Orient Express Weekly (8-14 April 2013)


Still no solutions to the regional disputes

The previous week started with the Serbian government officially refusing the EU-brokered offer on the status of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. Apparently, the offer was not presented in writing, but consisted of a set of principles read out to the Pristina and Belgrade delegations last Tuesday by Catherine Ashton? Even so, Serbian officials weighed the offer for a week before rejecting it over Pristina’s intransigency to grant any executive or judicial authority to the proposed Assembly of Serb municipalities in Kosovo. The Serbian government called for the immediate continuation of the dialogue, while the Serbian PM Ivica Dačić promptly travelled to Moscow in a previously planned two-day visit. Mr Dačić expressed his regrets that the previous government in which he was the vice-president agreed to participate in the EU mediated talks with Priština instead of insisting on the process under the auspices of the UN, where Russia and other countries that have not recognized Kosovo hold more sway. The visit resulted in seven bilateral agreements, including a USD 500 million Russian loan to Serbia to reduce its budget deficit.

In the meantime, there were some positive signals that both the EU and Priština would be ready to continue the dialogue, there is still no clear way forward for the process. Catherine Ashton is expected to submit her final report on the dialogue on April 22, which is all but certain to put an end to any speculation that Serbia still might get the date for the start of the EU accession negotiations later this year. The Macedonian EU integration process has been similarly blocked by a regional dispute. Greece cites historical and territorial concerns related to the adjacent Greek province of Macedonia, and objects to the use of the name Macedonia without any adjective to distinguish the independent state from the province. The negotiations to find a compromise solution have not yielded any breakthrough for years. Last week the UN Special Representative Mathew Nimetz, who is mediating the negotiations, has floated a new proposal. The latest in the long list of proposals remains undisclosed so far and is not expected to be a definite solution but to “pave the way for serious discussions… within the next few months”.

Despite these difficult obstacles on the road to possible EU accession, mobile phone users from Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro might soon feel some smaller but tangible benefits from the cooperation with the EU. Last week in Brussels the Macedonian minister of Information Society and Administration Ivo Ivanovski presented a regional initiative for lowering the roaming charges from the EU member states. European Commission officials said they were ready to consider the initiative. Presently, Macedonian citizens pay nine time higher roaming services than citizens of the EU member countries.

Controversial legacy of the Hague Tribunal

The UN General Assembly held a debate on the performance of the international criminal justice in reconciliation on Wednesday and Thursday last week. UNGA president Vuk Jeremić initiated the debate motivated by the perceived anti-Serbian bias of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The address by the Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić received exaggeratedly favourable coverage in Serbian media, in the midst of which the statements of the other delegations were almost ignored. Although Nikolić’s speech and the debate were generally well received in the Serbian public, there was also some criticism of Nikolić’s use of “half-truths and propaganda”, as well as criticism of the list of participants that included some less known figures and was obviously predesigned to produce negative view of the ICTY’s legacy in the region.

Macedonian PM and several thousand citizens also gave a negative verdict on the ICTY’s reconciliation impact when they warmly welcomed back Johan Tarculovski, a former police officer convicted of the killing of Albanian civilians during the 2001 rebellion by the Albanian National Army against the Macedonian government. Tarculovski was granted an early release after serving 8 out of 12 years of his prison sentence in a German prison.

Bullets and ballots

On Tuesday morning citizens of Serbia woke up shocked with the news from a village close to the capital Belgrade that a gunman had killed 13 people. Most of the killed were related to the 60-year-old shooter, who also attempted suicide and eventually succumbed to the wounds in hospital few days later. A national day of mourning was declared and a debate on the stockpiles of weapon left over from war was reignited. Despite relatively restrictive gun laws, every eighth citizen of Serbia has at least one registered firearm. The situation is comparably bad in tiny Montenegro where every sixth home has some kind of registered firearm. While the estimates about the number of unregistered firearms are bound to be very unreliable, it is certain that Serbia and Montenegro are among the European countries with most guns in civilians’ hands. Unlike in the United States, gun control has not yet become an electoral issue in the region, probably because despite these statistics, Balkan countries do not experience higher rate of gun-related murders than the Western European countries in which private gun ownership is much less common.

It is a good thing, thus, that guns will certainly remain silent in the political crisis that engulfed Montenegro last week after both presidential candidates declared their victories in closely contested elections. Eventually the incumbent president Filip Vujanović was declared the official winner by the razor thin margin of 7650 votes. Miodrag Lekić, the candidate of the united opposition has officially complained of the irregularities in many districts, he has demanded a recount. While the electoral commission and the courts decide on these demands, the opposition is pondering a call for protests. The Montenegrin electorate has been evenly divided for about 15 years now and despite repeated fears that the polarization could lead to violence, many electoral cycles and even an independence referendum have passed peacefully. However, this was not the case in all the countries of the region recently. In 2008 ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia were engaged in violent clashes, while the elections in Albania were repeatedly marred with violent incidents in the previous years.

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI

Romanian neo-dada artist Mircea Cantor last week opened a major exhibition in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest. The Museum is located in the west wing of the megalomaniac People’s House build in 1980s on personal orders of then communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The building of the Palace involved tearing down large historic areas of central Bucharest. It is the second biggest public building in the world, after the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Besides the Museum, the building today serves as the seat of both houses of Romanian parliament. Cantor’s exhibition is entitled QED (Latin for ‘which had to be demonstrated’), and it welcomes visitors with a huge Latin writing spelled in burning fire against a giant Palace wall. The writing translates as ‘Thus passes glory of the world’. An anonymous Russian billionaire who last week spent USD 153 million to buy the private Ionian island of Skorpios would be well advised to drop by the exhibition on his way to the newly acquired property.

Keywords for this article: