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06 februarie 2020 - Special reports - Western Balkans

WEST BALKANS – Special Report (January)

Stelian Teodorescu

I.Important visit in North Macedonia and Albania from EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations II. US and EU- increased interest for the regulation of Serbia-Kosovo relations III. Serbian defence industry projects IV. Swedish diplomat Lars Gunnar Wigemark, the new chief of EULEX in Kosovo V. Tensions in Montenegro, but also between Belgrade and Podgorica

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I.Important visit in North Macedonia and Albania from EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations

Between 15 and 16 January 2020, the new EU Commissioner European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Olivér Várhelyi[1]  made many visits to North Macedonai and Albania to highlight the EU commitment to both West Balkans countries.

Olivér Várhelyi met (January 15th) with Macedonian president, Stevo Pendarovski, the president of Skopje Parliament, Talat Xhaferi, the new Macedonian prime-minister, Oliver Spasovski, members of government, as well as leaders of the two main political parties, former Macedonian prime-minister, Zoran Zoev (the Social Democratic Union in Macedonia) and Hristjan Mickoski (the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for the National Macedonian Unituy/ VMRO-DPMNE). At a join press conference, organized with prime-minister O.Spasovski, in Skopje, O. Várhelyi asked North Macedonia to continue the EU established reforms, particularly focusing on the judicial system.

Olivér Várhelyi met, in Tirana (January 16th), the Albanian president, Ilir Meta, the president of Tirana Parliament, Gramoz Ruci, Albanian prime-minister, Edvin Edi Rama, representatives of the governing parties and the opposition leader, Lulzim Basha.

EU Commissioner,  O. Várhelyi, has also participated at at press conference with Albanian prime-minister, who joined him for a visit in Durres, the city affected by the 26.11.2019 earthquake, reconfirming EU’s financial support in the reconstruction process.

The new European Commission considers the previous Commission’s report and continues to consider Albania as a country that’s ready to start accession negotiations. O. Várhelyi reiterated European Commission's support for the official negotiation start, in the 2020 spring, before the May summit (between EU and the Western Balkans), in Zagreb, to allow a new EU approach to the region. Also, O. Várhelyi emphasized that "the process of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans region is a priority, EU wants to increase its presence in the region and have more influence, be a more important partner for the region, this being the reason why the Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, will work hard, without stopping, to make all of this a reality".  

Given these two visits, the high EU official expressed his will for the accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania to start in a few months, saying that the two countries are "ready", also adding that he will recommend starting negotiations this spring. O. Várhelyi said that a "new package" for discussions’ start should be "more predictable and have better dynamics". According to him, the EU Commission will recommend an economic plan for the Western Balkan countries at the EU summit in Zagreb, from May 2020. Furthermore, O. Várhelyi stressed that "it will work with these states to find a solution, which creates a new chance to move forward in the integration process".

Croatia (which has the EU Council presidency since early January) has launched encouraging signals about Albania and North Macedonia and the start of EU accession talks. Croatia's Prime Minister, Andrej Plenković, is confident that during the European Council presidency he will be able to respond to French President, E. Macron’s, requests and will be able to complete, by May 2020, setting a date for the accession negotiations start with Albania and North Macedonia.

Thus, following a meeting from January 8th with the European Council President, Charles Michel, A.Plenković stressed that he believed that there could be a positive evolution of the French position and that some of France’s reservations regarding the policy could be resolved and satisfied, adding that "as one of the countries in this part of Europe, Croatia has a responsibility to promote and support neighbouring countries ... in getting closer to EU".

II. US and EU- increased interest for the regulation of Serbia-Kosovo relations

Between 20 and 24th Ianaury, Richard Grenell, US ambassador to Germany and special representative of the American president, Donald Trump, for Kosovo and Serbia, has visited Pristine and Belgrade. The American official has stated that establishing a railway connection between these two cities became a priority after US has mediated and re-established the air traffic between Serbia and Kosovo, after 21 years. R. Grenell has also underlined that US wants Belgrade and Pristina to focus on the economic field and create new jobs, asking Serbia and Kosovo to eliminate any obstacles that have blocked, for more than a year, the discussion between these two sides.

The EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, made his first tour in the Western Balkans (January 30-February 1), willing to make assurances about EU's commitment to this region. The EU high official stressed that "'his first official visit to the Western Balkans shows EU's commitment to region’s European perspective, to its stability and prosperity.'"

On his first official visit to Kosovo, J.Borrell met with President Hashim Thaçi, and other political leaders, including representatives of political parties, civil society organizations and analysts, and visited the historic city Prizren. As part of the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans, J.Borrell has also launched a major EU-funded project that will significantly improve air quality in Kosovo. J.Borrell said, after meeting with H.Thaçi, that the EU will mediate the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, without competing with US’s special representative for Belgrade and Pristina, R.Granell.

During his visit to Belgrade, J.Borrell noted that Serbia is a key EU partner and stressed that accession negotiations could continue faster and would require increased efforts from both Serbia and the EU. In the same context, he underlined that EU has invested a lot, both politically and financially, in the last 10 years, almost 2.5 billion euro being given to Serbia. J.Borrell said he was pleased with EU's cooperation with Serbia, underlining the intense security cooperation.

Addressing the media, at a joint press conference with the Serbian president, R.Granell, called for the withdrawal of the 100% taxes imposed by Kosovo on imports from Serbia and the cessation of Serbia's campaign encouraging states to "disregard" Kosovo. "We come to connect you, I have no agenda, no preconceived ideas. I will not put pressure on you, I want you to connect, so that your savings will grow, create more opportunities for young people, stay here and have hope. I'm trying to focus on building an impulse on the economy ... ", said R. Grenell, who also referred to the organization of a meeting between experts from both entities and the establishment of a railway, on January 27 in Berlin, between Belgrade and Pristine. Also, R.Granell thanked Alexandar Vučić for his efforts to create a Belgrade-Pristine airline.

On his turn, A.Vučić announced that Belgrade is ready to work on establishing a railway line between Belgrade and Pristine, stressing that "it is important to eliminate taxes, because otherwise the train would leave without products", but pointing out that Serbia lost 435 million euro, in one year, because of Kosovo's taxes.

The Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) boycotted the meeting of parliamentary parties with J.Borrell, PDK leader, Kadri Veseli, explaining that the meeting is pointless at the moment, as Pristine did not set up the new institutions after the elections and, therefore, any dialogue initiative with Belgrade is "outdated and unsustainable".

Also noteworthy is J.Borrell’s stance during his visit to Kosovo, where he stressed that "there are five European countries that do not recognize Kosovo and it is not his task to convince them to acknowledge this".

III. Serbian defence industry projects

The Serbian defence industry is a priority for the economic and commercial policy of the current Serbian leadership in Belgrade. It is regarded both as an important contributor to GDP, to the Serbian exports’ volume and as a factor in the implementation of higher technologies that subsequently contribute to other industrial sectors’ development.

Among Serbian defence industry’s priorities, as well as the design and research structures with applicability in the defence field, are the modernization of BVP M-80A infantry fighting vehicle and the integration of non-targeting weapon systems on the new "Airbus" H145M helicopters from Serbian Air Force’s endowment.

Since the beginning of the year, at the testing of weapons and military equipment Centre "Nikinci", subordinated to the Belgrade Technical Testing Centre of the Serbian Army (TOC), they have carried out tests with weapons systems on the modernized BVP M-80A, during the night. The Serbian Defence Minister, Aleksandar Vulin, and the Chief of the General Staff of the Serbian Army, General Milan Mojsilović, participated at this activity. The activity was led by Nenad Miloradović, deputy acting minister of defence for material resources.

In January, in the Centre for weapons and military equipment testing "Nikinci", it continued the aviation weapons systems’ testing, developed by the Belgrade Military Technical Institute and the national company of dual-technology production and trade, Jugoimport-SDPR JP , which are produced at the "Utva" aviation plant, in Pančevo (owned by Jugoimport-SDPR JP): an 80 mm gauge non-directional reactive projectile (PRN) launcher and a 12.7 mm gauge submachine gun, from a H145M helicopter "Airbus", during day and night flying conditions. It was set up a presentation activity for the Minister of Defence, A.Vulin,  on February 1, at "Nikinci".

The modernized BVP, the M-80AB1, has new cannon and thermovision cameras, which allow the fire to be executed more efficiently, both during the day and at night. The prototype BVP M-80AB1 was used for fire activities in the most difficult conditions, and the results were satisfactory, but they have also identified issues that need to be improved.

