You are here:  Home  >  UN Office in Belgrade Media Report  >  Current Article

Belgrade Media Report 23 January 2019

By   /  23/01/2019  /  Comments Off on Belgrade Media Report 23 January 2019

United Nations Office in Belgrade

Daily Media Highlights

Wednesday 23 January 2019

• Vucic: Haradinaj’s statement on taxes sends bad message to entire region (Beta/Politika)
• Vucic in Davos: Proud of reforms, but not of criticism of media situation (B92/RSF)
• Djuric: Thaci’s statement threat to Kosovo Serbis (RTS)
• Dacic to Pacoli: The only weapon Serbia is using is the truth (Novosti)


Bosnia & Herzegovina
• Delegation of SDA, SNSD discuss formation of state-level authorities (N1)
• Dodik: Path to NATO is path of confrontation which would complicate relations in B&H (Al Jazeera Balkans)
• Covic: Road to NATO has no alternative, political Sarajevo involved in manipulations (Vecernji list)
• Government to increase funding for Croats in Serbia (Hina)
• Zaev: Polls being conducted for 10 most suitable candidates (Meta)
• Who will run for the presidential race? (Nezavisen vesnik)
• US official who pushed Macedonia to change its name resigns from the State Department (Republika)
• PM Rama hands over Foreign Ministry to Gent Cakaj (ADN)


• Russia Must Step in to Mediate Serbia-Kosovo Talks If US Joins – Serbian Envoy (Sputnik)
• Macedonia’s Name Change Deal Is a Triumph for the E.U., But Worrying for Democracy (Time)

    Print       Email



Vucic: Haradinaj’s statement on taxes sends bad message to entire region (Beta/Politika)


Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that Kosovo Premier Ramush Haradinaj’s words that a 100 percent tax on imports from Serbia would stay in force until Belgrade recognized Kosovo was bad news, and the wrong signal to the entire region. During his visit to Davos, where the president is attending the World Economic Forum, Vucic said to reporters that Serbia was strong enough, and that it will see this through. “They can do that and still be someone’s closest allies,” Vucic said, thanking those who, as he put it, appealed that the taxes be revoked, even formally. Speaking of the meetings with the world’s leaders during his stay in Davos, President Vucic said that he would have his 15th meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Jan. 23, adding that he would ask her to help Serbia to address several issues, including Kosovo and Metohija. “Chancellor Merkel is a very serious person, and you need to be well-prepared, and understand well what Germany wants, and what Serbia wants and can do. I never ask for meetings with her, but she demonstrates her responsibility by asking to see what we are doing, and explain German policies to us,” Vucic said.


Vucic in Davos: Proud of reforms, but not of criticism of media situation (B92/RSF)


When a reporter said Serbia was the next country where a journalist could be killed, I did not believe that it was possible, says Aleksandar Vucic. Speaking at a panel in Davos dedicated to media freedoms, the Serbian president added that he is on one hand satisfied with the economic reforms carried out in Serbia, but that this was not true of other things – referring to the situation in the media. “As proud I am of economic reforms and the preservation of peace and stability in the region, I am not so proud of the criticism of the freedom of the media in Serbia,” he said, adding that “in cooperation with international professional associations, progress will be made in the next two years in that area, that we will be proud of.” He said that the situation in the media in Serbia is polarized, and that there are many problems in that field. “I will give you my example so you could learn something from it,” the Serbian president said, and said that a reporter, speaking about Serbia, had said this could be the next country where a journalist would be killed. “Fortunately, it wasn’t, but it did happen in some EU countries,” Vucic said.

However, he continued, a Serbian journalist wrote something in local media, against local government structures, and his garage was set on fire, and then the fire spread to his house, and his entire family was in danger. “Then I began to think about those words, even though I did not believe that something like that would happen in my country. We arrested the person who did it, as well as the person who organized everything, but we did not arrest the organizer. I expect the case to be finalized in about ten days. After this I learned something, I started to be careful and afraid. We have to finish this case and be ‘brutal’ in every such case,” Vucic said.


