Western Balkans overview Aug 21, 2023 – CWBS

Western Balkans overview Aug 21, 2023 – CWBS
  • Arrests in Kosovo among Trade Ministry officials in graft case

The Special Investigations Unit of the Kosovo Police in Pristina apprehended three individuals, suspected of abuse of office, the Special Prosecutor’s Office reported. Those arrested turned out to be officials with the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Entrepreneurship.

Prime Minister Albin Kurti stated that, indeed, some products ordered for the needs of Kosovo’s state reserves have not yet been delivered, but there was no corruption and abuse of which two high-ranking officials are accused. Kurti said 99.5 percent of the wheat already in storage has been delivered, and as for the rest of the batch, suppliers have open obligations to fulfill the contract, “and if they don’t, there are legal procedures. There is no corruption and abuse. I fully trust the relevant minister, Roseta Haidari.” He accused prosecutors of failing to act on hundreds of formal reports against a number of ministries for crimes including corruption they exposed when his Cabinet came to power.

A member of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (DPK), Berat Rukići, said that the arrest of officials from the Ministry of Industry, Entrepreneurship and Trade was part of a “broader mosaic of a corrupt and criminal system created by the standing authorities”. He added that all published facts point to the involvement of top political leaders in the case. DPK Secretary Betim Josi believes that “Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti is protecting Minister Roseta Haidari and businessman Ridvan Muharemi, who was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the abuse of commodity reserves, because he himself is involved in this act of corruption.” At the same time, the Minister of Industry, Entrepreneurship and Trade, Roseta Haidari, emphasized that she believes her subordinates are not guilty, wrote Reporters.

Now significant contradictions have become apparent between the statements voiced by the prosecutor’s office, police, opposition politicians, prime minister of Kosovo, and a member of his government. It is obvious that the inquiry and the trial will bring the case to a logical completion, although Albin Kurti is already accusing law enforcement of being unfair. These events point to the aggravation of domestic political situation in Kosovo, which may result in significant changes in the political agenda.

  • Controversial statement by Serbia’s defense chief

“The sharp statement by Serbian Defense Minister Miloš Vučević is the voice of Moscow, as well as the result of Aleksandar Vučić’s criticism of the West, which comes almost daily,” said Sonja Biserko, President of theHelsinki Committee of Serbia, who spoke an interview with the Montenegrin newspaper Pobjeda. Vučević criticized Podgorica and Skopje, saying that Montenegro and North Macedonia had insulted Serbia by recognizing Kosovo’s independence, and stressing that it would backfire for both them and Ukraine. He went on to claim that neither Skopje nor Podgorica “can sleep peacefully”, believing that there is great international support for the implementation of the Greater Albania project, stressing that the issue concerns not only Serbia, but also for its neighbors. Biserko noted that there is nothing new in the criticism of North Macedonia and Montenegro due to the recognition of Kosovo, but this extreme threat suggesting that these two countries will end up like Ukraine prove that the situation is worsening.

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Montenegro, Miodrag Vlahović, reacted to the controversial statement by Serbia’s Minister of Defense, addressing via Twitter the country’s President, Jakov Milatović, as well as Milojko Spajić, who was entrusted with forming the new government. He emphasized that they should clearly and firmly react to that statement. The head of the Social Democrats of Montenegro, Damir Šehović, responding to the Serbian defense chief’s words, emphasized that they made it clearer why Montenegro needs a pro-European and pro-NATO government. Also, the chair of the foreign policy committee in the British parliament, Alicia Kearns, said that the initiative calling for a change in Washington’s attitude toward Serbia is a call for governments to recognize that ethnic nationalism is growing and that it threatens everyone’s security.

Thus, it can be foreseen that in the near future, the higher political leadership of Montenegro and North Macedonia will assess the statement by Serbia’s Minister of Defense. The toughening of Belgrade’s rhetoric is also due to the calls by a number of European politicians to Brussels and Washington to review their official policy toward Serbia. It was no accident that the head of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and at the same time Minister of Defense Miloš Vučević decided to highlight the Greater Albania project by taking advantage of the presence of the Great Albanian flag at events in North Macedonia, attended by Kosovo’s Prime Minister Kurti and representatives of Albanian parties, albeit opposition ones. Due to that circumstance, Kurti fell out with Western backers  so Vučević chose to further play this card. However, for many observers, the question is still lingering of whether Belgrade has refused to pursue the Greater Serbia project.

  • Sulejman Ugljanin criticizes decision to recognize Aleksandar Vučić as honorary citizen of Sjenica

The leader of the Party of Democratic Action of Sandžak, Sulejman Ugljanin, said the “party bodies are working on developing plans for Sandžak’s swifter economic development and regional self-government in Serbia.” He devoted a significant part of his speech to the 106th anniversary of the Sjenica Congress, which adopted a resolution on the status of the population of Sandžak and the Bosniaks. He spoke of the event as of “one of the most significant dates”. The resolution demanded the annexation of Sandžak by Bosnia and Herzegovina after the region had been taken from them at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. Ugljanin also commented on the decision of the municipal council of Sjenica to declare the president of Serbia their honorary citizen and give him a golden key to the city. Ugljanin suggests that such recognition would be an act of “sadism” against Aleksandar Vučić.

Thus, Ugljanin once again acted in sharp opposition to the authorities in Belgrade. The political leadership in Serbia successfully established good contacts with a number of Bosniak representatives in the Serbian part of Sandžak. Meanwhile, the Party of Democratic Action of Sandžak, as an influential political force for local Bosniaks, consistently demonstrates its rejection of Vučić’s policies. It is not ruled out that another background behind the latest statement was the worsened relations between Belgrade and the Bosniak parties in Sarajevo regarding the assessments of work done by President of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik.

