The Balkans Today: 20th - 24th March 2017
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The Balkans Today

Up to the minute news and updates from the Balkan region

The Balkans Today: 20th - 24th March 2017

Our team brings you live updates of the most important events and developments in the Balkans as they happen.

    Top stories from the Balkans this Monday:
    • A Romanian agency set up in 2016 to manage the frozen assets of officials convicted of  corruption says it has started the process of recovering half a billion euros. Read more.
    • Observers link Ankara’s blatant interference in Bulgaria’s election to Turkey’s own upcoming constitutional referendum. Read more.
    • In its approach to Macedonia, and the Balkans, the EU has neglected democratisation in the name of stability - and has so betrayed its own values and empowered local autocrats. Read the full comment piece.
    Hearings have started in the appeals by six Bosnian Croat wartime political and military officials against their war crimes convictions at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

    Jadranko Prlic, the former prime minister of the wartime Herzeg-Bosna Croatian Community, is the first of the six whose appeal is being heard.

    The six former leaders of a short-lived Bosnian Croat wartime statelet called Herzeg-Bosna were convicted in May 2013 of crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions committed between 1992 and 1994.
    Inside the ICTY at the start of hearings in the appeals by six Bosnian Croat wartime political and military officials on Monday. Photo: ICTY
    The Romanian Social Democrat’s junior ally in the government coalition, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, ALDE, risks breaking up because of a dispute between the party’s co-chairs.

    The feud erupted after one of the two executive presidents, deputy-PM Daniel Costantin, accused the other co-chair, Senate speaker Calin Popescu Tariceanu, of trying to isolate him. 
    ALDE co-chair and deputy-PM Daniel Constantin. Photo: Wikimedia.

    Constantin and several of his supporters left an ALDE leadership meeting angrily on Sunday with the deputy-PM accusing Tariceanu of plotting to organise a party congress where members would elect only one president of the political faction. 

    Constantin says some leadership members had not been notified of the meeting. 

    Tariceanu responded by claiming that Constantin is making it difficult for the party and that he had blackmailed him to promote certain people on the election lists. The deputy-PM stated thast he just wanted to replace the people who were indicted or investigated for corruption.  
    Constantin said he spoke to PM Sorin Grindeanu and told him that, even if ALDE splits, it would not affect the parliamentary support for the cabinet.
    The countries of the Western Balkans are a target for recruitment to extremist organisations, US ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott said at a workshop organised by the OSCE Serbia in Belgrade on Monday.

    Scott also stated that ISIS has created a propaganda strategy for the Balkans which is being spread through social media and in local languages, expressing hope that Serbia will soon approve the national strategy against violent extremism.

    Scott also stressed that local communities and youth should be taught to recognise extremism and to look at the issue in a critical way.
    Albanian foreign minister Ditmir Bushati is heading to Washington for a two-day visit during which he will participate in a meeting of the Global Coalition against Daesh/ISIS that was formed by the US in September 2014 with the support of 68 countries. 

    Bushati will give an address during the meeting, which will be led by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on the measures that Albania has taken so far as part of the coalition’s commitment to defeating ISIS. 

    In February, Albania announced that, as part of the Global Coalition, it will also send troops to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

    Iraqi army fighting with the help of Global Coalition against ISIS. Photo: Iraqi Army Twitter account 
    There are currently some 8,000 migrants in Serbia, with the biggest groups coming from Afghanistan (53 per cent), Pakistan (10 per cent), Syria (9 per cent), the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights said at a press conference on Monday.

    Additionally, while 12,281 persons expressed an intention to seek asylum in Serbia in 2016, only 574 actually applied for this, the group said.

    “Serbia still hasn't managed to create an effective asylum system," Lana Petrovic, a representative of the human rights group, stated.