Serbia: RSF expects concrete measures from Vucic after formal meeting in Belgrade

After a wide-ranging discussion with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at the presidential palace in Belgrade, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expects positive changes for press freedom in the biggest Balkan country, which aspires to join the European Union. The discussion between President Vucic and RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire, which lasted 90 minutes and took place in the presence of the head of RSF’s EU and Balkans desk, Pauline Adès-Mevel, was direct and concrete, and covered all aspects of media freedom, including journalists’ safety, editorial independence and journalistic ethics. RSF voiced its concern about the safety of investigative journalists six weeks after reporter Milan Jovanovic’s home was destroyed in an arson attack. Three persons are now detained on suspicion of throwing the Molotov cocktails that started the fire, which could have killed Jovanovic and his wife. RSF has seen a decline in the press freedom climate in Serbia, which fell 10 places in the latest World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 76th out of 180 countries. When RSF urged Vucic to appreciate the gravity of the many verbal and physical attacks on journalists and to respond appropriately, he provided specific information about some of the police investigations currently under way and recognized the need to shed light on several murders of journalists in the 1990s and the 2000s. RSF also deplored the lack of independence of many Serbian media outlets, especially the pro-government media, and the arbitrary way that state advertising its allocated. Describing Serbia’s media as polarized, which he said he regretted, Vucic denied the discretionary nature of state subsidies for the media. “We know that we must change something,” he nonetheless acknowledged, especially as regards the level of defamation and insults in the media. RSF regrets that, despite satisfactory media legislation, Vucic has failed to propose measures to ensure that the laws are implemented effectively.


Djuric: Thaci’s statement threat to Kosovo Serbis (RTS)


The Head of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija Marko Djuric assesses the statement of Kosovo President Hashim Thaci – that the process of unification of northern and southern Mitrovica is unstoppable, as a threat to the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija. “Hashim Thaci is speaking about annexation of Kosovska Mitrovica, I am telling him not to play with Serbia, not to threat the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija, not to behave irresponsibly, because such statements are a call for destabilization,” Djuric told RTS. He told the EU not to turn a blind eye to this. “President Vucic had warned some time ago about the danger of such moves and I think that the EU should react before it is too late,” said Djuric.


Dacic to Pacoli: The only weapon Serbia is using is the truth (Novosti)


In reaction to the claims of Kosovo Foreign Minister Bexhet Pacoli that he has information that Belgrade was promising financial aid and aid in weapons to some smaller African countries in exchange of withdrawal of Kosovo independence, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic told Novosti: “The world in which Pacoli and his bunch are still stuck, weapons are still a poker coin. Our only weapon is the truth we are spreading around the world. We are fighting only with this and with the decrees of international law for the preservation of our national interests. Pristina, aware that more and more states are withdrawing recognition of Kosovo, is clinging more and more to lies… “We are armed with patience, ready to fight in the political field and in international forums, as much as it takes.”




Delegation of SDA, SNSD discuss formation of state-level authorities (N1)


Delegations of SDA and SNSD held talks on formation of authorities at the level of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) in Sarajevo on Tuesday. The SDA’s delegation was represented by Semsudin Dedic, Denis Zvizdic and Adil Osmanovic and the SNSD’s delegation was represented by Nebojsa Radmanovic, Stasa Kosarac and Nikola Spiric. They reached an agreement that concrete steps on the appointment of B&H Council of Ministers (CoM) Chairman-designate and distribution of ministries will be made in February. Addressing the joint press conference after the meeting, representatives of SDA and SNSD stated that both parties want to see the accelerated process of formation of authorities since the process is currently very slow, as well as that the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) is respected in any decision-making process. They said that it was agreed at the meeting that SNSD, SDA and HDZ B&H should form a new parliamentary majority at the state level given that they are election winners and legitimate representatives of their peoples. However, they stressed that there are many things they disagree about, reminding of many conditions set by both sides. Osmanovic stated that the two parties have different stances regarding the NATO MAP activation for B&H, but according to the agreement reached at the meeting this and other disputable issues will be addressed in February in order to decide on further actions. He concluded that there is readiness to bring the two parties’ stances closer. Kosarac said that it is visible that there is a dynamic political course, talks and dialogue in the Federation of B&H on the method of formation of authorities at the level of B&H. “In accordance with all efforts of competent authorities in the Federation of B&H to define certain issues, it was concluded that the next meeting will be held at the beginning of February. Political structures did not reach consent on part of the issues we discussed at the meeting,” Kosarac concluded.


