Western Balkans overview Aug 13, 2023 – CWBS

Western Balkans overview Aug 13, 2023 – CWBS
  • Serbia sees a threat in the letter penned by lawmakers from 10 countries calling for a shift in approaches to the settlement between Belgrade and Pristina

Fifty-five members of national parliaments, including the chairs of parliamentary committees on foreign affairs from 10 European countries, have addressed the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, with an open letter. The legislators appeal for the need to review the approach pursued by Europeans and Americans regarding relations with Serbia and Kosovo. The letter provoked a harsh reaction on the part of Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić, given that it was signed by the EU, US, and UK special representatives for the Western Balkans, as well as two Ukrainian parliamentarians. The authorities in Belgrade saw this as part of Ukraine’s preparation for the formal recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. Ukraine’s Ambassador to Serbia Volodymyr Tolkach issued a comment in this regard, emphasizing that Kyiv’s policy on the Kosovo issue remains unwavering. Despite the fact that Ukraine condemns Serbia’s neutrality in the matter of Russia sanctions and also despite some Ukrainian MPs do support the idea of Kyiv officially recognizing Kosovo, Ukraine is unlikely to take such a step any time soon. Taking into account the fact that Serbia supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity at the UN General Assembly level, while Ukraine systematically refrains from backing any decisions that would consider Kosovo an independent actor on international platforms, we assume that the status quo is preserved in Ukraine regarding the Kosovo issue, despite certain voices heard in the media space, calling for Kyiv to reconsider its stance on Kosovo.

  • President Milorad Dodik of Republika Srpska under investigation

The Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina has accused President of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, of “failing to implement the decisions of High Representative Christian Schmidt”. The confrontation between the nationalist-leaning leader of the Serbian entity and the High Representative for BiH has been simmering for quite a while. Earlier, Milorad Dodik filed with the district prosecutor’s office in Banja Luka a crime report, calling for a case to be opened against Christian Schmidt himself. Neither Dodik nor his political allies, including in Moscow and Beijing, have acknowledged the Schmidt’s appointment as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Earlier, Russia and China proposed that the position be abolished altogether. According to the authorities in Banja Luka, the charges targeting Dodik were drafted by the American embassy. The Cabinet of the Republika Srpska President sees the step as an attempt by the prosecutor’s office of BiH and the political elite in Sarajevo, allegedly controlled by the US, UK,and EU embassies, to destroy the government institutions in the Serbian entity. Željka Tsvijanović, a member of the presidium in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that BiH was brought to “collapse by various mediators of the international factor.” She said that “citizens are very well aware that Republika Srpska is under constant pressure from those inside and outside Bosnia and Herzegovina who are trying to centralize the country beyond the procedures laid down in Constitution. The latest charges pressed against Republika Srpska’s President M. Dodik and director of the Official Gazette of RS are actually pure political persecution.” Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina issued a statement in support of the BiH Prosecutor’s Office, which filed an indictment against RS President Milorad Dodik and Acting Chief of the Official Gazette of RS, Miloš Lukić over their failure to implement the decisions of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt. Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijártó, for his part, expressed his support for Dodik, comparing the charges with those pressed in the US against ex-President Donald Trump. The statement came as no surprise, given the strong ties between Banja Luka and Budapest. There is a general trend showing all of Vladimir Putin’s friends being interconnected and tending to voice support for each other. In another controversial move, 16 Bosnian-Herzegovinian ambassadors and consuls general (all ethnic Serbs) issued a statement, accusing the BiH Prosecutor General’s Office and the US Embassy of a biased attitude towards RS President. Meanwhile, the office of the High Representative for BiH reiterated the position that respect for the constitutional and legal framework and the principle of the rule of law is a feature of every democratic society. “This is everyone’s duty and no one is above the law,” the statement reads. It is likely that the inquiry and potential trial of Milorad Dodik can both discourage the centrifugal steps by Banja Luka and encourage the nationalist elements across e RS to “go to the end” in their demands and vision of justice. It seems that Washington, London, and Brussels no longer harbor any illusions about Milorad Dodik, seeing that he openly took on the path of escalation in BiH, pushing the issue of secessionism. It can now be assumed that his disregard for the country’s national institutions can lead to both a deep political crisis and also a possible armed conflict.

