Orient Express Weekly (25-31 March 2013)

The Albanian national question in the Balkans

The last reis-ul-ulema of the Islamic community of Yugoslavia, Jakub Selimoski, died after brief hospital treatment in Skopje and in Istanbul. In the early 1990s Selimoski, an ethnic Macedonian of Islamic faith, was considered a supporter of preserving Yugoslavia, and made efforts to resist open the politicization and ethnicisation of Muslim identity. Selimovski (b. 1946) was buried in his hometown of Kičevo, in western Macedonia, on Saturday. Last week another native of Kičevo was put in the spotlight. Fatmir Dehari, a member of the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), and a former member of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLE) and Albanian National Army (ANA), became the first ethnic Albanian mayor of the town. His election for the mayor of Kičevo came after a divisive local campaign that saw the usual intra-ethnic party divisions succumb to ethnic divisions in Kičevo and Struga, two municipalities where ethnic demography was particularly evenly divided. The ethnic Albanian grand-coalition in Kičevo managed a first-round victory for Mr. Dehari, an outcome that immediately gave rise to protests from local ethnic Macedonians. Protesters also angrily confronted PM Nikola Grueski (VRMO-DPMNE) during his visit intended to reaffirm that Kičevo remains “a Macedonian town”.

Besides directly political consequences, shifts in ethnic hierarchy have consequences on cultural and symbolic politics in the region. The village of Velanije near Pristina is the site of a memorial to the communist Yugoslav Partisans of the World War II, and also the site of the grave of Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the mass non-violent campaign against Serbian rule in Kosovo in the 1990s. Last week it emerged that Kosovo authorities are planning to demolish the WWII memorial built in 1960. In its place they plan to build a complex dedicated to Rugova and to the martyrs of the KLA. This would be one among many old Yugoslav monuments that are making room for the monuments celebrating new national heroes of Kosovo, which declared its contested independence from Serbia in 2008. But the independence is becoming less and less contested as representatives of Belgrade and Pristina make their final public spins before heading to Brussels for what could be a decisive round of talks about normalization of mutual relations.

Money and people on the move in and out of the Balkans

The Montenegrin economy is now officially in recession after the national statistical office reported a contraction in GDP for the second consecutive quarter. This would normally be considered a major blow for the ruling party only a week ahead of the presidential elections, but in the highly polarized Montenegrin society macroeconomic indicators are likely to play a secondary role in how people vote. Meanwhile, it continues to be all about economy in Cyprus, where the banks finally opened on Thursday after staying closed for almost a fortnight. Tight capital-transfers precluded the feared run on banks despite a hefty levy on bigger bank depositors, which was imposed as a condition of the European bailout program. As international attention moves away from Cyprus, there are suggestions that it may soon focus on Slovenia. The governor of the Bank of Slovenia denied that the country is likely to ask for an international bailout, but Moody nevertheless downgraded the deposit rating of the country’s second largest bank close to junk status.

Greece, due to the size of its economy, remains the Balkan country whose economic woes could have the largest consequences for Europe as a whole. Last week, however, brought some good news from the Greek tourist industry. It emerged that in 2012 number of newly built hotels outnumbered those that had to close down. As the number of hotels rises, the number of higher education institutions will shrink after the Greek parliament adopted a reform bill targeting inefficiencies in the system, especially among numerous technical colleges. Meanwhile, Greece continues to experience rising emigration, mainly due to a 26% rate of unemployment. An estimated 150,000 young graduates left Greece since 2008 to seek jobs mainly in the US, Germany, France and UK. Moving abroad is still easier for the Greeks than for Romanians and Bulgarians, as the immigrants from these two countries got caught up in yet another scapegoating anti-immigrant drive from UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Nevertheless, Romania is set to see some tangible benefits from EU membership with the EUR 145 million of the EU cohesion funds that were allocated last week to stop the accelerated shore erosion in the southeast Romania. The Black Sea holiday region attracts about 8 million mostly domestic tourists each year. Neighboring Serbia continued the push to diversify international linkages of its economy this week. First, on Wednesday Serbian and Russian state-controlled companies signed agreements securing the flow of Russian gas to Serbia until 2021. Import of gas has already made Russia Serbia’s biggest foreign trade partner. On Thursday, the Serbian government also signed investment and credit deals to bring the capital from UAE into the Serbian agricultural sector.

New Balkan social activism

Greeks, Croats and Albanians have the least trust in their politicians as showed by the results of the latest round of the European Social Survey, a project that does not include Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, or Macedonia. Despite these results that normally signify disengagement, the Balkan region seem to be witnessing many instances of new social activism. The traditional NGO sector in the region is often seen as too responsive to the budget priorities of distant donors, and divorced from the societal concerns. However, in the recent years this sector has been complemented by a new kind of genuine small-scale grassroots activism tackling local and national issues non-ideologically, and often without financial compensation for the activists.

For example, Romania is set to start off its first monthly festival dedicated to promoting volunteer work. In Bulgaria more than 150 cafes and numerous individuals have joined in the campaign to sponsor the so-called “suspended coffees” for the poor in the scheme promoted by a Facebook page, which has recently attracted attention of ordinary people and businesses in many countries. In the first Croatian elections for the European Parliament scheduled for April 14th, a prominent LGBT activist Damir Hršak will run for on the ticket of a small parliamentary Labor party. It is seen as a positive step in the country and in the region that do not have much experience with openly gay politicians. Various nonprofit groups in Athens have in recent years taken to organizing non-conventional walking tours around the less well known areas and features of the Greek capital. The tours, attended by both locals and tourists, include walks in search of the Ottoman and Jewish heritage, walks promoting the pedestrian or cyclists rights in the city, or walks through some of the less advantaged city neighborhoods. Croatian branch of the “Right to the City” movement has been vocal in monitoring and challenging the decisions of Zagreb city authorities whenever they collude with partial interests, such as those of the powerful construction lobby. And several groups of activists have been trying to do the same in Belgrade.

Beyond the headlines

Major Christian Holydays are traditionally celebrated twice in the Balkans. Last week was an Easter week for the region’s Catholics and less numerous Protestants. Greek, Bulgarian and Romanian Orthodox churches have also switched to the revised Julian calendar that effectively coincides with the Gregorian, but they still calculate the Easter date according to the old Julian calendar. The same goes for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. In 2020 this Medieval Greek institution might have an encounter with an ancient Greek tradition, if the Turkish capital of Istanbul manages to beat Tokyo and Madrid for the rights to organize the Olympic Games. Another ancient civilization will be on display in Bucharest much sooner. Last week it was announced that China’s Treasures exhibition would open on April 29th in National Museum of Romania. The exhibition will also feature a large collection of famous Terracotta Army figures. It will stay in the Romanian capital for three months, a good excuse to hop for a visit to the Paris of the East.

In the meantime, National Museum of Serbia remains closed for the visitors for the tenth consecutive year due to scandalous neglect by the authorities that were supposed to provide the financial resources to complete the necessary maintenance work. A similar fate might yet await Belgrade theaters and concert halls if they are not relieved from following certain provisions of the new law on public procurement that forces them to choose the cheapest plays, directors, and actors through public tender procedures. More cheerful news from Montenegro – their national football team has become available in the 2013 edition of legendary FIFA video game produced by the EA Sports. Members of the national squad, most of whom play abroad, have renounced the revenues due to them for selling the rights to exploit their names in the video game. They have agreed to transfer these revenues to the trade union of Montenegrin professional players for the benefit of footballers in the commercially less attractive domestic championship.