Dodik: Path to NATO is path of confrontation which would complicate relations in B&H (Al Jazeera Balkans)


B&H Presidency Chairman and SNSD leader Milorad Dodik, asked to comment on the issues which SDA and SNSD do not agree on, said that issues that there is agreement about are more important. “I believe that the European path is still bringing all political structures in B&H together and that we can work on the issues of the Reform Agenda in regard to economic issues which fall under the jurisdiction of different levels of the authorities; from joint institutions to entities, i.e. to municipalities. In any case, I believe that we should together do whatever it takes to improve our economic capabilities, to strengthen the fiscal system and financial system in B&H, to attempt to reaffirm the role of the Central Bank of B&H which should support development of the society as a whole with its operations on the internal financial market in B&H and those are the issues that we agree about,” Dodik said. He added that representatives of SDA and SNSD have different opinions when it comes to the NATO path of B&H and some other issues, such as the issue of centralization of B&H. Commenting the fact that Croat and Bosniak member of the B&H Presidency, Zeljko Komsic (DF) and Sefik Dzaferovic (SDA), are conditioning appointment of SNSD’s Zoran Tegeltija as the B&H CoM Chairman-designate with the adoption of the Annual National Program for NATO, Dodik recalled that he told US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan that there is no consensus on NATO in B&H. “That is nothing new. Everyone here knows that… I believe that the European path is more important and that functioning of institutions in B&H should be bigger interest of those who are constantly advocating a stable B&H than to us from Republika Srpska (RS),” Dodik said, adding that NATO is not on the agenda, but formation of the authorities of B&H. Dodik stressed that SNSD believes that the B&H CoM should be formed so that common policies could be built and so that differences in B&H could be discussed within the B&H CoM. “No one can win in this way, by conditioning someone with something,” Dodik underlined. Dodik further said that SNSD’s policy is a policy of non-confrontation. “The path to NATO is a path of confrontation which would complicate relations in B&H and lead to much bigger problems here because of global problems that exist between NATO and Russia for example,” Dodik underlined, recalling that there are countries such as Austria and Sweden that are not members of NATO, but are full members of the EU. Asked to comment on claims of his political opponents that he is hindering B&H’s path to NATO because of Russia and whether he is a Russia’s man in B&H, Dodik stated that he is a man of the Serb people and of the RS. “With my policy that I am getting the support of the people for, I am trying not to fail the people and that policy is policy of military neutrality. If I was the Russia’s man, I would be advocating military alliance with Russia. You know that Russia is creating a Euro-Asian alliance – both a military and an economic one,” Dodik stressed. Dodik added that one cannot expect Serbs to accept NATO accession having in mind that NATO bombed Serbs, used excessive force against them and used depleted uranium when bombing positions of the RS Army. Asked to comment the letter of US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in which he called on the B&H Presidency to adopt the National Annual Program for NATO and whether he is risking new US sanctions by refusing to adopt this document, Dodik stated that he of course cannot influence the policy of the United States. “They can reach decisions as they please. They are a powerful, respectable power and no serious person can exclude something like that. But, no one serious in B&H, but also in the political life of the US itself, can expect one letter or threat of new sanctions to frighten Milorad Dodik. I am living under the sanctions of the United States. I spoke with the US Deputy Secretary of State and I told him – and I believe that we have to speak clearly and precisely – and I said, Mr. there is no consensus regarding the NATO path. That is something that does not exist. Perhaps, Russia will someday become a member of NATO and Serbia and us will believe that we have to find ourselves there,” Dodik said, adding that he is not only advocating military neutrality, but also disarmament and demilitarization in B&H in terms of reducing the existence of weapons in B&H. Speaking about the upcoming visit of the B&H Presidency members to Brussels, Dodik stated that the B&H Presidency members have only a couple of positive things to bring with them to Brussels. “We did not finish the Questionnaire and that is a bad thing. I was informed about who failed to do what in that process, but I will not discuss that. We did not form the authorities. We did not fully implement the economic agenda, i.e. the Reform Agenda. We are having delay with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and with implementation of the Letters of Intent. Authorities in the Federation of B&H were also not formed. This was not done in certain cantons as well. Of course, people will ask us about all of that. I believe that we are capable of doing one thing, i.e. of separating the European path from the NATO path which is something completely different,” Dodik said, reiterating that the RS wants European integration. Dodik added that regional cooperation will probably be discussed in Brussels as well. “I want to say that my policy, and I believe that this is the policy of the other two members of the B&H Presidency as well, is to achieve as high level of regional cooperation as possible,” Dodik stressed. Dodik noted that the B&H Presidency members will see in Brussels what the chances for B&H to obtain the EU candidate status this year are. Asked to comment his recent statement according to which if Drina River was a glass of water he would drink it and whether he understands what consequences of such messages could be given that many believe that any change of borders would lead the region into a conflict, Dodik said that there is no potential for conflict on any side in B&H. “Let us turn to political agreement and political discussion on everything. The RS is not against being a part of B&H. It is against the interference of foreigners and against imposed solutions, solutions imposed by High Representatives who undermined the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) in that way. We are against that. But, we are not against constitutional B&H the way it was written in the Constitution; we are advocating such B&H,” Dodik underlined. Asked whether he is ready to support amendments to the B&H Election Law demanded by HDZ B&H and its leader Dragan Covic, Dodik said that SNSD will take part in that. “We are ready to support it and I believe that it is necessary to prevent a scenario in which representatives of one people are electing representatives of another people. The Croat people are right in that respect. Mr. Covic is completely right,” Dodik emphasized.


