The Balkans Today: 30th January - 3rd February 2017
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The Balkans Today

Up to the minute news and updates from the Balkan region

The Balkans Today: 30th January - 3rd February 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:
    • Although ratification of the accession protocol remains stuck in the US Senate, Montenegrin leaders insist it is only a matter of time before it becomes a full member of the Western alliance. Read more.
    • Romania's Justice Ministry started a limited public debate on Monday on controversial decrees that would pardon convicted politicians and decriminalize abuse of office. Read more.
    • Parents of babies who disappeared from maternity wards in Serbian hospitals accuse the authorities of trying to push this traumatic and mysterious issue under the carpet. Read more.
  • A woman from Croatia was detained at Los Angeles International Airport and sent back to Paris, where she had flown in from, due to US President Donald Trump’s order to close his country’s borders to citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, US tabloid TMZ reported.

    Referring to information from the American Civil Liberties Union, a human rights NGO, TMZ claims that the woman landed in Los Angeles on a flight from Paris before she was detained, despite Croatia not being on the list of countries for which the ban refers to.

    The woman had a tourist visa for her intended stay in the US, TMZ claimed.

    The Croatian foreign ministry has not confirmed the event.
    Protest on the Los Angeles International Airport against Trump's ban. Photo: AP Photo/Ryan Kang
  • Qatar and signed on Sunday an air transport agreement, allowing the national carriers of the two countries to perform unlimited number of passenger and cargo flights, with full transport rights.

    The agreement was signed in Doha, by the Qatari Minister of Transport and Communications Jassim Saif Ahmed Al Sulaiti and his Montenegrin counterpart, Minister of Transport and Maritime Affairs Osman Nurkovic.
  • Croatia’s Ministry of Defence plans to introduce obligatory military service for all adult males in 2019, daily Vecernji list reported on Monday.

    The compulsory service would be for 30 days during summer, to avoid the ministry having to cover the costs of heating and winter uniforms, and would teach military basics to the men. 

    However, BIRN reported last week that introducing compulsory military service in Croatia is unrealistic at the moment, according to military analyst Igor Tabak.
  • Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama removed the Minister and Justice, Ylli Manjani, who is member of the Socialist Movement for Integration, LSI, from his position on Monday.

    The move comes amid tensions between the two main parties in the ruling coalition, the Socialist Party of Edi Rama and its junior partner LSI, led by Ilir Meta.

    Another member of LSI, MP Petrit Vasili, is expected to replace Manjani, who was appointed as justice minister in November 2015. 

    In recent public debates, he has been very critical of the government that he was part of.

    The removed minister, Ylli Manjani. Photo: LSA/Malton Dibra
  • Serbian labour minister Aleksandar Vulin was banned from entering Kosovo on Monday, Bashmir Xhemaj, the senior advisor to Kosovo’s foreign minister, Enver Hoxhaj, confirmed, according to reports from KTV television station. 

    Aleksandar Vulin has previously been barred from entering Kosovo, as have the head of Serbia’s Office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, who was stopped from crossing the border for a planned visit to Kosovo for Orthodox Christmas on January 7.

    Serbian labor minister, Aleksandar Vulin | Photo: Beta 

  • Serbia and Kosovo will continue their dialogue in Brussels on Wednesday, aimed at cooling tensions between the two counties which have escalated in recent months, with the Prime Ministers and Presidents of both sides in attendance.
    It will be the second such high-level meeting since the recent ‘train incident’ on January 17 caused tensions to soar between the two sides.
    Last Tuesday, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and President Tomislav Nikolic sat down with their Kosovo counterparts, Isa Mustafa and Hashim Thaci respectively, in the highest-level meeting since the EU-led talks aimed at normalising relations between them began in 2011.
  • Montenegro's healthcare system has been ranked the second worst among countries in Europe, in a report issued on Monday by the Swedish watchdog organization Health Consumer Powerhouse, HCP.

