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06 septembrie 2019 - Special reports - Western Balkans

Special WESTERN BALKANS Report (August 2019)

Stelian Teodorescu

I. Serbia is risking its European Union accession II. Russian-Serbian military cooperation intensifies III. The US and the EU appointed new special representatives for the Western Balkans and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) IV. Ten months after the last elections, the formation of a new Council of Ministers in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) has failed… again V. High-level plagiarism, an arrested prosecutor, and Pristina tells “home, sweet home” to jihadists returned from Syria and Iraq

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. Serbia is risking its European Union accession

According to official sources in Belgrade, Serbia will sign a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), an economic group led by Russia. According to a statement of the Serbian presidential administration, following a meeting between the president and Russian Ambassador to Belgrade Alexander Botsan-Kharcenko on 26.08.2019, the agreement could be signed on 25.10.2019.

On the same day, 26.08.2019, Serbia’s president also met with the president of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, David McAllister. During the meeting, the Serbian official highlighted the fact that Serbia supports dialogue with Pristina on normalizing relations, but talks can continue only after the decision to impose 100% tariffs on Serbian goods will be suspended.

Before the Serbian authorities adopted this decision to sign the free trade agreement with the EEU, the US and four other Western European states (the UK, France, Germany and Italy) requested Serbia and Kosovo to relaunch talks under the coordination and mediation of the EU, targeting the “urgent” normalization of relations between the two sides. They also pointed out that the current status quo is “just unsustainable and impedes progresses on the EU integration of Serbia and Kosovo”. In this context, the governments of the five states declared their availability to play an important role in the talks, but only if “both sides manifest the availability to make concessions, eliminate obstacles and restart dialogue”.

The decision of authorities in Belgrade to strengthen relations with Russia even more comes, however, after the 20.08.2019 meeting between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York, during which the US official “encouraged Serbia to concentrate on its strategic objective to accede to the EU by accelerating internal reforms and restarting negotiations with Kosovo”. 

On his Instagram account, the Serbian president gives, however, assurances that “Serbia will continue to implement internal reforms in accordance with the assessments and recommendations of EU institutions, mainly those from the European Commission report, but also with those from the European Parliament resolution regarding the progress achieved until now, while also expressing hope that the new EU institutions will continue to support the enlargement policy and Serbia’s European path”. 

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US Department of State spokesman Morgan Ortagus pointed out that, during their meeting, Pompeo and Vucic talked about “the vision of a stable, sure and prosperous Western Balkans region”. Furthermore, in a joint statement on 13.08.2019, the governments of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and the US said that “following years of stagnation, the moment has come to finally end the 90s conflicts and offer a safe and prosperous future for the people of Kosovo and Serbia”. In the same context, it was pointed out that this should be obtained by negotiating “in good faith” a “global agreement, politically durable and mandatory from a judicial standpoint, which would contribute to the regional stability”. The concessions which should be done by both sides to find a middle way were defined by the five states as “the suspensions of 100% tariffs imposed on Serbian goods” for Kosovo, while Serbia should “stop its campaign against the recognition of Kosovo, referring to Belgrade’s effort to convince other country’s to deny recognition of Kosovar statehood”.

On the other hand, ever since May 2016, Serbia became a potential candidate to establish a free trade area with the EEU, as the second round of negotiations in this regard was finished in October 2018. The EEU is formed out of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan and, according to the stance expressed by the Russian ambassador to Belgrade, the agreement to be signed will facilitate Serbia’s access to a market with 182 million people and with a GDP of over USD1.9 trillion. 

Taking into account the fact that Serbia declared its military neutrality and the level of its relations with NATO is well known , but it also proves that it is Russia’s only ally in the Western Balkans, we are assisting to an intensification of Moscow’s actions to grow its influence in the region and, implicitly, undermined both NATO’s presence and Serbia’s EU accession. Among the many eloquent examples in this regard is the fact that Serbia’s Defence Ministry declared the contract to purchase 30 T-72 modernized tanks from Russia – which officials described as a donation – as being a classified document, whose details cannot be publicly revealed without Moscow’s agreement, with the reasons that “the Republic of Serbia was entrusted the obligation to keep this secret”. 

