The Balkans Today: 5th - 9th December 2016
 
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The Balkans Today

Up to the minute news and updates from the Balkan region

The Balkans Today: 5th - 9th December 2016

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:
     
    • Serbia's ruling party may call another snap parliamentary election to boost the chances of its candidate in the presidential election in spring 2017, a number of experts say. Read more.
       
    • Closing statements are beginning in the case against former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic, as his four-and-a-half year trial for genocide and war crimes moves closer to its conclusion. Read more.
       
    • Despite astounding revelations of corruption and malpractice, Macedonia’s two ruling parties are likely to win the early elections in December for a combination of reasons. Read more.
       
    • Bullied or bought off, trade unions in Serbia and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia have hit rock bottom, failing the workers they claim to protect. Read more.
  • The head of the Serbian government's Office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, canceled his visit to Kosovo that was planned for today, his office stated.

    “For objective reasons, the visit to Kosovo by the director Marko Djuric is canceled. All planned activities are also postponed,” Serbia’s Office for Kosovo said in a written statement, but did not give further reasons why.
  • Closing arguments have begun in the trial of Ratko Mladic.
     
    Prosecutor Alan Tieger began by summing up the charges against Mladic: genocide in Srebrenica and war crimes in other municipalities, the terrorising of the civilians of Sarajevo, and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.
     
    Tieger then began to address what he called the defence's "more extraordinary claims" - that Mladic was a beneficent protector of Muslims, and a marginalised secondary figure while other commanding officers were responsible.
     
    Tieger said these arguments by the defence were Mladic trying "to pass off responsibility for what he once bragged about".
  • Two children, aged seven and ten, have become the latest victims of domestic violence in Albania when their father hanged them on Monday morning before also hanging himself in the south eastern town of Korca.
     
    The incident is being linked to a bitter divorce between the man and his former wife and comes after another case of domestic violence on December 3, when a man from the southwest town of Fieri threw his wife to her death out of their fourth-floor apartment window following a family dispute.
     
    by fatjona.mejdini via null edited by emma.krstic 12/5/2016 10:23:17 AM
  • #Serbia has made remarkable #progress on its path towards #EU. Confident that we will be able to open next… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…

  • Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic met on Monday with representatives of parliamentary parties and cultural institutions of Serbs from Montenegro, led by Andrija Mandic, President of the New Serbian Democracy, the Prime Minister’s press office stated following the meeting.
     
    The delegation expressed concern to the Prime Minister over the situation facing the Serbian community in Montenegro, which they claim is “intolerable”, and forward proposals of ways in which the Serbian government could help Serbs in Montenegro.
     
    According to his press office, Vucic told the delegation that “Serbs will always be with the Serbian nation, to preserve its national identity beyond the borders of Serbia, and that, in accordance with its modest capabilities, will help the Serbian cultural institutions in Montenegro.”
    by milivoje.pantovic via null edited by emma.krstic 12/5/2016 11:04:24 AM
  • In the first day of closing statements in the trial of Ratko Mladic, prosecutor Alan Tieger has spent the morning establishing the arguments that there was a joint criminal enterprise by Bosnian Serb commanders to rid regions of Bosnia of Muslims and Croats.
     
    Using supporting statements by UN officials, as well as quotes from then-Republika Srpska President Radovan Karadzic, Mladic himself, and other Bosnian Serb army officials, Tieger laid out the case that there was a strategy to alter the "factual state" on the ground by forcibly removing non-Serbs from the territory, in order to influence negotiations and have maps drawn in their favour.
  • Dejan Milenkovic, alias Bagzi, an ex-member of the Serbian ‘Zemun Clan’ crime gang, told the trial of four former state security officials accused of assassinating opposition journalist Slavko Curuvija in 1999 that the criminal group planned to kill two of the suspects after the journalist’s murder.
     
    Milenkovic told the Belgrade court on Monday that the gang followed the two state security officials, Ratko Romic and Miroslav Kurak, for several days until being told to stop.
     
