Western Balkans Overview Mar 11, 2024 – CWBS

Western Balkans Overview Mar 11, 2024 – CWBS
  • Seven candidates collect required number of signatures to participate in North Macedonia’s presidential election

The first round of presidential election in North Macedonia will be held on Wednesday, April 24, and the run-off is scheduled for Wednesday, May 8, alongside parliamentary elections. Fifteen candidates were registered to collect 10,000 signatures to qualify from February 23 to March 8, of which eight failed to meet the requirement.

Here is the lost of seven qualified presidential candidates:

• Gordana Siljanovska (VMRO-DPMNE, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity),

•Stevo Pendarovski, North Macedonia’s current President, who is supported by the ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM),

• Maksim Dimitrievski (left-wing patriotic movement ZNAM), mayor of Kumanovo,

• Stevco Jakimovski, Mayor of one of the municipalities of Skopje – Karpoš and leader of the GROM party (Citizens’ Choice of Macedonia)

• Bujar Osmani, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, candidate from the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI),

• Arben Taravari, Mayor of Gostivar, candidate from the opposition coalition “Vredi” (“European Union for Change”),

• Biljana Vankovska, candidate from the left parliamentary party Levica, political scholar and member of the editorial board of the Russian scientific journal Questions of Political Science. She campaigns for the country’s withdrawal from NATO.

Previously, NATO representatives warned the government of the threat of Russia’s hybrid meddling in the electoral process in North Macedonia. Speaking before the European Parliament subcommittee on security and defense in mid-February, NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Joana touched upon the issue of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. He expressed concern about what is happening in terms of disinformation and hybrid attempts to influence the election.

Given the political background of Biljana Vankovska, it can be assumed her election headquarters will be the most active player in spreading pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives.

  • Local elections in Belgrade may be held on June 2

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić proposed holding elections in Belgrade on June 2 – the proposal that has been accepted. He put forward the idea on March 11 after meeting with the leaders of the ruling coalition parties.

According to Vučić, the “Serbia must not stop” bloc led by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) will seal a majority in the new composition of the Skupstina (parliament), sufficient to form a ruling coalition. Accordingly, he foresees that the elections in the country’s capital will be held by Ana Brnabic as the elected head of parliament. In his opinion, the decision can be made on April 3, thus the term of the election campaign will stretch to its maximum of 60 days.

At a press conference on March 11, Vučić emphasized the importance of following the recommendations by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights when preparing for new elections in the capital. He appealed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to “interpret the law on change of residence very narrowly, especially when someone changes or obtains residence in Belgrade, before the deadline for forming the list of voters in the Belgrade elections.”

As is known, the elections to the Assembly (local council of Belgrade) were held simultaneously with parliamentary elections on December 17, 2023. International observers, public activists, and the opposition have reported numerous violations. The biggest complaint was about massive and government-orchestrated effort to allow residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republic of Srpska) to cast their ballots after they massively registered in Belgrade shortly before the election. The opposition led people to the streets demanding a re-election at all levels.

The newly elected Parliament of Serbia has started its work, but the local council of Belgrade has not, due to the lack of a quorum. This led to the need for a re-election to be held only in the country’s capital, which is believed to be the result of a compromise reached between the authorities, international community, and opposition.

  • Opposition fails to sack head of Montenegro Parliament

The majority of deputies in the Parliament (Skupstina) of Montenegro voted against the removal of the leader of the “New Serbian Democracy” (NSD) party, Andrija Mandić from the position of Parliament head.

The initiative to dismiss the Skupstina Speaker was submitted by opposition’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). The initiative arose after the President of Republika Srpska (RS), Milorad Dodik, visited Podgorica where he met with Mandić to discuss the “special relations” between RS and Montenegro. In addition, Dodik later said he had told Mandić about his meeting with Putin just the day before.

During the meeting in the Montenegro Parliament, the RS flag was displayed while the BiH national flag wasn’t, which led to the BiH Foreign Ministry issuing a note of protest.

