The Bulgarian Hub for United Balkans, along 38 NGOs/CSOs from 6 countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Republic of North Macedonia and Serbia) is expressing its unwavering support for the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans with emphasis on the socio-economic recovery of the region during the current unprecedented crisis arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo Ramush Haradinaj and the leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) Isa Mustafa, both former Kosovo prime ministers, have finally (29.04) agreed to form a new government headed by Avdullah Hoti. The two parties were the main factor behind the vote of no-confidence on March 25 against the government of Albin Kurti which lasted only 52 days.
Haradinaj said he and Mustafa had reached an agreement on the division of power among the different ministries, adding that a new government would be formed soon.
The formation of a new government was made possible after president Hashim Thaci supported the idea of the two parties not to hold new parliamentary elections, as mandated by the constitution, but to allow for a new cabinet in the mandate of the current parliament in which the “Self-determination” party of Albin Kurti has the largest representation but it’s not sufficient to form a government alone.
Thaci gave his political support, stating (22.04) after meeting with the political leaders of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and the LDK that as a result of their expressed will to have a new government, he would give a mandate to the party or coalition which may provide a majority of at least 61 votes in the 120-seat local parliament.
The AAK and the LDK have far below the required 61 votes, and together with Fatmir Limaj’s Social Democratic Initiative (SDI) which has declared support for the new coalition, they have a total of 47 votes. Last week talks have been held with Behgjet Pacolli to include his party the New Kosovo Alliance (AKR) in the coalition, as well as representatives of different ethnic minorities. The newly formed coalition also needs the 10 votes of the Belgrade-backed ethnic Serb party Serb List, as well as the 10 votes of representatives of other minorities in Kosovo or the support of former ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) of Kadri Veseli (founder and former chairman of PDK until his election as president was Hashim Thaci).
„Self-determination“ protested the decision, declaring it unconstitutional and called for a new parliamentary election as soon as the coronavirus pandemic ends. Kurti intends to approach the Constitutional Court regarding the decision of president Thaci on giving a mandate to the newly created coalition to form a government. It is believed that Kurti has a reason for this, based on the text of the constitution, but on the other hand Thaci, as well as the former prime minister Haradinaj have a strong influence on the current composition of the Constitutional Court of Kosovo.
For the past two years, the party of Albin Kurti has been accusing the president Thaci of behind-the-scenes deals with Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic for partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines, in return for recognizing Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.
At the same time, a group of researchers and experts from the Western Balkans and Europe have warned that after the formation of the new Kosovo government, a possible deal between Kosovo and Serbia, involving a swap of territories, becomes more possible.
In their report “Western Balkans in Times of the Global Pandemic” the researchers at BiEPAG (Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group) say such a deal signed by the presidents and facilitated by the US administration will have no democratic legitimacy and potentially would destabilize the region.
“Kosovo is the best example of how a pandemic can create a perfect storm to oust a newly appointed government. Despite the fact that the clashes between prime minister Kurti and president Thaci have been long-standing, the debate over the state of emergency which would empower the weakening figure of the president triggered a political crisis. Kosovo marks the first case in which a government has been toppled in a no-confidence vote during the COVID-19 pandemic. If the caretaker government is marginalized by the president – who, with the declaration of the state of emergency, will take full charge of the situation – there is a possibility of a Kosovo-Serbia agreement facilitated by the US administration signed between the two presidents, but lacking broader democratic legitimacy and involving land swap, with all its destabilizing potential for the region”, experts warn in the report.
BiEPAG is a cooperation initiative between the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB) and the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz (CSEES). Its purpose is to promote the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU and the consolidation of democracy in those countries.
The issue of illegal migration is not a humanitarian one, but a security matter, said Serb BiH tripartite presidency member Milorad Dodik (22.04), adding that he fully supports the security minister’s idea of sending migrants back from Bosnia to their countries of origin. Dodik said he was pleased that such an idea came from a government official in charge of the matter. “We cannot keep 6,000-7,000 migrants besides all the problems we already have”, he stressed.
Bosnia was spared from the influx of illegal migrants as they passed through the country on their way to Western Europe. But after most EU countries closed their borders to illegal migrants, those who tried to cross BiH to Croatia were left stranded on Bosnian territory.
The issue was recently discussed in Sarajevo by Bosnian Security Minister Fahrudin Radoncic, during the visit of Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, both agreeing that it is a security issue that does not possess humanitarian nature.