    “When we were supposed to kill them, we did not know the reason; later there were stories that the reason was because of Curuvija. At the time, we were not interested in the reason since, as members of the Zemun Clan, we carried out a lot of murders,” Milenkovic said, according to Belgrade-based TV N1.
     
    The prosecution alleges Curuvija was killed in April 1999 because of his opposition to Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.
     
    Slavko Curuvija. Photo: Slavko Curuvija Foundation
     
    by milivoje.pantovic via null edited by emma.krstic 12/5/2016 12:45:33 PM
  • Choose FilePavo Barisic. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Sliverhand333
    The Croatian Rectors' Conference proposed to the Croatian government that it dissolve the current state agency for science and high education’s ethics committee, claiming that it has lost a quorum following a series of recent resignations from within its ranks.

    The Conference claims that the 9-member ethics committee previously lost two members, while its president, Vlatko Silobrcic, resigned on Thursday after being unable to resolve the case of alleged plagiarism of a scientific article by the Croatian Science and Education Minister, Pavo Barisic.

    The Conference proposed that the government asks the parliament to dissolve the existing committee and name new members.

    However, Silobrcic told the media on Monday that he only resigned as the committee's president, not as a member of the committee, and that it still has the quorum needed to function.
     
    Pavo Barisic. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Sliverhand333
     
  • Serbia’s Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, said on Monday that he is not yet focusing on the 2017 presidential elections, amid claims from experts that his ruling Serbian Progressive Party could call new snap parliamentary elections to coincide with the presidential polls in a bid to mobilize voters.

    "As for the elections, I'm not dealing with that, there is a lot of time [until the elections]. I have better things to do. We work hard and diligently, and we have the results we can be proud of," Vucic said.


  • UK Ambassador to NATO, Paul Johnston, said on Monday that the Western Balkans is an area where NATO and the EU have worked well in the past and the challenges in the region require us to intensify that co-operation in the years ahead.

    "In the Western Balkans we have seen attempts to destabilise Montenegro, soon to become NATO’s 29th ally, Johnston said.

  • At the start of Anti-Corruption Week, running from December 3-9, ambassadors to Kosovo from the US, Germany, Italy, France and Britain have demanded more accountability from Kosovo’s high state officials.

    According to US Ambassador Greg Delawie, people in Kosovo still have a lack of confidence in the fairness of the country’s judiciary, while German ambassador Angelika Viets said that public procurement is considered one of the fields that is very sensitive to corruption.

    For British ambassador Ruairi O’Connell, the presence of these five ambassadors shows that their countries “are worried about the level of corruption in Kosovo.”

    Quint Ambassadors in Kosovo | Photo: US Embassy in Pristina 


  • Russia’s Prime Minister Dimity Medvedev is planning a visit to Serbia, Russian ambassador to Serbia, Alexandar Chepurin, said on Monday, but could not specify an exact date.

    "To us, Serbia is not just one of 200 countries of the world, and we are not indifferent to the fate of Serbia,” Chepurin said, according to Belgrade-based television station B92. “I can say that the stability of the region has a special importance to us, and we support Serbia on several issues, such as the issue of Kosovo and the Serb Republic.

    He also stated that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s upcoming visit to Serbia is part of the regular dialogue between Belgrade and Moscow.
  • Marija Mackovic, a member of the ruling centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ and the mayor of the municipality of Jasenovac in central Croatia, said on Monday that she saw "nothing wrong" in taking part in the unveiling of a controversial memorial plaque which includes the Croatian fascist slogan ‘Za dom spremni’ ‘(‘Ready for the Home(land)’.

    Mackovic said there was no wrongdoing because the association of war veterans of the Croatian 1990s paramilitary unit Croatian Defence Forces, HOS, which put up the plaque, is an officially-registered NGO which has an official coat of arms with the slogan on it.

    The plaque has sparked anger because it was installed in the same municipality as the Jasenovac WWII concentration camp, run by the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement - which used the chant – and where 83,145 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists die.
     