Other claims put forward against Mandić include his Serbian citizenship and participation in the Belgrade celebration of the electoral victory of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

Only 27 MPs voted for Mandić’s dismissal while 44 stood against the motion. A total of 72 lawmakers took part in the vote, with one ballot declared invalid. The sacking idea saw support from the DPS, Social Democrats (SD), DUE (the Party of Albanians), and the Croatian Civic Initiative (HGI), as well as the Bosnian Party (BS).

After the vote, the participation of representatives from the Bosnian Party in the new government was called into question, despite such possibility being on the table recently.

  • Sofia was outraged by North Macedonia politicians’ statements on Macedonians in Bulgaria

The Ambassador of the North Macedonia to Bulgaria was summoned to the host country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the “recent public comments by politicians from a neighboring country and their false statements about the Republic of Bulgaria.”

The statement does not indicate which politicians and which statements MFA Bulgaria referred to but local media believe Sofia’s negative reaction was sparked by a recent public statement by the President of North Macedonia and candidate for re-election, Stevo Pendarovski. The latter he stated that the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria had been abused “for decades, at least for 70 to 80 years” and “went through terrible torment and Calvary.”

The president made thhe statement in the context of discussing the possibility of including the Macedonian minority in the Bulgarian constitution. The move was proposed by the Macedonian opposition as a response to Sofia’s demand to include in the constitution of North Macedonia a reference to Bulgarians as a nation-building ethnic group. This requirement is one of Sofia’s conditions put forward before Skopje to unblock negotiations on North Macedonia’s membership in the EU.

The diplomatic escalation between the two neighboring countries became another manifestation of the existing conflict between Sofia and Skopje over the issue of Macedonian national identity and Macedonian history, which effectively blocked North Macedonia’s European integration.

  • Verdict against ethnic Greek mayor threatens Albania’s European integration

The First Instance Special Court for Corruption and Organized Crime (GJKKO) in Tirana sentenced Fredi (Alfred) Beleri, the elected mayor of the resort town of Himarë (Vlorë County, Albania), to two years in prison.

Beleri, an ethnic Greek candidate from the opposition coalition “Together We Win”, was detained on the eve of local elections in May 2023 on charges of “active corruption”, including bribing voters. He decried all charges and labeled the verdict a “falsification”.

After his lawyers appealed the GJKKO’s verdict, the case shall be heard by the Court of Appeal.

The verdict against one of the leaders of the Greek community in Albania caused indignation in Athens. The Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized in its statement that the decision to sentence the elected mayor of Himarë to two years in prison is biased, clearly disproportionate to the scale of the crime he is accused of, and does not comply with the principles of the rule of law. “The Greek government will closely monitor the case and expect a fair and objective ruling at the second level of jurisdiction,” the Greek Foreign Ministry wrote.

Greek State Minister Makis Voridis, in turn, said the Beleri case forms grounds to “freeze” Albania’s path to the EU.

Greek observers point out that the Beleri case will have implications, first of all, for bilateral relations – in particular, it will hinder the signing of an agreement between Athens and Tirana on the designation of exclusive maritime economic zones.

  • U.S. intelligence warns of violence risk in Western Balkans

The Western Balkans will likely face an increased risk of localized inter-ethnic violence throughout 2024, the latest annual report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) warns.

The authors believe that the region’s nationalist leaders may boost tensions, while external players will use ethnic differences to increase or sustain their regional influence, or to impede the wider integration of the Balkans into the EU or Euro-Atlantic institutions.

The document mentions clashes between Serbian nationalists and Kosovo authorities, seen in 2023, which resulted in casualties, including among NATO peacekeepers.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as noted in the report, outbreaks of violence are possible due to the provocative actions by the President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik.

“Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik is taking provocative steps to neutralize international oversight in Bosnia and secure de facto secession for his Republika Srpska. His action could prompt leaders of the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) population to bolster their own capacity to protect their interests and possibly lead to violent conflicts that could overwhelm peacekeeping forces,” the report warns.