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Belgrade Media Report 29 January 2019

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United Nations Office in Belgrade

Daily Media Highlights

Tuesday 29 January 2019

• Brnabic: Balanced US position on Kosovo important (RTS)
• Pahor addresses Serbian parliament; part of opposition MPs boycotts (Beta)
• Dacic: Gratitude to Myanmar for supporting Serbia’s territorial integrity (RTS/Tanjug/Beta)
• Djuric: Those setting conditions do not want compromise (RTS)
• Kosovo Serbs to join anti-government protests held across Serbia (N1/FoNet)


Bosnia & Herzegovina
• B&H Presidency members to travel to official visit to Brussels on Tuesday; Komsic and Dzaferovic expect that talks in Brussels include EU candidate status of B&H as well (ATV)
• Dodik ahead of visit to Brussels: EU path is part of consensus of all political actors in B&H, it would not be good if someone undermines it (RTRS)
• Cvijanovic: Dodik will present in Brussels realistic picture of current situation in B&H (TV1)
• Dodik meets Ambassadors of Serbia and Russia in B&H (RTRS)
• Dodik on HNS’ Declaration: Nobody should be deprived of right to express legitimate political views (N1)
• Kocijancic: The country has a clear path toward the EU (Nezavisen vesnik)
• Paris welcomes the Prespa Agreement ratification (Nezavisen vesnik)
• Stoltenberg replies to Dimitrov’s letter, preparation for NATO Accession Protocol underway (Meta)
• Mickoski: Zaev plans to rig the presidential elections but we will defeat him (Republika)
• Balla: Border correction – government will not intervene, Kosovo is a sovereign state (ADN)
• Albania supports Kosovo agreement supported by US and EU (ADN/Deutsche Welle)

• China In The Balkans: Good Or Bad? (Forbes)
• US ambassador says Prespes accord will bring stability in Balkans (ekathimerini.com)
• NATO footprint in Albania to grow with construction projects at former Soviet air base (Stars and Stripes)

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Brnabic: Balanced US position on Kosovo important (RTS)


Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said in Columbus that our country wants to build partnerships and friendships all over the world, noting that our relationship with the United States is very important to us. In her statement to Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), Brnabic said that during her visit to Ohio, she talked with congressman Stephen Stivers, who is well aware of the problem that Serbia has because of Pristina’s taxes, stressing that he shares Washington’s position that the Kosovo authorities should withdraw them to continue the dialogue. According to Brnabic, this was one of the main topics at a meeting with Governor of the State of Ohio Mike DeWine, who is also well acquainted with the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. She said she discussed with DeWine how the US could help in Belgrade-Pristina relations to be more balanced. Brnabic said that it is important that we have good communication with Stivers, who since January co-chairs the Serbian Caucus in the US Congress House, because he is the one who needs to explain to the colleagues the situation on the part of Serbia in order for Washington to have a more balanced position in the future. According to Brnabic, Stivers is very committed to the fact that the Serbian Caucus in the US Congress is expanded. Also, she added, it is also great that Stivers is a representative of Ohio, because Serbia has the best relations with the US, precisely because of cooperation with the National Guard. According to Brnabic, if there is one completely positive side of Serbia-US relations in the last few decades, then our cooperation with Ohio.


Pahor addresses Serbian parliament; part of opposition MPs boycotts (Beta)


In his address to the MPs of the Serbian parliament, Slovenian President Borut Pahor stated

that in the following years one should not expect a great willingness for the enlargement of the EU, i.e. that there could come to a slowing down of the dynamics of the negotiations of the countries of the Western Balkans with the European Commission on membership and that it was

therefore, very important for all the countries and peoples in the region to cooperate unconditionally on the resolution of open issues. “It is precisely because of this that we have to do everything to see that conflicts are resolved peacefully. There is no historical necessity for the Western Balkans to, in complicated situations, always finds itself in conflict, this is not necessary. However, if something like this does happen, to against our will this part of Europe gets involved in a conflict, that would be an utter catastrophe,” Pahor said. According to Pahor, Slovenia appreciates Serbia’s right to choose its own security policy and its priority of cooperating with Russia. “Slovenia supports all of the efforts by Belgrade and Pristina to reach an agreement but both sides have to respect agreements. We stress that the basic condition to resolve the most sensitive bilateral issues is for the negotiations to be free of coercion and with no collateral security threats in the region,” he said. A part of the opposition MPs decided on Monday not to attend the special session of parliament, at which President Pahor made his address, as a sign of protest over the manner in which the regime of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic treats its political opponents. Democratic Party (DS) MPs submitted to Pahor, in the parliament building, material on the attacks on opposition representatives and those of the media, as well as photographs from the protests which have been held for two months against the current authorities in Serbia. During the meeting, he was told that the Serbian opposition was not giving up on the European path and European values. The opposition representatives issued him with an apology for the boycotting of the session and underlined that this was done because President Vucic “has placed the parliament in his pocket”.