  • Operation Storm anniversary provokes another round of tension between Serbia and Croatia, sparking more Russian fake news

August 4-7 marked the anniversary of Operation Storm, a large-scale military operation (1995), during which the Croatian army and police forces recaptured most of the Croatian territories separated from the central state, on which the unrecognized state of Republika Srpska was created by local Serb secessionists. Operation Storm, which covered the expanses of Lika and North Dalmatia, along with Operation Lightning to enable the Croatian government to regain control of Western Slavonia, became a key military effort that brought the Croatian War of Independence to an end. Russia’s Ambassador to Serbia Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko said that the anti-Serbian Operation Storm was run by Western intelligence agencies services which exploited the Croatian army. The ambassador noted that the same mechanisms and scenarios were applied as they are now in Ukraine, “in line with the same patterns, with the same inhumane attitude.” “And the Russians in Donbas would have seen the same tragic fate as the Ukrainian Serbs, had the plans drawn by the West andthe Kyiv regime not been thwarted by a Russian special military operation,” the diplomat concluded. However, it was precisely the Russian side that applied the plan to seize the Ukrainian territories of Crimea and Donbas by the scheme used on Croatian soil in the early 1990s. Generally accusing the other party of fascism to justify violence, inciting chauvinism and intimidating the civilian population, as well as misleading locals through propaganda channels – Russia did all of this during the initial attack on the Ukrainian Crimea and Donbas, as well as in the course of Moscow’s large-scale military aggression against Ukraine. Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik rather expectedly echoed Russian ambassador’s statements, claiming that Operation Storm was a joint criminal act by the US and Croatia, which was eager to ethnically purge the area of Serbs. Meanwhile, during the commemorative events in Prijedor, attended by Milorad Dodik and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić, footage was aired purportedly showing the “suffering” of Serbian children, which, in fact, turned out to be videos showing the children of local Muslims, who were killed en masse in this war. This caused a significant stir in Bosnian society. The absolutely opposite assessment of war events in Croatia observed in Zagreb and Belgrade further proves that the process of reconciliation between the two peoples is at the freezing point at this stage, which may eventually become a pretext for new conflicts.

  • After Russia pulls from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Croatia offers Ukraine help with grain exports

Kyiv and Zagreb are developing routes for the export of rye and wheat through Croatian ports on the Danube and the Adriatic Sea. This was agreed upon during the visit of the Croatian Foreign Minister to Ukraine. Croatian ex-Minister of Economy Ljubo Jurčić believes that the Ukrainian grain export project bears significant transportation costs. He is sure that Zagreb’s proposal is primarily “an expression of sympathy for Ukraine to show that Croatia stands with Kyiv.” The plan is to export grain from Ukraine to Croatia through two Ukrainian ports on the Danube in Odesa region – Izmail and Reni – to the Croatian river port of Vukovar. However, immediately after withdrawing from the grain deal, Russia started launching missiles and drones targeting the port infrastructure and grain storage facilities in the region. Among other areas, the attacks also targeted the ports of Izmail and Reni, along with grain silos. Considering the huge export volume of Ukrainian grain, the issue of its transportation to Croatian ports on the Adriatic Sea, first of all to Rijeka, requires stable logistics. Tens of thousands of heavy trucks would be needed to ship a million tons of grain by road. However, the railway option would make the project realistic and less costly in terms of shipment. It can be concluded that the Croatian route cannot be seen as the main export lane. At the same time, it is absolutely acceptable as an additional window of opportunity in the context of the need to avoid the Black Sea, patrolled by Russian warships, and traffic jams in the Bosphorus.