    Although the quality of the health service in Macedonia is ranked low, there are some indications of positive developments, the HCP said in its annual Euro Health Consumer Index report.

    "One circumstance historically favouring Montenegro was a massive influx of Russian capital, which at the time of writing this report seems to be endangered by the low prices of oil and sanctions against Russian capitalists after the seizure of Crimea," the report said.

    Photo: Pixabay

  • Pope Francis on Monday met with the bishops of Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia, who are in Rome for their “ad limina apostolorum” visit.

    The President of the International Bishops’ Conference of Saints Cyril and Methodius, Bishop Ladislav Nemet SVD of Zrenjanin, Serbia, told Vatican Radio that the collaboration and ecumenical relations between the Holy See and the autocephalous Serbian Orthodox Church are very good.

    "In Kosovo, interreligious dialogue is more meaningful, because Catholics live among Muslims. In Montenegro and Macedonia it is difficult for the Catholic Church to maintain relations with the official Orthodox Church and even with two Orthodox churches, which are growing with large state aid,” he said.
  • Macedonia's opposition leader Zoran Zaev urged President Gjorge Ivanov to hand him the mandate to form a new government as soon as possible, after his bitter political opponent, VMRO DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski, missed his Sunday deadline to get the baking of a majority of at least 61 MPs in the 120-seat parliament.
    "Macedonia has no time for losing, the democratisation has begun" Zaev said in a video address published on YouTube in which he pledged to dedicate himself to forming a new government that would implement the reform priorities urged by EU and the US.
    Macedonia's opposition leader, Zoran Zaev
  • The Croatian foreign ministry confirmed to BIRN that a Croatian woman was refused entry to the US after landing at the Los Angeles International Airport on Saturday from Paris, but said it was not connected to US President Donald Trump’s order to close his country’s borders to citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

    The ministry stated that she was stopped at the airport as a result of the US’s regular immigrant procedure, adding that a valid visa does not guarantee entry to a country as border police have the right to revoke them.

    Referring to sources close to the American Civil Liberties Union, a human rights NGO, US tabloid TMZ reported that the woman was sent back to Paris after briefly being detained at the airport in Los Angeles.
  • Croatia's industrial production grew by a record high of 14.9 per cent in December compared to the same month in 2015.

    This is the biggest annual leap since the Croatian Bureau of Statistics began making annual comparisons in 2001.

    Additionally, the production grew by 4 per cent in comparison to November, while industrial productions has been constantly growing for the past 23 months.
  • Top stories from the Balkans this Tuesday:
    • After the ruling VMRO DPMNE party missed Sunday's deadline to form new government, the opposition Social Democrats are upping pressure on President Gjorge Ivanov to entrust them with the same task. Read more.
    • Growing cooperation between Bosnia’s Croat and Serb leaders is making many Bosniaks anxious – but whether this improbable alliance can survive in the long term is questionable. Read more.
    • The growing popularity of the anti-establishment Living Wall suggests that Croatia is following a global trend in terms of the rise in populist politics, an expert has explained. Read more.
  • Former Croatian President Stjepan Mesic has resigned from his post as the honorary president of the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters and Anti-Fascists of Croatia, in order to save the organisation from "any negative consequences" that may result from scandals connected to speeches he made in the 1990s.
  • Sectors with priority and opportunities for #Italy in #Kosovo are energy, ICT, mining and minerals & food processin……

  • Serbian border police stopped a group of six Afghan migrants from entering Croatia on Monday at the border crossing near the western city of Sid. 

    The migrants, hidden in at truck coming from Bulgaria, were aged between 15 and 17, and were heading for Italy. 

    The same day the police stopped another two Afghani migrants hiding in a truck coming from Montenegro, as well as a 25-year-old Pakistani hiding in an another truck from Montenegro.

