Orient Express Weekly (20-26 May 2013)

Kosovo, Serbia, Germany

On Wednesday a framework agreement on implementation of Belgrade-Pristina agreement was reached. It is seen as an important step in what is expected to be a delicate implementation process.

It is understood that the framework agreement does not envisage immediate dissolution of local authorities in ethnically Serbian northern Kosovo, which was one of Pristina’s demands. Instead, current presidents of the four Serb municipalities in the North will form a joint body that will exercise the duties of the Association of Serb municipalities in the interim period. Supposedly they are also to select the interim police chief for the North. Before the end of the year local elections should be held in the municipalities in accordance to Kosovo’s laws. Elections are to be followed by the official establishment of the Association, which will de facto see Kosovo Serbs integrated into the political system of independent Kosovo despite the fact that Serbia continues to insist that it still rejects Kosovo’s independence. Two days of talks between Serbian and Kosovo prime ministers in Brussels that produced the implementation agreement were preceded by the visit of German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle to both Belgrade and Pristina on Monday. The possibility of opening accession talks between Serbia and the EU, and the possibility of Kosovo signing a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU are major incentives for both governments to seek compromise solutions. In turn, the opinion of the German Bundestag in the run up to the autumn elections in Germany are widely seen as crucial for the European aspirations of both entities.

The possibility of opening accession talks between Serbia and the EU, and the possibility of Kosovo signing a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU are major incentives for both governments to seek compromise solutions.

In addition to improving relations with Belgrade, Pristina is expected to make improvements in the areas of public administration, the status of minorities, trade and rule of law in order to become eligible for the SAA. An opportunity to make a step in that direction was missed last week when the court in Prisina ordered 30 days of house arrest for 7 former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), current ambassador of Kosovo to Albania, a regional police chief and the current mayor of Srbica/Skenderaj among them. They are suspected of involvement abuse and torture of civilian prisoners in the KLA’s jails during the guerrilla campaign that the KLA waged against Serbia in the late 1990s. Members of the so-called Drenica group were arrested earlier last week by the EULEX officers, but the Kosovo government promptly voiced the belief that the suspects were innocent. Kosovo PM Hashim Taci used to be the leader of the Drenica group during the war, and one of the suspects in the current case is his cousin and former bodyguard. Failure to secure proper detention in the courthouse could easily undermine the case given the pattern of witnesses suddenly changing their statements in the other war crime trials initiated by the EULEX before Kosovan courts.

A focus on party politics

Until Serbia joins the EU, driving route through Romania and Bulgaria will remain the longer but logistically easier way to connect Central Europe, Turkey and further Middle East. Especially after the opening of the Danube II road and rail bridge between Bulgaria and Romania, which will reduce the need to rely on ferries. The opening of only the second bridge connecting the two countries separated by the long border marked by the Danube River is expected to significantly increase the transit revenues. However, the opening has been delayed by the Bulgarian post-electoral stalemate that Bulgarian socialists seem to be firmly on the road to resolve after they have secured earlier last week the conditional support from the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Parliamentary vote of confidence in the new government next week could end the protracted political crisis that engulfed the country when the former centre-right PM Boyko Borisov resigned under pressure from widespread socio-economic protests. The firebrand owner of Steaua Bucharest football club and an independent MP George ‘Gigi’ Becali chose a different mode of transportation to the Middle East when he was stopped and arrested by the Romanian police at the Bucharest airport last week. Becali was caught allegedly trying to reach Jerusalem ‘for a brief visit to pray for the favourable court ruling’ due the following morning. Prayers voiced from the custody in Bucharest being perhaps less effective, Mr Becali was convicted to three years in jail for corrupt business dealings. Steaua played in Europa League round of 16 this year.

Steering board of the Peace Implementation Council held its latest meeting last week. The supervisory body formed after the Dayton Peace agreement 18 years ago and its main executive officer the UN High Representative Valentine Inzko gave stern warnings to Bosnian politicians to get serious, and to Bosnian citizens to chose smart in future elections. The blunt and preaching tone of the message reflects the frustrating realities of Bosnian politics, but it is also typical of the arrogant manner of the outdated international supervisors of Bosnia who too often descend into almost party political exchanges with the local politicians. This attitude provokes a backlash in Bosnia, especially in Republika Srpska where media last week discussed the salaries in the Office of High Representative again. The more than 20.000 Euros that the High Representative earns monthly does seem outrageously high in a country where the average monthly salary is somewhat above 400 euros. In the shadow of the prolonged party political crisis in the Bosniak-Croat entity and at the federal level, at least the rebuilding of Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka is nearing the end with the help of Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA). The reconstructed mosque was originally built in the 16th century and was one of the symbols of Banja Luka before it was demolished in 1993 during the Bosnian war. Ugly riots marred the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone when the reconstruction was started in 2001 in the city that is today capital of Republika Srpska and that has lost most of its Muslim and Catholic population.

After securing a narrow win in the elections in April, Filip Vujanovic was last week inaugurated for his second term as Montenegrin president since independence, but the third term in total. Montenegrin opposition, which still disputes the outcome of the elections, has not attended the ceremony in Cetinje, the historical and ceremonial capital of Montenegro. But the event was also not attended by the MPs from Social Democratic Party (SDP) that participates in the ruling coalition. As Balkan Review had anticipated it is increasingly possible that the SDP could break away from the coalition thus bringing about the first turnover in power in the post-communist history of Montenegro.

Beyond the headlines

Commuters in the Sofia metro were welcomed by piles of free books on Friday, on the occasion of the day of the Bulgarian Education and Culture and Slavic Script that Bulgaria celebrates on May 24 to mark the official Day of Holy Brothers St. Cyril and St. Methodius – the 9th century scholars and missionaries who created the first Slavic alphabet in order to spread the Byzantine influence among the Slavs. The day is also a national holiday in Macedonia, while it is also observed somewhat less prominently in most other Slavic countries. Heirs of the Byzantine rulers in today’s Istanbul also seem to appreciate the importance of soft power brought by culture and education. The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism counted that 38 new museums were opened in Turkey in the last decade, while the Turkish deputy prime minister bent over backward to show respect to the influential Islamic scholar and social leader Fetualh Gulen during the last week’s semi-personal visit to Mr Gulen’s residency in Pennsylvania, US.

Many things will change when Croatia joins the EU on July 1, but one that would be perhaps easiest to observe for numerous visitors to the Croatian seaside will be that in accordance to the recent EU regulation the restaurants will be allowed to serve olive oil only in sealed and clearly marked bottles. Although the rule may be scrapped under the political pressure from some countries, the European Commission originally provided a reasonable explanation for the measure that most olive growers welcomed. It said that it banned the traditional provision of olive oil in cruets or dipping bowls to increase the hygiene standards and to avoid the instances of fraud where the restaurateurs would secretly mix the high quality extra virgin olive oil with the less refined variants. It is estimated that currently about a third of the annual olive production in Croatia is bought directly from the producers without bottling or quality assurances. Once this grave concern is resolved, the tourists will also be relieved to know that the European Environment Agency and the EU environment commissioner Janez Potočnik from Slovenia last week rated Croatian bathing waters among the cleanest in Europe. Thus, no reason not to enjoy both meals and swimming this year in Croatia, with a prudent EU prescribed break in between them of course.

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