The Balkans Today: 29th May - 2nd June 2017
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The Balkans Today

Up to the minute news and updates from the Balkan region

The Balkans Today: 29th May - 2nd June 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:
    • Women who have suffered in silence for years in Kosovo, after being tortured and raped in the war, are being offered a reparations scheme – but the stigma of rape means many of them may not apply for it. Read more.
    • Bulgaria's refugee agency proposes introducing 'designated areas of movement' for asylum applicants - which rights groups say will violate their human rights. Read more.
    • Growing divisions inside the Democratic League of Kosovo may well affect its results in the coming general elections – as well as its future. Read more.

    Maksim Poletaev, first deputy president of the Russian state-owned Sberbank, will meet Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic in Zagreb on Monday to discuss the debts owed the bank by the troubled Croatian private company Agrokor - currently under state control.

    Sberbank loaned around 1.1 billion euros to Agrokor and as a condition for giving out new loans to the company - needed for normal functioning of the company - the bank requests that their recent 100 million euros loan - given in the beginning of 2017 - is given a status of "the oldest claim".
    A United States Congress resolution draft, presented on Friday in Washington, on curbing Russian influence in Europe and Asia demands the Russian Federation to withdraw troops from Moldova’s eastern separatist region of Transnistria, as well as Abkhazia and Ossetia in Georgia.
    In 2016, Russia announced it would withdraw its troops from Moldova once the problem of liquidating the 14th Army's armament depots was solved.
    The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, ICTY, Serge Brammertz, said on Monday that an additional 5,000 suspects need to be tried for war crimes committed during Bosnia's 1990s war.

    Giving an interview for Bosnian daily Dnevni Avaz, he said that although the ICTY did an important job, it is up to Bosnian judiciary to finish it with additional effort made.
    Head of the Social Democratic Party of Serbia and Serbian trade minister Rasim Ljajic announced his party will launch an initiative for the adoption of the Declaration on the promotion of anti-fascism.
    In a press release sent on Sunday, Ljajic explained that the rehabilitation of the former Chetnik commander Nikola Kalabic, who was declared a war criminal by the Yugoslav Communist authorities, is the reason for the initiative.
    Rasim Ljajic. Photo: Wikipedia/Media Centre
    A number of veteran MPs from Albania’s opposition Democratic Party are calling for party leader Lulzim Basha to step down after the Democrats' list of candidate MPs became public on Saturday and many of those who had previously held high positions in the party were not included.

    The former deputy chairman of Albania’s opposition Democratic Party, Jozefina Topalli, and former defence minister Arben Imami, held a press conference on Monday to urge for the party forums to gather and demand Basha resign, claiming that his electoral list would lead to the party’s defeat in the June 25 elections.

    Jozefina Topalli and Arben Imami asking PD leader removal. Photo: LSA
    Montenegrin Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic’s claims about Russia’s alleged intervention in his country’s internal affairs are aimed at presenting excuses of Montenegro’s accession to NATO to the country’s people, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the National News Service broadcaster in an interview.

    "Information support for joining the alliance was built on espionage mania and ostensible need for protection against a virtual enemy. All that was used for one simple reason. The people of Montenegro were far from getting enthusiastic over the idea of NATO membership. This is precisely why no referendum was called. The official establishment was reluctant to demonstrate the true statistics showing the real will of the Montenegrins. A decision was made to suppress this will and to invent tales about a ‘Kremlin hand’," Zakharova said.