    The migrants hidden in the Montenegrin trucks had entered the vehicles without the knowledge of the drivers when they had made stops in Serbia.
  • The chairman of Bosnia's House of Representatives Sefik Dzaferovic, who is also vice-president of the Bosniak-led party SDA, said Bosnia wishes to maintain a warm relationship with Iran, alongside efforts to join NATO, reports Mehr news agency.
    In a meeting with Iran's ambassador to Bosnia, Mahmoud Heidari, Dzaferovic reportedly said the Bosnian Parliament welcomed deepening ties with Iran, particularly in the economic field.
  • Bulgaria’s new President, Rumen Radev, has confirmed the country’s commitment to dedicate 2 per cent of its GDP for defence during his first meeting with NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, which took place in Brussels on Tuesday.

    “For us in Bulgaria NATO remains an extremely important organization for protection of the security of the member states and guaranteeing stability outside NATO’s borders,” Radev said, quoted by the Bulgarian National Radio.

    At the same time he noted that the growing defense capacity of NATO should go hand in hand with strengthening the dialogue with Russia, avoiding confrontations and limiting the risk.

    He agreed with US President Donald Trump that currently the biggest threats are international terrorism and ISIS, and said that NATO and Russia have to join forces to fight them.

    According to Stoltenberg, for the past 13 years Bulgaria has been a “valued” NATO Ally.
    He explained that NATO does not want confrontation with a “more assertive Russia” or a second Cold War, but its response is “measured” and “sends a clear signal that we stand together”.

    Radev and Stoltenberg in NATO's headquarters in Brussels. Photo: NATO 

  • Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic met on Tuesday with the leader of the New Serbian Democracy in Montenegro, Andrija Mandic, who thanked the Government of Serbia for continuing support and assistance to the institutions of Serbs in Montenegro.

    During the meeting, Mandic asked Vucic to help Montenegrin citizens living in Serbia, claiming that the government in Podgorica was not granting them the rights they should have as Montenegrins living abroad.

    "An example of a blatant violation of their rights is that they have no right to vote in the elections in Montenegro, as they did not have in the independence referendum in 2006," Mandic said.

    The meeting took place within the framework of regular consultations with the political representatives of Serbs from the region.

    A Srebrenica remembrance charity has joined other genocide education charities in condemning US President Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslims from seven countries from entering the States.

    The UK-based Remembering Srebrenica said the order was discriminatory and would lead to dehumanisation of people based on religion. 

    Chairman Dr Waqar Azmi OBE said: “We must be clear about what this order is. It has banned only Muslims from these countries, not any other faith groups. It sends the message that Muslims are sub-human.”

    Calling the order “dangerous”, he added: “In Bosnia, nationalism became increasingly dependent on denigrating ‘the other' with the media characterising Bosnian Muslims as 'Islamic fundamentalists' and ‘terrorists’, which led to the spreading of fear, leading to discrimination, dehumanisation and persecution. 

    “We cannot allow this to happen again and must learn the lessons from the past to create a better future,” he said.

    Local media in Albania have reported that four judges have resigned on Tuesday, the final deadline for judges and prosecutors to declare their assets under Albania’s judicial vetting law.
    A high court judge, Mirela Fana, is among those who have resigned, Albania’s Top Channel TV reported. 

    Prime Minister Edi Rama who wrote in a Facebook post that he hailed “the voluntary resignations of judges and prosecutors who don’t want to pass through vetting.”

    Around 800 judges and prosecutors be vetted under the new law which was introduced at the start of January as part of Albania’s extensive judicial reforms. As part of the process, they will have their assets re-evaluated and go through background checks and professional skills screening. 

    In December, experts predicted that Albanian judicial officials would likely resign before the law came into operation in a bid to save their reputations, and their assets. 

    Illustrative picture by Pixaby  

    Serbian and Greek Prime Ministers on joint meeting in Belgrade, Photo by: Beta
    The prime ministers of Serbia and Greece have agreed to set up a high council with the aim of strengthening relations between the two countries, and its first meeting will be held in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki this spring, the premiers announced in a joint news conference on Tuesday.

