MAS Special ReportWestern Balkans

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31 iulie 2019 - Special reports - Western Balkans

WEST BALKANS - Special Report – June 2019

Stelian Teodorescu

I. The European Union is postponing accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia II. The suspension of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly III. The “Slavic Brotherhood 2019” military drill IV. The “Partner 2019” military equipment and weaponry exposition V. New problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH). The establishment of a Republika Srpska Gendarmerie is predicted VI. Tense evolutions in Montenegro on the subject of the autocephaly of the local Orthodox Christian church

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. The European Union is postponing accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia

On 18.06.2019, in Luxembourg, following a meeting of EU foreign ministers, the European Council announced that it will postpone the launch of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.

According to meeting’s conclusions, it was highlighted that “due to limited time and the importance of the problem, the European Council will come back to this chapter in order to adopt a clear and substantial decision not later than October 2019”. Following the Luxembourg meeting, EU Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn said that “part of the member states did not support the European Commission’s proposal to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia”, deeming the postponement decision as “unfortunate”.

France and the Netherlands are reluctant to green-light accession negotiations before the end of 2019. Germany also brought its contribution to the postponement of negotiations. Despite this, 13 EU member states, mostly from Eastern Europe, but also Italy and Austria, have requested to immediate begin talks with the two Balkan states.

J. Hahn said that he remains “firmly convinced” that the EU “must reward those who accomplished all of the requirements the Council itself set unanimously, in Luxembourg, exactly one year ago”. Moreover, J. Hahn said that he was extremely confident that “a green light will be obtained in October 2019” adding that “the EU’s collective credibility, stimulants, mechanism and leverages for enacting lasting reforms in the entire region is at stake”.


Commissioner Johannes Hahn announced last year that accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia will begin in June 2019, under the condition that the two states will make certain reforms in areas including security and judicial services. On 29.05.2019, the European Commission recommended that accession talks with the two Balkan states begin as quickly as possible, highlighting the fact that the two countries enacted the agreed reforms. The 29.05.2019 recommendation was part of an annual report of the EU’s executive on progresses registered by six states aspiring to access to the Union in fulfilling accession requirements, which also included Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH), Kosovo, Serbia and Turkey.

In Brussels, the commissioner congratulated North Macedonia for solving the problem of its name and ending a decades-long dispute with Greece, which blocked the Balkan states’ accession to NATO and the EU, but also saluted Albania’s justice system reforms.

The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, warned member states that “the failure to recognize the objective progress that was accomplished would affect the EU’s credibility” and could “undermine stability and seriously discourage future reforms”.

In the same context, European Council President Donald Tusk highlighted the fact that the EU should launch accession talks with both North Macedonia and Albania, but warned that there will not be a quick decision on the matter. On 12.06.2019, in a common press conference held in Brussels with North Macedonia President Stevo Pendarovski, Tusk said that the two Balkan states did “everything expected from them” in order to accomplish the EU accession requirements, but added that “not all EU member states are ready to adopt a decision to open negotiations in the following days”.

As was expected, on the background of opposition manifested by some EU member states, leaders in North Macedonia and Albania pointed out the fact that their countries enacted the reforms requested by Brussels, and thus won their right to begin accession negotiations.

North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev warned that any delay in this regard could lead to his government being toppled, which would create a favourable environment for nationalist, anti-EU forces to take the power.

In Brussels, the Macedonian president said that North Macedonia “is not seeking an undeserved prize, but only a deserved chance to construct a European country with a fair, humane and progressive society”. Moreover, he showed the fact that North Macedonia “does not have any unresolved conflicts with its neighbours” and recently accepted a friendship pact with Bulgaria.

During a visit to Skopje, on 11.06.2019, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said that EU leaders should “keep their word” given to the Macedonian state. Despite the fact that there is a certain potential to allow some negotiations with North Macedonia, separately from Albania, potentially supported by France, the Netherlands and Germany, Italy opposes any such option.

In the same context, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama also said that the EU’s trustworthiness could be affected if this organization will not respect its promises and requested the EU to begin accession negotiations with his country, stating that “it is time for Europe to do what is expected of it”. Moreover, Rama also requested the EU to recognized his country’s place within Europe and to “act geostrategically, geopolitically and bases on the states’ merits”.

It is important to mention that Albania is facing internal political strife, as the ruling Socialist Party announced its intention to impeach Albanian President Ilir Meta, following the latter’s statements on the cancelling of local elections scheduled for 30.06.2019, due to a lack of democratic conditions to hold them. In the same context, it is also interesting that Rama himself is targeted by street protests and allegations of corruption and manipulating the electoral process in the previous parliamentary elections, which the Albanian official denies.

