that it is time for everyone to start living in accordance with reality, respecting the fact that Kosovo is independent and sovereign country. “The sooner everyone gets used to it, the easier it will be in the region. Thaci commented introduction of customs tariffs on products imported from Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H), and said: “Destructive and aggressive role of Serbia towards Kosovo, and failure of official Sarajevo to recognize Kosovo, without any positive developments in a situation where all other neighboring countries have acknowledged our stately independence, has forced us to take such step.” However, he pointed out that it is time to start working on resolving open issues between B&H and Kosovo, such as the visa issue and lack of direct communication.


Bosniak political factor obstructs formation of B&H CoM (RTRS)


The 15-days deadline for the B&H Presidency to submit the proposal of a candidate for the B&H Council of Ministers (CoM) Chairman-Designate to the B&H House of Representatives (HoR) expires Friday. Chairman of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik announced that the B&H Presidency will officially nominate Zoran Tegeltija from SNSD as the B&H CoM Chairman-Designate soon. However, the reporter noted that the process of formation of the B&H CoM is being stalled as the B&H HoR was supposed to hold a session dedicated to election of the B&H CoM Chairman-Designate on December 28, but the B&H HoR Collegium postponed it to January 17 “due to uncertainty”. That happened despite the fact that parliamentary parties supported SNSD’s proposal and despite the fact that parliamentary majority composed of SNSD, HDZ B&H and SDA became clear during the inaugural session of the B&H HoR. According to the reporter, it is obvious that the Bosniak political factor i.e. SDA is trying to buy some time while struggling for domination. Commenting on this issue, B&H HoR Deputy Speaker Nebojsa Radmanovic (SNSD) explained: “Chairman of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik did not want to convene the session if there is no consensus in the Presidency. The political party I come from deems that this issue should not be linked to formation of authority in the Federation of B&H, as a certain number of people in the Federation of B&H are doing.” B&H HoR Speaker Borjana Kristo said that she does not know why exactly SDA is stalling the process – whether because of the fact that it currently holds the post of the B&H CoM Chairman or some other reason. “Political representatives of SDA should say why,” Kristo said.


Wigemark meets B&H HoR Collegium; Radmanovic criticizes Mogherini (Hayat)


Speaker of the B&H House of Representatives (HoR) Borjana Kristo and her Deputy Nebojsa Radmanovic attended a meeting with Head of EU Delegation to B&H Ambassador Lars-Gunnar Wigemark in Sarajevo on Thursday. Kristo and Radmanovic stated their belief that major steps will be made on B&H’s EU path in this four-year term. During the meeting, Radmanovic criticized High Representative Federica Mogherini, stating that it was “an unacceptable” fact that Mogherini invited outgoing Chairman of the B&H Council of Ministers (CoM) Denis Zvizdic to the recently held meeting with leaders of the Western Balkans countries in Brussels, instead of inviting B&H Presidency Chairman Milorad Dodik. “This is not criticism aimed against Mister Zvizdic, because he received an invitation and responded accordingly, as any other official would do. But, High Representative of the EU must be criticized as she approached B&H in a way that is contrary to the Constitution of B&H,” underlined Radmanovic. Wigemark stated that 2019 will be very important for B&H’s EU path and that it is imperative that the Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee starts functioning as soon as possible, which was prevented by procedural problems. Wigemark stated that this commission is imperative and that the EU Parliament will not issue a report until the commission begins its duty. Radmanovic said that he feels that the EU is not assisting B&H’s path to the EU, or assisting other countries in the Balkans, which is proven by their reports which address B&H unilaterally and do not contribute to B&H’s path to the EU or other countries from the Balkans.


Radoncic with Wigemark (Dnevni avaz)


SBB B&H President Fahrudin Radoncic received Head of the EU Delegation to B&H and EU Special Representative in B&H Lars-Gunnar Wigemark on Thursday. According to the daily, during the one-hour meeting they stressed importance of B&H continuing its reform path and relaxation of political relations in the country. Two collocutors also talked about how to avoid the paralysis of implementation of the October elections. According to the daily, Radoncic’s and Wigemark’s joint conclusion is that priorities should include Euro-Atlantic integration, taking care of citizens’ interest, economic development and works on infrastructure, in other words all reforms expected from B&H on its EU path.