    The rights group urged Serbia to adopt necessary laws surrounding asylum seekers so that the procedures and the rights of those seeking refuge are in harmony with international and local law.
    Romania’s former technocratic PM Dacian Ciolos started a five-day visit to Brussels on Monday with an agenda deemed busier than that of any Romanian statesman.
    Dacian Ciolos, photographed by a passenger, on his way to Brussels on board a budget airline. Photo: Mihai Baumann/Facebook.
    Ciolos is scheduled to meet the head of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, the head of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis, Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan and Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn, as well as the European Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and vice-president Jyrki Katainen among others.
    Ciolos’ visit to Brussels comes at a time when he is deciding whether to make a return to politics.
    Last week, Ciolos, who was designated Romanian president for a one-year term only in November 2015, set up with former labor minister Dragos Paslaru and former health minister Vlad Voiculescu the Romania 100 Platform, a political NGO with the aim of putting into practice their vision of governance for Romania.
    However, he also attempted to engage in negotiations with Save Romania Union, a party formed in July 2016 and that became the third force in the country’s parliament after the December 11 elections.
    But the head of the party, Nicusor Dan, refused to negotiate with him, defying the majority of his fellow members who wanted Ciolos in the faction.
    Meanwhile, Liberal Party chief Raluca Turcan said on Monday that she would be happy to have Ciolos as a member of her party.
    Top stories from the Balkans this Tuesday:
    • The special prosecution for organised crime is investigating the country’s main arms exporter over suspicions that arms it sold to Saudi Arabia have ended up elsewhere. Read more.
    • The candidates running for the Serbian presidency have avoided discussing the country’s role in the 1990s conflicts because they have no interest in post-war justice or fear losing votes, human rights campaigners argue. Read more.
    • The former PM and his allies are deliberately misleading the public in order to discredit the proposed coalition led by the Social Democrats and foment ethnic tensions. Read the comment piece.
    Kosovo authorities have finally approved a request of the Head of Serbia’s Office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, to visit Kosovo, after refusing his requests four times in a row, Kosovo Gazeta Express reported on Tuesday.

    Reportedly Djuric’s visit in Kosovo will be short and after staying in the northern part of the country inhabited by Serb majority for some hours he will return to Serbia.

    Kosovo authorities decision to allow Djuric enter Kosovo came after a repeatedly disapproving his request with the justification that he did not respect the already established procedures for visit of Serbian officials to Kosovo.
    The opening of a newly constructed fountain in central Zagreb was disrupted on Monday evening by an unknown male who got up on the structure and urinated in it.

    Wearing a T-shirt with 'We fought for this' written on it – a phrase often used by war veterans - he was soon arrested in a nearby street.

    The incident happened while the Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic was opening the new feature on the roundabout at the city’s British Square.
    Opening of the fountain on Zagreb's British Square. Photo: BETAPHOTO/HINA/DARIO GRZELJ/EV/MO
    A Kosovo man’s extraordinarily large chicken has become an internet sensation after a video of it parading around its pen went viral on Reddit and Twitter, drawing the attention of international media.

    Many viewers thought the dog-sized chicken, called ‘Merakli’, was a fake, with some suggesting that it was a person inside a chicken suit, but it’s owner, Fitim Sejfijaj, says its size is just down to the breed.

    Merakli is a Brahma chicken, which is a particularly large breed and is nicknamed the ‘King of Poultry’.
    Merakli in the video that made him famous. Fitim Sejfijaj/Facebook
    Representatives of Chinese multinational banking company, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, ICBC, and members of the Todoric family - owners of the biggest Croatian private company Agrokor, which is currently going through a financial crisis - met in a restaurant in Zagreb on Sunday, weekly Nacional reported on Tuesday.

    A member of the Todoric family allegedly told Jiang Jianqing, the head of the ICBC's delegation, that they are willing to sell up to 50 per cent of their share in the company, according to Nacional.

    The publication also reported that Jianqing met with finance minister Zdravko Maric on Monday afternoon and then visited Ivica Todoric, the head of the family, in his castle above Zagreb.
    Agrokor's logo on company headquarters in Zagreb. Photo: BETAPHOTO/HINA/Lana SLIVAR DOMINIC/MO
    Macedonia’s President Gjorge Ivanov will not meet with the visiting EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn on Tuesday, Press 24 news outlet cited the presidential cabinet as saying.
    Ivanov, who is currently on his way back from Hungary, will not return in time to meet with Hahn, who is visiting Macedonia in an effort to solve the ongoing crisis there, the cabinet said.
    The cabinet added that Ivanov’s decision to not hand the mandate to form a new government to opposition leader Zoran Zaev remains unchanged, and proposed that Hahn instead meets with the representatives of the “Civic Initiative for United Macedonia”, which has been organising protests against the announced opposition-led government in order to get first-hand knowledge about the “arguments and reasons for the civic protests” that have been held for the past 20 days.
    Representatives of Croatia’s biggest private company, Agrokor, which is currently going through a financial crisis, will sign a three-month contract to secure its liquidity with the company's biggest creditor, the Russian state-owned Sberbank, on Tuesday, according to media in Croatia.
    Sberbank stated on Monday that it will continue to credit Agrokor in the future.