Such a parallel evolution of Serbia’s relations with Russia and the EU is confirmed by data from the newest Eurobarometer, performed in June 2019 and published in August 2019. Serbia is the only Western Balkans country whose citizens place more trust in the national government (41%) than the EU (33%) and, also, the only country in the region which has more distrust than trust in the EU, with a significant difference of almost 20%. According to the study, Serbia has the lowest attachment to the EU, with only 22% of its citizens expressing this sentiment.

In such a context, one of the essential conditions which must be met by Belgrade authorities to accede to the EU, that of Serbia aligning its policies with those of the Union, including the imposition of economic sanctions against Russia for its aggressive actions against Ukraine, become very hard to fulfil for Belgrade. 

II. Russian-Serbian military cooperation intensifies

In August 2019, Russian-Serbian relations continued on the same evolving trend which started in the second part of 2012, since the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) took power in Belgrade.

The Serbian Army (Vojska Srbije/VS) also took part at the 2019 edition of the International Military Games, in three events, one in Belarus (the sniper’s contests) and two in Russia (the “tank biathlon” and the “military rally”). A Serbian military delegation led by the defence minister took part at the closing ceremonies of the sniper and tank crew contests, in Belarus (15.08.2019) and Russia (17.08.2019), respectively. The Serbian official used this occasion to meet with his Byelorussian and Russian counterparts and to reconfirm his country’s interest in continuing and developing military collaboration.

In August 2019, the Serbian and Russian parts discussed the idea of organizing in Serbia, in September 2019, a commemoration event for military heroes (“The Undying Regiment”). Last, but not least, President Aleksandar Vucic was invited and accepted to take part in Moscow ceremonies, in May 2020, to celebrate Victory Day in the Second World War.

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This is the third year in which the VS takes part in the Military Games at tank crew contest, the second at the sniper contest and the first at the military drivers’ contest. In 2019, Serbia’s best team results at the games were obtained by Serbian military drivers, who shared the third place with Belarus, and individually a sentry from the Pancevo Special Brigade won the mixed sniper contests (together with a colleague from Uzbekistan). Leaving aside Belgrade’s ambition to win all the events it took part in the games, it is more important to point out the attention granted by the Serbian political-military leadership to these events, which took place in Russia and Belarus. This element is confirmed by the defence minister’s participation at the two ceremonies.

In Russia, the Serbian minister used the occasion to visit (16.08) the “Rostvertol” helicopter factory on Rostov-on-Don, where the four Mi-35M assault helicopters (Mi-24VM) are being produced for the Serbian air forces. With this occasion, the public opinion found out that the helicopters will arrive in Serbia in the first trimester of 2020, as well as that approximately 70 employees from the VS (pilots, mechanics, technicians) are currently being instructed at the factory on how to exploit and maintain the Mi-35M helicopters. Last, but not least, it has become clear that the new assault helicopters will be given to the 714 anti-armoured helicopter squadron (from 98 Ladevci/Kraljevo brigade). Also, in the first part of next year, three Mi-17 transport helicopters should arrive in Serbia, also produced by the Russian side.

At the 16.08 meeting with Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu, in Moscow, A. Vulin accepted the invitation for a VS sub-unit to take part in the Red Square ceremonies, celebrating 75 years since Victory Day in the Second World War. 

The Russian-Serbian collaboration in the area of defence indubitably has a political seal. It is enough to mention Belgrade’s commitment to send a VS sub-unit and,  most probably, the participation of President Vucic at the Moscow Parade on 09.05.2020, as well as the fact that Serbia and Russia have not been invited to take part (on 01.09.2019) at the ceremonies in Wielun (Poland), commemorating 80 years since the beginning of the Second World War. Very probably, Warsaw did not invite Belgrade because of its close ties with Moscow, on the know anti-Russian background in Poland. At the same time, officials in Belgrade remarked with stupor that the president of Croatia took part at the ceremonies in Wielun, as the Croatian territory hosted a fascist state (NDH) and a fascist labour camp (Jasenovac) during the Second World War.

Even in these conditions, Belgrade will not recant itself of Moscow and instead chooses to diversify its collaboration efforts. Very probably, on 25.09.2019, Belgrade will host an international conference on the “Undying Regiment”. This would the first manifestation of its type held outside Russia. This will reconfirm Serbia’s rejection of Western requests to align with sanctions imposed to Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and involvement in the Eastern Ukraine conflict, as well as the Serbs’ option for “military neutrality”. 

