Orient Express Weekly (13-19 May 2013)

Legal and illegal businesses connecting Balkan countries

Legal and political manoeuvring around the case of suspected Balkan drug kingpin Naser Kelmendi continued last week as the Bosnian court froze Kelmendi’s property in the country, including a well-known Sarajevo hotel. The decision is part of the preparations for the expected extradition of Kelmendi who was arrested earlier in May in Kosovo. The extradition process is, however, complicated by the fact that Bosnia does not recognise Kosovo’s independence, and thus does not have a bilateral extradition agreement with the Pristina authorities. Earlier last week Kelmendi’s son Elvis, who is also wanted in Bosnia, was sentenced in Kosovo to four years for attempted murder. Last year the US government designated Naser Kelmendi, an ethnic Albanian born in Kosovo who is known to hold a Bosnian and Kosovan passport and perhaps others, as the head of a major heroin and cocaine syndicate in the Balkans. Cooperation between Serbian and US police led to the arrests and information that enabled a Bosnian prosecutor to issue an international arrest warrant for Naser Kelmendi. Kelmendi also has business interests and political connections in other Balkan countries.

US authorities have also been involved in fighting cyber-crime in Romania, which has reached such proportions that a Le Monde reporter has dubbed the Carpathian town of Ramnicu Valcea “the world capital of online theft”. Some Romanian hackers seem to be mending their ways prompted by the actions of Romanian justice system, which is usually seen as quite unreliable. Last week’s compromise between various factions within the ruling coalition and President Basescu to appoint new chief prosecutors without following the public application process will do little to bolster Romania’s image. That, however, is not an obstacle for Chevron, the US based oil and gas supermajor, which has recently been granted permission to explore shale gas reserves near the city of Constanta. Some complications may emerge from the Bulgarian protesters citing environmental concerns for the strip of coast from Constanta to Vama Veche, and the adjacent region in northern Bulgaria. The Constanta-Vama Veche Riviera is a major tourist destination for Romanians and it is located in the historically disputed region of Dobruja. On a more cheerful note, last week saw a continuation of the trend of modest optimism surrounding the effects of the Greek economic adjustment efforts. The review issued last week by the European Commission endorses the Greek government’s earlier estimate that Greece will be able to return to international financial markets in 2014. In a further sign of a more positive perception of Greek economic prospects, Fitch rating agency upgraded country’s sovereign credit rating to B- and the markets quickly followed the hint.

Syrian civil war is not so distant affair

Turkish PM Erdogan flew last week to Washington to meet president Obama for talks that were almost certainly dominated by the discussions of Syrian crisis and preparations for the peace conference that the USA and Russia are trying to put together. In the meantime fighting in the country seems to be intensifying with the spillover effect hitting Turkey last week, when 51 people were killed and more than 100 injured in twin car bomb explosions in Hatay province, along the Turkish-Syrian borders. The Syrian civil war may seem like a distant affair for other Balkan countries, but the fallout from the conflict is still affecting them in more than one way. Last week news emerged that a Bosnian, a Montenegrin, and a Serbian citizen were killed in Syria while fighting for the rebels. All three belonged to the Wahhabi groups operating in the Balkans since the days of the Bosnian war. Allegedly a growing number of members of these relatively minor Balkan Wahhabi communities have been recruited as jihadists in Syria in recent months. Balkan countries are perhaps even more affected by the flow of people away from the Syrian war. Last week saw another instance of Serbian police intercepting illegal migrants from Syria and other Middle East countries. Although Europe receives only a small percentage of Syrian refugees, the increase since the start of conflict is giving a serious test to the relatively meagre asylum capacities in Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and other Balkan countries.

Politicisation of contested histories

Macedonian film “The Third Half” will receive state backing at the Cannes film market, not to be confused with the simultaneously held Cannes film festival. The film has caused controversy in Bulgaria because it tells the story of how Bulgarian occupation authorities helped the Nazis deport Macedonian Jews to Treblinka concentration camp in Poland. The dispute must be seen in the context of complex historical relations between Bulgarians and Macedonians, and specifically in the context of Bulgaria last year joining Greece in vetoing the start of Macedonian EU accession talks. The chances are that we will witness more similar disputes in the future given that last week Bulgarian snap elections produced a deadlock that could turn the extreme nationalist Ataka into a kingmaker.

Last week a Romanian MP proposed that the country should re-establish the pre-WWII tradition of celebrating its National day on 10 May. If adopted that would be the second change of the National day since the fall of communist regime in 1989. In Montenegro, a controversial bishop of Serbian Orthodox Church, Bishop Amfilohije, established 19 May as the day of Petar Petrović Njegoš. Despite the almost universal appreciation of the 19th century poet and prince of Montenegro, Amfilohije’s proposal to canonize him has met some strong disapproval from the leadership of the canonically unrecognized Montenegrin Orthodox church. With history stirring up all these symbolically charged political controversies, we should count ourselves lucky that the publication of a scientific study using DNA tests to overrule the long held theory of the non-European origin of the ancient Minoan civilisation has so far been spared of all but academic interests.

Beyond the headlines

On Saturday night, streets of many Balkan cities were filled with people roaming the museums during one of the nights of open museums organised across the region as the part of broader European initiative. Organisers in Serbia claimed that theirs was the third most attended night in Europe. No doubt many of the visitors took photos with their smartphones. Serbian PM Dačić was worried that about 80.000 of those smartphones were iPhones, although they are not legally sold in the country. It remains a mystery how Mr Dačić managed to count them, but it was one of the arguments he used to cajole Silicon Valley giants to come to Serbia during his visit to the US last week. Once they come, the Serbian government may have to think about how to tax their online advertising revenues, something the Turkish government decided to do more about last week.

A reference to illegal iPhones was not the only noteworthy statement the savvy and plain-speaking Mr Dačić gave last week. He also caused consternation by explaining that European basketball legend Predrag Danilović was stabbed in stomach in “a traditional Serbian fight among friends”. Awkward references to Serbian traditions aside, the PM seem to have summarised correctly the late night bar incident after which Mr Danilović seems to be recovering well. In the meantime, Greek president Karolos Papulias had a more joyful reason to be associated with basketball when he had a photo-op with the Olympiakos basketball players who caused a major upset at the Euroleague final-four in London by defending their title against the favoured Spanish and Russian teams.

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