Dacic: Gratitude to Myanmar for supporting Serbia’s territorial integrity (RTS/Tanjug/Beta)


Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic met today with State Advisor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Aung San Suu Kyi during his first official visit to Myanmar. In a friendly conversation, the officials confirmed the decades-long friendship of the two countries and nations, but also the readiness to further strengthen very good political relations and improve cooperation, especially on the economic and multilateral agenda. Dacic also met with Minister of International Cooperation Kyaw Tin, and in a constructive conversation he expressed a mutual interest in further strengthening of traditionally friendly political relations and a versatile, and above all economic cooperation, for which there is room for further improvement. Dacic presented the current situation in Kosovo and Metohija, expressing the gratitude on the principled position of Myanmar on the non-recognition of the so-called Kosovo and support for the preservation of territorial integrity and state sovereignty of Serbia. After the talks, a bilateral agreement on the abolition of visas for holders of diplomatic and official passports was signed, according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry.


Djuric: Those setting conditions do not want compromise (RTS)


The Head of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija Marko Djuric told RTS that the authorities in Pristina have to immediately abolish the anti-civilizational unlawful taxes on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina if they want to continue talks with Belgrade. He said that people who set conditions do not want to reach a compromise. “The taxes are unlawful and have to be abolished immediately if they want the talks to continue and if they want a constructive solution but I’m afraid that they do not want that,” he said. Djuric said that no one should think that Serbia can be pressured into making concessions and giving up its state and national interests.


Kosovo Serbs to join anti-government protests held across Serbia (N1/FoNet)


Kosovo Serbs who live in the northern part of the divided Mitrovica town said they would organize the first anti-government rally in support of those who had been protesting across Serbia for weeks, FoNet reported. The gathering under the “#1 in 5 million” slogan which has been the motto of the rallies in the country will be held on Saturday, February 2. The organizers say the protest aims to prove that Mitrovica residents, as well as the Serbs in other parts of Kosovo, want to join the demands of those already demonstrating. That could come as a surprise to Belgrade since the Serbs in Kosovo’s north have always been seen as loyal to Serbia’s regime, maintaining Kosovo was a part of Serbia. A member of the late Oliver Ivanovic’s Civil Initiative SDP Marko Jaksic wrote on social networks that the protest walk would be held even if only two-three people joined. “This town could have done better. These people deserve better; we can do it together,” Jaksic wrote on both his Facebook profile and Twitter account.




B&H Presidency members to travel to official visit to Brussels on Tuesday; Komsic and Dzaferovic expect that talks in Brussels include EU candidate status of B&H as well (ATV)


Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) Presidency Chairman Milorad Dodik and B&H Presidency members Zeljko Komsic and Sefik Dzaferovic will pay an official visit to Brussels on January 29-30 and meet high-ranking EU officials there. It was planned that they meet EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini on the first day of their visit and that they have breakfast with EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn on the second day.  Commenting on the visit, Komsic and Dzaferovic said that they expect the talks in Brussels will include the EU candidate status of B&H as well, although it was stressed on several occasions that this issue will not be on the agenda until the process of formation of authorities at all levels is completed. Komsic and Dzaferovic expect B&H to get its EU candidate status as soon as possible, because, as they stated, that would be “good, wise and smart” for B&H, but also for the entire region. The Presidency members should also meet President of the European Council, Donald Tusk on Wednesday. “It is true that we are not exactly what official Brussels expects us to be, but we fear that every lost day, month, or in this case year, would be extremely harmful not just for B&H, but the entire region. The decision that officials in Brussels need to adopt might seem like a technical one, but deep down it is a political decision,” Komsic told reporters. “This country needs to become a member of the EU as soon as possible and a member of NATO, because I believe that we will have a more stable situation with the implementation of those two foreign policy goals of B&H,” Dzaferovic said. B&H Presidency members are bringing positive news with them to Brussels. Namely, answers to follow-up questions from the European Commission’s (EC) Questionnaire have been completed.