Speaking alongside Rama in Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the “mission” to convince reluctant EU states is not impossible, but he added that it was unlikely for accession talks to begin in June 2019. Despite all this, Jean-Claude Juncker expressed his belief that “the moment to launch negotiations with Albania has come”.

Richard Grieveson, an economist at Vienna’s International Economic Studies Institute, warned that any delay in launching accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia will send a negative signal to the Western Balkans, and that reducing the rhythm of the EU’s expansion could generate obstacles for its reform agenda in the region and would also create favourable conditions for China and Russia, which is not in the EU’s interest.


II. The suspension of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly

As until 24.06.2019, authorities in Sarajevo had yet to nominate its new representatives in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, following the general elections in October 2018, BIH’s activity in the European body will be suspended. According to Council of Europe rules, member states must appoint their new representatives in the Parliamentary assembly within six months from the general elections date. The appointment deadline expired in April 2019. Subsequently, the Council of Europe granted an additional deadline, which expired on 24.06.2019, at the beginning of the Council’s summer session.

In a final attempt to resolve the problem, at the initiative of the Bosnian member of BIH’s tripartite presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, an urgent session of the Sarajevo Parliament’s House of Peoples.

Despite all this, representatives of the Alliance of Independent Social-Democrats (SNSD), who have four of the five seats reserved for Bosnian Serbs, refused to take part in the session, under the claim that procedures were not respected. At the same time, the four representatives of the main Bosnian Croats’ party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ BIH) also did not take part in the meeting. The deputy chairman of the House of People and SNSD member Nikola Spiric said that the “SNSD delegates… reached the conclusion that they will not legitimize meetings summoned in violations of the Rules of Conduct”. Furthermore, SNSD accused the Democratic Action Party (SDA), Bosnia’s largest party, for the country’s post-electoral blockage.

At the same time, Dusanka Majkic, a representative of Bosnian Serbs in the Sarajevo Parliament, said that “it is obvious that SDA has blocked the election of a new Council of Ministers and that, until this process is unblocked, there is no chance for SNSD to function within BIH’s Parliamentary Assembly”.

On the other hand, SDA claims that SNSD is the party blocking the formation of a new government and accused it of violating both the constitution and the Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the 1992 war in Bosnia. SDA member Adil Osmanovic said that the “Parliamentary Assembly’s activity cannot be linked with the formation or lack of a Council of Ministers”.


BIH has 10 MPs in its delegation at the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. The house of Peoples in the Sarajevo Parliament has 15 delegates, five each for the three ethnicities which are part of the country – Bosnians, Serbs and Croatians. For a summoned session to take place, at least three representatives from each ethnicity must decide to attend.

Eight months after the October 2018 elections, BIH has yet to form a Council of Ministries, with the main cause of disagreement being Bosnia’s NATO accession process.

Bosnian Serb leaders are against joining NATO, which is instead supported by Bosnian and Bosnian Croatians. In this context, Bosnian leaders refuse to support SNSD candidate Zoran Tegeltija for President of the Council of Ministers, if the “Serbian side” will not accept the accession to NATO. On the other hand, Bosnian Serb leaders refuse to involve themselves in solving any other problems until a new Council of Minister is appointed. A similar situation happened after the 2010 general elections, when the Council of Ministers was formed only after 16 months but, despite this, the Bosnian parliamentary delegation was validated and took part in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly sessions. The current situation will significantly affect BIH’s image internationally, with the risk of calling into questions all of the country’s efforts towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration.


III. The “Slavic Brotherhood 2019” military drill

Between 14-27.06.2019, Serbia hosted a trilateral tactical military drill for special ops forces named “The Slavic Brotherhood 2019”. More than 600 special ops troops from Belarus, Russia and Serbia took part in the drill. The drill was carried out on the “Oresac” (near Vrsac) and “Peskovi” (near Velik Gradiste) military shooting ranges, on the “Kovin” military aerodrome and on a sector of the Danube-Tisza-Danube Channel, while opening (14.06) and closing (26.06) ceremonies were held at the “Rastko Nemanjic” barracks in Pancevo, where the Serbian Army’s Special Brigade Command is deployed.

The drill’s theme was the action of a tactical special ops group within a counter-terrorist operation, with the objective aiming to commonly train troops from the three participating armies in a series of procedures, exchange experience and have them become accustomed to the weapons and equipment of the other armies, but also to strengthen the spirit of comradery between the three countries’ soldiers.


