Southeast Europe Weekly News Round-Up: September 18

If you missed last week’s regional news round-up, read it here

Balkan Insight, a part of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) published a report this week that reveals a Syria-bound arms route from Southeast Europe through Germany, funded by the U.S. Pentagon.

According to the BIRN report, the U.S. has funneled shipments of AK-47s, rocket launchers, ammunition, and other arms, totaling over $700 million in value in just two years, to Syrian rebels via back channels. The bulk of the arms seem to have been purchased in Central and Eastern Europe and are more than likely ending up in the hands of paramilitary formations fighting ISIS in the region.




Albania

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama was confirmed for a second mandate in a vote of confidence by Albania’s Parliament on Wednesday. After a 20-hour-long session, 78 voted in favor of Rama’s new government, while there were 51 votes against.

Albanian and Macedonian prime ministers Edi Rama and Zoran Zaev met in Trieste on Tuesday, to talk about strengthening relations and cooperation between the two countries. The two also discussed how to improve inter-ethnic relations between Albanians and Macedonians in Macedonia, through new legislature.

Albania’s Minister of Defense Olta Xhacka announced on Friday that Albania plans to send a third infantry platoon to Afghanistan, “in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s new strategy on Afghanistan.”

Albania is launching its first LGBTQ helpline, tasked with offering support and resources to the LGBTQ community in the country. A 2013 Open Society Foundation report labeled the country as one of the most homophobic in Europe and LGBTQ individuals in Albania face daily discrimination, from the education sector to health services and from members of the police department, despite the country’s laws against discrimination.

Bosnia-Herzegovina

On Wednesday, a non-binding declaration was signed by 27 out of 39 members of the House of Representatives of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Parliament to stop Croatia’s building of the Pelješac Bridge. The declaration asks that both Croatia and the EU “without delay, halt all work” that could bring into question Bosnia-Herzegovina’s sovereign rights in the Adriatic Sea. Representatives of the European Commission had previously stated that the EU would like to see good neighborly relations between the two countries, along with an agreement on this matter as soon as possible.

Another mass grave dating from the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s was discovered in central Bosnia. In the mountains of Koricanske Stijene, where more than 200 civilian men were executed by Serb forces in August 1992 following their eviction from a northwestern region, some 20 victims have been exhumed so far and forensics experts are working on identifying the remains.

Chinese energy conglomerate China Energy Engineering Corp (CEEC) is in talks to invest €1 billion in a 430-megawatt coal-fired power plant and developing a coal mine in Bosnia’s autonomous Bosniak-Croat Federation. If realized, the project is set to be the largest energy project in the Balkans.

Bosnian ice cream manufacturer Ledo and mineral water company Sarajevski Kiseljak are set to become the majority stakeholders in failed regional food and beverage retail company Agrokor’s holdings in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since 2016, Agrokor has shaken up regional economies by amassing a debt of some €6 billion.




Bulgaria

Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev stated in an interview on national Nova TV on Wednesday that “Bulgaria’s relations with Russia should not become a hostage to foreign interests.” In the television appearance, Radev elaborated on the issue by saying that, for some officials and politicians in Bulgaria, it seemed that relations with Russia “could never be bad enough.”

After head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker called for a fast expansion of the Schengen space in his state of the union speech, Dutch, German and Austrian representatives have opposed the accession to Schengen for Romania and Bulgaria, citing “too many fears about border control and corruption.”

Croatia

Croatia’s coastline was hit with heavy rainfall last weekend, which continued and triggered flash floods on Monday, wreaking havoc across Istria and Dalmatia.

Low-cost carrier Ryanair will be introducing two new weekly flights from Frankfurt to three Croatian cities, Rijeka, Pula and Zadar, in March 2018.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitanović visited Hungary to discuss Hungary’s recent announcement that it would be blocking Croatia’s OECD membership bid. Grabar-Kitanović met and spoke with Hungarian President János Áder and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, where she was assured by the two statesmen that Hungary’s decision to block Croatia’s membership in the OECD was not an attempt by Hungary to intimidate Croatia in any way, but a decision made out of dissatisfaction in the way Croatia handled the INA-MOL dispute in recent years.