Serbian endowment experts used the opportunity to test a range of optical-electronic systems of local production (produced by "Teleoptik-Žiroskopi" company in Zemun / Belgrade), such as the thermal sharpshooting systems "Eagle 60" and "Eagle 70 ".

The new dome from the BVP M-80AB1 prototype has a thermovision camera, which allowed the successful execution of the 7.62 mm calibre machine gun fire on targets at a distance of 500 meters. Also, they have fired with the assault rifle of 5.56 mm local production, on targets at distances of 100, 200 and 300 meters, using the new optical shot system "Sova 4".

On the other hand, the integration on H145M helicopters of aviation weapon systems produced in Serbia is an ambition of the current political-military leadership in Belgrade, expressed on several occasions, in recent years. Its success can have great effects on some part of the Serbian defence industry. It is worth mentioning that H145M helicopters were presented by "Airbus" at several armaments exhibitions - including Paris, Le Bourget exhibition, from June 2019 - along with unmanned projectiles launcher, made in Serbia, size 80 mm and a Serbian container (GH-78) with 12.7 mm caliber machine gun.

The Belgrade's ambitions horizon is, however, even greater, as the integration of non-targeted armament has to be followed by the integration of targeted systems, which are in full swing in Serbia. Afterwards, Belgrade and "Airbus" should partner in offering cheaper options for military H145M helicopters, produced by "Airbus" and "HForce" platforms.

Currently, at the "Nikinci", a Serbian Air Force H145M helicopter launched several dozen non-targeted projectiles (80mm gauge, from a seven-pipe launcher, L-80-07) and fired several thousand 12.7mm gauge cartridges. On the day of Minister's demonstration, it was launched a full burst of seven unmanned projectiles from the 80 mm gauge launcher.

The five H145M helicopters of the Serbian army entered, in 2019, the endowment of the 119 mixed helicopter squadron, from Niš, subordinated to the 98 Aviation Brigade, in Lađevci (Kraljevo). For their parking, it was built a special hangar, in 2019, at the "Sergeant-Pilot Mihajlo Petrović" Military Aerodrome, in Niš. The Helicopter Unit (HJ) from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia has also received four H145M helicopters, in 2019.

In January 2020, the Serbian army took another decisive step to abandon the "Utva 75" (V-53) training aircrafts and replace them, in cadets’ flight instruction, with "Lasta" (V-54) digitized aircrafts. The Minister of Defence also assisted such an instructional scene, on the second day of Orthodox Christmas, following the Julian calendar, on January 08, at the "Colonel-Pilot Milenko Pavlović" Military Aerodrome, in Batajnica (Belgrade), within the 252nd Batajnica school-training Squadron from the 204th Batajnica Aviation Brigade. This squadron has 14 V-54 aircraft, produced at the "Utva" aviation factory, in Pančevo.

Currently, "Utva" and Jugoimport-SDPR have no beneficiaries for the V-54 aircraft or other military projects of the Pančevo factory, like the prototype of "Kobac" aircraft ("dedicated to the fight against guerrilla"). The only foreign customer for V-54 aircraft (with analog board, however) was Iraqis Air Forces, which purchased 20 devices, delivered between August 2010 - February 2012. This is why, in 2019, "Utva" has concluded contracts for the construction of modernized "Utva 75" devices (for a client in Dubai) and, based on "Utva 75", aircraft, it develops the propeller aircrafts "Sova" (four places, single engine, for civil purposes and the selection and instruction of pilots, but also for photogrammetry).

The partnership between Jugoimport - SDPR J.P and VTI seems to be a successful option, both for Serbian defence industry’s revival and for increasing Serbian weapons, ammunition and military equipment exports, despite criticism that Jugoimport - SDPR J.P. neglects the needs of the Serbian army and aims only at making a profit. Last but not least, the Serbian defence industry's production and exports growth, every year, contributes to the increase of current government’s political capital.

Now, not even the corruption scandal at the "Krušik" company, in Valjevo (where one of the closest collaborators of President Aleksandar Vučić, the Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović is involved in) has reduced Belgrade's governors interest to invest in the Serbian defence industry and modernize the Serbian army with local production systems.