    Additionally, representatives of the Agrokor's biggest suppliers - Croatian food companies Podravka, Kras, Franck, Dukat and Vindija - will meet with Minister of Economy Martina Dalic on Tuesday to discuss their wish to take part in Agrokor's restructuralisation process, due to the debts the company owes them.
    Agrokor's retailer Konzum. Photo: Agrokor Press kit

    According to media reports, the US State Department accidentally forgot to mention that a meeting would be taking place with Stier as well.

    Several hundred citizens blocked the main street in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica on Tuesday to demonstrate support for the thousands of women who, for the past three weeks, have been protesting over benefit cuts for mothers of three or more children.

    Behind the blockade stands a group of citizens who call themselves Resistance to Hopelessness (Otpor beznadju).

    The same group blocked a bridge in the centre of Podgorica on Monday night and joined women who commenced a hunger strike last week, demanding that the government reverse a decision to cut state aid for mothers.

    Romania’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday postponed for a second time a decision on a law that prevents convicted felons to hold public office due to lack of agreement among judges over a solution. 

    The law was scheduled for discussion on April 4.

    The law came into the spotlight during the electoral campaign for the legislative elections in December 2016, when president Klaus Iohannis said he would not accept a PM nominee with a past sentence for graft.  

    He referred to Social Democrat chief Liviu Dragnea, the party’s favourite candidate for the PM post, but who had a two-year suspended jail sentence for trying to rig a referendum on the impeachment of former president Traian Basescu in 2012.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin has posthumously decorated Viktor Nogin and Gennady Kurennoy, two reporters for the USSR’s Gosteleradio, who were killed by rebel Croatian Serb forces near the Croatian town of Hrvatska Kostajnica in September 1991.

    Their bodies were never recovered - only a burned-out car - and the direct perpetrators are still unknown.

    “For the courage and dedication shown while carrying out their official and civic duty, journalist Gennady Kurennoy (posthumously) and journalist Viktor Nogin (posthumously) are awarded the Order of Courage,” said Putin’s decree, which was published on Monday.
    Macedonian protesters who are rallying against the formation of a new opposition-led coalition government have displayed banners on the highway near Skopje’s international airport with messages directed to the visiting EU commissioner Johannes Hahn, who is flying into Macedonia on Tuesday for a crisis-solving mission.
    EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn has launched talks with top political party leaders in Macedonia after arriving in the country on Tuesday afternoon.

    Announcing the kick-off of the talks, Hahn tweeted that Macedonia “needs new government urgently” in order to carry out reforms and that the country “needs statesmanship instead of tactics” on it path to EU membership.
    Hahn flew in to Skopje to help resolve the stalemate over the formation of a new opposition-led government, which he is expected to push as the only way to get the country out of its deep political crisis.
    However, his planned meeting with Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, who refuses to award the mandate to the opposition who have mustered parliament majority, was canceled today by the president, who claimed he would not be able to return in time from Hungary, where he has been on an official visit.
    EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn in Skopje. Photo: MIA
    Top stories from the Balkans this Wednesday:
    • Serbians living abroad are divided over whether they will cast a ballot in the country’s upcoming presidential elections. Read more.
    • Mladen Grujicic, Srebrenica’s first Serb mayor, says he wants to look beyond the trauma of war and the bitterly-contested genocide debate to seek a better future for the depopulated, impoverished town. Read the full interview.
    • Macedonia's leaders must respect the outcome of the December 11 elections and facilitate the formation of a new government, visiting EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said Tuesday following his mission in Skopje aimed at resolving the political crisis. Read more.
    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has written to the leaders of the U.S. Senate urging the ratification of Montenegro as the newest member of the NATO alliance, saying it is "strongly in the interests of the United States."

    In a letter dated March 7 and seen by Reuters on Tuesday, Tillerson argued that Montenegro's membership in the alliance would support greater integration, democratic reform, trade, security and stability among its neighbours.

    Moscow opposes any further expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the delay in U.S. approval of Montenegro's accession has fueled questions about whether President Donald Trump's administration and his Republican Party will stand up to Russia despite Trump's desire for better relations.

    Rex Tillerson. Photo: US Department of State.

    President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, announced at the opening of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s Kosovo office on Tuesday that he is promoting the idea of decriminalisation of political parties and wants the country’s political parties to create code of conduct for this.

    “People who are being investigated or are accused by the justice authorities will not be allowed to even enter the lists for MPs nor take posts in public institutions,” Thaci said. “This step would help to strengthen the confidence of the citizens of Kosovo in the political parties themselves, in their aspiration to work for the interests of Kosovo and its citizens.

    British ambassador Ruairi O’Connell and head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo Jan Braathu were in attendance at the event.