Covic: Road to NATO has no alternative, political Sarajevo involved in manipulations (Vecernji list)


HDZ B&H President Dragan Covic told the daily that “membership in Euro-Atlantic integration is our goal” and that “accordingly, the road to NATO has no alternative”. “Membership in the alliance will bring stabilization to B&H, its strengthening, as well as stabilization of the general situation in the region: I am convinced that nobody can stop us on that road” Covic told Vecernji list. Asked to comment the current halt in terms of adoption of the Annual National Program (ANP), Covic said this issue is now included in the process of formation of new authority, and has shown that the three peoples have different positions, especially shedding a light on manipulations coming from political Sarajevo. “I would not be surprised if Dragan Covic or the Croat policy is accused of being against membership in NATO, whilst in fact it is political Sarajevo that additionally generates opponents and conflicts after which we will, unfortunately, continue to be blocked,” said Covic. Daily commented that since Croatia is a member of the EU and NATO, it is clear that B&H Croats want to be a part of the same integration circle as Croatia.


Government to increase funding for Croats in Serbia (Hina)


Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said on Tuesday that his government is ready to increase funding for specific projects that are important for the position of Croats in Serbia, a government press release said. Plenkovic met in Zagreb with the head of the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina (DSHV) and member of the Serbian parliament, Tomislav Zigmanov, and the newly-elected president of the Croatian National Council in Serbia, Jasna Vojnic. Plenkovic “expressed the readiness of the Croatian government to increase allocations in the coming period for specific projects that are important for the position of the 58,000-strong Croatian community in Serbia and for the protection of Croatian cultural identity,” the press release said. Zigmanov and Vojnic spoke of the dialogue they had begun at the start of last year with senior Serbian officials. They cited the importance of achieving better opportunities for education in the Croatian language and Latin alphabet and the appropriate representation of the Croatian minority in the National Assembly and regional and local legislatures. They also called for including the Croatian community in EU-funded cross-border projects, the press release said.

Zigmanov, said during a visit to Zagreb on Tuesday that the Croats in Serbia were “a wounded community” and needed Croatia’s assistance in achieving their priorities. “The Croatian community in Serbia is poorly developed institutionally. We are a wounded community, a community that has the lowest GDP in Europe. We are the poorest Croats in the world, we live in a very unfavorable social environment where over 50 percent of people have a highly negative opinion of Croats, where tensions between the two countries reached the highest-level last year,” Zigmanov told a press conference after meeting with President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.

He said that the Croatian community was considerably less developed than other minorities in Serbia and had much less money at its disposal. This makes the position of the Croats in Serbia more complex and diminishes their prospects, he added. “We expect to see how Croatia can help us with our priorities,” Zigmanov said, noting that the Croatian community in Serbia still could not achieve certain things without the Croatian government’s help. Thanking the Croatian government for what it had done so far, Zigmanov said that the Croats in Serbia had “a vision and the energy” to carry through development projects, but needed assistance. Speaking of the Croatian minority’s basic political demand to have guaranteed representation in the Serbian parliament, Zigmanov said that this was the most complex issue and that it was still far from resolution. “We will see if and when it will be achieved, but we are not giving up on it.”