Dodik ahead of visit to Brussels: EU path is part of consensus of all political actors in B&H, it would not be good if someone undermines it (RTRS)


On the eve of the visit of the B&H Presidency members to Brussels on Tuesday, Chairman of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik stated on Monday that the path towards the EU is part of consensus of all political actors in B&H and it would not be good if anyone undermines it because of their narrow political interests. Dodik announced that the visit will mostly be focused on acquiring the status of a candidate for membership in the EU. “It would be good for B&H to acquire the candidate status because of a number of political, economic, social and other reasons. I will try to see if the story they are trying to sell us here in Sarajevo – on connection between the EU path and the NATO path – is really about so much synergy that it is impossible to separate (the two processes). I know that there are several countries in Europe that are member states of the EU but they are not member states of NATO,” Dodik said. Dodik noted that the fact that three months after the general elections authorities have not been formed yet illustrates the current situation in B&H in the best way. “Instead of good news from B&H, we bring nothing but institutional crisis to Brussels. There is an impression that someone in B&H deliberately stalled the preparation of answers to follow-up questions from the European Commission’s (EC) Questionnaire, in order to convey a message to the EU officials on the need for certain kind of interventionism in B&H,” Dodik asserted. He added that he will decisively oppose further complication of internal circumstances in B&H and attempts to call for any kind of intervention of the international community, assessing that mutual agreement between the elected representatives of constituent peoples represents the only formula for resolving the problems.


Cvijanovic: Dodik will present in Brussels realistic picture of current situation in B&H (TV1)


Members of the B&H Presidency will travel to an official visit to Brussels on Tuesday. The upcoming visit was commented by Republika Srpska (RS) President Zeljka Cvijanovic. She expects B&H’s EU path to be “revived”, but she underlined that the most important matter, as this moment, is for B&H authorities to be formed at all levels. Cvijanovic said that she knows what Chairman of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik will do in Brussels and that is to present a realistic picture of the current situation in B&H and reaffirm his commitment to the work on the EU path of B&H. “all those issues that represent an obstacle on that path must be discussed there and the EU path of B&H must be revived,” said Cvijanovic. She reiterated that new convocations of the state authorities must be formed as soon as possible, especially the B&H Council of Ministers (B&H CoM), as those officials need to assume their obligations within the Coordination Mechanism. “I am sure that this matter will be the main one discussed during the visit. Without that you do not have all the preconditions for further progress on the EU path,” Cvijanovic concluded.


Dodik meets Ambassadors of Serbia and Russia in B&H (RTRS)


Chairman of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik held a meeting with Russian Ambassador to B&H Petr Ivantsov, at which the two officials agreed that it is necessary to unblock the process of formation of the B&H Council of Ministers (CoM) as soon as possible. They also discussed the upcoming session of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), which is scheduled to take place in Sarajevo on Tuesday. Dodik and Ivantsov assessed that the situation in B&H is destabilizing and it needs to be overcome with dialogue and not blackmail and provocations.

Dodik also held a meeting with Serbian Ambassador to B&H Aleksandar Djordjevic, at which the two officials assessed that SDA’s initiative for change of the RS name is “anti-Dayton and irresponsible”. Djordjevic also received an official invitation of the B&H Presidency for Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to visit B&H.


Dodik on HNS’ Declaration: Nobody should be deprived of right to express legitimate political views (N1)


Chairman of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik commented on Monday on the Declaration on the Position of the Croat People in B&H, which was adopted at the session of the Croat People’s Assembly (HNS) in Mostar on Saturday. Dodik stressed that the case is about a political stance of one of the three constituent peoples in B&H, adding that nobody should be deprived of the right to express legitimate political views. He assessed that even more radical views would not be surprising as Bosniaks have been sidelining Croats for years. Dodik stressed that Republika Srpska (RS) supports the principle of equality of constituent peoples and understands that Croats find it unacceptable for new authorities to be formed without their legitimate representatives or for Bosniaks to elect their member of the B&H Presidency. “It should be clear to everyone that the RS is untouchable and changing its territory in any way will never be possible,” Dodik was quoted as saying.


Kocijancic: The country has a clear path toward the EU (Nezavisen vesnik)


EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic on Monday underlined the country’s clear path toward the EU when asked to comment on the threat of a possible veto by Greece. Kocijancic was asked in relation to a statement by the main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis saying Greece would retain the control of Macedonia’s accession process and should not give up its right to veto.