    President Hashim Thaci at theopening of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s Kosovo office | Photo: BIRN  

    After publishing the results of a survey that shows that opposition party Vetevendosje is the strongest in Kosovo, its leader Visar Ymeri stated that if they win the elections, the party’s former leader, Albin Kurti, will be their candidate for prime minister. 

    “The MP Albin Kurti, according to many surveys, is the most popular political personality inside Republic of Kosovo, compared to all the others. I think this is really good, and it is special that Vetevendosje has many names that have popularity and reliability to citizens,” Ymeri said in an interview with BIRN.

    The survey on the popularity of political parties in Kosovo was conducted by UBO Consulting and financed by Vetevendosje, who published the results on Tuesday.

    The #Netherlands has completed the parliamentary procedure for ratifying the Protocol on the Accession of……

    Serbian journalist Srdjan Skoro, who was removed moved to a different work post after speaking critically about Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s government, won a lawsuit on Tuesday against his former employer, the state owned daily newspaper Vecernje Novosti.

    Skoro appeared on Serbia’s national broadcaster, RTS, in April 2014, on the day the new government was going to be sworn in, and criticised Vucic’s choice of ministers.

    Soon after, he was moved to a different newspaper owned by the same company, which the first instance court deemed illegal.

    The first instance verdict was passed on Tuesday and Novosti has the right to appeal.
    The Serbian “Support RTV” movement, which campaigns for journalists rights, filed 30 complaints to Serbia’s Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media against provincial broadcaster Radio Television Vojvodina, RTV, on Wednesday, alleging bias in favour of current Prime Minister and 2017 presidential election candidate Aleksandar Vucic in the campaigning period.

    “Support RTV” was founded in 2016, after Vucic’s party came in power in Serbia’s northern autonomous province of Vojvodina and took over the leadership of RTV, dismissing many editors and journalists.

    The movement claims that on multiple occasions RTV gave coverage only to Vucic’s campaign activities.
    Aspiring NATO member Montenegro is hardly a formidable military force - the tiny country's four military jets are up for sale and its two operational warships hardly ever leave their home port, the Associated Press noted in the article published on Wednesday.

    With its 2,000-strong army, the scenic country - squeezed between towering mountains and the Adriatic Sea - would hardly boost the West's defence in any confrontation with Russia.

    But despite its size and lack of military power, Montenegro has found itself in the middle of a major row between the West and Moscow over influence in the Balkans. The outcome of that clash could determine which way the whole western Balkan region is heading: toward the European Union, NATO and integration with the West, or back to Russia's embrace.

    Vienna-based AKH medical clinic has broken its contract with Romania’s Ministry of Health, leaving the fate of 80 patients from Romania who are in need of organ transplants in limbo, Romanian health minister Florian Bodog said on Wednesday.
    Bodog stated that he was notified through an email that the hospital in the Austrian capital does not have room for more patients, despite a contract with the Romanian health ministry saying it will accept patients from Romania in need of a lung transplant.
    He added that he believes the contract was severed illegally, because Eurotransplant, an international organ donor database, had not been notified.
    Bodog added that the ministry is trying to find another clinic in Prague where Romanian patients can be operated on.
    Last week, the Ministry of Health reinforced its decision made last year to withdraw authorisation for Saint Mary’s Hospital in Bucharest - the only Romanian clinic specialised in lung transplants, after an investigation established that it was not safe for the procedures to be performed there.
    A two-hour cross-country spontaneous strike of the employees with the state-owned Romanian railway company CFR caused havoc on Wednesday, leaving passengers stranded and causing hours of delays on over 150 routes.
    Workers are unhappy with their salaries and demand a 25 per cent hike in payment as well as additional money for maintenance of equipment and facilities.
    The Commission for Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, LIBE, in the European Parliament debated on Wednesday the situation that erupted in Romania in February when a government decree on relaxing anti-graft legislation triggered mass protests across the country.
    Romania’s Minister of Justice, Tudorel Toader, said that there was a procedure mistake involved and that the only problem with the decree was that it was adopted during the evening.  
    He also said that the pardoning law was not a miracle solution for overcrowded prisons and that Romania needed a set of measures to solve the problem.
    However, several civil society activists and journalists present at the debate said the Social Democrat government attacked justice itself when it passed the decree.
    A nine-year-old, 500 million euro EU-funded programme meant to eradicate poverty in Romania was a total failure because it was used for electoral purposes and not to help poor communities, an investigation by Digi24 news channel revealed.
    The money reached various politicians and their associated companies’ accounts through contracts or in the form of bribes.
    The most notorious case is the 2012 Bulgarian Viem Corporation contract, worth 26 million euros, awarded without the proper documentation to the vegetable oil and flour provider.
    The National Anticorruption Directorate, DNA, indicted several Romanian officials for fraud and abuse of office in relation to the case.
    With half a billion euros invested in fighting poverty, its prevalence increased in the past nine years from 23 per cent to 25 per cent.
    Romania is the second poorest country in the EU, after Bulgaria, with one in four Romanians affected by poverty. According to the National Statistics Institute, another eight million Romanians are at risk of poverty, surviving from one monthly salary to the other and finding it difficult to pay bills.
    A Turkish public servant has been extradited from Bulgaria and banned from residing in or entering the country for a period of five years by Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security, DANS, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Wednesday.
    According to the state security, the Turkish citizen, who was residing in Bulgaria as an employee of a Turkish state institution, has been involved in activities that created “anti-Bulgarian” sentiment in regions with mixed population, thus threatening the “unity of the nation”.