“Brussels has chosen the wrong policy on illegal migration and has unfortunately put many Western Balkan countries in an extremely difficult situation. We believe that illegal migration should be stopped, not tolerated”, the Hungarian minister said, stressing that his country would not accept any illegal migrants.
The security minister Radoncic said (23.04) that preparations have been made in Bosnia for the deportation of illegal economic migrants back to their countries of origin. In this regard, he requested that the BiH Foreigners’ Affairs Service be provided with a list of the exact number of migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Afghanistan, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria and Iraq. Radoncic noted that they will treat migrants from Syria quite differently, as this is still a war zone and these people need help.
“We want the Foreigners’ Service to determine the identity of these people because an extremely large number of them don’t want to show their passports, IDs or reveal their identities. With this kind of identity hiding, it’s possible for them to be terrorists or members of criminal groups that will wait here for a year or two, go to Europe, change their identities and hide their past, and play the role of a sleeper cell awaiting to receive orders to carry out terrorist attacks. We asked the Service to conduct a survey among migrants as to whether there are such that would agree to a voluntary deportation. We will take their written statements so we can enter the stage of diplomatic negotiations with their diplomatic missions in Bosnia, with the aim of securing funds for deportation flights”, Radoncic said.
The Ministry of Security aims to achieve several effects with the deportation: to remove the “ballast” from the country of about 8,000-9,000 people that it cannot economically support in a situation in which at least 50,000-60,000 Bosnian citizens will lose their jobs; to prevent new migrants from arriving once borders have reopened and to improve the security situation in BiH, the region and the EU.
“This is also a message to some EU countries – that we refuse to be a migrant depot where they will select their workforce leaving our citizens to live in fear and discomfort”, said Radoncic.
“People who do not want to reveal their identity will not be allowed to go to accommodation centers and they will be kept in custody until we learn their identity. We will propose legal solutions for such persons”.
Radoncic estimated that some countries did not want to assist in the deportation of migrants to their countries and Pakistan appears to be one of them. If that proves to be true, he will ask the BiH Council of Ministers to declare the ambassador of Pakistan to BiH a persona non grata and send him back to his country.
Kosovo’s current Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, accused (22.04) President Hashim Thaci of abusing power and endangering the constitutional order after Thaci announced that he would propose a mandate for the formation of a new government to each party that wins a majority in the parliament, without calling early elections.
Kurti said that with these actions, the president becomes illegitimate, and his consultations with political parties on whether they support new elections or a new government are in violation of the Constitution.
“Today’s act is the president’s most outrageous attempt to overturn the constitutional order by trying to eliminate the will of the people expressed in the elections through an anti-constitutional decree that seeks to exclude the party that won the election from forming the government”.
“With this act, in violation of its role of representing the unity of the nation, as defined by the Constitution, the president became illegitimate. Therefore, when today’s statements are formalized, they will undoubtedly end up in the Constitutional Court. It is clear that the president has received this chance from the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which has given up on any election promise to its electorate”, Kurti said.
Kurti’s accusations come against President Thaci’s statement that he considers the lack of a response to nominate a new prime minister from “Self-determination”, the largest party in parliament, as a refusal to exercise its constitutional right.
The president held consultations with all political parties (22.04) to inquire if they wanted a new election or to form a new government. All parties except “Self-determination” supported the idea of forming a new government. Thaci announced that he would offer the prime minister’s term to the candidate of any party that won enough votes in parliament.
After the consultations, the LDK and several other opposition parties have agreed on a coalition without “Self-determination”, and are expected to announce their nomination for prime minister by the end of this week.
Acting Prime Minister Albin Kurti has announced that the creation of any new government without early elections would be illegitimate but did not indicate what action “Self-determination” would take.
In view of the worsening crisis with the coronavirus epidemic, it is more likely that “Self-determination” will refrain from taking active political action, at least for the duration of the emergency measures, and be limited to referring to the Constitutional Court, as announced by the party leader, Albin Kurti.
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti accused Richard Grenell, US President Donald Trump’s envoy in talks between Kosovo and Serbia of being “directly involved” in overthrowing his government last month and estimates it is part of a plan to achieve a major diplomatic victory in the year of the US presidential election.
Kurti said Grenell is involved in the split between his “Self-determination” party and his coalition partner Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) of Isa Mustafa. After about 50 days in power, the Kurti’s government fell in late March after a no-confidence vote in parliament, initiated by his coalition partner, who, according to Kurti, broke under the pressure of Grenell.