    Memorial plaque with 'Za dom spremni'. Photo: Udhos Zagreb
     
  • The Kosovo appeals court has reduced the sentence of Serbian national Slobodan Gavric, who was jailed on June 29 for terrorist offences against the constitutional order, from 13 years in prison down to 11. 

    Gavric was arrested in December 2014 near the US embassy in Pristina in a vehicle packed with explosive material.

    He was indicted by the Kosovo Special Prosecution in July 2015 on charges of preparation of terrorist or criminal offenses against the constitutional order and security of the Republic of Kosovo.

    The trial of Slobodan Gavric | Photo: BIRN    


  • Bulgaria is investigating claims that several foreign citizens were plotting a terrorist attack in Bulgaria following the riots on November 24 in the country’s largest refugee camp, located in the south Bulgarian town of Harmanli, interior minister Rumyana Bachvarova said at a press conference on Monday. 

    The minister later explained that the investigation is based on information the police had received concerning manipulative statements about potential threats against Bulgaria, spread on social networks

    He added that the authorities have already identified several people linked to the case.

    Riots erruted in Harmanli refugee center on November 24. Photo: Rasheed Allawi 


  • Serbia has signed a deal with the EU for 80 million euros in financial support for public administration reform, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic announced at a press conference on Monday after the agreement had been signed, during the European Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s visit to Belgrade.

    "We have signed an agreement by which we will get 80 million euros as a gift from the EU to support public administration reform,” Vucic stated. “We have good results, but they have to be sustainable and to be sustainable, we need to change ourselves and to do so, financial resources are necessary."
  • Visit to #Botanical Garden, renovated w. #IPA funds, accompanied by Rector of #Belgrade University and meeting biol… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…

  • Albania’s parliamentary elections will be held on June 18, 2017, President Bujar Nishani announced on Monday.

    Nishani himself will be required to step down from his presidential positions next summer, as his five-year mandate as the head of the state will expire then. 

    Although, he might re - run for the office again. 

  • The Serbian Assembly held a session on the 2017 state budget on Monday with tense discussions taking place between MPs from the ruling coalition and opposition parties over its timing. 

    Serbia’s Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, presented the draft budget to the Assembly members, but opposition MPs broke into protest over the short deadline between today’s session and when they had been given the draft to look at on Saturday.
  • Montenegro's transport ministry said it awarded a contract worth 34.7 million euro for the reconstruction of a 14.4 km regional road section to Bosnian engineering firm Euro-Asfalt, SeeNews reported.

    The transport ministry and Euro-Afalt signed on Friday a deal for the works which include the reconstruction of the Lubnice - Jezerine road section and the construction of a 2.8 km long tunnel, the ministry said in a statement following the signing ceremony.

  • Top stories from the Balkans this Tuesday:
     
    • The ageing architects behind Skopje’s cutting-edge resurrection from a 1963 earthquake cry copyright foul as their acclaimed modernist creations are engulfed in antiquity. Read more.
       
    • The task of the Special Prosecution, SJO, to investigate high-level crime and corruption, must not remain unfinished, observers say, as Macedonia's ruling party pledges to wind it up if it wins the December elections. Read more.
       
    • Montenegro's NATO accession is going to ratification in the US Senate, although some Americans claim that accepting the tiny Balkan country will make no difference to the military alliance and could further damage ties to Russia. Read more.
  • While visiting Zagreb on Monday, US deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, Hoyt Brian Yee, said that he sees no growth of fascism in Croatia, contrary to an assertion by Serbian labour minister Aleksandar Vulin the previous day.

    Yee said however that he did see the rising popularity of radical parties from both right and left that "profit from people's dissatisfaction". 
  • Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said on Monday that he rejects all the claims of growing fascism in Croatia, in contrast to what Serbian Labour Minister Aleksandar Vulin alleged on Sunday.