    Another Turkish citizen has been included in the list of people banned from entering Bulgaria on the grounds of attempts to influence the Bulgarian institutions in “favour of foreign state interest.”

    Last week, Bulgaria’s state security took measures against another three Turkish citizens, including the secretary general of the municipal administration in the northwest Turkish city of Edirne, Ibrahim Taranc.

    Tensions between Bulgaria and Turkey have risen recently amid claims that Turkish officials are trying to influence the Bulgarian elections, set for March 26.
    Six people have been detained by Bosnian authorities as part of an investigation into a migrant smuggling ring, according to officials.
    Bosnia's prosecutor's office said in a statement that those detained were suspected members of a gang that is being investigated for allegedly transporting migrants from Turkey and Syria to Western Europe through the Balkans.
    Croatian and Turkish citizens are also believed to have formed part of the group.
    The parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Federation entity discussed on Wednesday, for the first time, the issue of mass emigration from the entity.

    The initiator of the meeting, MP in the Federation’s House of Representatives Dennis Gratz, said data shows nearly 50,000 people have left the entity in the past six years. 
    Gratz said he had to gather signatures of people in the House of Representatives to have a meeting on this issue, an initiative that the government had previously rejected. 

    Federation Prime Minister Fadil Novalic said a decrease in births is a bigger problem for the entity than emigration, quoting a Financial Times’ article which placed Bosnia and Herzegovina among the countries in Southeastern Europe with the lowest emigration between 2010 and 2016.
    Bulgaria will refuse to extradite four former border policemen, accused of the murder of a Turkish citizen in front of a court in Kirklareli in northern Turkey, the state prosecution announced on Wednesday.

    The four men are wanted in Turkey in relation to the incident in 2008 when Turkish fisherman Yalcin Erdjan was shot dead after his vessel entered Bulgarian territorial waters in the Black Sea. 

    According to Bulgaria, the border policemen had an order to stop the vessel, with those on board suspected of illegal poaching. The Turkish citizens, however, did not follow the order and entered into a fight with the policemen, which ended with Erdjan being shot.

    A Bulgarian court cleared Michail Tsonkov, who fired the deadly shot, of attempted murder. He was later cleared before the court in Strasbourg.

    According to the Bulgarian prosecution, there are no legal grounds on which Tsonkov and his former colleagues can be sent to Turkey.

    On Wednesday Bulgarian foreign minister Radi Naydenov also confirmed that Sofia will not follow Ankara’s order.
    Serbian controversial businessman Predrag Rankovic aka Peconi was shot in the leg in a hotel in central Belgrade, local media report. Rankovic was taken to Belgrade Emergency Room.

    Police stated that a man with the initials P.R. was wounded tonight in Kraljice Natalije Street in Belgrade and that they are investigating the case.

    Local media report that Rankovic was sitting with a group of men when a man entered a hotel, came to their table and draw a gun after a short brawl with Rankovic. The men in Rankovic company tossed chairs at the attacker who managed to fire a shot in the businessman.

    Rankovic is the owner of several companies, mainly engaged in food and beverages production, as well as several restaurants and national TV Happy. He built his business empire producing and trading cigarettes.

    Serbian police in 2001 marked him as a person close to infamous Surcin crime gang. He was briefly arrested in operation Sablja which followed the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003.

