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.

    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……

    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 
    Financial monitoring body Moneyval has removed Bosnia and Herzegovina from its grey list, reports Sarajevo-based
    A Moneyval session in Strasbourg found that the adoption by the Bosnian Council of Ministers of Resolution 1373 of the UN Security Council proved sufficient progress to be removed from a list of countries with unsatisfactory legal frameworks.
    Moneyval is a Council of Europe committee of experts which assesses its members’ compliance with standards for the prevention of money-laundering.
    Top stories from the Balkans this Thursday:
    • An election rally statement by Nikola Gruevski, leader of Macedonia's ruling party, at which he appeared to suggest his main political rival ought to be assassinated, has been widely condemned. Read more.
    • Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic's statements over 2016 have caused controversy and drawn media attention, delighting some and infuriating others both at home and in the region. Read more.
    • Despite the dismally low interest rates on savings, most Serbs still keep their spare cash in the banks or invest in real estate, partly because they fear – or do not know about – the alternatives. Read more.
    Tomorrow, Bosnia and Herzegovina will receive the European Commission's questionnaire for EU candidacy from the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn.
    The questionnaire includes more than 3,000 questions about Bosnian laws currently in force, how they compare with the EU's laws, the country's institutions, and how Bosnia plans to meet EU standards on issues such as democracy and human rights.
    Top stories from the Balkans this Friday:
    • A team of technocrats had a year to try to turn around Romania’s abysmal record on recycling. Read the investigation.
    • While the exact nature of CIA chief John Brennan's talks with Albanian authorities remains a secret, experts say Russian expansionism and Islamist terror likely dominated the agenda. Read more.
    • After Croatia's new Prime Minister raised the possibility of banning all totalitarian symbols, possibly including the red star, a professor has called the proposal risky and wrongheaded. Read more.
    Closing arguments for the defence have begun in the case of former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic. 
    The defence will sum up its case today, Monday and Tuesday, while the prosecution presented its arguments earlier this week.
    Mladic stands accused of the genocide of Bosniaks from Srebrenica in 1995, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, which allegedly reached the scale of genocide in several other municipalities in 1992, terrorising the population of Sarajevo during the 44-month siege of the Bosnian capital, and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.
    The 74-year-old former Bosnian Serb military chief has said that he is innocent of the charges.
    On our way to????????#Sarajevo where Commissioner @JHahnEU will hand over the #EU #Questionnaire to @DrZvizdic.More info:……

    EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn has handed the much-awaited EU candidacy questionnaire, with more than 3,000 questions, to Bosnia and Herzegovina's Chairman of the Council of Ministers Denis Zvizdic.
    Photo: Anadolu
    Belgrade-born photographer Boogie has been receiving acclaim for the 10th anniversary edition of his book of gritty photo-reportage about gang culture, drug addiction and deprivation in pre-gentrification Brooklyn, ‘It’s All Good’.

    “The Serbian photographer was given incredible insider access to the Brooklyn gangs after befriending them,” Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper said in an article.

    “They took him into their homes and safe houses where they kissed their loved ones, counted their money and shot up drugs,” it said.
    “On Kosovo Field”, a five-part drama inspired by notes musician PJ Harvey wrote during and after a trip to Kosovo in the early 2000s will air on BBC’s Radio 4 this January.
    “Seventeen years ago Kosovo, a place that few of us had ever heard of, was all over the headlines, then the news juggernaut moved on and the place was forgotten,” Jeremy Howe, Radio 4’s Commissioning Editor for Drama, said in a BBC report on the programme. “On Kosovo Field shows how drama can get underneath the news headlines and explore with real emotional depth how the politics we hear about in the news, the war that is glimpsed in thirty second bulletins, affects real people.”
    The radio drama centres on the story of two-Kosovar born siblings, who were brought to the northern British city of Manchester in a special evacuation programme during the 1990s conflict, and who return to their homeland as adults where they are forced to confront a painful past, the BBC wrote.
    The five-part series will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from January 9-13 at 10:45am GMT.
    Recently arrested suspected supporters of #ISIS are from these countries: 1 from #Kosovo, 5 from #Serbia, 3 from #Macedonia, 1 from #Croatia
    #Kosovo’s European path, #SAA & PR-BG dialog focus of @aneichhorst visit to #Kosovo today; good meeting w/……

    Attempts are being made to drag Montenegro into NATO before US President Barack Obama leaves office, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a press conference on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Hamburg on Friday, TASS reported.

    "Frantic attempts are being made to drag Montenegro into NATO, no one asks if this country’s people want it although it would no harm to have consultations on such matter," Lavrov added.
    "It seems, the goal is to make Montenegro a NATO member before Barack Obama leaves office. However, these attempts do NATO no cred

    Russian FM Lavrov. Photo:

    A 4.9-magnitude earthquake hit the region around the Croatian coastal city of Split on Friday at around 2pm, with its epicenter 16 kilometres from the city.
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