Kurti told at a news conference (20.04): “My government wasn’t overthrown for anything else but simply because Ambassador Grenell is in a hurry to sign an agreement with Serbia which, in my view, is harmful because it involves territorial exchange”.
Dick R. Custin, a spokesman for Grenell, did not address the question of the Associated Press as to whether Grenell was involved in the overthrow of the Kosovo government, citing a recent comment by Grenell in Twitter, stating that “there is absolutely no talk of exchanging territories from me”.
Kurti estimated that Grenell had “deviated” the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue process and was “too interested in the signature at the bottom of the document, not the text itself”.
“What he needs is a quick deal to show that they (the US) can manage crises in the world, unlike Clinton, Bush and Obama, without any military intervention. This can be seen as a success during this electoral year (for US President)”.
Kurti strongly opposes a final deal between Kosovo and Serbia that includes a territorial swap, something politicians in both countries warned was discussed behind the scenes for two years by Kosovo President Hashim Thaci and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic.
“I am ready to discuss the needs of the communities, the rights of the citizens, but not the exchange of territories”, underlined Kurti.
Under international pressure, Kurti canceled 100% tariffs on Serbian goods imposed by his predecessor Ramush Haradnaj in November 2018 in an attempt to put pressure on Serbia, which has blocked Kosovo’s international recognition and has so far prevented Kosovo from joining international organizations.
Despite the abolition of 100% tariffs, Serbia continues to require Kosovo goods to be certified for quality which is why the Kosovo government will also begin to require a similar certificate of quality for Serbian goods imported into Kosovo.
Since the start of the EU-backed normalization talks in 2011, 33 documents have been signed to ensure that countries recognize each other in areas such as education, professional degrees and other areas, but Kosovo claims Serbia has failed to comply with its part of the arrangements. Kosovo recognizes diplomas from Serbian universities but Serbia does not accept degrees of graduates from Kosovo universities. This is also the case with driver’s licenses, which blocks the travel of Kosovo citizens to Serbia and leads to benefits for Serbian carriers.
Kurti insists that his government will monitor whether Serbia will lift those restrictions by June 15, and if the arrangements are not implemented, tariffs will be restored.
Meanwhile, US Special envoy to Kosovo, Ambassador Richard Grenell, said that dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina could be resumed after the 100% tariffs on Serbian goods were unconditionally abolished and the reciprocity for which Kurti insists is not sought.
Grenell says he has spoken with senior officials in Serbia and Kosovo, who have told him they are committed to building trust.
Grenell’s comment comes in response to a statement by Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, who believes tariffs and the demand for reciprocity should be dropped to boost US and EU support for Kosovo. “Next week, I will take the final constitutional steps to allow the formation of a new government with full legitimacy from the parliament, capable of fighting COVID-19 and serving the people. Tariffs and reciprocity need to be abolished to boost US and EU support for Kosovo”, Thaci wrote in Twitter.
Not all Kosovo politicians agree with Thaci’s position. For example, Veton Surroi responded to Thaci as follows: “A reckless political breakup. The top priority now is the fight against COVID-19. Negotiations require a more supportive environment, political consensus in Kosovo and transatlantic unity. At the moment, they are absent, causing instability for the people in Kosovo and the region.
Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic crisis, Kosovo is experiencing political uncertainty after a vote of no confidence against Kurti’s cabinet was voted on March 25th.
Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which is the main partner of Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s “Self-determination” movement in the still-current Kosovo government, plans to form a new coalition for the upcoming snap elections. LDK leader Isa Mustafa said (14.04) that they are preparing a new coalition with Ramush Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), Fatmir Lajmaj’s Social Democratic Initiative (NSD), Behgjet Pacolli’s New Kosovo Alliance (AKR) and representatives of the minorities.
Mustafa also said that the LDK was ready to take on the mandate to form a new government after following the necessary constitutional procedures.
Meanwhile, President Hashim Thaci has proposed “Self-determination” to nominate a new prime ministerial candidate, as provided for in the constitution, but the party did not respond to the two presidential calls.
The constitution has not set a deadline for response, and “Self-determination” states that the current priority is fighting the coronavirus epidemic.
Kosovo legal experts disagree on what the next move should be. Some say Thaci must propose the mandate to another party, which can secure 61 votes in the 120 seat parliament, an option also demanded by the LDK, while many believe the president should wait for the answer of “Self-determination” and in the event that they do not respond, to announce new early elections to be held after the end of the pandemic, during which Kurti’s cabinet should continue to operate.