    He was charged with tax evasion through his chain of casinos, but after nine years the case was declared obsolete in November 2012.
    Top stories from the Balkans this Thursday:
    • A clutch of new ‘patriotic’ NGOs, whose proclaimed goals are the protection of Macedonia’s integrity and unitary character, is changing the shape of civil society - in line with the ruling party’s wishes. Read the full investigation.
    • After years of allowing its old association in the US Congress to lapse, the Senate Caucus has been reactivated to support the aspirations of Albanians and their influence in Washington. Read more.
    • After the latest UK media exposure of the slave-like conditions endured by Romanian migrant workers in Sicily, the government has been accused of making an inadequate response. Read more.
    #Montenegro PM Marković congratulates @tsipras_eu on the occasion of 25 March, Independence Day of #Greece.…

    Montenegro’s Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic is confident that, despite a procedural setback, the US Senate will ratify a protocol that will allow his nation to become the twenty-ninth member of NATO. This, he said, should happen before the Alliance’s summit in Brussels in May.

    NATO foreign ministers signed the Accession Protocol with Montenegro in May 2016. Prospective members must win approval from all NATO members’ parliaments, as well as the unanimous consent of the US Senate. Once that approval is secured, Montenegro will be invited to join the Alliance. This would represent NATO’s first expansion since Albania and Croatia joined in 2009.

    So far, twenty-six of twenty-eight NATO allies have backed Montenegro’s accession. In the United States, the process has hit a roadblock - senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee have demanded a roll call vote, which is a lengthier process than a quick voice vote.
    Croatia’s Finance Minister, Zdravko Maric, said on Thursday that he had not been informed of an idea to limit the use of the euro in Croatia during the summer tourist season, although the junior government party the Bridge of the Independent Lists, MOST, stated previously that it would push for it. 

    Maric says that the use of the euro in Croatia is regulated by existing laws on the Croatian National Bank and foreign currency payment.

    Croatia has already allowed for payment of its highway tolls to be made in euros in order to make it easier for tourists.
    Russia’s state-owned bank Sberbank will continue to credit Croatia’s largest private company, Agrokor, in order to help stabilise the company, which is currently going through a financial crisis, Croatian news agency HINA reported on Thursday.
    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Thursday for authorities in the Balkans to end 80-year-long pressure on Turks and Muslims in the region and expressed his wish for peaceful elections in Bulgaria on Sunday where he says there is “great pressure on our Turkish brothers.”

    Speaking to media, Erdogan also asked specifically for the Bulgarian government to stop putting pressure on Turks, adding that "Bulgarian authorities always talk about democracy, but where is the democracy in recent pressure on Turks?"

    His statement comes following a meeting with representatives of Bulgarian Turks living in Turkey at the presidential palace in Ankara.

    Just days before Bulgaria’s elections, Erdogan also used the occasion to urge all Bulgaria’s Turks to vote in the polls.

    Tensions between Bulgaria and Turkey have risen recently amid claims that Turkish officials are trying to influence the Bulgarian elections, set for March 26.

    Turkish President Recep Tayiip Erdogan. Photo: Anadolu Agency 

    Russia regrets that Montenegro has decided to join NATO and sees no clear benefits of it for the alliance's and the country's security, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday.

    "Unfortunately, Montenegro has yielded to the ultimatum ‘either with NATO, or with Russia’ and decided to sacrifice relations with our country, damaging its economic interests… It is absolutely unclear how NATO's security will benefit from Montenegro's accession, and it is absolutely unclear how Montenegro’s security will benefit from it," Russian agency Sputnik quoted Lavrov as saying.

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Photo:

    Albanian minister of Foreign Affair warned in an interview for Atlantic Council that Balkan can slip under Russian influence in case that new US administration of president, Donald Trump doesn't pay any attention to the region. 

    "The region is facing some security challenges. One is related to countering violent extremism and radicalization, and the other one is related to the disruptive attitude of Russia or other third actors in the EU accession and Euro-Atlantic path of our region," he said. 

    Albanian MFA, Ditmir Bushati. Photo: Bushati's Facebook page

    Croatian 1990s war veterans and victims associations from the coastal city of Split and the wider Split Dalmatia County criminally reported three columnists from the Croatian weekly Novosti for "inciting hatred and hostility towards the Croatian people and statehood", the associations announced on Thursday. 

    The veterans and victims groups claim that in columns written by Boris Dezulovic, Viktor Ivancic and Milorad Krstulovic between March 2016 and January 2017, the three men have committed the criminal act of inciting violence and hate, as well as of harming the reputation of the Republic of Croatia.

    The associations have called for the State Attorney’s Office to prosecute the case and indict the three columnists.
    Viktor Ivancic. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Stefica Galic
    Two pensioners’ unions in Serbia announced on Thursday that they will organise a protest for March 28 to demand higher annuity, claiming that pensioners are dying because they cannot afford the necessities of food and medicine.