III. The US and the EU appointed new special representatives for the Western Balkans and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH)

On 30.08.2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed Deputy Secretary Matthew Palmer as a Special Representative for the Western Balkans. In this capacity, Palmer made a visit to Slovenia (01.09.2019) to take part in the “Bled Strategic Forum”, and between 04-10.09.2019, he will represent the US at the “Quint Balkan” directors’ meeting (the group is made out of the US, France, Germany, Italy and the UK) in Brussels, and will also attend meetings in Vienna and Podgorica.

On 08.08.2019, the Council of the European Union appointed, for an initial two-year period, Austria’s ambassador to Tirana (Albania), Johann Sattler, as the new EU Special Representative (EUSR) and chief of the EU Delegation in BIH. He will replace Swedish diplomat Lars-Gunnar Wigemark (appointed to this office on 01.03.2015) and take over his attributions starting with 01.09.2019. 

His term has the following EU political objectives for the BIH:
achieving progress in the stabilizing and association process;

the evolution of BIH as a viable, peaceful, multi-ethnical and united state, which will peacefully cooperate with its neighbours;

actions so that the process of BIH acceding to the EU become irreversible, after the Commission published its review on the accession request on 29.05.2019. 

Eu sources claim that Sattler was the best of the 12 candidates who applied for the aforementioned office, as he is considered to have great knowledge of the entire Western Balkans regions due to his previous activities, which the Austrian diplomat also carried out in this space.

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M. Palmer is a graduate of the National War College and a member of the Foreign Affairs Council and speaks Serbian, Greek and Japanese. In his new office as a Special Representative for the Western Balkans, he will lead efforts to consolidate and diplomatically involve the US in support of the peace, stability and prosperity in the region, and will concentrate on integrate countries in this region into Western institutions. Alongside this new office he was appointed to, Palmer will continue to serve as deputy secretary of the European and Eurasian Affairs Bureau, which he holds since 2018, and was previously a director of the Office for Central and Southern Europe. In June 2019, Palmer made a visit to Belgrade, point at which he requested authorities in Pristina to give up the 100% tariffs instated for Serbian goods, deeming the measure an “obstacle” for the “region’s future”.

J. Sattler is a diplomat with a wealth of experience, who began his diplomatic career in 1996. Following a couple of diplomatic offices in Vienna, Washington and Brussels, he spent a lot of time in areas outside diplomacy. From 2008 up until 2013, he worked in Moscow, in the field of mass-media, for the WAZ media group and the Axel Springer publishing house. According to Vedran Dzihic, “as Austrian ambassador to Albania, J.Sattler became one of the most respected ambassadors and individuals within the crucial reform processes carried out in Albania”. 

IV. Ten months after the last elections, the formation of a new Council of Ministers in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) has failed… again

On 27.08.2019, a special meeting of the three-way BIH presidency, which aimed to form a new Council of Ministers, was cancelled. The political crisis in this state is therefore deepening more and more.

The meeting had one subject on the daily agenda, which was a debate on the proposal to appoint Zoran Tegeltija as a new Council of Ministers president (prime minister), a proposal made by the Serb member of the three-way presidence, Milorad Dodik. The meeting cancelled also at Dodik’s request, as it had become very clear that the Bosnian member of the presidency, Sefik Dzaferovic, as well Croat member Zeljko Komsic, will vote against the proposal.

This is Dodik’s second attempt to promote Tegeltija’s appointment as president of the BIH Council of Ministers. The first attempt failed on 20.08.2019, when the three-way presidency could not reach an agreement on that session’s agenda, and this situation implicitly led to postponing a decision in this regard.

According to Dodik’s statements, the deadline to form a new Council of Ministers is 05.09.2019. This deadline was set through an agreement signed on 08.08.2019 by the leaders of the three parties who obtained the most votes in the October 2018 elections – the Democratic Action Party (SDA/Bosnian), the Independent Social-Democrats Alliance (SNSD/Serb) and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ/Croat) -which have announced, at the same date, that they convened on 12 principles regarding a series of problems which will help form a new Council of Ministers.

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The deep disagreements between the Serbs, on one side, and the Bosnians and Croats, on the other hand, regarding the potential accession of the BIH to NATO is the main impediment in forming a new Council of Ministers, ten months after the last general elections were held in October 2018.

The main condition to support Tegeltija and unblock the current situation is to file the BIH’s National Yearly Program (NYP) with NATO, which as an essential prior condition for activating the Action Plan for BIH’s accession to NATO (MAP). 