    Plenkovic said that it is a "delicate" situation that such a monument is erected in Jasenovac, but added that it the plaque does show the officially registered coat of arms of the association of war veterans of Croatian 1990s paramilitary unit Croatian Defence Forces, HOS, which were later integrated to the Croatian military.

    Plenkovic concluded that this shows that the state has no adequate legal framework when it comes to totalitarian regimes and that it will work on new laws regulating the issue.
     
    Andrej Plenkovic. Photo: BETAPHOTO/HINA/Lana SLIVAR DOMINIC/MO
     
  • Macedonian police and the US embassy in Skopje confirmed that police removed a pick-up truck that was parked outside the embassy on Monday evening after it caused a security alert, but found nothing suspicious inside it.
     
    The police say they are still trying to determine who owns the vehicle, while the US embassy has dismissed speculations that the incident was in any way linked to problems they experienced on Monday with their telephone lines.
  • A hearing in the case of Goran Salihovic, Bosnia's suspended chief prosecutor, which was set for today, has been postponed after Salihovic requested the exemption of Mahmut Svraka, the president of the first instance disciplinary commission of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC).  
     
    Salihovic is alleged to have failed to exempt himself in cases where a conflict of interest existed, made inappropriate contact with a judge and parties in those cases, enabled others to perform the duties of a prosecutor although they were not authorized, and interfered with actions performed by judges or prosecutors, among other infringements.
     
    Salihovic denies the accusations.
  • Unknown offenders smashed six windows in Novi Sad in which an exhibition was displayed marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of Vukovar to Yugoslav troops and Serbian paramilitaries in 1991, Belgrade-based television network N1 reported on Tuesday.
     
    In the days prior to this incident, vandals also graffitied the surrounding walls with offensive statements towards Vukovar and the question: "What about killing Serbs?"
     
    The exhibition’s creator, Srdjan Veljovic, said that the aim of his original display had been to remind people of the destruction of Vukovar, which was raised to the ground by the Yugoslav army during wars in the nineties.
  • Officials in Pristina have been informed that Serbia has sent a letter to the International Telecommunication Union, ITU, agreeing to allocate Kosovo the international telephone code +383, Kosovo’s Minister for Dialogue, Edita Tahiri, told local newspaper Koha Ditore on Monday.

    “On December 3, we received confirmation from the European Union that Serbia has sent the letter to ITU, in compliance with the Brussels agreement on telecommunication,” Tahiri said.

    Kosovo and Serbia reached an agreement on telecoms on November 13, under which the ITU will allocate Kosovo its own international dialing code by December 15.

    A Telekom Srbija transmitter. Photo: Wikimedia Commons    


  • The appeals court in Belgrade has overturned the high court’s first instance verdict against seven persons accused of setting fire to the US embassy building in the Serbian capital in 2008.

    The US embassy told media that they respect the rule of law in Serbia, but this particular case has been pending since 2008 and burdens bilateral relations.
    by natalia.zaba edited by dusica.tomovic 12/6/2016 2:16:33 PM
  • The building of mosques and the wearing of burqas and veils will be forbidden in the northern Serbian town of Assothalom, on the border with Hungary, following a vote in the municipality on Tuesday, its mayor, Laszlo Toroczkai, told media agencies.

    The vote was taken as a reaction to the agreement reached between 28 European countries on a quota-system for re-settling migrants coming to Europe.


    Toroczkai was one of the biggest supporters of erecting a wall on the Serbian-Hungarian border last year.
    by natalia.zaba edited by dusica.tomovic 12/6/2016 2:18:20 PM
  • BIRN’s “Justice in Kosovo” TV programme has been awarded for the Best Television Story on Transparency and Anti-corruption in a competition organised by the Association of Journalists of Kosovo, in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, and the Kosovo Anti-Corruption Agency. 

    Justice in Kosovo received the award for its story called “The Wrong Lunch”, which showed how prosecutor Visar Musa goes out for lunch with those indicted under cases he is working on.