Cristian Dan Preda: B&H must earn EU candidate status (BHT1)


European Parliament’s Rapporteur for B&H Cristian Dan Preda stated that he expects that B&H will be granted the status of the candidate for membership in the EU next year, but he noted that B&H must earn this status. Preda said that the country must be in a position to demonstrate a serious approach to reforms related to accession in the EU. BHT1 quoted Preda saying that “unfortunately, this is not what we have seen in the past year and a half when tempo of reforms significantly slowed down”. He assessed that now that the general elections ended, B&H has a chance to reverse this trend. According to Preda, the key lies in formation of authorities without any delays and starting work on the necessary reforms.


European Commission publishes report on fulfillment of visa-free requirements by Western Balkans countries (Nezavisne novine)


The most recent European Commission’s report on fulfilment of visa-free requirements by Western Balkans countries reads that the visa liberalization benchmarks continue to be fulfilled in B&H, but the country still has problems with the implementation of the Action Plan on migration and asylum, while organized crime groups from the country are operating in the EU. Judging by the report, according to daily, one can conclude that the visa-free regime for B&H is not in danger, but the EU expects problems to be resolved nevertheless. B&H was actually praised for implementing the 2016-2020 Strategy and Action Plan on migration and asylum, but the report underlined that the implementation was affected by the lack of coordination among responsible levels of governance, and inadequate number of border police officers. “Organized crime groups from B&H are among the most frequently reported for organized property crimes in the EU, as well as the trafficking in human beings and trafficking of illicit drugs. B&H is a destination country for vehicles stolen in Member States. There remain significant weapon stocks in B&H, which is a risk in the framework of firearms trafficking”, reads the report. European Commission called on B&H to increase the allocation of sufficient resources to the management of borders and further strengthen the border controls, also in the context of identification and registration measures, as well as to strengthen activities aimed at effectively preventing and fighting organized crime and money laundering, in a coordinated manner among law enforcement agencies. Although the report stated that some progress has been made in the fight against organized crime groups, the EC also underlined that problems still exist when it comes to prosecution of organized crime cases. Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said that all Western Balkans countries – B&H, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, as well as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, need to do more to tackle the issue of organized crime and illegal migrations.


B&H’s Commission for NATO Integration holds session, no quorum for adoption of decisions (ATV)


A session of the B&H Commission for NATO Integration was held on Thursday. However, since there was no necessary quorum for adoption of decisions, the Commission was prevented to adopt first National Annual Program on B&H’s Cooperation with NATO for period 2018- 2019. Namely, out of 20 members of the Commission, only 11 of them attended the session. Presenter reminded that Republika Srpska (RS) President Zeljka Cvijanovic has recently gathered the RS officials to discuss activation of NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for B&H and position of the RS regarding this issue. Participants of this meeting called on Serb members of the Commission, including Boris Jerinic, Snezana Tusevljak, Milomir Hrsum, Milos Savija, Momir Brajic and Janko Petrusic not to participate in work of the Commission for NATO Integration. Jerinic and Tusevljak resigned to their posts in the Commission, while other members from rank of Serbs announced that they will not attend the session. Chairman of the Commission Josip Brkic addressed media after abovementioned session and said that due to absence of Serb members of the Commission, they had quorum for holding of the session, but not for reaching of any decisions.


Dodik: RS citizens will decide about NATO integration of B&H (ATV)


Chairman of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik stated that when it comes to political status of Serb people, no one will ever again humiliate and blackmail Serbs. Dodik went on saying that in political and economic sense, the RS will become stronger and stable. He underlined that new representatives of the RS in joint institutions of B&H will contribute to this. The Chairman of B&H Presidency stressed that relation of the RS representatives in B&H institutions with the RS will be regulated by new the RS law. According to Dodik, authorities in the RS will always represent people, adding that citizens of the RS will decide about NATO integration of B&H. Dodik emphasized that at this moment, stance of Serb people regarding this issue is clear – they are against membership of B&H in the Alliance.