Director of Croatian Fund for Environmental Protection and Energy Efficiency Ljubomir Majdandžić announced this week that the government would be launching a new round of subsidies for the purchase of electric cars in 2018, estimated at some $13 million, as well as continued investments in related infrastructure. Croatia has already invested some $12 million in sustainable energy transportation in the country.

A private language school in Zagreb has launched a billboard campaign in Croatia’s capital, featuring FLOTUS Melania Trump. The billboards show Mrs. Trump delivering a speech in front of an American flag, with the tagline: “Just imagine how far you can go with a little bit of English.”

Greece

After an oil tanker carrying some 2,500 metric tons of oil sank off the coast of Salamis Island last Sunday, emergency teams in Greece are struggling to prevent the spreading of the spill, which currently stretches more than a kilometer and a half in the waters near Athens.

The country’s environmental woes continued Thursday, when the European Court of Justice ruled against Greece for failing to meet European waste management and drainage standards in four towns in the north and one in central Greece. No fine was imposed, as this is Greece’s first conviction after multiple warnings since 2007, but the court will impose financial penalties if concrete action is not taken in the next few months.




Hungary

Hungarian-American film producer Andy Vajna, who also happens to own one of Hungaria’s largest broadcast networks TV2 and is the government’s film commissioner, just purchased another media company in the country. Vajna’s company Avalue announced on Monday that it had acquired Lapcom, the publisher of Hungarain tabloid Bors and two local daily newspapers. Vajna is a supporter of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been known to influence media close to him, while accusing the few media critical of his government of being Soros-funded foes of the government.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visited Hungary this week and condemned the country’s treatment of refugees. Grandi expressed concern over the detainment  of asylum-seekers in Hungary in closed centers at the border, including children, as well as disappointment with the low number of refugees allowed to file asylum claims. In 2015 and 2016, Hungary accepted just 927 asylum seekers, while Germany took in over 1.1 million asylum seekers over those same two years.

In related news, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that Hungary could face financial consequences, if it continues to defy the European court ruling to accept its share of refugees arriving in Europe. Last week, the European court ruled against complaints regarding these quotas filed by Hungary and Slovakia – a ruling that Hungarian PM Orban has vowed to fight, announcing that a wall will be built across Hungary’s borders, which he expects the EU to pay for.

Kosovo

After last week’s confirmation of Kosovo’s largest government to date, the Serb List has officially joined the new cabinet of Prime Minister Haradinaj. The head of Serbia’s Government Office for Kosovo and Metohija, Marko Djuric, told reporters at a news conference in Belgrade on Monday that Serbia’s attitude toward PM Haradinaj would not change and that, to Serbia, Haradinaj remained an accused war criminal.

On Thursday, Kosovo police special forces raided the offices of Serbia’s Red Cross in the northern city of Mitrovica, questioning employees and confiscating documents, under suspicion that the premises, employees and data were being used to conduct an illegal census of Serbs in Kosovo.

Kosovo has selected Amsterdam-based Kosovar director Edon Rizvanolli’s film ‘Unwanted’ as its candidate for the Foreign Language Film category at the next Oscars.

Macedonia

Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev visited Idrizovo prison near the capital of Skopje on Monday, after which he told reporters he was “ashamed to be Prime Minister of a country with such prisons.” Zaev announced a complete renovation of the prison, as well as possible amnesty in the near future for Idrizovo inmates, who he claimed were being held in inhumane conditions.

Macedonia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Nikola Dimitrov was in London this week to meet with British Foreign Minister Sir Alan Duncan and representatives of the Labour Party. Minister Dimitrov said in an interview that he is in London “to get the endorsement of the world’s oldest democracy” for what he believes are “very hopeful prospects” for Macedonia.