The Slavic Brotherhood drill has reached its fifth edition. It is held once per year, alternatively in the three countries: Russia (2015, 2018), Serbia (2016, 2019) and Belarus (2017). The Slavic Brotherhood 2020 drill will be held in Belarus.

For the purposes of the drill, five IL-76MD aircrafts from Russia’s military transport aviation were used, from which both paratroopers and military technique were deployed. Outside of individual weaponry, the Russian side also transported several units of military technique and specific equipment to Serbia (ATV’s, BMD-2 fighter vehicles, BTR-82A armoured transporters, special “Lynx”-type vehicles, parachuting systems etc.).

The drill was carried out in three stages. In the first stage, the three contingents were integrated and started practicing tactics, techniques and procedures used by the three armies in counterterrorist operations. Among others, helicopter deployment and parachuting deployment, forcing a watercourse or blocking an objective were used. In the second stage, Russian paratroopers were instructed by Russian instructors on how to use Russian parachuting technique (“D-10” and “Arbalet-2” parachutes). The drill’s third stage (June 24-26) was the “active phase” and the most interesting for the public, as it was carried out in two dynamic sub-stages. On June 24, a Day of Distinguished Guests was held on the “Kovin” military airdrome, attended, among others, by the Serbian defence minister and the Serbian Army’s Chief of General Staff.

During the first two stages, the drill’s organizers planned several socialization activities, with the aim to strengthen comradery between the three contingents’ troops (visiting and taking part in a mass at Serbia’s biggest Orthodox cathedral, still under construction and for which Moscow donated important sums; visiting the Museum of Yugoslav Military Aviation in Belgrade, where there are exhibits on NATO’s air strikes against the former Yugoslavia in 1999; taking part in shows by military artistic ensembles from the three countries; taking part in a mass for Soviet soldiers who fell in the “Great Patriotic War”, between 1941 and 1945).


IV. The “Partner 2019 military equipment and weaponry exposition

Between 25-28.06.2019, under the patronage of Serbia’s Defence Ministry, the “Partner 2019”  international weaponry and military equipment exposition was held in Belgrade. The exposition’s co-organizer was state company Jugoimport-SDPR (responsible with integrating the main companies from Serbia’s defence industry and for importing and exporting products and dual technology for state institutions), while the “technical producer” was the Belgrade Fair (Beogradski sajam). The exposition is held once every two years, in uneven years.

Authorities in Belgrade invited about 30 foreign delegations to attend the exposition (mainly defence ministers or agencies/ministries responsible with the defence industry). The media reported the Serbian minister’s meetings with delegations from Belarus, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Cameroon, as well as with one of the best-known exhibitors, Airbus.

During the exposition’s second day, the “Nikinci” military shooting range hosted target practices with live ammunition from different categories of weaponry and military technique, to mark Jugoimport-SDPR’s 70th anniversary. 128 exhibitors took part in the exposition, of which 96 were from Serbia and 32 from abroad. The general public was allowed access to the exposition only during its last day.


Political-military authorities in Belgrade, which came to power after 2012, grant special attention to Serbia’s defence industry, as well as to equipping Serbia’s defence and security system. Authorities also use the defence industry to promote the thesis that it is just an “engine” for developing other industrial branches, but also to highlight the fact that it has recovered, and not only brings important contributions to the budget, but also creates jobs. Evidence for this policy is the participation at the “Partner 2019” opening ceremony of several high-ranked officials, including the country’s president, defence minister and chief of general staff.

The main update from this year’s edition was a ceremony which saw Airbus hand over the Serbian Army its first H145M helicopter, with the aircraft’s key given directly to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who in turn gave it to the chief of general staff. The helicopter, with the serial number “14501”, has camouflage paint and is configured for use in search and rescue missions.

President Vucic used this occasion to highlight the Serbian Army’s significant leap with regards to its helicopter fleet, while also stating the multilateral character of Belgrade’s collaboration with Airbus.

The Serbian President said that Serbia bought nine H145 helicopter from Airbus, with different configurations: fighting (four bought for the Serbian Interior Ministry and five for the Serbian Army), general use, search and rescue, search and rescue in conflict, medical evac. In this context, the Serbian head of state announced the purchase of three “Super Puma” (H215) helicopters for the Serbian police, while also announcing the possibility of future purchases. A second aspect of the collaboration, also highlighted in “Partner 2019”, refers to the “Moma Stanojlovic” Aircraft Factory in Batajnica (Belgrade) receiving a certification to repair Gazela (produced in the former Yugoslavia under licence, based on the Gazelle helicopters, SA 340/341/342) and H145 helicopters (the official granting of the certificate took place in the exposition’s first day).