Zvizdic: Those who are against NATO membership base their conclusions on decisions of bodies which are not competent for international policies or NATO integration (FTV)


The outgoing Chairman of the B&H Council of Ministers (CoM) and newly elected deputy speaker of the B&H HoR Denis Zvizdic (SDA), asked to comment the fact that the RS President Zeljka Cvijanovic announced that Serb members of the Commission for NATO Integration could be held responsible for criminal offense if they fail to abide by the RS parliament Declaration on Military Neutrality, said that the meeting of the Commission for NATO Integration which was to be held on Thursday was not held because of the lack of quorum due to Serb members who failed to show up to the meeting. This is the first time the Serb members of the commission failed to show up to such an important meeting which was aimed to confirm a previously drafted proposal for B&H’s Annual National Program which would activate MAP. He stated that political options which advocate NATO and EU membership base their stances on valid laws, strategies and decisions of competent bodies of B&H. These decisions are based on the Law on Defense and Law on Armed Forces. Zvizdic explained that these documents outline B&H’s NATO path and they were adopted by B&H parliament. These political opinions are also based on decisions of the Presidency of B&H which is in charge of foreign policy and the strategy which was adopted a few months ago. Zvizdic underlined that those who are against NATO membership are those who base their conclusions on decisions of bodies which are not competent for international policies or NATO integration. Zvizdic stressed that B&H has to move forward with EU and NATO integration which are the two key foreign policy goals of B&H, since this would ensure peace and stability which is essential to all B&H citizens and the region. Zvizdic noted that the spin that has been present in the media that this document (MAP) means instant NATO membership should be stopped, explaining that the preparation of the Annual Program does not mean instant NATO membership adding that this process will take four to five years of persistent efforts. Zvizdic reminded that every NATO member has great benefits not only in security, but also in economy and rule of law, and that he sees no reason why B&H should be an exception because of politics of neighboring countries or parliaments which are not authorized to make such decisions, such as those of the RS.


Zvizdic: Croatia is not B&H mentor (FTV)


Asked to comment the adoption of the Declaration on Position of Croats in B&H by the Croatian parliament which was also discussed at the meeting in Brussels, the newly elected deputy speaker of the B&H HoR Denis Zvizdic stated that dialogue is the best instrument for solving all issues in the region even though this declaration was not a neighborly move by Croatia. Zvizdic underlined that Croatia needs to understand that it is not the guarantor of B&H or B&H’s mentor, and that B&H is a sovereign internationally recognized country. Zvizdic noted that Croatia does advocate European integration of B&H and has helped in certain phases, which is why it is expected that Croatia helps B&H with its experience but based on mutual understanding and strict respect of sovereignty of B&H.


Plenkovic rejects proposals to ban Serb minority political party (Hina)


Prime Minister and HDZ party leader Andrej Plenkovic said on Thursday that Croatia was not a country where freedom of speech or political parties were banned, stressing that anything that raised tensions between Croats and the Serb minority was not good. “It is my duty as Prime Minister and president of the HDZ to see to it that such situations are avoided, to nip them in the bud and work on promoting coexistence between all people who live in Croatia. I will insist on that, regardless of any local initiatives,” Plenkovic told the press after a session of the HDZ’s Presidency, National Council and Main Committee. The HDZ deputies in the Vukovar Town Council on Tuesday strongly reacted to statements by Serb Deputy Mayor Srdjan Milakovic of the Democratic Alliance of Serbs (DSS) and DSS councilor Borislav Nikolic, saying that they would take the necessary legal steps to have the DSS banned because Milakovic and Nikolic had tried to equate the victim and the Great Serbian aggressor, humiliated Homeland War victims and manipulated historical facts about the war. Plenkovic reiterated that war crimes prosecution and work on determining the truth was what had to be done. Those in charge of that job, the police and the prosecutorial authorities, are working more intensively than before, he said. “That task should be dealt with by them and the courts.” Stressing that the peaceful reintegration of the eastern Danube region was the key legacy of Croatia’s first president Franjo Tudjman, Plenkovic said that it was a unique endeavor that should be promoted and that reconciliation and coexistence should be built on the truth, while victims should be respected and war criminals punished.


Croatia announces another round of aid for Croats in B&H (HRT)


The Central State Office for Croats Abroad and the State Office for Housing have announced that in a joint effort they will provide 3.4 million Kuna in aid to Croats in B&H through 44 projects aimed at stimulating the return of Croats to their pre-war homes in the neighboring country. “This aid will help the entire area in which these projects are implemented, and all of the people living there. This is just another way of showing our friendship with Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country comprised of three equal and constituent peoples,” said the State Secretary at the Central State Office for Croats Abroad Zvonko Milas. The funds will be used for a variety of purposes including the reconstruction of houses destroyed during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. Prior to the war 760 000 Croats lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, today there are less than 435 000.