IV. Swedish diplomat Lars Gunnar Wigemark, the new chief of EULEX in Kosovo

On January 23, Swedish diplomat Lars-Gunnar Wigemark has officially took over the EU mission chief position in Kosovo (EULEX),  a mandate that lasts until 14.06.2020. It is noteworthy that, after taking over the new position, on January 24th, L.G. Wigemark met with Kosovo President, Hashim Thaçi.

L.G. Wigemark has taken over this mandate from Greek diplomat Alexandra Papadopoulou, the head of EULEX mission since July 20, 2016, whose term has been extended on June 5, 2018, based on the CFSP Council Decision 2018/856. Therefore, the Swedish diplomat stressed that "he is looking forward to this new and challenging appointment and will strive for EULEX to stay a trusted partner for its Kosovo partners, providing tangible, long-term rules, timely assistance, thus becoming stronger and more capable of continuing on the European path".

As the new EULEX chief, L.G. Wigemark will coordinate the mission’s support to relevant Kosovo rule of law institutions on their path to increased efficiency, sustainability, multi-ethnicity and accountability, without political interference and in full compliance with the best EU practices.

EULEX’s overall mission is to support Kosovo’s authorities in establishing law, sustainable and independent institutions.

On June 08, 2018, it was decided to reorient EULEX mission’s mandate in Kosovo. Thus, starting with June 14, it was decided that the mission should focus on:

- monitoring the cases and processes selected in the criminal and civil justice institutions in Kosovo;

- monitoring, guiding and advising the Kosovo correction service;

- continuing its operational support for the implementation of EU-facilitated dialogue agreements to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

The revised EULEX mandate runs until June 14th. Also, it was allocated a budget worth of € 169.8 million for mission‘s operations in Kosovo, for two years (June 2018 - June 2020). This budget covers the EULEX mission expenses, worth of 83.6 million euro for the mandate in Kosovo and, at the same time, the one worth of 86.2 million euro for the specialized structures, including prosecutor's office.

L.G.Wigemark is a Swedish diplomat, born on March 20, 1960, in Gothenburg, Sweden. He graduated Harvard University, in 1984, earned a Magna Cum Laude degree in Social Sciences and a master's degree from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in International Law and Economics. In 1988, he joined the Swedish Foreign Service, Stockholm, and was assigned to Belgrade, Washington, Brussels, Kabul and Moscow, where he served as Deputy Chief Minister and Minister at the Swedish Embassy from 2003-2007. In 2008, L.G. Wigemark was appointed head of the Security Policy Structure of the European Commission, and since December 2010 he has been active at the EU External Action Service. In September 2010, the former EU High Representative for European Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, appointed L.G. Wigemark as one of the first EU ambassadors under the Lisbon Treaty. He also assumed new positions in Pakistan at the beginning of February 2011.

Recently, L.G. Wigemark served as the head of the EU delegation and special representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH), until August 2019.

V. Tensions in Montenegro, but also between Belgrade and Podgorica

At the end of 2019, the Montenegrin Parliament adopted a law, called the "law on religious freedom", which divided the Montenegrin society, antagonized the Podgorica leadership, on one hand, the ethnic Serbs of Montenegro and the Serbian Orthodox Church (BOS) structures from Montenegro, on the other hand, and restored Podgorica and Belgrade to confronting positions (for the first time at such a level, after Podgorica's recognition of Kosovo’s independence, in 2008).

One of law’s important purposes is to regulate property relations, related to worship placer. In essence, religious organizations (institutions) in Montenegro must register according to Montenegrin law and demonstrate, in an administrative procedure, the property rights over worship places that use, if they existed before 1918 and belonged to the Montenegrin state.

Thus, in January, in several Montenegro villages, there were organized many public prayers and religious processions, organized by the ethnic Serbs and BOS, protesters demanding Podgorica to cancel the mentioned law and to discuss a new option of the law together with the whole civil society, including the ethnic Serbs from Montenegro and the representatives of BOS. The tense situation created the proper occasion for "excesses" in both camps, resulting in physical violence. Podgorica's leadership mobilized important resources for monitoring the protests and keeping the situation under control, while also accusing Serbia's leadership of "meddling in Montenegro's internal affairs".  

