1. The Western Balkans: No time for optimism
BSSB.BE intellinews.com 20.09.2018
Balkans Gemany Europe
* Looking beyond the angry rhetoric and deep-rooted divisions in the Western Balkans, indicate a willingness to compromise as all the states in the region pursue their common.
There’s cause for cautious optimism about Macedonia in particular, ahead of the September 30 referendum on the so-called “name deal” with Greece. Under the agreement that ends a decades-long dispute between the neighbouring countries, Macedonia is required to change its name to “Northern Macedonia”, a concession few people in the country are happy about, but one that will persuade Athens to stop blocking Macedonia’s progress towards EU and Nato accession.
- Polls show that the majority of Macedonians who are planning to vote in the upcoming referendum will vote yes, but with speculation about an opposition boycott the big question has been whether turnout will reach the 50% plus one voter mark needed for the referendum to be valid.
- However, after keeping everyone in suspense for weeks, Macedonia’s main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE announced on September 12 that it would leave its supporters to make their own minds up.
- “Each individual, with their own morals and conscience, will make the decision they consider is the best for their family and for our dear Macedonia,” said party leader Hristijan Mickoski.
This was encouraging given that VMRO, which has a deeply antagonistic relationship with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats, has a substantial following in the country. Mickoski’s announcement leaves just a band of small rightwing opposition parties, led by the pro-Russian United Macedonia party, pushing for a boycott of the vote.
The Macedonian referendum has also become a focus of attention among other states in the region that are also aspiring to EU integration. The presidents of both Albania and Kosovo have called for a yes vote in Macedonia, where around a quarter of the population are ethnic Albanians.
Any kind of progress is usually off the agenda around election time in Bosnia, as politicians ramp up their ethnically divisive rhetoric to mobilise voters, but this year was the exception, as on September 11 lawmakers adopted key amendments to the criminal code that had been requested by the EU.
The EU delegation in Bosnia commented after the vote that the adoption of the changes shows Bosnia has the political will to be a credible partner in fighting serious crime. Admittedly the vote took place under heavy pressure from Brussels, Washington and the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia, but it still represents unexpected progress in what is shaping up to be an incendiary pre-election campaign period.
- And there was also progress in Kosovo, whose citizens came closer to securing visa free travel to the EU after the European Parliament confirmed the opening of negotiations with the European Council on the issue.
- This is an important step for Kosovo. Of all the peoples in the region, only citizens of Kosovo still need a visa to travel to EU countries.
- The step follows a lengthy struggle within Kosovo to ratify a border demarcation deal with Montenegro, one of the more controversial pre-conditions for visa liberalisation, with the opposition resorting to letting off tear gas in the parliament to prevent MPs from voting.
Standoff in north Kosovo
Given the underlying tensions in the region, however, there have as always been small-scale conflicts. Tensions were hiked over the weekend of September 8-9 in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic cancelled a planned meeting in Brussels with his Kosovan counterpart Hashim Thaci. The reason given was that the Kosovan authorities had not allowed Vucic to visit the dam on Gazivoda Lake, an important strategic asset in north Kosovo.
A couple of days later, Kosovan activists including veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), blocked the road to an ethnic Serb village in the region to stop Vucic from visiting. In the end, the EU intervened to ask the protesters to unblock the road. Further controversy came when Vucic delivered a speech to Serbs in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, where he talked of the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic as a “great leader who certainly had the best intentions, but the results were very poor” — unsurprisingly that sparked angry reactions from Pristina, Sarajevo and Zagreb.
Yet the events of September 7-9 are seen as part of the long and tortuous political path to a negotiated settlement between Belgrade and Pristina, that could finally lead to the two states moving forward towards EU accession — Serbia by 2025, Kosovo at some unspecified time in the future.
Normalisation of relations with Kosovo is one of the steps that must be taken as part of EU candidate country Serbia’s accession process. Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is not able to make progress towards accession to the bloc as five EU member states do not recognise it as an independent step.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: intellinews.com