Maslov: Russia doesn’t oppose Macedonia’s new name, it opposes NATO membership (Meta)


Russia doesn’t oppose the Prespa Agreement regarding the name but it opposes Macedonia’s membership into NATO, said Russian Ambassador to Greece Andrej Maslov during a briefing in Athens regarding the visit of the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras in Moscow. “If Athens and Skopje reach an agreement about the name and if that is officially accepted by the Republic of Macedonia’s Constitution, then we shall recognize that decision,” said Maslov, when asked whether Moscow will veto the agreement at the UN Security Council. He has also repeated Russia’s view that it opposes Macedonia’s membership in the Alliance and if that happens, Moscow will be forced to take countermeasures. The Russian Ambassador also stated that the Prespa Agreement will not influence relations between Russia and Greece. Relations between Athens and Moscow, according to Moscow, are normalizing after diplomatic incidents that occurred during the summer when Greece expelled two Russian diplomats, while two other diplomats were banned from entering Greece due to findings of Russian interference in the negotiations in the name dispute.


Islamic Republic of Iran responds to expulsion of diplomats from Albania (ADN)


Bahram Ghasemi, the spokesperson for the foreign ministry of the Islamic Republic of Iran, said that the expulsion of the two diplomats from Albania was done “under pressures from the US and Israel’s security service” and “anti-Iranian terrorist groups”. While condemning Albania’s actions, Ghasemi said that the accusations against the two diplomats are untrue and baseless, and only made to undermine the relation between Iran and Europe. Yesterday, Albania expelled two Iranian diplomats, including ambassador Gholam Hossein Mohammadnia, for their connections to a terrorist plot in 2016. Mohammadnia has also been a member of Iran’s nuclear deal negotiation team. Albania is host to almost two thousand MKO members ever since their bases in Iraq were shut down. In recent months, several Islamic Republic diplomats have been arrested in different European countries for their roles in terrorist plots. In July, Belgium announced that they have arrested an Iranian diplomat in connection to the bombing plot of MKO rally. In the same month, Netherlands expelled two Iranian diplomats, and in October, France also expelled an Iranian diplomat for the same terrorist plot in Belgium.




Balkans in 2019: Change Must Come from Within (BIRN, by Florian Bieber, 21 December 2018)


After the disappointments of the second part of 2018, it is clear that democracy and transformation have to come from Balkan societies themselves – not as a result of outside pressure.

The year 2018 was the year of great expectations. After Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised possible membership for Serbia and Montenegro by 2025, and the Commission drafted a new strategy, years of EU neglect of the Western Balkans appeared to come to an end. The Bulgarian EU presidency put enlargement on its agenda, while a breakthrough in relations between Macedonia and Greece in the dispute over Macedonia’s name led to the “Prespa Agreement” being signed in June 2018. Already the second half of the year was more sobering. The path to ratify the Prespa Agreement has been rocky and is by no means concluded. Hope for a comprehensive agreement between Serbia and Kosovo remains remote. Within the EU, enlargement has once more dropped down the list of priorities. Most importantly, France and the Netherlands signaled in June that they are not eager to advance with enlargement, despite the Greek-Macedonian agreement. What should the region expect in 2019? In brief, the coming year will make it clear that change for the region has to come from within. The regional obsession with “positive signals” from the EU will not help. By spring, the current Commission will be a lame duck, awaiting the outcome of the European Parliamentary elections in May and the formation of a new Commission.


Escalation more likely than settlement in Kosovo:

No new projects or initiatives can therefore be expected. This leaves a very narrow window of opportunity for the EU-led Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, as any agreement would need to be complete by spring. This seems hard to imagine at the moment. Both Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the Kosovo government have been putting more emphasis on escalating their dispute than on cooperation. Both might believe they can achieve a better outcome with a new Commission and under Federica Mogherini’s successor. Furthermore, in Kosovo no actors have the support to carry an agreement through at the moment and President Hashim Thaçi appears even weaker than he was a year ago. It is unlikely that he would secure support for a treaty with Serbia, even if there was one. On the Serbian side, Vučić seems more interested in negotiating and escalating than in finding a settlement. After all, he has no interest in moving quickly. Buying time could convince a new Commission to uncouple Kosovo talks from Serbia’s EU accession, especially if he does not seem like the culprit for the delay and if any quick settlement shifted the spotlight more towards the decline in democracy and rule of law in Serbia. Thus, escalation with a weaker EU to intervene seems more like the order of the day in 2019.