In the meantime, Macedonia’s Parliament voted on Monday on a no-confidence motion filed by the VMRO-DPMNE party against Foreign Affairs Minister Dmitrov. Dimitrov is one of three ministers from the new Social Democrat-led cabinet to become the subject of a no-confidence motion filed by VMRO-DPMNE, which had been in power in Macedonia prior to the December 2016 election. The motion was rejected by 56 votes, versus 43 votes in favor.

On Saturday, Standard & Poor’s confirmed Macedonia’s long-term and short-term foreign and local currency sovereign credit ratings at BB-/B, with a stable outlook.




Montenegro

A journalist from Montenegrin daily newspaper Dan caught the brother of Montenegrin Prime Minister Marković threatening the journalist on tape. After the death threats were first reported on Monday, the Marković family denied the accusations, after which the daily released the audio recording. Media watchdogs have condemned the threats, urging authorities to react.

On Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker addressed a letter of intent to European Parliament President and the Chairperson of the EU Council, announcing that the European Commission plans to create a strategy for the successful accession of Serbia and Montenegro to the EU by the end of 2018, with the perspective of accession in 2025.

After an assessment of Montenegro, the IMF has concluded that Montenegro’s economy will continue to grow at a moderate pace. Growth is expected to continue, boosted by several large investment projects, including the construction of the Bar-Boljare highway. Projections expect the small country’s economy to expand by 3% in 2017 and 2.8% percent in 2018, with planned fiscal consolidation acting as a moderate drag on growth.

Romania

After more than 480 migrants landed on Romania’s coast last month, it seems the country is the destination on a new regular route for migrants fleeing North Africa. Questions are being raised as to whether Romania is ready for the mass influx of migrants in coming months.

Greek Eurobank is in talks with Romanian Banca Transilvania to sell its subsidiaries in Romania as part of a restructuring plan to dispose of the troubled bank’s non-Greek assets. The result of the negotiations is expected to be made public by the end of October.

Romania’s oldest politician, Mircea Ionescu Quintus, passed away this week at the age of 100. Quintus was a political prisoner under Romania’s communist regime and later became Senate speaker.

Despite opposition from some member states, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated during his state of the union address this week that Bulgaria and Romania should immediately join the EU’s Schengen area.

Serbia

After over 50 events held in the Serbian capital for Belgrade Pride Week, the week was topped off with the city’s annual Belgrade Pride Parade. Serbia’s openly gay Prime Minister Ana Brnabić was in attendance, along with several other politicians, ministers, and Belgrade’s Mayor Siniša Mali.

EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn visited Belgrade to meet with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić and other officials on Friday. Hahn reaffirmed the EU’s perspective for Serbia and the Western Balkans, urging Serbia’s leaders to continue the path of accession to the EU, saying that, “for too long, Serbia and the so-called Western Balkans have been seen as the backyard of Europe.”

According to the Statistics Institute of the Republic of Serbia, households in Serbia continue to spend more than they earn. The median monthly net household income in Serbia now stands at RSD60,195 (approx. €505), while monthly expenditures stand at RSD61,477 (approx. €516).

Serbian daily newspaper Večernje Novosti alleged this week that Western governments were preparing an anti-Russian media offensive in Serbia. The daily claims to have learned that a portion of the $250 million allocated by U.S. Congress for the Countering Russian Influence Fund for 2017 and 2018 will be headed for Serbia.




Must-Read of the Week

Our pick of the week for light reading in your leisure time is related to the Russian-Belarussian “Zapad-2017” military exercises, which began on September 14. Head of the OSCE and Eastern Security Unit at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dominik P. Jankowski penned the piece “Ten things you need to know about Russian military exercises” to clarify it all a little for the rest of us.

Feature image source credit: Belgrade Pride 2010 by Aleksandar Maćašev [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Danica Radisic

Danica Radisic is Editor-in-Chief of The SEE Observer. She is also the proud owner of toddler, teen, two dogs, and a boutique communications and marketing agency. Danica has spent over a decade not only following and working with media in Southeast Europe, but also training journalists in using new tools and new media development. Follow Danica on Twitter as @nikibgd.

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