Asked what would happen in Serbia if Croatian children did not stand up for the Serbian national anthem, as had been the case in Vukovar when Serb children remained seated at a sporting event during the playing of the Croatian anthem, Zigmanov would not speculate about it, saying he wanted to help relax Croatian-Serbian relations. “Such comparisons are very difficult to make. What is important is that we do not manifest such deficits of loyalty and have not had such experiences,” he said. “We, of course, are not happy when ethnically-motivated incidents happen, but what we have seen to exist as a practice in Croatia and not in Serbia is that there are condemnations and appropriate penalties and that attention is drawn to unlawful acts,” Zigmanov said, noting that the situation in Croatia was generally much better than in Serbia. “A convicted war criminal, Vojislav Seselj, has threatened to commit a war crime against me, and none of the government officials has reacted to that, nor have any steps been taken by prosecutors or any other institution,” he said. Zigmanov said that the citizens of Croatia could be satisfied with the situation in their country, which he described as institutionally developed and well-functioning.


Zaev: Polls being conducted for 10 most suitable candidates (Meta)


SDSM’s Central Board will get together on Friday and debate about a consensual candidate, replied the Prime Minister Zoran Zaev when asked about the name of the consensual president at the press conference regarding projects on the road infrastructure. He also said that as a party and as a coalition that wants to win at the presidential elections, they are conducting polls which candidate will be accepted most by the public and that should be suitable for everyone. “Research is being conducted for 10 people. We are going step by step and we are debating, we are listening to the opinions of the civil organizations, the voice of the citizens in order to find a person that represents the most acceptable solution for everyone, said Zaev. He added that if they only go for the presidential elections, they should pass more comfortably for the citizens, in order not to disturb the processes in the country. The prime minister repeated his view that personally, he is against organizing parliamentary elections parallel to the presidential elections. “In the past period we’ve had to make difficult decisions and the citizens should feel the results from these decisions. However, the party should also be listened to as all of the polls indicate that SDSM and the Coalition have the advantage and this means that snap elections are favorable for us. That means a secure 4-year mandate, a majority in Parliament, but the country will suffer,” said Zaev adding that it is certain that along with the presidential elections there will be local elections for a mayor in Ohrid, Novo Selo, and Debar.


Who will run for the presidential race? (Nezavisen vesnik)


Debates are taking place in the Republic of Macedonia about the potential candidates that the largest political parties in the country will run for the presidential race which is expected to take place on April 21. Political parties have not yet announced any candidates, saying that they’re still looking into it. Within the ruling party, Social Democratic Union (SDSM), the most likely candidates include Defense Minister Radmila Sekerinska, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski and government coordinator for NATO, Stevo Pendarovski, who also ran in the previous elections and lost to Gjorge Ivanov. Their names are circulating in the media, but SDSM says that these names are not yet official and that it will soon be decided who will run for this race. “This week we will have talks within the party and the coalition about the possibility of holding early elections and whether we will come up with a joint presidential candidate”, said deputy chair of SDSM, Radmila Sekerinska. Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which is part of the governing coalition, demands a consensual candidate who would be acceptable for all communities, especially the two largest ones, Macedonians and Albanians. “We have an initial agreement with SDSM to come up with a consensual candidate, because we believe that the president should be above everyone and that he should be symbol of unity”, said Deputy PM for European Integration Bujar Osmani. The largest opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE has declared that it has started a contest which will aim to select the best candidate of this party for the presidential post. The most likely candidates include figures such as former Finance Minister Trajko Slaveski, Vlatko Gjorcev, Tatjana Karakamiseva and former Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki. However, the latter has denied the possibility of running for this post. Meanwhile, Albanian opposition parties, Alliance for Albanians and BESA Movement are also looking into the possibility of running with a joint presidential candidate.


US official who pushed Macedonia to change its name resigns from the State Department (Republika)


US official who pushed Macedonia to change its name resigns from the State Department

Wess Mitchell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, best known in Macedonia for forcibly pushing the public to accept the deal with Greece to rename the country, has resigned from the State Department. Although Mitchell resigned via the Washington Post, a paper extremely critical of US President Donald Trump, he himself insisted that he is not resigning due to policy differences, but merely because he wants to spend more time with his family. “I’m fully supportive of him, the job he’s doing, the leadership team here. But I feel like I’ve done what I came in to do. My kids have a greater claim to my time right now than the public does” Mitchell said speaking about Secretary Mike Pompeo. Mitchell was nominated during the term of Secretary Rex Tillerson, recruited from the CEPA think tank which promotes strong US foreign leadership, especially as a counter to Russia. Mitchell visited Macedonia several times during the political crisis, and in mid-September he strongly pushed the public to go out and vote in favor of renaming the country at the referendum. But, after the public largely boycotted the vote, and with that rejected the name change, Mitchell wrote a letter to VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski saying he is disappointed that the party does not support the name change. Mickoski replied that “VMRO-DPMNE can’t support a deal which was overwhelmingly rejected by the citizens, which amends the Constitution to rename Macedonia and forces Macedonians to give up on their basic rights”.