“The EU perspective is very present, the Council last year set forth a clear path toward the opening of accession talks in June 2019. We believe that in light of recent developments, efforts in this respect should be strengthened although this is a broader task that also involves work on reforms. Nevertheless, we have a clear road ahead,” she stated.


Paris welcomes the Prespa Agreement ratification (Nezavisen vesnik)


Official Paris welcomes the ratification of the Prespa Agreement in Greece’s parliament.

“I salute the vote on the Prespa Agreement,” French President Emmanuel Macron posted on his Twitter account. “It’s an example of courage and unity for Europe.” France’s minister for Europe and foreign affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, welcomed the ratification as well. “This essential political step will permit the going into force of the historic deal that puts an end to a bilateral dispute older than a quarter-century,” wrote Le Drian in an official announcement. He also saluted the courage and determination shown by the countries’ leaders, especially Prime Ministers Tsipras and Zaev. Le Drian added that, besides strengthening regional stability, the Agreement “opens the way for the ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ to join NATO” and “contributes towards bringing the country closer to Europe.”


Stoltenberg replies to Dimitrov’s letter, preparation for NATO Accession Protocol underway (Meta)


NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg sent a reply to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikola Dimitrov, which confirms that the letter sent to Stoltenberg on the 21st of January by the Foreign Minister was received. In the letter, Dimitrov expressed the “country’s readiness to accept and follow the obligations and the aspirations for Macedonia’ membership in NATO, that are contained in the Washington Treaty and the NATO’s study for enlargement from 1995, thus formally expressing interest to receiving an invitation to join NATO.” In the letter from the NATO Secretary General, it states that the writing of the Accession Protocol is underway and that it will be signed in the near future by current representatives of NATO member countries, and that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dimitrov will also be invited to attend the ceremony.

By signing the Accession Protocol, the next phase of the accession process will begin, which will be followed by the ratification of the Protocol by the parliaments of member states from the Alliance.


Mickoski: Zaev plans to rig the presidential elections but we will defeat him (Republika)


VMRO-DPMNE President Hristijan Mickoski warned that the government is preparing to rig the coming presidential elections in April/May in order to install a loyal President who would help it complete the renaming of the country. Mickoski said that this is why VMRO-DPMNE demands early general elections, and the application of the rules under which the opposition will run key government departments and ensure that the elections are free and fair. If SDSM refuses to accept calling for early elections, Mickoski says that it will happen under pressure caused from the opposition’s win at the presidential elections. “VMRO-DPMNE will do everything in its power to self-organize and to prevent the coming theft of the elections which the Zoran Zaev Government is planning. We will defeat Zoran Zaev at the elections. We are certain that Zaev will not be able to withstand the public pressure and will have to agree to early elections in the autumn, or in the spring of 2020. We are strongly motivated and mobilized to win the presidential elections, as the people are no longer afraid of Zoran Zaev. It would be best, never the less, to hold the early general elections along with the presidential,” Mickoski said during his interview with editors from leading media outlets broadcast on the public MRTV television.

Regarding the Prespa deal and the process to rename Macedonia, Mickoski said that as soon as his government is in place, it will clearly show how the process will be altered. “Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is clearly telling us that Greece does not recognize our nationality with the deal, only that our citizenship is referred to as “Macedonian”. Read the diplomatic note that Foreign Minister Dimitrov sent Greece, specifying that, according to him, the word nationality means merely citizenship. This means that we ourselves give up on our nation, that we are no longer a nation but just citizens. VMRO-DPMNE will win the trust of the public and will do all it can to alter the process,” Mickoski said. He denied having poor relations with foreign leaders and said that he will consider the positions of the “international community” as closely as those of the domestic public. “I’ve had a number of meetings with international representatives in the past period. We exchanged our positions and opinions and in the coming period I will have even more chances to consult with them,” Mickoski said, adding that the party is developing ties with foreign countries at an equal footing, as friends and partners. “Since its founding, VMRO-DPMNE has been strongly dedicated to the Euro-Atlantic integrations. We opposed the Prespa proposal because it was an ultimatum before the Macedonian public, it was a take it or leave it offer, without an option that we change anything in the proposal. It is legitimate to hold a different opinion in a democratic society,” Mickoski added.


Balla: Border correction – government will not intervene, Kosovo is a sovereign state (ADN)


The head of the Parliamentary Group of Socialist Party (SP), Taulant Balla declared on Monday that the Albanian government will not intervene in the dialogue regarding the border correction between Kosovo and Serbia. This declaration was made during the meeting of the Integration Committee, where the Democratic Party (DP) representative, Genc Pollo, requested from the government to report on the progress of integration and the progress of the 5 key priorities.

During his speech at the committee, SP parliamentary group leader Taulant Balla congratulated the opposition on returning to parliamentary committees and said that the government by the end of February has the obligation to bring the report on integration that should be accompanied by discussion at the plenary session. “Congratulation to the opposition for returning to normal work. We welcome the monitoring role of the opposition. By the end of February, the government has the obligation to bring the report to be accompanied by discussion at the plenary session. Your request is complementary to the annual report that the government brings, because this report is more detailed. Albania supports the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, but we do not interfere in Kosovo’s foreign policy. The position of the Albanian government is that Albania supports the dialogue of the sovereign state of Kosovo with the state of Serbia,” said Balla.


Albania supports Kosovo agreement supported by US and EU (ADN/Deutsche Welle)

Albania will support every agreement between Belgrade and Pristina which wins the clear support of the United States and European Union, Prime Minister Edi Rama told Deutsche Welle on Monday. Asked to comment the US pressure on Pristina to revoke the 100 percent tariffs on goods from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Albanian prime minister said that America is devoted to Kosovo.   “Without the United States, Kosovo would not be free of Belgrade’s embrace and could not become an independent state as it is today,” Rama said.




China In The Balkans: Good Or Bad? (Forbes, by Rebecca Banovic, 26 January 2019)


The Balkans: the crossroads between East and West; has long proven an important territory for the economic, political and geopolitical interests of great powers: The Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman Empires, America and the USSR; and now China. In 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) – a grand Eurasian strategy that seeks to connect Chinese trade with the rest of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The geo-economic implications of the project from China are vast and long-term. The Balkans has been a focus of China as an extension of the BRI in Europe, and its presence is visible in almost every corner of the region. But what is driving Chinese investment in the Balkans? Firstly, labour costs in the region remain low. Secondly, it will enhance China’s presence in Europe via countries that may one day be members of the European Union. At least $4.9bn of deals, were concentrated in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. For the smaller Balkans states especially, this represents an enormous investment in their economies. However, Chinese investments in the Balkans has caused concern among some EU Member States, as they may create unsustainable debts for Balkan governments. Among the poorest countries in Europe, with fragile economies, high levels of unemployment; corruption and weak democratic institutions have put the Balkans in a position of susceptibility to Chinese investments. The region does lack certain and crucial infrastructures, and is in dire need of new roads, power plants, and railways (to name a few). But, Chinese investment has had some immediate and overwhelmingly positive impacts. For instance, one of the biggest Chinese investments in Serbia was the purchase of the steel mill Železara Smederevo by the He Steel Group for €46 million. The Serbian plant is economically of little relevance to China, but the deal saved 5,200 local jobs – bought China enormous political goodwill and consequently gained Serbia’s political favour. However, Chinese loans are often granted under soft and permissible conditions. At first glance, a soft loan with few strings attached appears attractive to countries desperate to revive their economies.

But it has led to an increase in the regions’ debt burden and is dangerous in the long-term. For example, infrastructure is a key element in China’s policy towards the Balkan region. A Chinese-built highway for Montenegro, designed to link the port of Bar on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast to neighbouring Serbia, is anticipated to increase Montenegro’s debt to nearly 80 percent of its GDP. The effects of this debt, on a small country like Montenegro, are likely to be profound.

A look at other smaller economies dealing with BRI related debts does not bode well for Montenegro: in Sri Lanka their Chinese debts spiralled so out of control that China took possession of a strategically valuable Indian Ocean port as part of a repayment deal. Meanwhile Uganda has built a $580 million highway from its capital to its largest airport. But there was no competitive bid for the contract, and the road itself may end up becoming a disadvantage and unprofitable. Nevertheless, the Montenegrin government hopes the highway will boost the economy and strengthen trade with Serbia- as well as improving its notoriously dangerous roads. Doubts about the highway have already been raised however, as the first 41-km section is yet to be completed. But now that it has been started, it is difficult to stop. Montenegro was certainly attracted by the easily obtained Chinese loans desperately needed for their infrastructure projects and development. From a Balkan perspective, Chinese investments present both opportunities and risks. The BRI can help to completely transform the Balkans (for the better), but the visionary projects can also burden governments with large debts and or economically unviable infrastructure – and increase dependency on China.