    The two unions, called the Association of pensioners unions of Serbia and the Association of retired military personnel unions of Serbia, have invited four of the presidential candidates from the ranks of the opposition - Sasa Jankovic, Vuk Jeremic, Sasa Radulovic and Bosko Obradovic - to attend the protest.

    To much public outcry, the ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's Progressive Party, decided in 2014 to temporarily reduce all pensions above 25,000 dinars (just over 200 euros), as well as salaries in the public sector until the end of 2017 – a decision that was upheld by the Constitutional Court.
    After several days’ discussion, Macedonia's MPs today agreed on the formation of the parliamentary commission on appointments, a key body which filters candidates for new parliament speaker before they are voted on in a plenary session.
    The opposition Social Democrats, SDSM, who claim majority in parliament and are in a hurry to form a government, said they have made a concession by allowing this body to be chaired by their bitter opponents, the right-wing VMRO DPMNE party, in order to speed things up.
    However, VMRO DPMNE MP Ilija Dimovski, who is likely to be the new chair, said that on Monday the parliament will resume its constitutive session - on hold since the December 11 elections - but only to verify the new parliamentary commission.
    He said that only afterwards will the commission review "one, two, three, ten or one hundred candidates for new speaker", hinting at the possibility of yet another pause in parliament's work should too many candidates are being proposed. He was not clear whether they, as the new minority, would submit their candidate or candidates.
    Top stories from the Balkans this Friday:
    • The failure of Bosnia’s Bosniak leaders to meet Turkish demands to close down organisations allegedly linked to Fethullah Gulen could cost them Ankara’s support. Read more.
    • The decline of a major Slovenian newspaper shows why journalists must show courage, express solidarity and stand up for the kind of reporting that serves the public interest. Read the blog by Sandra Basic Hrvatin.
    • Croatia’s Commission for Conflict of Interest Prevention could investigate the country’s finance minister over a potential conflict of interest due to his links with the troubled Agrokor company. Read more.
    The US Senate will vote next week on the ratification of Montenegro as the newest member of the NATO alliance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday, after the Trump administration urged lawmakers to take up the long-delayed matter, Reuters reported.

    On Tuesday, that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had written to the leaders of the Senate to say Montenegro's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was "strongly in the interests of the United States."

    All 28 of NATO's members must ratify Montenegro's accession before it can formally join the alliance. The vote in the U.S. Senate was held up for months when at least two Republican senators, Rand Paul and Mike Lee, blocked a quick vote.

    Photo: The White House.

    The Montenegrin government adopted the initiative to change the working hours of the public sector at a session on Thursday. Instead of working from nine to five, the country's more than 80,000 public employees will start to work at 7am instead.

    The initiative comes from several hundred staff in the Ministry of Interior, in 2014 filed a petition to modify their working hours
    Ivica Todoric, the owner of Croatia’s biggest private company, Agrokor - currently going through a financial crisis - has set a meeting for Monday with his biggest suppliers, which are all Croatian food companies, news site Tportal reported on Friday.

    The meeting was scheduled on the initiative of economy minister Martina Dalic, who met with Agrokor’s suppliers on Tuesday.

    The purpose of the meeting will be to discuss the debt Agrokor owes to its suppliers, and further cooperation by the suppliers in restructuring Agrokor.
    Choose FileAgrokor's logo on company headquarters in Zagreb. Photo: BETAPHOTO/HINA/Lana SLIVAR DOMINIC/MO
    A group of anti-NATO organisations in Montenegro called the Neutrality Union announced on Thursday it will sue all the military alliance’s member states that participated in the air strikes on Yugoslavia which began on March 24, 1999.

    The Neutrality Union, however, did not explain the details of the appeal or where exactly it will be filed.

    Nineteen Western NATO states, excluding Greece, deployed troops for the 78-long air strike campaign in Yugoslavia, which was then composed of Serbia and Montenegro.
    The operation was launched without a UN Security Council mandate, which the Neutrality Union sees as grounds for its complaint.

    The NATO bombing in 1999 killed ten people in Montenegro, nine of whom were civilians.
    President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker has delivered a frank warning to US President Donald Trump against encouraging countries to follow in the footsteps of the UK with Brexit, claiming that if the union broke up, it could lead to war in the western Balkans, the Financial Times reported on Friday.
    Juncker delivered his warning to US vice president Mike Pence when he visited Brussels last month, the FT wrote.
    "I told the vice president, ‘Do not say that, do not invite others to leave, because if the EU collapses, you will have a new war in the western Balkans,’" Juncker said.
    He also highlighted his belief of the importance of offering countries in the region the prospect of EU membership.
    "If we leave them alone - Bosnia and Herzegovina, [Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity] Republika Srpska, Macedonia, Albania, all those countries - we will have war again,” Juncker stated.
    In an expected outcome, Montenegro’s Constitutional Court ruled on Friday that the government's decision to cut the state aid for mothers of three and more children was legal, local media reported.