    Serbian anti-government demonstrators, gathered under the movement named "Seven Demands", which emerged during the mass anti-regime protests across Serbia following the April 2 election, announced they will stage a new protest on Wednesday, the day when president-elect Aleksandar Vucic will be sworn in at the Parliament.
    "…Seven Demands invites all individuals, informal groups and organisations to gather on Wednesday at noon in front of the Parliament," the movement said in a press release.
    Top stories from the Balkans this Tuesday:
    • A bill designed to harmonize public-sector pay is on the fast track towards adoption in Romania – but the announced wage hikes have alarmed economists, the EU and local unions alike. Read more.
    • While many expected US foreign policy to undergo some U-turns under Trump, his lack of engagement in international affairs – with a few exceptions – seems to mean Washington’s role in the Balkans is tantamount to “leading from behind”. Read the full comment.
    • Croatia's Anka Mrak-Taritas, the opposition Zagreb mayor candidate, challenges the incumbent Milan Bandic, promising new construction and recycling projects, and reforms of kindergartens, schools and the traffic system. Read the interview
    Macedonian Parliament today kicks off the session for the election of the new government that will be led by the Social Democrats leader Zoran Zaev, with the voting itself expected to happen by the end of Wednesday.
    Zaev's new government, which comes after 11 years with the right-wing VMRO DPMNE party in power, is likely to be approved as he controls a majority of at least 62 MPs in the 120-seat parliament while five-seven MPs from the Besa [Oath] party and from the Democratic party of Albanians, DPA, may support his cabinet.
    Macedonia's Prime Minister - designate, Zoran Zaev. Photo: sdsm
    Croatia’s parliament will have its first session on June 7, after the second round of the local elections on June 4, when Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic will present the four new ministers for the judiciary, interior, environment protection and state administration, the chair of Croatian parliament, Gordan Jandrokovic, announced on Tuesday.

    Plenkovic sacked three ministers on April 27 from the former junior government partner, the Bridge of the Independent Lists, MOST, for disloyalty to a colleague, while the fourth one, MOST's Minister of State Administration, Ivan Kovacic, resigned a day later.
    Gordan Jandrokovic. Photo: Beta
    The number of delayed flights grew by 200 per cent - with an average delay of 19 minutes - at the new terminal of the Zagreb Franjo Tudjman airport which opened in March, Croatian daily Vecernji list reported on Tuesday.

    Airline companies claim that biggest delays occur between noon and 3pm, when there are 17 departures from the terminal, which only has 13 gates.
    Croatia’s Tomislav Tomasevic, leader of the 'Zagreb is Ours' political platform comprising left-wing parties, called voters on Tuesday to vote against Zagreb’s incumbent veteran mayor, Milan Bandic, in the second round of elections on Sunday.

    Tomasevic won 3.94 per cent of votes for Zagreb mayor in the first round, while his platform surprised many by winning 7.64 per cent of the votes, winning four out of 51 seats in the city assembly.

    FURTHER READING: In her interview for BIRN, Anka Mrak-Taritas, the opposition mayor candidate who will go head-to-head for the post against Bandic on Sunday, expressed her hopes that those who initially voted for Tomasevic will vote for her in the second round.
    Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic. Photo: Beta
    Croatia's volume of industrial production fell by 0.6 per cent in April compared to the same period last year, the Croatian Bureau of Statistics announced on Tuesday.

    This is the first annual fall in the industrial production volume in over two years.
    Serbia’s outgoing Prime Minister and President-elect, Aleksandar Vucic, said that it is „shameful“ that journalists published transcripts of conversations which allegedly show Serbian secret service’s involvement in Macedonia. He blamed an unspecified Western secret service of leaking the transcripts.

    Serbian investigative outlet KRIK claimed on Sunday that journalist and MP from the ruling Progressive Party, Miroslav Lazanski, visited Macedonia in order to write propaganda for the benefit of Russia and the former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. The claims were based on leaked transcripts of conversations Lazanski had with a Serbian state security operator in Macedonia and a local Serbian politician. Lazanski denied the allegations, claiming he went to Macedonia as a journalist.
    Opposition candidate for the post of Zagreb mayor, Anka Mrak-Taritas, called on “everyone who wants a different Zagreb to vote for me,” on Tuesday, ahead of the second round of local elections on Sunday, for which she will compete against incumbent mayor Milan Bandic.