    The high council will put particular focus on the development of a train route between Budapest and Athens, passing through Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras said.

    "Our railways could experience benefits in the hundreds of millions of euro if we decrease the time of travelling from Budapest to [the Greek city of] Thessaloniki,” Vucic told the media.

    He added that the trade exchange between Serbia and Greece currently stands at 380 million euro per year, which he claims is not a satisfactory amount, but said that in the next five years it could rise by 70-80 million euros each year.

    Greek premier Tsipras used the occasion to highlight his country’s support for Serbia in its bid to join the EU, and stated that Greece intends to strengthen cooperation with Serbia in the transport sector.

    He claimed that Greece will put special focus on linking the port city of Piraeus, 20km from Athens, with Belgrade, under China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

    Tsipras has already met with Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic and will attend the economic forum in Belgrade on Tuesday evening, organised by the Serbian Chamber of Commerce.
    While in the Serbian capital, he will also meet with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic.

    The Kosovo Police have blocked on Tuesday afternoon the entrance of Hotel Grand in center of Pristina, after received an information that a suspicious vehicle with Belgrade plates is parked near the hotel.

    The Kosovo Police spokeswoman, Flora Ahmeti, told Express that the case was reported on Tuesday at 16:00. “We received an information that a vehicle with Belgrade 'BG' plates was abandoned in front of the Grand Hotel,” said Ahmeti, noting that the police responded to the scene and removed the vehicle.

    Photo: BIRN/Dia Morina

    Romanian government adopted controversial decision to decriminalise abuse in office and trading in influence on Tuesday evening. 

    The government also announced that the law designed to pardon people jailed for less than five years for petty crimes, including corruption, will be sent to the parliament for adoption. 

    The moves draw criticism and fresh protests are scheduled for tonight and tomorrow in Bucharest.

    Last night the report to the EU on Bosnia and Herzegovina was passed.
    Local media report that 288 amendments were proposed by MEPs, mostly to do with federalisation and raising the question once again of a "third entity" for Bosnian Croats.
    Dubravka Suica, Croatian MEP, took the opportunity to point out that Croats weren't getting their rights in Bosnia.
    "I want to emphasize that the Croats still do not have all the rights they are entitled to under the regulations, even Dayton," she said, according to local media Nezavisne Novine.
    Swedish MEP Jasenko Selimovic, on the other hand, reportedly argued against a third entity.
    Top stories from the Balkans this Wednesday:
    • Mayors from the Democratic Union for Integration said they suspected an increase in official inspections of municipality buildings was retaliation for their party’s refusal to join a new governing coalition with Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO DPMNE. Read more.
    • Bosnian police agencies are running checks on the background of several men who were arrested last week in Austria in a large-scale anti-terrorism operation. Read more.
    • The director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, Anita Mitic, accused the Serbian state of being complicit in the series of recent attacks on the rights organisation. Read more.
    Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov is expected to meet with Zoran Zaev, the head of the opposition Social Democrats, SDSM, on Wednesday afternoon.
    The meeting comes as part of Ivanov's announced consultations with party leaders after the ruling VMRO DPMNE party failed to form new government by its deadline on Sunday at midnight.
    Zaev previously urged Ivanov not to waste any more time and to entrust him the mandate to form a new government, saying that "all else would mean breaking the constitution."
    Zaev believes he could reach a deal with the ethnic Albanian parties after the December 11 early elections, at which his party narrowly came out second after VMRO DPMNE.
    Macedonian President, Gjorge Ivanov. Photo: MIA
    The Polish Institute of National Remembrance has published a list of 9,686 guards from the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, which shows that five were Croatian Germans - Josef Vogel, Stanislav Watz, Josef Hefner, Martin Flohr and Felix Becker.

    Around one million people were killed at the camp, the majority of them Jews, but also Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and others.

    The Institute of National Remembrance said on Monday that it would go on to publish lists of staff at other Nazi concentration camps.
    The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that Croatia needs to return 180,000 euros to Montenegrin citizen Isat Boljevic, along with paying of 3,340 euros for procedure costs, for violating his right to property.