    After the story, by BIRN Kosovo journalist Naim Krasniqi, was broadcast, the prosecutor asked that the Kosovo Prosecutorial Council approve his resignation.

    The anti-corruption journalism award for BIRN Kosovo journalist, Naim Krasniqi | Photo: BIRN

  • Around 40 per cent of Bulgarian students aged 15 are functionally illiterate in the fields of reading, math and natural sciences, a survey by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, shows.

    The survey, revealed on Tuesday, was carried out between April 14 and May 15, 2015 among 6,363 students around the world who undertook computer-based tests in math, natural sciences and reading.

    For 2015, the PISA survey put prominence on the area of natural sciences, where Bulgaria ranked 45th among the 75 countries which took part in the examination.
  • The fifth largest party in the Bulgarian parliament, the right-wing Reformist Bloc, which is also a coalition partner in the outgoing government of Boyko Borissov’s GERB, has launched a round of consultations for forming a new cabinet, it announced on Monday.

    Since Borissov resigned on November 14, the Bulgarian president, Rosen Plevneliev, has started the constitutional procedure for giving a mandate to Bulgaria’s largest parties to form a new government with the current parliament.

    GERB has already refused, and the second largest party, BSP, has also vowed to do so, causing a preliminary election.

    On Friday, Plevneliev said that most probably he will hand the third mandate to the Reformist Bloc, which has promised to try to form a cabinet with Euro-Atlantic orientation.


    Bulgarian Parliament in Sofia. Photo: Todor Bozhinov 



  • US Senate Foreign Relation Committee approved on Thursday a resolution backing Montenegro's bid for NATO membership. The Committee voted unanimously.

    Ahead of the vote before the Foreign Relation Committee, several influential US magazines and analysists also raised doubts about Montenegro’s NATO membership, saying it could cause additional problems in Washington-Moscow relations.



  • Top stories from the Balkans this Wednesday:
     
    • Years after the Balkan conflicts, voters in former Yugoslav countries are still electing people who have been convicted of or charged with war crimes, showing how nationalism still distorts the political environment. Read the full investigation.
       
    • The death of Astrit Dehari, the opposition activist who died in prison in November, has highlighted longstanding problems in Kosovo’s prison service, including poor healthcare, unequal treatment of prisoners and low levels of security. Read more.
       
    • After Bosnia's security minister cited data that no Bosnian citizen had left the country for Syria or Iraq in the past six months, experts said it confirmed that ISIS was now ineffectual at recruiting from the country. Read more.
  • #Germany was the 16th country to ratify the Protocol on #Montenegro's Accession to #NATO on 2 December. 12 more to… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…

  • Macedonia's ruling VMRO DPMNE party leader, Nikola Gruevski, claimed on Tuesday that if the leader of the clandestine Ottoman-era VMRO organisation, Goce Delcev, were alive today, he would have sent one of its revolutionaries known as the organization's main assassin, Andon Lazov Janev, alias Kjoseto, to “end the story with” opposition leader Zoran Zaev.
     
    "If [historic VMRO leader Goce] Delcev were alive today, he [Zaev] would not be able to even say hello to him. He would have been assigned only to Kjoseto to end the story with this kind of man," Gruevski threatened at a party rally in the eastern town of Delcevo for the December 11 early elections.
     
    Andon Lazov Janev - Kjoseto
     

  • In a matter of days, the National Electric Company of Bulgaria, NEC, will pay off its debt of around 1.2 billion leva (around 600,000 euros) to the Russian nuclear producer Atomstroyexport using state funds, Bulgarian energy minister Temenuzhka Petkova announced on Wednesday.

    His statement comes after the Bulgarian National Radio, BNR, reported that the European Commission, EC, had found no evidence that Bulgaria would be acting illegally in paying back the debt using state money, referring to information that BNR allegedly received from an EC spokesperson.

    In September, Bulgarian MPs had backed a bill allowing the debt to be covered by the state budget, which Brussels was required to approve, after an arbitration court in Geneva ordered the NEC to pay the Russian firm for the production of two nuclear reactors that were made for the cancelled Belene power plant.