    After winning 24.48 per cent of the votes in the first round on May 21 compared to Bandic’s 30.87 per cent, Mrak-Taritas has put the choice between them down to "the change or him.”

    FURTHER READING: In her interview for BIRN, Mrak-Taritas said that the topic in the second round is the referendum question: "all of us who want a better Zagreb, or Milan Bandic."
    Anka Mrak-Taritas. Photo: HNS
    Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlovic doesn't expects major changes in the new Serbian government, but is predicting a new freshness and energy, she said on Tuesday, Beta news agency reported.

    Mihajlovic expressed confidence that the ministers in the new government won't get too comfortable after the incoming president Aleksandar Vucic's inauguration.
    Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlovic. Photo: Serbian Government.
    Serbian Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability, CRTA, said on Tuesday that state officials should be prohibited by law from using their position in election campaigns. Officials should be banned from starting projects that are funded from the budget, including charities, CRTA said in its final report on the April 2 presidential elections.

    Photo: Medija Centar 

    The local court in the Serbian city of Kragujevac refused a request to declare the Serbian Glass Factory, owned by Bulgarian taycoon Tsetvan Vasilev, as bankrupt, Beta news agency reported.

    Judge Branislav Jovovic said that the company that filed the request, Vexillum Balkan from the city of Cacak, failed to present valid evidence and proof that the Serbian Glass Factory owed it alleged debts of around 47 million euros, according to Beta’s report.
    Tsvetan Vasilev. Photo: Media Centre Belgrade
    Top stories from the Balkans this Wednesday: 
    • As Aleksandar Vucic prepares to be sworn in as Serbia’s new president, observers say he is likely to tighten his grip on Serbian institutions - while the EU turns a blind eye to his authoritarian tendencies. Read more.
    • Macedonia's new government said it plans to halt the pricy and much disputed grand revamp of the capital, Skopje 2014, which became synonymous for reckless spending. Read more.
    • A display of improvised furnaces used during the war reminds Sarajevans of their creativity during the siege of the Bosnian capital. Read more.
    Macedonia's parliament session aimed at electing the new government that will be led by the Social Democrats’ Zoran Zaev is set to resume today at 12pm, with the voting expected to take place before midnight.
    During his expose on Tuesday, Zaev said his government would have three key goals: boosting the economy, enabling justice and rule of law and integrating the country into EU and NATO. He also pledged to have zero tolerance for corruption and announced the formation of a special court wing that would solely focus on processing high-level corruption cases instigated by the Special Prosecution.
    Macedonia's Prime Minister-designate, Zoran Zaev. Photo: MIA
    Preparations are underway for the official ceremony today when Aleksandar Vucic will be sworn is as Serbia's next president at the parliament building in Belgrade.
    Photo: BIRN.
    Photo: BIRN.
    "Belgrade is for Vucic" sign in front of the Serbian Parliament. Photo: BIRN
    Photo: BIRN
    Photo: BIRN.
    The Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Macedonia’s ambassador to Serbia, Vera Jovanovska, on Tuesday to urgently provide an explanation on the circumstances that led to wiretapping of Serb representatives and journalists in Macedonia, and on how the transcripts of the recorded conversations became public.
    The summons comes after Macedonian television station Telma reported earlier this month that Goran Zivaljevic, counselor at the Embassy of Serbia in Skopje, was present in the Macedonian Assembly when it was stormed by supporters of the former ruling VMRO DPMNE party.
    In its press release on Tuesday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that Jovanovska said that Macedonian authorities do not have information about the presence of other foreign agencies in the Macedonian Assembly during the storming of the building, and that there is no information on how transcripts were leaked in the Serbian media.
    Around 40 members of a right-wing group called the "Serbian Political Forum" interrupted an event organised by local NGO, Women in Black, about the feminist approach to justice on Tuesday night at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade, Radio Free Europe reported on Wednesday.
    Members of the group were also handing out leaflets on which were written messages saying "Stop the lies about Srebrenica", "Stop rewriting history", "Genocide against Serbs of Podrinje" and "We do not need objectivity of the 'Woman in Black'".
    The mayor of Moldova’s capital Chisinau, Dorin Chirtoaca, who was placed under house arrest while a corruption investigation is underway, has been spotted walking around in the city centre, the Moldovan Russian-language website reports.
    Chritoaca’s arrest last Friday triggered a government break-up in Chisinau, with the Liberal Party, led by the mayor’s uncle, leaving the cabinet.