Macedonia’s reward for Greek deal unclear:

The main success of 2018 meanwhile has been the agreement between Macedonia and Greece. While it is not yet guaranteed to cross the final hurdles in both countries, it seems more likely to succeed than to fail. The agreement is the most significant good-faith effort to resolve a core regional dispute for a while. What remains unclear is whether Macedonia will receive a reward from the EU for its efforts. While NATO membership seems likely by 2020 at the latest, the more important goal of moving European integration forward is less certain. The skepticism of some EU members about enlargement in general might yet throw a spanner in the works of the enlargement process and in getting accession talks started next summer for Macedonia and for Albania. This risk highlights the fact that EU accession is not only based on the progress made by the aspirant countries but also on the willingness of existing EU members to move accession forward.


No Enlargement Commissioner possible next year:

Populists and nationalists will be stronger in the next European Parliament, to be elected in May, though the shifts are likely to be less dramatic than the shifts the European political landscape has seen already in recent years. Some of the far-right parties will oppose enlargement so that the new parliament will be more reserved towards enlargement and the EU in general. This skepticism will be reflected in the Commission, although it will be likely to include the large centrist European parties, the Socialists, the European People’s Party, and the Liberals.

It is possible that the new Commission will not even have a Commissioner on Enlargement. Considering the steady decline of the enlargement portfolio over the past 15 years, this would be no surprise. This would send a wrong signal, but the possibility needs to be considered. Having no Commissioner for Enlargement would reflect the lower priority given to enlargement, but would not change the existing reality in the EU. Furthermore, having a commission from the “wrong” country could be worse. If Hungarian commissioner were in charge of enlargement, for example, he or she could do more damage to enlargement than not having a commissioner at all. Most enlargement skeptics are already worried that enlargement would import more versions of Viktor Orban into the EU, or more Romanias and Bulgarias. Thus, having a Commissioner from there would reaffirm that worry.


EU still supporting regional strongmen:

Over the past few years, the EU and its member states have done some good, but also some harm, to the region. Consider the strong support for regional strongmen and the sabotage for the rule of law, including Hungary offering asylum to Nikola Gruevski, the convicted former prime minister of Macedonia. One of the significant challenges for the EU is how to deal with members that openly flaunt the rule of law, including Hungary and Poland, but also Italy. So far it has lacked the tools and, often, the political will to tackle this challenge. Instead, those breaking the rule of the EU cast a shadow, directly and indirectly, over the Balkans. Consider the next summit of the Berlin Process scheduled for Poznan. The decision to host the summit in Poland is at least as disastrous as the decision to hold this year’s summit in London. If one would want to empty the Berlin Process of meaning intentionally, one could not pick better places, except, maybe, Budapest. The message from Britain and Poland is in both cases, “Do as we say, but don’t do as we do”, i.e., leave the EU or break its rules. The Romanian EU presidency also had some intentions to include the Western Balkans in the Sibiu summit planned for May, but that appears increasingly doubtful. In short, change and a push for a positive transformation are unlikely to come from the EU in 2019. This might be sobering, but also important: as democratic decline and EU accession have gone hand in hand in recent years in the Western Balkans, it is clear that getting closer to the EU is no longer a sure way to increase the level of democracy; Europeanisation and democratization are no longer in sync. Such a trend does not mean societies should give up on EU integration, as some nationalist parties in the region suggest. Instead, the transformation towards more pluralist, democratic societies has to come from within. Considering the stagnation and decline of democracy in the region, not least in Serbia, except for Macedonia; the challenge is clear. Strongmen across the region enjoy attention and support from the EU and other world leaders while they can gradually erode democratic and independent institutions and media at home. There is no sign that they will face greater pressure from the outside. Even in Macedonia in 2015, when everybody could listen to the recordings of a corrupt government that spied on its citizens, pressured courts and manipulated media, the pressure came from within, and only later, belatedly, from the EU and the US. Civil society and opposition parties carried the main burden. In the region and in particular in Serbia, pressure for more democracy and the rule of law will have to come from the societies themselves.

Florian Bieber is the coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Advisory Group and professor for Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz, Austria. He reflections are based on discussions held in Belgrade on 14 December on the EU and the Balkans in 2019 organized by the European Western Balkans and the European Fund for the Balkans.


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