    Croatian police seized the Boljevic’s money, which he carried into Croatia on two separate trips, in 2009 claiming that he breached the law on the prevention of money laundering.

    Boljevic, who did not report carrying the money across the border at the time, later claimed that the cash came from selling an apartment in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.
    Further cooperation between Greece & Serbia on #energy & transit issues,SecGen @giorgostsipras #interview @amna_news

    The leader of the junior ruling Bosniak Party in Montenegro, Rafet Husovic, apologised to the citizens of Montenegro on Wednesday for offensive statements made by Adnan Muhovic, a senior official from his party, in recent days.

    In several statements, Muhovic said that Montenegro is a small nation and there are less Montenegrins than Bosniaks in the Bosnian Canton of Tuzla, also reiterating previous comments he made calling Petar Petrovic Njegos, a Montenegrin ruler and bishop from the 19th century, a "genocidal poet".

    "It is likely that certain members of the Bosniak Party in their statements and actions hurt the feelings of [Montenegro’s] citizens or contributed to raising tensions, and therefore, as president of the Bosniak Party, I apologise to the citizens of Montenegro,” Husovic said, adding that he has also “made an appeal to all members of the Bosniak Party to refrain from such comments."
    The Croatian Competition Agency approved on Wednesday the acquisition of the Croatian stores of the Austrian retail food chain Billa by another Austrian competitor, Spar.

    The acquisition, of which the sum has not been disclosed, was first announced in December, with Spar buying 62 Billa stores and their logistics centre in Croatia, which employs around 1,900 workers.
    Serbian trade minister Rasim Ljajic denied that Serbian security services, BIA, are investigating license issuing proceedings in his ministry over information supplied by the Russian embassy in Belgrade claimed that arms, which were supposed to be sent to Saudi Arabia, ended up in the hands of jihadis.

    Ljajic told Beta news agency on Monday that his ministry is a victim of a war with local arms exporters, and highlighted that the ministry is transparent and that all data in regard to arms export licenses are available to the public.

    While Serbian media reported that two administrative workers in the ministry have been fired because of the case, Ljajic said that one person was removed from the human resources department, but that it was over an unrelated issue.

    Damon M. Wilson, Atlantic Council Executive Vice President, Photo by: BIRN

    A delegation of the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, led by its executive vice president Damon Wilson, highlighted its support for US engagement in the Western Balkans, and in particular the importance of strengthening US-Serbia relations, in a meeting with representatives of Serbia’s NGO sector in Belgrade on Wednesday.

    “There are many priorities in Washington right now, but we want to get ahead of the curve and help to begin to formulate the ideas of American engagement and strategy for the region,” Wilson told media after the meeting.

    Jelena Milic, Director at Center for Euro - Atlantic Studies, Photo by: BIRN

    The meeting was organised by the Center for Euro–Atlantic Studies, CEAS, and according to its director, Jelena Milic, covered a wide range of topics, including challenges in liberal democracies, the migration crisis and regional political crisis, which, in her opinion, should be considered in conjunction.

    “Unfortunately, the Balkans isn’t a priority, therefore it’s being misused by different actors in the region, and no one can predict what kind of consequences this trend can bring, including conflicts that no one will be able to control,” Milic warned.
    Bulgaria’s Central Electoral Commission, CIK, will have to provide 12,000 machines for automatic voting for all polling stations in the country, the Supreme Administrative Court decided on Wednesday.

    On January 28, CIK decided that it would only provide voting machines for 500 polling stations across Bulgaria due to inability to secure one for every polling station until March 26, when early elections will be held. 

    However, the court overthrew this decision, as according to the electoral code, all Bulgarians must have the right to choose how they want to vote – with a paper ballot or with a ballot for machine voting.

    The court’s decision may impose a serious challenge to the electoral administration, which has repeatedly stated that it would not be able to buy the number of machines needed for the early elections.