In the meantime, Prime Minister Kurti presented (14.04) a package of 15 measures to mitigate the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic, which envision to provide financial assistance for the poor and the economy. Kurti said: “We will help companies cover business costs to provide a minimum wage for their employees and to ensure that they can continue their activities during and after the pandemic”, adding that the measures include boosting employment in the private sector. He warned that the measures are not a long-term strategy for economic recovery but that new packages are planned to be adopted at a later stage to meet the long-term needs of the private sector. Kurti estimates the package is enough as an emergency but Kosovo needs loans and donations to tackle the crisis.
At the same time, the political crisis in Kosovo has echoed, both among European officials and public figures in the United States. Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Robert Menendez, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warn in a letter to the secretary of state Mike Pompeo that Washington unfairly sanctions the government in Pristina and does nothing for Serbia’s campaign against recognizing Kosovo and buying weapons from Russia.
They find that “the United States has taken a “heavy-handed” approach to the elected government in Kosovo. We agree that Kosovo’s tariffs on Serbian goods, which have already been abolished, are causing problems mainly for Kosovo and its citizens, but this tool is used by governments around the world, including by the Trump administration. Kosovo is a close ally of the United States and we urge you to adopt a patient and constructive approach with its democratically elected government.”
The two Democratic Party officials stress that the United States plays a constructive role in the region and efforts to resolve the dispute between Belgrade and Pristina must be undertaken with the European Union.
According to them the lack of balance of Trump’s administration between Belgrade and Prishtina is taking place in the context of Belgrade expanding ties with Moscow and increasing imports of Russian armaments to Serbia. “The new weapon purchases require the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Serbia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) passed by Congress after Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election.”
The spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19 in Southeast European countries is as follows:
Population 2.094 million (2019); 23654 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI (United Nations Human Development Index) – 0.896 (very high)
As of 03.04, 25000 coronavirus tests (1000 per day) were performed in Slovenia, and 934 infected were found which are being treated. 20 people have died (2.1%). The medical authorities apply the large-scale testing method and consider the situation to be under control.
Population 4.154 million (2017); 13138 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.896 (very high).
As of 04.04, 9833 coronavirus tests were performed in Croatia, identifying 1126 coronavirus cases. 12 people have died (1.1%). Authorities manage to keep the situation under control.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Population 3.531 million (2013); 5149 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.735 (high)
As of 04.04, 617 people with coronavirus were detected in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 19 people have died (3.1%). The country lacks virus detection tests and protective clothing for medical personnel. The head of the crisis staff says the situation is very worrying but there is still no cause for panic.
Population 631 219 people (Jan 2020); 7647 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.814 (very high)
As of 04.04, there are 201 coronavirus cases in Montenegro that are undergoing treatment. 2 people have died (1%). Authorities say they are keeping the situation under control.
Republic of North Macedonia
Population 2.077 million (2019); 5474 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.740 (high)
As of 04.04, 483 coronavirus cases were found in Republic of North Macedonia. 17 people have died (3.6%). Most affected are the capital Skopje (221) and Kumanovo (93). The situation is thought to be worrying as newly discovered cases are increasing proportionally and the death rate is also high. The country lacks tests and safeguards.
Population 1.831 million (2017); 3880 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.734 (high)
As of 04.04 Kosovo have performed 1743 coronavirus tests, detecting 135 coronavirus cases. So far, only 1 deceased person (0.7%) is reported. 16 people were healed. In the midst of the political crisis in the country, the government has limited powers following the no-confidence vote. The healthcare system is in dire need of tests and protective clothing. No humanitarian aid has been reported.
Population 7.022 million (2017); 5899 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.769 (high)
As of 04.04, 9833 coronavirus tests were performed in Serbia with 1624 coronavirus cases being identified for treatment. 44 people have died (2.7%). A team of Chinese doctors has been working in Serbia since mid-March, applying the mass testing method. Despite the most stringent measures implemented by the Serbian government and extensive humanitarian aid, local doctors are surprised that the epidemic is expanding.
Population 2.877 million (2017); 4583 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.749 (high)
As of 04.04, 304 people with coronavirus were detected in Albania. 16 people have died (5.3%). The country is also in dire need of tests, protective equipment and disinfectants.
Population 19.402 million (2019); 10757 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.811 (very high)
As of 04.04, 3183 coronavirus cases were found in Romania. 122 people have died (3.8%)
Population 7.000 million (2018); 8064 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.813 (very high)
As of 04.04 Bulgaria, 15899 coronavirus tests were performed and 522 cases were found. 18 people (3.4%) have died, and 37 have completely recovered. Bulgaria is among the leading countries in tests and mobilization among the population to comply with restrictive measures. Expectations for dealing with the epidemic are optimistic.
