Orient Express Weekly (11-17 March 2013)

The Balkans brewing with protests

Protests over further slumps in standard of living and systemic corruption marked the last week in the Balkans and in the ongoing academic debates about the region. In recent weeks protests have already hastened the demise of cabinets in Bulgaria and Slovenia. Strikes and public demonstrations have become a regular occurrence in Greece, even more so than in the years before the economic crisis. Widespread corruption, which allegedly implicates both local politicians and former international administrators of Kosovo, provoked a similar protest in Pristina on Wednesday. Recent hikes in electricity bills prompted thousands to join in the gathering organised by a coalition of 21 NGOs that are demanding resignation of public officials suspected of graft in the Kosovo Energy Corporation. An interim technocratic cabinet was appointed in Bulgaria on Tuesday, but the protests continued unabated. Several thousand protesters in both Sofia and Varna blocked the railway stations objecting to the plans to privatize the freight unit of Bulgarian State Railways. It was a sign of coordinated activity in month-long protests sparked by the mixture of local and nation-wide concerns.Protesters in seaside city of Varna, where the protest campaign initially started, have entered the second month of struggle against the local authorities that are widely believed to be little more than puppets of the powerful criminal gang called TIM. In contrast, Macedonia has enjoyed a week of relative calm after the Islamic Religious Community (IRC) decided to postpone the protests to demand the rebuilding of the 15th century Burmali Mosque in downtown Skopje. IRC stated that it supported government’s view that the protest would be counterproductive in the wake of ethnic riots that shook the capital earlier this year, and in the midst of the heated local elections campaigns.

The EU’s close involvement in the region continues

The streets of Belgrade were also filled with marching people, but on a more solemn occasion – Tuesday marked ten years since the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, an opposition leader during Milosevic’s years, and the country’s first post-Milosevic PM. His zeal to reform Serbia and move it towards membership in the EU was also honoured in the European Parliament. Meanwhile, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton continued to shuttle between Brussels, Belgrade and Pristina mediating in the talks about the status of Kosovo.Contradictory statements after the meetings obscured the details, but the dialogue seems to have gathered some positive momentum before the next official round scheduled for this week in Brussels. An unnamed EU diplomat later leaked that the main problem remains the question of whether Pristina or Kosovo Serbs themselves should cooperate with the EU Rule of Law mission in Kosovo when appointing judges in the Serb dominated municipalities of northern Kosovo. While the outstanding Kosovo dispute is holding back the European integration bids of Belgrade and Pristina, the Slovenian parliament has finally moved forward the bill to ratify Croatia’s EU accession. The two countries had previously reached an agreement over the remaining dispute about deposits and the property Ljubljanska Bank, which dated back to the time of the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.

Crises of governability

Heightened nationalist rhetoric in Albania characterises the build-up to the June general elections. Deep political crisis provoked by the violence-ridden general elections in 2009 continued this week when the government and oppositioncould not reach an agreement to adopt three constitutional laws deemed crucial for the country’s EU candidacy to be officially accepted later this year. Instead, the government decided to call for a national referendum over the laws. The political crisis is also paralyzing the work of Bosnian political institutions, but for once not at the federal level. Collapse of the federal coalition between two mainly Bosniak parties, SDP and SDA, still reverberates, and is paralysing the work of the parliament of the Bosniak-Croat entity. On the other hand, governance of the Serb entity is proceeding more smoothly. Last week the entity’s parliament confirmed new cabinet members nominated by the recently elected PM Zeljka Cvijanovic. Ms. Cvijanovic is seen as a close associate of Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik, and the government shake up is believed to be a response to the underwhelming results of Mr Dodik’s party in the last year’s local elections. The fact that Montenegro’s former PM Igor Luksic had to concede his position to the ruling party leader Milo Djukanovic last year may have been a negative reflection on Mr Luksic leadership qualities. The current vice-PM could find some solace in being named among 200 young global leaders by the World Economic Forum in the same week when the Montenegrin new cabinet finished its first 100 days in power. He shares this distinction with Serbia’s Vuk Jeremic and Srdja Popovic, Bosnian Almira Zejnilagic, and Romanians Dana Costache and Codrut Pascu.

Beyond the headlines

The election of the new Pope Francis has been closely watched and warmly greeted in Slovenia, Croatia and in the minority Catholic communities in the other Balkan countries. Centuries ago, during the reign of Pope Eugene IV, a cat in the medieval Republic of Dubrovnik must have greatly annoyed a writer by leaving its paw prints all over the pages of an official document dated 11 March 1445. The document was serendipitously uncovered this week by a Bosnian academic during his research in Dubrovnik’s rich archives.  The Serbian police made what was, one hopes, a less serendipitous discovery last week when it tracked down Rembrandt’s painting seven years after it had been stolen from a museum in Novi Sad. Portrait of Rembrandt’s father has had an eventful history since it had already been stolen and recovered in the mid-1990s. Three more valuable paintings stolen in the same 2006 Novi Sad robbery are still missing. Turkey presses forward not only in its economics performance, which is going from strength to strength, but also in the promotion of its rich literary scene. On Monday, the British Council in Turkey announced the names of 20 authors who will represent the country in London in April, where Turkey is set to be in the spotlight of the annual book fair.

Turkey’s growing international importance seems to have also reflected well on its decades-old bid to join the EU, as both the French president and the German chancellor announced readiness to unblock negotiations over certain chapters last week. While in the political sphere Turkey may still not feel completely at home in Europe, in football it is arriving in style. Millions of Turks tuned in last week to see Galatasaray and Fenerbahce beat their German and Czech opponents to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League and the Europa League, respectively. Many supporters of Steaua Bucharest were not that lucky though their team has put up a formidable challenge to the reigning European champions Chelsea. Greek football player Giorgos Katidis may also count himself unlucky after receiving a lifetime ban from all national teams by Greece Football Association. Most others will consider 20 years old Katidis unwise, for he received the ban after giving the Nazi salute to the supporters of his home club AEK Athens.