US ambassador says Prespes accord will bring stability in Balkans (ekathimerini.com, 28 January 2019)


An agreement signed and ratified by Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), which aims to end a decades-old dispute over the latter’s name, will contribute to the prosperity and security of the region, US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt said on Monday.

Speaking to Kathimerini at the Athens Energy Forum 2019, which was organized by the Greek newspaper and The New York Times, Pyatt said the deal is a turning point for Greece and that it will help the country make use of its economic potential in terms of its relations with the neighboring country. Asked to comment on the largely negative view of the agreement among Greeks, he said he has been careful to avoid commenting on the issue. Pyatt said he was “encouraged” by the remarks made earlier by main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who said he may disagree with the deal but he intends to move forward and continued to emphasize Greek-US relations. Greek Parliament approved the Prespes accord last Friday with 153 votes in favor, 146 against and one abstention. New Democracy voted it down. Referring to the Greek-US cooperation in the energy sector, Pyatt cited the arrival at Revythousa of the first liquified natural gas shipment from US, adding two more shipments by the Mytilineos group will follow.

He said projects such as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB), the floating liquified natural gas station in Alexandroupolis and Revythoussa will prevent a Russian monopoly in the region and noted the strong interest of US companies for Greece’s energy sector, referring especially to hydrocarbon exploration and renewable energy sources.

He reiterated US support for the dialogue between Greece, Israel and Cyprus and welcomed efforts to improve Greek-Turkish relations, ahead of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ visit to the neighbouring country.


NATO footprint in Albania to grow with construction projects at former Soviet air base (Stars and Stripes, by Jenniger H. Svan, 26 January 2019)


NATO is set to boost its presence in the western Balkans — where the West and Russia have been locked in a struggle for influence — as Albania prepares to host the alliance’s first military base in the region in coming years. U.S. and Albanian military officers on Thursday marked the first phase of the $58 million project to modernize Kucova Air Base in central Albania and bring its facilities in line with NATO-approved standards, alliance officials said. Serving in his role as NATO’s allied air commander, Gen. Tod Wolters, who also leads U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa, attended the groundbreaking ceremony in Tirana at the Albanian Defense Ministry, where he spoke alongside Olta Xhacka, the country’s defense minister. “What we anticipate over the course of the next months and years is the continuing improvement of the infrastructure and what will ultimately happen is there will be an aircraft haven at Kucova,” Wolters said in an Allied Air Command statement. “We are extremely, extremely excited about advancing that cause.” Planned improvements to the base — built with Soviet assistance in the early 1950s — include runway restoration, control tower upgrades, construction of a fighter ramp, fuel and ammunitions storage facilities, and a new crash and fire station, the statement said. The work will support NATO air transport, logistics, air policing and training, Albanian officials have said. The Albanian air force no longer operates fixed-wing aircraft. Since 2009, when the former communist country joined the alliance, NATO neighbors Italy and Greece have been providing air policing over Albania. NATO’s investment in Albania comes on the heels of Xhacka’s trip last spring to Washington. While meeting with former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, she said Albania wanted to host a U.S. or NATO presence to counter Russian efforts to expand its influence, as well as to balance growing interest in the region from countries such as China and Iran. “I believe that a very strong message needs to be sent, that the Western Balkans is a Western-oriented region,” she said, according to the Pentagon’s transcript of her remarks.

The region has been the scene of a battle for influence between the West and Russia, which has criticized moves to expand NATO membership in the area, claiming it threatens regional security. Some Western officials have stated that bringing all the nations of the Western Balkans into NATO and the European Union will foster stability in a region that was convulsed by a series of wars in the 1990s. Moscow has been accused of fomenting an unsuccessful coup attempt in neighboring Montenegro to prevent its accession to the military alliance in 2017, and of trying to prevent Macedonia, another neighbor of Albania, from seeking NATO membership. During his visit to Serbia earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States and NATO of destabilizing the region. The establishment of Kucova as the first NATO air base in the western Balkans gives the alliance an important strategic site about an hour’s flight from Syria, Blerim Reka, a professor at South East European University in Macedonia, wrote earlier this month in a piece for the think tank Emerging Europe. The military buildup in the region, Reka wrote, “is part of a broader tug-of-war for strategic advantage around the Mediterranean Sea” between the U.S. and Russia.



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