  • Albanian PM Edi Rama expresses hope that the Russian war on Ukraine will speed up integration of the countries across the region into the EU

“This is not just a financial issue, but primarily a geopolitical one. In the long term, it would be good for the Western Balkans to join the European Union immediately, so as not to leave black holes and space for third parties that have already created problems in the region,” said Rama. Given Moscow’s attempts to escalate tensions in the region, primarily in Kosovo or Bosnia and Herzegovina, and possibly even in Montenegro, the EU accession of Western Balkan states such as Serbia, Albania, BiH, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Kosovo will in many ways protect them from Russian influence and provocative efforts to spark conflict. It can be assumed that the aggressive intentions on the part of the Kremlin are clearly seen in Brussels, therefore the question of the EU membership for Western Balkan nations is indeed on the political agenda while the war in Ukraine can objectively speed up the process.

  • Armies of Western Balkan nations: latest ranking

Serbia’s army ranks highest among those in the region as per the Global Firepower index. In terms of strength, the Serbian armed forces are ranked 58th out of 145 armies, inching three spots up against last year’s report. Croatia, on the contrary, dropped from 62nd position to 69th, Albania ranks 91st, North Macedonia – 108th, Montenegro – 128th, BiH – 133rd, and Kosovo – 134th. For comparison, Romania is ranked 47th, Hungary – 54th, Bulgaria – 59th, and Slovenia – 86th. In total, 50 different assessment factors were taken into account. The TOP 5 are the armies of the USA, Russia, China, India, and the UK. Of 80,000 military personnel in the Serbian army, 25,000 are active-duty soldiers. It operates 117 warplanes, 51 helicopters, 242 main battle tanks, 9,592 armored fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers. A logical question arises whether the official Belgrade will try to convert its military superiority in relation to its neighbors in order to exert pressure on their political landscape. While Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia have the security umbrella from NATO and are unlikely to face an immediate threat, BiH and Kosovo are in a completely different situation in the military sense. Therefore, it can be suggested that the possibility of military aggravation across the Western Balkans is possible precisely in these two areas. At the same time, Washington, Brussels, and London keep an eye on the situation in the region through consistent monitoring.

  • In Montenegro, some media outlets see pressure from pro-Russian forces

In Montenegro, overtly pro-Russian forces are exerting intense pressure on the government-oriented media. In particular, targeting the Gradski.me Radio Station and its website, some pro-Russian politicians accused the platform of hate speech they saw in some broadcasts and articles. At the same time, the group never backed their rather serious accusations with any practical examples. Obviously, the main task was to ensure the sacking of the patriotic top managers of this mass medium. Therefore, the local and even part of the international democratic community spoke out in defense of Gradski.me, seeing the pro-Russian lobby blatantly and unfoundedly accusing the outlet. Also, the editor-in-chief and deputy chief of one of Montenegro’s most popular news websites, AntenaM, faced death threats from some pro-Russian chauvinists. The latest episode is of particular concern and requires an immediate response by law enforcement. The focus of both mentioned media outlets on national values and the country’s European prospects must not become the subject of blackmail by pro-Moscow actors. Also, it is no coincidence that these anti-democratic actions against the freedom of speech, targeting the country’s patriotic mass media, are timed with the shaping-up of a new government in Podgorica.

  • Unofficial visit of Kosovo PM Albin Kurti to North Macedonia

Prime Minister Albin Kurti of Kosovo paid an informal visit to North Macedonia. He attended the ceremony for the renaming of the Second Macedonian Brigade Street for Adem Demaçi in Chair municipality. The event, attended by representatives of local Albanian parties, mainly opposition, caused mixed reactions among local citizens and political forces. PM Kurti visited the city of Tetovo, which is also governed by the local Albanian opposition. The flag of Greater Albania was flying at the celebrations, while the Macedonian one was missing. The Macedonian national anthem was never performed either, which the office of the North Macedonian Prime Minister saw as a violation of diplomatic protocol and local legislation. It is noteworthy that Kurti’s visit to North Macedonia took place without the invitation of the country’s government, therefore it was referred to as a private trip, which in turn does not reflect the protocol of interstate and intergovernmental relations. It can be concluded that Skopje is far from delighted with such a stunt by the Kosovo government leader.