    Croatia achieved the biggest annual drop in its unemployment rate out of all of 28 countries in the EU, according to the EU statistical agency Eurostat.
    Croatia's unemployment rate fell from 15 per cent in December 2015 to 11.4 per cent in December 2016, while the EU average is at 8.2 per cent.
    The European Parliament is set to debate in its plenary session the situation in Romania and release an official statement tomorrow morning, as thousands have been protesting in Bucharest and several cities across the country against a newly adopted emergency decree that partially decriminalizes abuse of office. 
    The European Popular Party together with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe groups requested the debate take place during the plenary session tomorrow at 11.00 CET. 
    The Progressives group agreed and suggested that the plenary debate should be followed by a discussion in the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the PE. The Progressives also want a fact finding mission to clarify not only the way the new legislation was passed by the government but also the way the justice system handles corruption cases. 
    Romania’s broadcast watchdog fined on Wednesday news channel RomaniaTV for spreading  fake news on the involvement of American magnate George Soros during the electoral campaign for the parliamentary elections in December 2016.
    The network was handed a with 100.000 lei [22.000 EUR] fine. 
    RomaniaTV aired during the electoral campaign in November 2016 a video allegedly sent in by Anonymous that said Soros had staged the fire in Colectiv club, which killed 64 in October 2015.
    The corruption allegations linked to the fire led to large street protests in November 2015, that led to the resignation of the Social Democrat cabinet led by Victor Ponta and its replacement with a technocratic cabinet led by former European Commissioner Dacian Ciolos.
    Ex-Prime Minister of Serbia Zoran Zivkovic, now leader of the opposition Nove Stranke Party and MP, criticised on Twitter the response he got from the Serbian justice ministry on a question about the extradition of Bulgarian banker Tsvetan Vasilev, who is wanted in his home country. 

    CCB closure was by far the biggest banking collapse in the history of Bulgaria, with lost assets valued at over four billion leva (around two billion euros).

    The Serbian Ministry of Justice confirmed that Vasilev is still in Serbia, but didn't specify the exact reason why he has still not been arrested and extradited to Bulgaria. 

    "Following the decision by the competent court in Serbia, the Serbian Ministry of Justice will act in accordance with the International Civil Assistance in Criminal Matters and the European Convention on Extradition,’’ it said, noting that it has acted in a timely manner in regards to the extradition request and that it has maintained communication with the Bulgaria side.

    Thousands of Romanians took to the streets on Wednesday evening to show their discontent against Tuesday's cabinet decree that partially decriminalizes abuse of office
    00.00 local time
    State Secretary in the Ministry of Health Raed Arafat: Four people, 2 civilians and 2 police, hospitalized after clashes between protesters and gendarmes. None of the wounded are in serious condition. 
    Around 2,000 peaceful protesters remained in front of the government headquarters chanting anti-PSD slogans. 
    23.20 local time
    Security forces used tear gas against violent protesters in Bucharest Victoriei Square. 
    Most protesters were clam and vowed they would stay on the streets till dawn.
    Activists organized on social media, calling for protests on Saturday and Sunday, offering accommodation for protesters coming from other cities.
    23.00 local time
    A group of protesters threw plastic bottles and firecrackers at the gendarmes deployed in front of the Government building and police used tear gas to calm them down. Protesters shouted "Agitators! Agitators!"
    According to the police, the violent protesters were members of two football clubs galleries of supporters making their way home after a game.
    The security forces warned the protesters to leave the square immediately or they have a green light to use the riot equipment, because they were attacked.
    22.10 local time
    Local media reports that groups of people started leaving the protest in front of the Victoria Palace in Bucharest, but over 100,000 thousand are still in the square. 
    Police say that protests were held in 50 cities and towns across Romania and 300,000 people participated in demonstrations on Wednesday. 
    21.00 local time
    Embassies of Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Netherlands, and the United States called in a joint statement on the Government of Romania not to reverse its fight against corruption.