PM Rama hands over Foreign Ministry to Gent Cakaj (ADN)


Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced on Wednesday that the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs will be leaded by Gent Cakaj. Gent Cakaj was PM Rama’s nomination for this post but the President of the Republic, Ilir Meta turned down this proposal. After that, the PM Rama submitted to the President his name for this post and Meta decreed Rama. During his first day as Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, PM Rama decided to hand over this duty to Gent Cakaj, who is currently Deputy Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs. “This is the shortest speech of my life. I, Edi Rama, Prime Minister of the Republic of Albania, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, hand over to Mr. Gent Cakaj, Deputy Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, the duty of the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs,” said Rama.




Russia Must Step in to Mediate Serbia-Kosovo Talks If US Joins – Serbian Envoy (Sputnik, 22 January 2019)


MOSCOW – Russia has to become a mediator in EU-facilitated talks between Serbia and Kosovo if Washington decides to participate in the negotiation process, Serbian Ambassador to Russia Slavenko Terzic said on Tuesday. “Our position is as follows: currently we have the negotiations under the aegis of Brussels … But if the United States joins these talks, Serbia believes that Russia has to join these negotiations too. So far the format has not changed, if it does change and the US takes part in it, Serbia thinks that Russia must take part in it too,” the ambassador said at a press conference in Moscow. Terzic added that Belgrade valued Russia’s stance on Serbian territorial integrity and warned Kosovo against making any provocations, such creating an independent army. “This is a very dangerous precedent. It threatens the stability of Serbia and the whole Balkan region. Some big countries are playing with fire in the Balkans, supporting their ambitions … The Balkans is a very difficult region, where many geopolitical, religious and cultural interests cross and NATO has to be very careful in solving the problem,” he added.


Macedonia’s Name Change Deal Is a Triumph for the E.U., But Worrying for Democracy (Time, by Angelos Chryssogelos, 22 January 2019)


Last June, in the picturesque lake region of Prespes, Greece and Macedonia seemed to set aside decades of hostility, as leaders from both countries signed an accord to rename the former Yugoslav republic. Under that eponymous agreement, signed in the presence of European and U.N. officials, Macedonia will become the Republic of North Macedonia. And now, after six months of trying to secure approval by both parliaments, a deal to resolve one of the most intractable — and to many outside observers incomprehensible — bilateral disputes in the Balkans is close to fruition. After Macedonia enacted all necessary changes in its constitution, the Prespes deal is now very close to ratification by Greece as well, with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras winning a vote of confidence in Athens on Jan. 16 — called because of disagreements in his coalition over the agreement. The name-change deal is now expected to be ratified by Greece later this week, which will pave the way for North Macedonia’s entry to NATO and the start of negotiations to discuss it joining the European Union. After the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece’s northern neighbor took the name “Macedonia”—but Athens refused to recognize it, saying it gave legitimacy to territorial claims over the northern Greek province of Macedonia. (The U.N. calls it “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”) The dispute has led Athens to repeatedly block its neighbor’s attempts to join NATO and the E.U., a cause of concern for European leaders who want to strengthen those alliances in the face of Russian aggression. Even though the dispute between the two countries is centered on the legal question of the official name of a country, it touches upon emotional issues of history and identity in both countries. For the citizens of what will soon be “North Macedonia,” the term “Macedonia” is a marker of their distinct national identity in the Balkans. For Greeks on the other hand, Macedonia is intertwined with important periods and personalities in a historical narrative that extends back to ancient times. Under the weight of still vivid memories of conflict and war during the 20th century, the two nations have found it impossible to reconcile on a jointly agreed understanding and use of the word ‘Macedonia’—until last summer. And still, the leaders of both countries have come up against deeply entrenched nationalist attitudes. The E.U. has supported the agreement throughout all the stages of its negotiation, signing and ratification. For the E.U., the Prespes deal represents all that is good about multilateralism and the rules-based international order at a time when these values are under attack by nationalism and populism in Europe, and by President Donald Trump and Russia further afield. It clears a stumbling block in its enlargement to the Western Balkans and puts back on track its project of transforming this region by enmeshing it in its institutional and legal order. For the E.U. the Prespes agreement then is both a geopolitical victory and a vindication of its vision of how international politics should work. But there are three problems with this narrative.