The law on religious freedom has a significant conflict potential, but it is unlikely to reach a civil war. Protests against the law destabilize the security situation in Montenegro and create conditions for foreign interests’ manifestation in Montenegro. Indirectly, Montenegro (re)becomes the "platform" for the confrontation between Russia and the West.

The main arguments of Podgorica's leadership to adopt the law are: ensuring high standards in the field of freedom of conscience and the need to regulate the property rights regarding places of worship. Hereof, Podgorica argues that it enjoys the Venice Commission and NATO and EU partners approval.

Other interests, not publicly expressed by Podgorica, are the weakening Serbian organizations and the BOS in Montenegro influence and the establishment of proper conditions for the (re)establishment of a Montenegrin Orthodox church to be canonically be recognized (possibly according to the "model" in Ukraine). Currently, in Montenegro, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (BOM) is registered, but it does not enjoy the recognition of other local Orthodox churches and (still) it is not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Podgorica probably wants, in the medium and long term, to provide worship places for BOM, which would increase the number of parishioners and would give it the necessary legitimacy to demand Constantinople the tomato of autocephaly, as a Montenegrin metropolis continuator, prior to the First World War, which enjoyed a certain autonomy (BOM claims that it was independent, respectively autocephalous!).   

The "Serbian side" vehemently criticizes the law and claims that it aims, if not abolished, to drastically reduce BOS structures in Montenegro.

Among the "Serbian side" arguments we mention:

- taking 1918 as “milestone”, when Montenegro disappears as a state and integrates into the new state of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, then transformed into former Yugoslavia, which lasted, in various forms, until June 2006;

- BOS was founded in 1219, by St. Sava, who then founded several bishops, including the one from "Zeta", the current Metropolitan of Montenegro and Litoral (MML) predecessor within the BOS. Thus, the only local autocephalous orthodox church in the territory of the present Montenegrin state is BOS, so that historically there is no dilemma;

- BOS ceased its existence as a religious organization twice, between 1463-1557 and 1776-1920. Between 1776-1920, the BOS operated through five autonomous religious structures, two of them being the Metropolitan Church of Belgrade and the Metropolitan Church of Cetinje (Montenegro), which met in 1920;

- it is absurd for BOS to register as a religious organization (church) in Montenegro, according to the current Montenegrin legislation, given that it was established in 1219, well before the Montenegrin state;

- it is impossible to reveal the ownership right over certain worship places, because many were donated to the church by local communities or founded by leaders of the Montenegrin state. In addition, there are many examples when the head of the Montenegrin state was (and) the head of the church in that state.

Belgrade appeals, calmly, to both "camps" in Montenegro and invites Podgorica to dialogue, both with Belgrade, but especially with the ethnic Serbs in Montenegro and BOS. Hence, Belgrade draws attention to the fact that the legitimate interlocutor of BOS is the Synod of Belgrade and not the head of MML, Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radović).

Meanwhile, the Montenegrin prime minister invites Metropolitan Amfilohije to talks and asks him to blame the violent incidents involving those protesting against the new law, and the Metropolitan responds that the dialogue only makes sense if the law is cancelled and another law is adopted.

Serbian nationalists use the opportunity to implicate NATO in this confrontation, accusing the organization of being behind law’s adoption, in order to reduce the importance and influence of BOS in Montenegro. The reason for this would be, according to some Serbian circles, the fact that NATO sees the BOS as a Moscow instrument in Serbia and, by extension, in Montenegro. Hereof, the NATO officials statements regarding Alliance's support for Montenegro's fight against "hybrid influences" (Russians and Serbs), as well as the visit to Montenegro (November 2019) of a specialized NATO hybrid threat fighting team.

In February 2020, we may witness a dialogue between BOS and the Montenegrin authorities, and tensions and confrontations may not degenerate into large-scale violence, although incidents can occur practically, at any time, either following actions of extremists from both camps, either as a result of Montenegrin police interventions against protesters or to ensure the security of the personnel of the local communal services sent to remove the Serbian logos (eg the Serbian tricolor) drawn on buildings or even on the walls of some road communications. The lack of dialogue would favour the increase of violent incidents, both in frequency and intensity, something that both the "Serbian" side and Podgorica authorities want to avoid.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] Olivér Várhelyi (born 22.03.1972, in Szeged) is a Hungarian lawyer and diplomat designated to be the European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, after László Trócsányi's rejection by the European Parliament.