Orient Express Weekly (15-21 April 2013)

Baroness Ashton of the Balkans

On Thursday Serbian PM Ivica Dačić and his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci put their initials on the final text of the agreement on the special status of the Serb municipalities in Kosovo. Last week’s two additional rounds of talks mediated by the EU’s Catherine Ashton resulted in a compromise solution that still has to be finally accepted or possibly rejected by the governments of Serbia and its breakaway province of Kosovo. Acceptance is probable, though the implementation stage will certainly meet many obstacles. Implementation has also been difficult with the previous agreements between Belgrade and Pristina – for instance the exact status and operation of the liaison officers that have been exchanged recently is still a matter of contention. In implementing the provisions of the new agreement the most important dilemma will be whether Belgrade has the clout to push the Kosovo Serbs to go along with the agreement. The representatives of the four geographically compact Serb municipalities in the Northern Kosovo have already voiced their disapproval of the agreement. The agreement would see those municipalities retain police forces and a judiciary consisting of ethnic Serbs, but would also force those institutions to start implementing laws adopted in Pristina. At present Northern Kosovo implements laws made in Belgrade, but its institutions are seen as illegal by Pristina and parts of the international community. Scattered Serb municipalities south of the Ibar River are already implementing Pristina’s laws, which is why their reactions to the agreement have been mixed. The Serb community in Kosovo as a whole could wield more political power if the Serbs from Northern Kosovo return to the Pristina parliament after the next elections, but it would also be a further signal that Serbia as a state is loosing its footing in the Kosovo affairs.

The agreement reached on Thursday was seen as crucial for the Serbian hopes of being this year awarded the date for the start of the membership talks with the EU. On her brief Balkan tour last week Baroness Ashton once again enumerated political conditions that remain crucial for the EU aspirations of the other countries of the region. For Albania, peaceful and legitimate conduct of the parliamentary elections in late June is seen as a litmus test for the granting of official candidate status. Despite this, the country is experiencing a deepening political crisis; last week saw the ruling Democratic Party use the votes of three disgruntled opposition MPs to retain effective control over the Central Electoral Commission. During her visit Ms Ashton met representatives of the Albanian opposition, but she snubbed the meeting with the Montenegrin opposition that, on Saturday, held its first rally against the contested outcome of the presidential elections held on April 7th. For Macedonia, the Greek veto motivated by the naming dispute remains an immovable obstacle, while the long-dormant Turkish accession talks may receive a boost from last week’s positive signs in the European Parliament.

Economic shadows

In the shadow of the talks with Belgrade, the Kosovo government last week gave the green light to a German-US consortium to privatize 75% of Post-Telecom Kosovo (PTK). This was the second bid for the Kosovo’s largest telecommunication provider, the first one having failed due to the corruption scandal that encompassed the company’s top management. The second deal has already come under suspicion due to the Self-Declaration movement’s claims that their activists in Germany located the address of “Axis”, one of the companies in the victorious consortium, and found only a modest house unlikely to be the seat of the company described in the official tender documents. On top of that, there is an on-going dispute between PTK and state-owned Serbian Telekom and Serbian Post. Two Serbian companies used to own and operate all the objects that were converted into PTK property after the Kosovo war in 1999. Under the terms of the agreement reached last week in Brussels, Belgrade and Pristina have accepted the obligation to resolve this and other outstanding problems in the sphere of telecommunication by the mid-June. Nevertheless, German, British and the US embassies supported the privatization deal, which would the biggest one in Kosovo. Telekom Slovenia invested in 2006 in Kosovo’s second biggest mobile operator IPKO, but that deal has also recently been part of a corruption probe in Slovenia due to alleged use of bribery to gain the mobile operator licence.

Corruption and the shadow economy are in no way unique to Kosovo and the region. However, when it comes to their extent, a recent study by two Austrian economists estimated that among the EU countries the Bulgarian shadow economy takes the largest percentage of national GDP. Although these estimates are notoriously difficult to make, the authors also claim that Bulgaria’s 32.3% are closely followed by the percentages in Lithuania and in Romania. Tax evasion also remains a critical challenge in Greece, but the country’s reforms in other areas are making enough progress for the Troika to give the green light for the release of another package of financial aid. This was decided on Monday after two weeks of tough talks between the Troika and the Greek government, which have agreed on the schedule of further reforms, including the pace at which lay-offs in civil service will be undertaken.

Human rights controversies

If the EU revives Turkish membership talks they would no doubt have to include a careful examination of cases such as that of the Turkish pianist Fazil Say. The The internationally acclaimed pianist was last week sentenced to a 10-month suspended prison sentence for insulting religious values by tweeting a few controversial verses penned by Omar Khayyam, a 12th century Persian polymath and poet. In a much graver incident 30 migrant workers, mainly from Bangladesh, were injured in Nea Manolada farm in Greece when at least one farm supervisor opened fire on a group of workers protesting over unpaid wages. The incident coincided with the release of the Council of Europe report branding the Golden Dawn Party as neo-Nazi, violent, and fit to be banned. The party has helped stir up the wave of anti-austerity and anti-immigrant feelings and incidents, which it has successful ridden to the third place in recent polls of Greek voters. Greece is one of the main entry-points for Asian and African migrants seeking way into the EU. This has prompted the country to erect a 10.5km barbwire fence along the ground border with Turkey. However, this has resulted in immigrants increasingly taking the sea routes and ending up on the numerous Greek islands in Aegean, where there are exposed to problematic conditions in swarming and underserviced migrant camps. Last week in particular, the Greek government came under the scrutiny of human rights groups for its treatment of Syrian refugees. The government’s representative promised to halt the deportation decisions on the Syrian refugees until peace and security are restored in Syria. Since the economic crisis Greece has also been rediscovering its emigrant tradition. No rediscovering was needed in the north-eastern corner of the region, where Moldova has seen 25-years of crisis and emigration. Last week the country, however, received a small piece of good news, when the EU visa regime was slightly eased for some categories of Moldovan citizens.

Beyond the headlines

Belgrade dance festival ended last week with the performance of a Swedish ballet troop. Tenth annual edition of the festival lasted two weeks and brought to Serbia 12 international dancing troops, including the Wiener Staatsballett and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. The organizers must be pleased to learn that the changes to the law on public procurement were proposed last week. The changes would exempt theaters, concert halls, and similar establishments from certain provisions of the law that would otherwise effectively force them to choose the cheapest plays, directors and actors through public tender procedures. The Minister for Culture welcomed the changes, but the main oppositional Democratic Party was the one that actually proposed them. It is a rare sign of life in the party that is still reeling from the last year’s electoral defeat and subsequent internal struggles.

Romanian entries for the Cannes Film Festival’s Short Film Corner were selected last week. They might draw somewhat bigger attention given the international critical acclaim of Romanian New Wave Cinema which has scored some major festival victories in recent years, despite lackluster success in the Romanian box offices that are dominated by Hollywood blockbusters. However, the Western entertainment industry has gained a respectable regional competitor in recent years through the rise of Turkish soap operas. These have gained a measure of popularity in the Balkans, but even more so in the Arab Middle East. Time Magazine last week included the secretive Turkish religious scholar in self-imposed exile Fethullah Gulen and jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan in its 100 most influential people list. Apparently, if they had given more weight to the opinions of Arab women, Turkish soap opera actresses Beren Saat and Tuba Büyüküstün might have also been worthy choices, especially since Time’s list includes the likes of Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera.

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