    In return for repaying the debt, Bulgaria will still receive the two nuclear reactors from Russia and keep them at the unfinished nuclear power plant, Petkova told BNR, adding that three companies have expressed initial interest to invest in the Belene project, which was cancelled by the first government of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov in 2013.

    The unifinished Belene power plant. Photo: Atomstroyexport 


  • The chocolate gifts handed out by Croatia’s President, Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, to children in the coastal city of Dubrovnik on Tuesday has caused a stir among citizens as the confectionary was manufactured in Serbia.
     
    Grabar Kitarovic was visiting Dubrovnik on the 25th anniversary of the attack on the town by the Yugoslav People's Army, JNA, and Serbian paramilitaries that occurred on December 6, 1991.
     
    The fact that the chocolates were handed out on this occasion was described by one parent as “sad”.
  • Jelena Milic, director of Belgrade-based think tank Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies, CEAS, has been named as one of the 28 people most likely to shape the world in 2017 in Politico’s annual list.

    An advocate for Serbia to join the EU and NATO, and a critic of Russian influence in the Balkan country, “Milic’s pro-West attitude and willingness to confront Serbia’s nationalists have made her a target,” Politico wrote.

    It added that "Those positions would be unremarkable in most of Eastern Europe, but in Serbia, a country still trying to shake the ghosts of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, they’re polarizing.”

    Some of the other faces on the list include London Mayor Sadiq Khan, billionaire George Soros, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

    Jelena Milic, director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies, CEAS. Photo: Media Centre Belgrade


  • The EU is discussing opening three new chapters in Serbia’s EU accession negotiations, the head of the EU Delegation to Serbia, Michael Davenport, said on Wednesday.

    He said that EU member states had reached agreement on opening of Chapter 5, dealing with public procurement, but were still discussing whether 25 and 26, which address education, culture and research, should be opened as well.
  • Prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on Wednesday demanded a life sentence for former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic as they concluded their closing arguments in his four-year trial.

    Mladic, 74, is on trial for genocide in Srebrenica, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, which allegedly reached the scale of genocide in several other municipalities, terrorising the population of Sarajevo and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.
     
    He denies the charges.
     
    Mladic in court on Monday. Photo: ICTY
     
  • Serbia, a country where anti-gay sentiment is still widespread, has become a surprising hub for sex change surgery, AFP reported on Wednesday.
     
    According to the report, Miroslav Djordjevic, who heads the Centre for Genital Reconstructive Surgery in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, performs around 100 gender reassignment operations annually, with patients coming from as far as the US, Australia and Brazil, as well as a number from across the region.
     
    Serbia’s LGBT community continues to face much opposition in the country, which the history of Belgrade's Gay Pride parade shows. While this year’s event concluded without incident, extensive security measures, including 5,000 police officers deployed onto the streets, were still put in place to ensure participants’ safety in light of previous attacks on the occasion.
  • The leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Korneliya Ninova, immediately returned the mandate for forming a new government given to her by Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev on Wednesday morning.

    Last week, Bulgaria’s outgoing prime minister and leader of GERB, Boyko Borissov, also refused to form a government within the current parliament. 

    Plevneliev is expected to offer the third and last opportunity for setting up a cabinet to the right-wing Reformist Bloc, a coalition partner in the outgoing government and the fifth largest party in parliament, but the most likely outcome of the political crisis is calling preliminary elections next spring.

    Korneliya Ninova. Photo: Bulgarian Socialist Party 


  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director John Brennan visited Albania to meet with a variety of leaders and discuss a range of issues including regional security, counterterrorism cooperation, intelligence sharing, and other bilateral affairs. 

    During his visit, Director Brennan met with Prime Minister Rama, President Nishani, Minister of Defense Kodheli, and leaders from the intelligence community.
    CIA Director John Brennan. Photo: Wikimedia 
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