    "We, Romania's international partners and allies, express our profound concern at the actions of the Romanian Government on the night of January 31, 2017, which have undermined Romania's progress on rule of law and the fight against corruption over the past ten years. This act, in contravention to the collective wisdom of the entire judicial and rule of law community, credible elements of civil society, and the demonstrated concerns of Romanian citizens over the past two weeks, can only undermine Romania's standing in the international community and risks damaging partnerships that are based on common values, inherent in the guiding principles of the EU and NATO. We hope the Government of Romania will reverse this unhelpful course. While amendments to existing laws and procedures are occasionally necessary, these changes should be made only in the process of comprehensive and credible consultation with all stakeholders.

    To this end, the EU Member States which have endorsed this statement also draw attention to the recent CVM report of the Commission. This report sets out the conditions to avoid a reassessment of the progress made in the fight against corruption. It identified a limited number of key recommendations the fulfillment of which would lead to the provisional closing of individual benchmarks and to the conclusion of the CVM process. The EU Member States which have endorsed this statement hope that Romania will act in a way allowing the EU Council to work in this direction," the joint statement read.

    20.30 local time
    Police reports 80.000 people reached Bucharest Victoriei Square. The Bucharest subway was crowded as people were still pouring in to Victoriei Square by the thousands. 
    20.00 local time
    There are 60.000 people in Victoriei Square, according to Romanian media. It has been deemed the biggest protest in Romania in 25 years. 
    Protesters are asking the government to withdraw the controversial decree. "We shall not leave, we are not going home, until you do not give up your decree!" they chanted. 
    In Cluj Napoca, 20.000 protesters took to the streets, including former social democrat minister Aurelia Cristea and other Social Democrat Party members who resigned from the party on Wednesday because they do not agree with the way the government chose to pass the emergency decree.


    19.30 local time
    Over 20.000 people blocked the square in front of Victoria Palace, the government headquarters.  All traffic has been suspended in the area and the nearby boulevards.
    Thousands of people also protested in Romania's main cities: Cluj, Timisoara, Alba Iulia, Iasi, Craiova. 
    President of the European Popular Party Joseph Daul called on Government of Romania to reverse decriminalisation decrees.
    "I am alarmed at the latest moves of the Socialist Romanian government to weaken the judiciary by decriminalising the abuse of power, by emergency decree as well as by adoption of a draft law enabling the mass pardoning of prisoners. Adopting such a harmful decree in the middle of the night, even as people protest in the streets, contradicts any principles of democracy and transparency," he said in a statement.
    Top stories from the Balkans this Thursday:
    • While Balkan countries have curbed the flow of fighters to foreign wars, the online space is still a haven for Islamist extremists who remain out of reach there, recruiting and spreading messages of hate. Read more.
    • The Balkans may not be a priority for the new US administration but Washington wants to keep an eye on a region where Russian influence is growing, Damon Wilson, from the Atlantic Council, told BIRN. Read more.
    • The government is considering reintroducing a short period of compulsory military service for Croatians at summer training camps, but the costs remain unknown. Read more.
    #Montenegro's accession to #NATO is not anti-Russian, PM Marković stresses in interview with CorD……

    US ambassador to Tirana, Donald Lu, accused Albania’s general prosecutor, Adriatik Llalla, of being against the country’s judicial reform during a conference on Thursday.

    "For more than 18 months they have spoken against the reform. In November and in December they tried to seize the server of the inspectorate for a declaration of assets that is vital for the vetting and failed,” he said.

    Lu also stated that the general prosecutor only submitted three candidates for possible election to the Justice Appoint Council, which would limit the options for the parliament to then make a shortlist of candidates from, while “other institutions submitted long lists."
    Croatia’s government announced on Thursday that it will amend the country’s law on criminal procedure so that bail can only be granted during an investigation if there is no risk of the suspect influencing witnesses in a case or destroying evidence, repeating a crime, disturbing the public, or if a serious crime was committed.
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