Despite the praise showered by officials in Belgrade on the Serbian defence industry and for Serbian innovations in the field of defence, the exposition also proved a certain “fatigue”, as products which had multiple “debuts” in expositions from other countries and in past years were promoted, some of them already part of the Serbian army’s and/or police’s equipment.

Among the weaponry and military technique system exhibited within “Partner 2019” which caught the eye were: the Sumadija surface-to-surface missile system, the Lazar-3 multi-role armoured vehicle. the NORA B52 self-propelled howitzer cannon, calibre 155 mm, the unmanned and armed MIlos terrestrial platform, the Milos armoured vehicle, the PASARS anti-air defence system, the ALAS/RALAS anti-armoured missile system, the Tamnava self-propelled rocket launcher, the Strsjlen unmanned helicopter, the automatic weapon fabricated by the Zastava oruzje factory in Kragujevac and others. Some of these were displayed in target practice at the Nikinci shooting range (Munja unguided reactive projectiles, calibre 128mm, the Milos terrestrial platform, the Lazar 3 armoured vehicle, the NORA B52 howitzer cannon), on June 26, while others were shown to foreign delegations present in Nikinci (the Sova aircraft, the 6.5 calibre modular rifle, Maliutka 2F and 2T5 anti-tank missiles, infrantry equipment etc.)

We need to highlight the presence at “Partner 2019” of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s acting president, Milorad Dodik, who is the president of the ruling party in the Republika Srpska, as cooperation with the defence industry in the republic is growing. The Serbian Defence Ministry has become an important client for the “Orao” company based in Bijeljina, and a similar collaboration is planned with the Special-Purpose Engines Factory in Pale and with the “Kosmos” company in Banja Luka. Last but not least, defence companies from the Republika Srpska were also present at “Partner 2019”. (Orao, Kosmos, Bratunac Technical Repairs etc.).

V. New problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH). The establishment of a Republika Srpska Gendarmerie is predicted

At the end of June 2019, the government of the Republika Srpska (RS) decided to withdraw from a bill regarding the entity’s police and Interior Ministry several articles on a police reserve force. The bill was adopted in April 2019 by the government of the Serbian entity within BIH and included provisions to establish a structure of police reserve forces. It is significant to mention that the project entered the RS parliament’s procedures.

As was expected, the project was heavily criticized by Bosnian officials and parties from the BIH, which accused RS of wanting to “militarize” and even destabilize the situation in the country. Furthermore, Bosnian circles recommended the adoption of a similar measure for the other entity which is part of BIH, the Croatian-Muslim Federation (FBiH). With the exception of Russia, the RS initiative was also criticized by ambassadors from the Peace Implementation Council (PIC).


The intention to form an RS police reservists’ structure was also heavily criticized by the opposition in Banja Luka, which accused the ruling party of aiming to transform RS into a police-state. The project did not include any calculations regarding the costs and did not set a number of potential police reservists.

The project’s main deficiency was the lack of solid arguments for its necessity. The only reasons included in the draft bill regarded the necessity to strengthen law enforcement, which is facing ever more complex challenges. Migration was vaguely indicated as one of the major challenges.

The RS government motivated the withdrawal of provisions regarding the reserve force through the fact that it was criticized by the public and part of the international community (including PIC), but also because it would have been a lengthy and very complicated project which, in addition, would have required a slow and costly selection, training and equipment process.

On 24.06.2019, in order to counteract security challenges (including the migrant crisis), the RS Government proposed the establishment of a new police structure, under the name of “Gendarmerie”.

According to the intention of lawmakers in Banja Luka, the “RS Gendarmerie” will be formed based on the police’s Support Unit, by completing the latter with personnel (especially young policemen, new graduates of the Police Academy) and through a special training program.

The opposition in Banja Luka and BIH Bosnian parties consider that the new police structure has the objective to preserve the current political class in power (by any means), starting with Dodik, the former RS president and current president of the main party in the RS, as well as representative of the Serbian entity in the BIH presidency.

Those who oppose the establishment of an “RS Gendarmerie” warn of entity’s militarization, bringing further arguments in the 2018 renovation of training facilities in Zaluzani (in a former military barrack) and the future endowment of the RS Police with approximately 2,500 automatic weapons (Produced at the Zastava oruzje factory in Kragujevac, Serbia). Authorities in Banja Luka reject these accusations and criticisms, and instead highlight the necessity to establish, equip and adequately train a structure capable to counteract modern security challenges, among which terrorism and the migrant crisis stand out. Probably, in its approach to establish a Gendarmerie, RS will be counselled and supported by Serbia.