    The court was convened to examine whether a law that reduced mothers’ benefits by 25 per cent, adopted in January, was in line with the constitution.

    Mothers were initially given 336 euros or 192 euros per month depending on the number of children they had, but these amounts have been reduced to 264 and 144 euros respectively.

    Last week, mothers in Montenegro commenced a hunger strike in front of the parliament building in Podgorica, stepping up their ongoing protests against a government decision to reduce state aid for mothers of three and more children.

    Mothers in Montenegro had threatened to take radical action after their initial protests, which were held for 22 days in a row, went unheard.

    Photo: BIRN.

    Bulgaria’s largest human rights group, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, strongly condemned on Friday an attack against history teacher and candidate for MEP from the liberal “Yes, Bulgaria” party Emil Djasim, calling for a swift investigation into the incident.

    Djasim announced on Thursday evening that he has been attacked and beaten in central Sofia.
    The police authorities confirmed the accident and said they have arrested a young man in relation to the case.

    “Over the past years, Emil Jasim has become a victim of insults and threats due to his attempts to encourage the interethnic dialogue and his advocacy for the rights of minority groups in Bulgaria,” the Helsinki Committee said in a declaration. 

    Emil Djasim. Photo: Yes, Bulgaria 

    A Swedish news outlet compared Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic to the leader of French far-right National Fronte, Marine Le Pen, on Friday, during the Croatian premier’s visit to Sweden. 

    Labeling Grabar Kitarovic as "controversial", Aktuellt Fokus new site said that she represents the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, which they labelled as "conservative nationalistic".

    The Swedish site mentioned Grabar Kitarovic’s statements regarding the migrant crisis and previous comments she made regarding WWII historical revisionism. 

    Aktuellt Fokus also mentioned her decision to remove the bust of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito from her presidential residence and the fact that the Croatian Jewish community boycotted a state commemoration of the Holocaust because it claimed that the government was not tackling attempts by right-wingers to distort the country’s WWII history.
    Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic (left) and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. Photo: BETAPHOTO/Fredrik Sandberg/TT News Agency via AP
    Former Bosnian Army solider Elfeta Veseli, accused of brutally murdering a 12-year-old Serb boy in a village near the eastern Bosnian town of Zvornik in 1992, has been handed over to Bosnian authorities at Sarajevo’s international airport on Friday after being extradited from Switzerland to face trial.

    With the April 2 presidential elections looming, Serbian tabloids are reporting that the unsolved murder of singer Jelena Marjanovic is about to be resolved – a case that Serbian Prime Minister and 2017 presidential candidate Aleksandar Vucic promised would be solved within 48 hours during his campaign for the parliamentary elections in 2016.

    When he initially made the promise, tabloids jumped on his statement, publishing a flurry of bizarre details from unknown and unnamed sources allegedly close to the investigation, which Vucic referred to as a “topic of national importance."

    Vucic has not mentioned the case in his current presidential campaign, but among the headlines featured on Serbian tabloids in recent days are: “DNA on the thong revealed the singer's killer!”, “German police discovered: This is the killer!” and “Father-in-law revealed who killed Jelena Marjanovic”.

    Headlines about Jelena Marjanovic. Photo: Screenshot 

    Serbia's Association of Online Media, AOM, requested on Thursday that authorities solve the case surrounding Predrag Blagojevic, editor of local independent news portal Juzne Vesti, who claimed he was followed and recorded in the southern Serbian city of Nis on Tuesday.

    Blagojevic claimed that an unknown person recorded him with a video camera from a car parked in the city’s downtown area, and when Blagojevic tried to take a photo of the vehicle, the culprit drove off.
    AOM stated that the incident was reported to the police, after which Blagojevic was offered additional protection.

    Several Serbian journalists have recently reported suspicions that they are of being followed – notably Maja Zivanovic from the Vojvodina Investigative Center, who reported she had been followed by two men in June last year. 

    In August 2015, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, KRIK, reported concerns that their conversations were intercepted by the secret police, while in November, four journalists from the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia, CINS, reported they were being followed by unknown persons that were taking their photos.

    The car from which Blagojevic was reportedly recorded. Photo: Predrag Blagojevic 

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