  • Serbian President’s visit to Hungary

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said that he held important talks in Budapest with Hungarian President Katalin Novak and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Numerous projects were discussed, including the construction of the Belgrade-Budapest railway. The Serbian president asked Orbán to speed up the construction of its Hungarian section. During bilateral negotiations on gas, President Vučić thanked the Hungarians for providing Serbia with gas storage facilities. Hungary’s top diplomat Péter Szijjártó said Serbia had confirmed its readiness to ensure increased transit of Russian gas to Hungary should the flow via Ukraine be put to a halt.

Aleksandr Vučić reported that cooperation was offered to Hungary as part of the EXPO event in Belgrade. He noted that the issue of border crossing was also discussed. A proposal was put forward to create a joint border control routine for citizens of Serbia and Hungary. The extensive project will require investment worth hundreds of millions of euros. The same proposal will be voiced to the Romanian side in relation to a crossing in the area where the three borders meet.

The arrival of President Vučić to Budapest, as well as that of the President of the Republic of Srpska, Milorad Dodik, can be seen as a measure to strengthen Serbian-Hungarian cooperation, which extends across political, economic and security dimensions. Observers have noted that all Kremlin supporters retain warm relations with each other, which raises serious doubts whether Moscow itself is initiating rapprochement in the Budapest-Belgrade-Banja-Luka triangle as a counterbalance to the pro-European neighbors. It is possible that against the background of such an axis, Brussels and Washington will also consider revising their policies regarding Budapest.

  • Türkiye soon to take over KFOR mission’s leadership in Kosovo

The Turkish Ministry of National Defense announced that the country will take over command of the KFOR mission in Kosovo from October 2023. The spokesman for the Ministry said that the command will be handed over to Turkey by Italy. KFOR will be led by Turkish troops for the next year. It should be recalled that in June of this year Turkish Defense Ministry deployed a motorized infantry battalion of the Turkish army in Kosovo to support NATO’s peacekeeping mission after tensions escalated in Kosovo’s north. It is obvious that the issue will also be discussed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at their upcoming meeting as the two will be visiting Hungary.

It can be predicted that the achievement of compromise political agreements between the two presidents can contribute to a significant easing of tensions in Kosovo, in particular its northern part, which is in the interests of both official Belgrade and Ankara, which is a consistent ally of Pristina in supporting its independence.

  • Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, and BiH join round of Russia sanctions

Montenegro aligned with the position of the European Union, joining sanctions against Russian companies engaged in the development of facial recognition software, as well as penitentiary administration officials involved in the imprisonment of Russian opposition’s Alexei Navalny. In addition to Podgorica, the same move was made by Skopje, Tirana, and Sarajevo. Montenegro had previously supported all rounds of sanctions targeting Russia and also expelled several Russian diplomats.

Such stance by state authorities spark indignation among pro-Russian forces, especially in Montenegro. Meanwhile, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, and BiH are aware of their obligations to align their policies with those of the EU. After all, joining the European Union is the main priority of these countries’ foreign and domestic policies.

  • Pro-Russia statements from Belgrade

Minister of Health Danica Grujičić of Serbia opposed the use by Ukraine’s forces of artillery rounds containing depleted uranium as they allegedly carry the risk of chemical contamination of soil and increase the risk of malignant tumors for those affected. Curiously, the statement echoes a similar claim voiced by Moscow officials, who in March 2023, immediately after reports emerged of the specified ammunition being sent to Ukraine from the United Kingdom, were particularly eager to make sure that the Ukrainian armed forces did not receive projectiles that could effectively penetrate Russian armor. Then Vladimir Putin accused the West of intending to use “weapons with a nuclear component,” and Russian propaganda “warned” of radioactive contamination and a cancer epidemic in the event of their use.

Depleted uranium is not a nuclear weapon as such and its use is not prohibited. U.S. and British experts say artillery rounds containing depleted uranium have no direct effect on soldiers’ health, only increasing the piercing effect in hitting armored vehicles, given uranium’s high density. It is noteworthy that Serbia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stopped short of mentioning the fact that the Russian side also has stocks of artillery rounds with depleted uranium.

Similar pro-Russian narratives were voiced by the leader of the Serbian Right party, Miša Vacić. He declared that Africa must free itself from the economic slavery of the EU and the U.S., and insisted on the need to support military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, which recently saw a military coup with certain Russia traces to it. Experts believe that Niger is of primary interest to Moscow, being rich in deposits of uranium, titanium, and tungsten – the TOP 3 on Moscow’s wish list, especially given that a large share of the deposits is yet to be explored. Taking into account the significant influence of Russia’s Wagner Group in the region and its involvement in developing such fields, it is possible that the cessation of Western support for Niger will lead to an increase in Russia’s unofficial presence in the country, following suit of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.

We note the extreme interest on the part of Serbia’s Minister of Health Danica Grujičić and the leader of the “Serbian Right” party, Miša Vacić , in highlighting issues Russia sees important. The said politicians would hardly be put in the same sentence under any other circumstances. This suggests that Serbian political figures of various calibers are increasingly speaking in unison with Russian propaganda, even in matters that are to Moscow’s obvious benefit but are in no way related to Serbia’s socio-political life. Moreover, while in the previous case we can talk about official Russian propaganda then even high-ranking Russian officials did not allow themselves to issue statements on Niger as they were circulated only through backdoor channels affiliated primarily with the Wagner Group, which is undoubtedly one of the most effective agents of Russian influence operating on foreign soil.