    The Bosnian Serb Parliament rejected an initiative by the opposition bloc in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, for a vote of no-confidence against the entity’s government.

    Despite the 200-page document, in which opposition parties, as they claim, explain in detail and with evidence, the reasons why the RS government should be dismissed, the Parliament didn't even accept to discuss the proposal let alone allow a vote of no-confidence to take place.

    Veselin Mareshki, Vice-President of the Bulgarian parliament and leader of the populist party Volya, who gained international recognition as a self-described Bulgarian Trump, proposed on Wednesday that MPs should hand in their declarations for economic conflicts of interest, but also for “homosexual conflict of interest and conflict of interest due to alcoholic or drug dependency”.

    “It is an absolute cynicism for such people to act in power, some of them in the National Assembly,” Mareshki, whose immunity as an MP was recently lifted due to an investigation for electoral fraud, said in the National Assembly.

    Vesselin Mareshki. Photo: 

    Eight women from the town of Kruja in central Albania have been sent to hospital suffering suspected poisoning from fumes in the local shoe factory where they were working, local media have reported. 

    Poor ventilation in the factory and the strong liquids used for shoemaking are believed to have been the cause, according to the media.

    Shoe factory. Photo: Wikimedia/Nina Hale
    Zeljko Kerum, a candidate in the second round of local elections on Sunday for mayor of the Croatian coastal city of Split, called his opponent in the vote, Andro Krstulovic Opara, “a prostitute" in a debate between the two men on Wednesday organised by Croatian daily Slobodna Dalmacija. 

    Using foul language, Kerum – who won the first round of voting on May 21 - also threatened to punch Opara, who comes from the ranks of the governing centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ.
    FURTHER READING: In a blog for BIRN, journalist Damir Pilic wrote of his perceived similarities between Kerum, US President Donald Trump and Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
    Željko Kerum. Photo: Reader of 24 sata
    The Kremlin does not know about the alleged ban on the entry of Montenegrin politicians to Russia, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.

    Peskov was asked whether the Kremlin was aware of the alleged ban on the entry to Russia for Montenegro's Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and the country's parliament speaker Ivan Brajovic.

    "No, [the Kremlin] does not know anything," he said.

    Earlier, Montenegrin media outlets claimed that Moscow allegedly banned several country's officials entry to Russia as they had allegedly been included in the Russian sanctions list.

    Montenegrin PM Dusko Markovic. Photo:

    The Prosecution office of the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, stated on Wednesday that there is no basis for allowing the former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic to be released for medical treatment to Russia.

    Prosecutor Peter McCloskey rejected accusations made by Mladic's lawyers last week that the Trial Chamber didn’t act properly, adding that the defence is rejecting previous decisions made by the court.

    In a press release, McCloskey concluded that the court was right in rejecting Mladic's plea since there is a possibility he would not return the Hague once his treatment had ended, having in mind the fact he has been in hiding before.

    Serbian opposition leader gathered for anti-government protest walk, hours after Aleksandar Vucic, the leader of ruling Progressive sworn-in as Serbia’s new president.