Due political process

The E.U. has chosen to ignore problematic aspects of a ratification process that has challenged constitutional norms and rule of law principles in both Macedonia and Greece. Because both Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev have razor-thin majorities in their parliaments, pushing through the deal in both countries has required political bargaining that has pushed the limits of legality. In Macedonia, Zaev, who lacked the two-thirds majority in parliament to change Macedonia’s constitution, used both threats of judicial prosecutions for corruption and a questionable law of partial amnesty to induce opposition lawmakers to vote for his constitutional amendments. Opposition MPs in Skopje were reportedly under immense pressure by both supporters and opponents of Prespes, including foreign governments, to vote accordingly. Each side has accused the other of threatening physical violence or promising bribes. In Athens, the situation is even more convoluted. Tsipras’s government survived the vote of no confidence in order to ratify Prespes, but its minuscule majority relies on some opponents of the deal, who were lured with the promise of government jobs. Instead, Tsipras expects to ratify the agreement this week by peeling off MPs from smaller opposition parties, potentially to be rewarded with inclusion in the electoral lists of his party in forthcoming elections. Tsipras has already been accused by the opposition in recent months for undue meddling in the judiciary, media and the army. Now, his patching up of ad hoc majorities for different votes in parliament has challenged norms of parliamentary and constitutional procedure and contributed to the further mistrust of the political systems by Greek citizens. For the E.U., concerns over rule of law and due political process should be taken seriously—particularly at a time when many of its member-states struggle with authoritarianism and illiberalism. Meanwhile, all Balkan states that the E.U. hopes to welcome one day continue suffer from persistent problems of corruption and strongman politics. In a world defined by the struggle between liberal democracy and populism, process matters as much as content. The process through which Prespes is being ratified leaves a lot to be desired.



An unpopular deal

Second, both governments are pushing through Prespes against the wishes of large parts of their countries. In Macedonia, the government failed to win a consultative referendum on Prespes in September — a vote that the E.U. has chosen to ignore. In Greece all opinion polling shows a strong popular majority against the deal. Protestors have staged massive demonstrations against the deal, including one on Sunday that was dispersed forcefully by police and that produced images reminiscent of the darkest days of the Eurozone crisis and the violent anti-austerity demonstrations in Athens. Just a few months before a European Parliament election where populists are expected to score gains, the E.U. seems yet again to be presenting itself as a bureaucracy bent on ignoring popular reactions and the sovereignty of weaker states.


Reigniting tensions

Finally, even the geopolitical goal of stabilization of the region is endangered by the deal, precisely because the political mix in Greece and Macedonia is so volatile. In Macedonia the name-change is supported by a coalition of a minority of the dominant Slav-Macedonian ethnic group and Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority, while it is opposed by the majority of Slav-Macedonians. In other words, the deal pits a coalition of minorities against a majority of the majority. Such an arrangement is bound to reignite ethnic tensions and increase political polarization in Macedonia—the exact opposite of the E.U.’s intention. In Greece, on the other hand, Prespes tarnishes public perception of the E.U., interrupting a period of slow and painful rehabilitation after the Eurozone crisis of 2010-15. In a country still scarred by the economic crisis and always susceptible to populist relapses, the rekindling of nationalism by an E.U.-sponsored deal runs against the E.U.’s interest of stability in a Eurozone member-state. The E.U.’s support for the Prespes agreement flows from admirable ideals of European integration. But it is also another example of a bureaucratized mode of governing that often ignores political realities and popular sensibilities. Most of all, it reflects a self-congratulatory attitude that views E.U. accession and membership as a cure-all for complex ethnic, economic and social problems, but also tolerates bargains with questionable national elites and turns a blind eye to their methods as long as they achieve pro-E.U. results on the ground. At a time of serious problems with the rule of law in some E.U. member-states and popular upheaval in others, such an approach to Europe’s problems is short-sighted and self-defeating.

Chryssogelos is a research fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University and an associate fellow at Chatham House.



    Print       Email

You might also like...

Belgrade Media Report 18 September 2020

Read More →