Bosnian and Croatian leaders in the BIH support NATO accession, while Serbleaders in the BIH firmly oppose the move. The NYP for 2018-2019 was eliminated from the agenda of the BIH Presidency meeting on 12.02.2019, which, at the time, was the fourth consecutive time this happened.

Taking into account the situation, Dodik threatened that, if 05.09.2019 deadline will not be respected, he will withdraw from a previous agreement through which Serbs in the BIH agreed to form ethnically-mixed armed forces, the BIH Court of Justice and Prosecutor’s Office, as well as the State Agency for Protection and Investigation. The representative of BIH Serbs invoked the fact that “it is the right of Bosnian Serbs to withdraw from a previously signed agreement” and that “this is just the beginning”. In this context, both Bosnian representative Dzaferovic and Croart representative Komsic advised Dodik to stop issuing threats and show restraint.

Dzaferovic highlighted the fact that “no one in the BIH can threaten anyone, and this will be untimely move which can complicate the situation in the BIH”. In the same context, Komsic also said that he would not wish for BIH to have this type of a crisis, and that it is the duty of BIH leaders to calm the situation, because this situation will be a loss for everyone and, despite hoping to reach an agreement, he fears that the other scenario is more probable. 

V. High-level plagiarism, an arrested prosecutor, and Pristina tells “home, sweet home” to jihadists returned from Syria and Iraq

According to a press statement, on 15.08.2019, the Srpska Republic (SR) Inspectorate confirmed that it found irregularities and omissions in the university diploma of OSA/BIH General Director Osman Mehmedagic. This institution told the public opinion that it “filed a request with the Banja Luka University to nullify the diploma and declare it void in the Srpska Republic Official Journal”, and that the court will hand out the final verdict on the matter.

After on 20.08.2019 she was part of a four-hour hearing, on 21.08.2019, Katica Janeva, the resigned special chief prosecutor in North Macedonia, was arrested for her suspected involvement in a so called “extortion” scandal, with the case seriously hitting government authorities and affecting the fight against corruption in this state. According to statements made by chief prosecutor Ljubomir Joveski, K. Janeva was arrested under the suspicion of abuse of office (prosecutors gathered “irrefutable evidence” against her), even if she denied the charges and stated that she did not feel “guilty”. 

Serbia’s interior minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, accuses authorities in Pristina of having ties with jihadists who returned to Kosovo from Syria and Iraq, warning that this represents a great danger. Stefanovic said that individuals who returned from Syria and Iraq have political support from authorities in Pristina, as they and their actions have the potential to mobilize certain voters and influence the results of elections in Kosovo. 

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According to the SR Inspectorate, Mehmedagic signed up for his third year at the Banja Luka University after he had previously obtained a degree from the University of Sarajevo’s Law Faculty. The results obtained by him are contested on the basis that the professors who took part in his evaluations did not had the necessary competency. The abled structures of the Prosecutor’s Office are working to verify the legality of diplomas obtained by top officials from BIH law enforcement agencies. In this context, it is necessary to highlight the fact that the BIH Serb leader, M. Dodik, member of the BIH three-way presidency, has a significant history of disputes with the OSA/BIH, with the high official deeming the institution as “hostile to BIH Serbs”. It is also as important to point out here that the BIH Parliament’s Mixed Committee, a structure which surpervises OSA/BIH, is without president since 2017, also because of political disagreements.

The scandal related to Janeva, resigned special chief prosecutor, began in July 2019, when businessman Bojan Jovanovski and his accomplice Zoran Milevski were arrested under suspicion of “extorting money” (the sum of EUR1.5 million is thrown around) from another businessman, Orce Kamcev. It is presumed that the money was taken from Kamcev in exchange for a promise to help him avoid a prison sentence or to receive an easier sentence in another case, through their presumed influence in relations with the prosecutor. She resigned in July 2019, invoking a political dispute regarding certain legal aspects of the status of her office, created in 2015 in order to investigate high-level offences during a crisis involving the previous Macedonian government.

In the context of these warnings, the Serbian interior minister said that “Serbian agencies are permanently functioning and will not allow the transfer of any element of instability towards Central Serbia, and Serbian authorities are aware of the risks, but also have adequate forces to respond with”. 

Translated by Ionut Preda