    The protest on Wednesday evening united Vucic’s rivals in presidential elections - Sasa Jankovic, the leader of Movement of Free Citizens, ex-foreign minister Vuk Jeremic, Sasa Radulovic, the leader of Enough is Enough party, Bosko Obradovic, head of right-wing Dveri and Milan Stamatovic, the president of Cajetina municipality.
    Sanda Raskovic Ivic, former president of Democratic Party of Serbia, and Boris Tadic, Serbian ex-president and the leader of Social Democratic Part, Democratic Party members as well as activists from civic initiative “Against the Dictatorship” that led anti-Vucic protests following presidential elections also took part in a rally. 
    Top stories from the Balkans this Thursday:
    • Macedonia's parliament has approved a new Social Democrat-led coalition government, headed up by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who has vowed economic prosperity, EU and NATO integration, and zero tolerance for corruption. Read more.
    • While Kosovo's politicians mostly target foreign policy and national security topics, the voters with whom BIRN spoke said they wanted the next government to work more on social and economy issues. Read more.
    • Teachers, students and activists will take to the streets of Zagreb on Thursday to demand a resumption of reform to the nation's out-dated educational system. Read more.
    "We welcome the vote for the new government led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev", said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn in a joint statement after Wednesday's election of new Macedonian government.
    " The European Union is ready to support the work that the new government, as well as the opposition, will do  to constructively implement all parts of the Przino agreement and the Urgent Reform Priorities" the statement reads.
    Congratulations for the new government came from the US Department of State as well.
    "As a friend and partner of Macedonia, the United States looks forward to working with the new government as it strives to fulfill the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations by implementing urgent reforms that strengthen rule of law and judicial independence, media freedom, and government accountability" wrote the State Department.
    Zoran Zaev [centre] and his new ministers. Photo: MIA
    Russia has ordered five Moldovan diplomats to leave the country, two days after Moldova expelled five Russian officials over recurrent violation of local legislation, including drunk driving and spying.
    Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday on the sidelines of the International Economic Forum in the Russian city of St Petersburg, according to Bosnian media.

    Yuri Ushakov, an aide to the Russian president, confirmed to reporters on Wednesday that Putin will hold short meetings with Dodik, who he last met with in September, according to the Russian news agency Tass.
    Daily newspaper Danas, whose journalist was attacked at the rally of President Aleksandar Vucic’s supporters, announced it will file charges against the organizers of the gathering unless the attackers are brought to justice. 

    Journalist Lidija Valtner reported being attacked while filming an incident at the rally in front of the Serbian parliament, while inside Vucic was being sworn in as the new President on Wednesday.

    Macedonia's former Health Minister and high-ranking VMRO DPMNE party official Nikola Todorov has been a target of an assassination attempt which happened shortly past 12pm in front of the Ministry of Health in the capital, Skopje, police have confirmed.
    No further information about Todorov's condition or whereabouts have been released.
    However, the police announced that they have arrested a person in relation to the armed attack against Todorov, and stated that more details will be revealed later.
    Unofficially, media cite eyewitness accounts saying that a person fired several gun shots in Todorov’s direction as he was entering the health ministry building, where he was about to hand over his office to his newly elected successor, Arben Taravari, from the new Social Democrat-led government.
    More updates to follow.
    Former health Minister Nikola Todorov
    The EU will co-finance the building of a bridge between Croatia's mainland and southern Dalmatian peninsula of Peljesac, surpassing a short strip of Bosnia's coast, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic informed the public during the government session on Thursday. 

    The 357 million euros of non-refundable funds for the project will be allocated to Croatia by the EU in three tranches between 2017 and 2021.
    Macedonia’s Ministry of Interior announced that the 67-year-old Lj. S. from the village of Dolno Kalaslari, near the central Macedonian town of Veles, was arrested today shortly after he is believed to have fired two gun shots in the direction of former health minister Nikola Todorov in what police have stated was an assassination attempt as the apparent target was entering the Ministry of Health building in central Skopje.

    Nobody sustained injuries in the incident, the Ministry of Interior told Deutsche Welle, adding that the arrested person has been taken in for questioning.

    The motifs for the attack are still being investigated, the interior ministry said.
    Maksim Poletaev, first vice president of the Russian state-owned Sberbank, told Bloomberg on Thursday that the bank will not take part in additional crediting of the troubled Croatian private company Agrokor - currently under state extraordinary management – as conditions for that financing "aren't fair".

    Poletaec claims that conditions for new financing of the company given by the state management are the same for Sberbank and other banks, as well as speculative funds that bought Agrokor's debt for some "30-35 per cent of its value".
    Maksim Polataev. Photo: BETAPHOTO/HINA/Lana SLIVAR DOMINIC/DS
    The Head of the EU’s Office in Kosovo, Nataliya Apostolova, called upon candidates and leaders of political entities to refrain from using language that can undermine the integrity of the electoral process and reject all forms of pressure that may do so as well.

     “I have met with a variety of stakeholders. They have all expressed expectation for a peaceful and transparent June 11 election, with a level playing field, as the necessary prerequisite for Kosovo to move forward in its democratic development,” Apostolova is quoted as saying in a statement issued by the EU Office.

    The Head of the EU’s Office in Kosovo, Nataliya Apostolova | Photo: BIRN 

    During his visit to Zagreb on Thursday, Kosovo’s President, Hashim Thaci, met with Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, discussing bilateral relations and the need to further improve the economic ties between their two countries.

    Grabar Kitarovic expressed Croatia's wish to support Kosovo on its path towards EU and NATO membership.
    Hashim Thaci and Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic. Photo: BETAPHOTO/HINA/Lana SLIVAR DOMINIC/DS
    Citizens are coming out onto the streets of Zagreb and seven other cities across Croatia at 6 PM to protest against the stalled comprehensive national curriculum reform, which they claim the government has stopped implementation of. 

    The protests, called “Waiting for the Streetcar Named Education Reform” in reference to the classic play by Tennessee Williams, “A Streetcar Named Desire”, support the reform which is aimed at transforming the education system by replacing both the old curriculum and the methodology of teaching.
    Zagreb's last year protest for the comprehensive curriculum reform. Photo: Beta
    According to the estimates of the Croatian police, around 20,000 people gathered in Zagreb centre protesting against the stalled comprehensive national curriculum reform, which they claim the government has stopped implementation of. 

    The protests, called “Waiting for the Streetcar Named Education Reform” in reference to the classic play by Tennessee Williams, “A Streetcar Named Desire”, support the reform which is aimed at transforming the education system by replacing both the old curriculum and the methodology of teaching.
    The European Commission said on Thursday it has opened a formal investigation to assess whether Romania's majority state-owned gas transmission system operator Transgaz abused its dominant market position to restrict gas exports to EU member states. 

    Such a strategy could have been implemented by interconnector transmission fees, underinvestment or delays in the building of relevant infrastructure, as well as unfounded technical arguments as a pretext to prevent or justify delays in exports, the Commission said.
  • The European Commission backs Bulgaria in its efforts to join the eurozone, with the country doing “too good” in meeting the nominal criteria for adopting the common EU currency, Valdis Dombrovskis, Vice-President of the European Commission, said during a visit to Sofia on Friday, Bulgarian National Radio reported.

    At the same time, he made it clear that Bulgaria has to show a real convergence of its economy with the European ones, and to overcome structural imbalances in order to enter the eurozone.

    Dombrovskis with Boyko Borissov in Sofia. Photo: Bulgarian government press service 

  • Six NGOs called on Bulgarian MP Vesselin Mareshki, who demanded gay MPs to reveal their sexual orientation - as a form of conflict of interest - to publicly apologise for his statements, widely viewed as discriminatory and a violation of the EU human rights charter.

    In a statement, published on Friday, the rights groups also demanded that the Parliamentary Ethics Commission review the case and take measures if breaches of the parliamentary rules are identified.
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