In this context, we should mention RS’ firm opposition to establishing migrant centres on its territory, as well as its refusal to allow the BIH Armed Forces at its part of the border, in order to manage the migrant crisis. In the long run, it is not excluded for RS to resume the matter of establishing a police reserve force.


VI. Tense evolutions in Montenegro on the subject of the autocephaly of the local Orthodox Christian church

2018 was marked by tensions between Montenegro and Serbia regarding the assessment and classification of the act abolishing the Montenegrin state, 100 years ago, with the “Serbian side” considering it a union made with patriotic impetus, while the “Montenegrin side” considers it an act of national betrayal and military occupation.

This year also seems to be marked by a conflict between the two sides, this time on the legitimacy of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC), and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), respectively, inside Montenegrin territory, and on the ownership of the properties held by religious communities in Montenegro. In this context, in April 2019, the Montenegrin Government passed a bill regarding religious liberties, currently in public debate.

SOC supporters (Belgrade, most of the Serbs in Serbia and most of the Serbs in Montenegro) criticized the bill and even requested international intervention, in order to stop the Montenegrin state from taking over SOC properties.

MOC supporters (the current leaders in Podgorica, Montenegrin ethnics in Montenegro, other Montenegrin parties in Montenegro) want the SOC gone from Montenegro and the MOC to take over all places of worship in the country. Last, but not least, they want a privileged status for the MOC, as the future church of the majority of Montenegro’s population.

In this context, among the significant evolution in this context, there is a statement made in June 2019 by Montenegrin President Milo Dukanovic, regarding the necessity of (re)establishing the MOC and finding a solution for church properties in Montenegro, the Venice Commission’s assessment of the Montenegrin religious freedoms bill and a letter sent to the head of state by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

In these conditions, the Venice Commission’s assessment was published (21.06.2019), which has elements interpreted as being favourable by each of the two “sides”.

The highlight of this conflict in the month of June was a letter sent by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the Montenegrin leader, published on 27.06.2019 (dated 21.06.2019), which “dismantles” the “Montenegrin side’s” hopes to (re)establish the MOC as an autocephalous church.


President Dukanovic’s stance on the matter was received with satisfaction by the “Montenegrin side”, the most vocal of all being “Metropolitan Mihajlo” (Miras Dedeic), the leader of the current MOC, which is not canonically recognized by any local Orthodox church (autocephalous), nor by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

“The Serbian side”, however, lead by the SOC’s Montenegro metropolitan, Amfilohije (Radovic), harshly attacked the Montenegrin president, accusing him of wanting to form a personal church and confiscate the SOC’s properties in Montenegro. This stance was supported by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, as well by Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, while the situation blew up in the two countries’ media.

The Venice Commission’s assessment is affected by the fact that it analysed the case exclusively based on data received from the Montenegrin government, without listening to the arguments of the “Serbian side”. In any case, the Venice Commission proposes a coherent and transparent administrative procedure for assessing the status of properties currently under the ownership/management of religious communities in Montenegro.

Patriarch Bartholomew’s letter highlights, among others, that the MOC was never autocephalous, that “Metropolitan Mihajlo” is not part of the clergy of any Orthodox church (as he was defrocked by the ecumenical patriarch), and also the fact that the only canonical orthodox church in Montenegro is the SOC. Last, but not least, the patriarch denies any similitude between Montenegro and Ukraine where, in January 2019, the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church received a Tomos of Autocephaly from the Ecumenic Patriarchate.

On the other hand, Montenegro is supported both by the centuries-long existence of a relatively autonomous orthodox church on its territory (until 1920), as well as by the canonical principle, according to which the jurisdiction of an orthodox church is imposed over the borders of a natio state. But this principle is not respected in many cases, even in neighbouring states (the Russian church has jurisdiction in Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, the Romanian Church has jurisdiction in Serbia and Moldova, the Serbian church has jurisdiction in BIH, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia), while the metropolis which exists on the Montenegrin territory was frequently considered for several centuries as a “Serbian” metropolis.

One proposed solution would be to transform the current Metropolis of Montenegro, belonging to the SOC, into the “Montenegrin Orthodox Church”, but it unlikely that this will be autocephalous, with a higher probability to remain dependent on the Archbishopric of Belgrade (and the SOC, respectively).

Translated by Ionut Preda