Population 10.074 million (2018); 18637 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.870 (very high)
As of 03.04, 1415 coronavirus cases were found in Greece. 57 people have died (4%). There are ill persons among the migrants that have arrived from Turkey. The Greek government has succeeded in isolating them in refugee camps in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Population: 80.81 million (2018); 10863 USD per capita (IMF 2017); HDI – 0.722 (high)
As of 04.04, 20921coronavirus cases were detected in Turkey. 425 people (2%) have died. Censorship of the coronavirus situation has been imposed in the country.
It can be concluded that unlike the most affected states and countries in Western Europe, the epidemiological situation in the SEE is not too alarming and the situation is being kept under control by the governments. In some countries in the Western Balkans, such as Kosovo, Albania, BiH and Republic of North Macedonia there is a severe shortage of coronavirus tests resulting in few people being covered by the studies which distorts the real picture of the epidemic. Deficiency is also observed in protective equipment – masks and protective clothing, as well as respirators for more severe cases.
There seems to be some delay on the part of the EU on aid to the SEE countries. On the other hand, Serbia is experiencing something like a competition for who to deliver more humanitarian aid. It received help consisting of respirators, masks, protective clothing, disinfectants, etc., from China, UAE, EU and mostly from Russia – 8 Antonov aircraft with aid have landed at the Bataynitsa military airfield from the beginning of April to 04.04.
The analysis is based on data from the IMF, the UN, national statistical institutes, national crisis headquarters for the coronavirus and the electronic media.
As of midnight on April 1, 2020, the Kosovo government’s decision to avolish 100% tax on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina entered into force.
The original idea of the incumbent Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, was to remove the tax on raw materials only and not its complete elimination but due to the US pressure, the decision was changed. Prime Minister Kurti declined to cancel tariffs despite threats that the US aid will be suspended which ultimately led to a no-confidence vote against his government, that was welcomed by the Washington administration.
Finally, Kurti announced that the tax on Serbian goods would be abolished on the basis of reciprocity, while that would not apply to Bosnia and Herzegovina products. “Reciprocity measures are basis for mutual relations between sovereign states which is in line with international law”, Kurti defended his position. He accused Serbia of implementing a number of trade non-tariff barriers since the entry into force of the CEFTA agreement, which seriously harms Kosovo importers and exporters and causes a significant trade deficit for Kosovo.
According to the decision, all phytosanitary and veterinary documents should be controlled at the border with Kosovo. The decision will continue until June 15, when its results will be evaluated.
Following the entry into force of the decision the US Embassy in Kosovo has once again called for the complete and unconditional removal of all 100% tariffs on imports of goods from Serbia and BiH, without creating new barriers. “Kosovo must remove all taxes and not raise new barriers because such a policy damages Kosovo’s people and stifles the economy”, the embassy said in a statement. It added that the US remains opposed to the decision to impose reciprocal measures on the flow of goods from Serbia.
Unlike the US, the European Union welcomes Kurti’s decision, adding that it is important because “regional cooperation is crucial”. EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy expressed satisfaction with Kosovo government’s decision. “I am happy to see the decision to fully remove tariffs on goods coming from Serbia and BiH”, said Josep Borrell. Borrell’s greeting was endorsed by EU Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, who believes that the waiver of tariffs is essential to resuming dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.
The head of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, said that in fact Kurti is not abolishing the taxes but only suspending them temporarily and with conditions. Djuric says there is no longer a blockade for trucks traveling from Kosovo to Serbia but appealed to the EC to urgently respond to Pristina’s request for reciprocal measures by Belgrade. Djuric underlined that “wheat trucks for Kosovo’s entire population are waiting at the intersections because Pristina is urging Belgrade to recognize Kosovo’s independence”. Djuric also explained that Serbian police prohibit the movement of trucks during the curfew from 3 pm to 5 am, which applies throughout Serbia to curb the coronavirus epidemic but trucking goods to Kosovo will be excluded from this prohibition.
Serbia’s economy suffers damages worth more than one billion euros a year from trade with Kosovo after 100% tariffs were introduced in 2018 by the then government of Ramush Haradinaj. During the time of the tax penalties on Serbia, the vacuum was filled by companies from the Republic of North Macedonia and Montenegro which were able to expand their exports, preventing a Kosovo market deficit and speculative rise in commodity prices.
Although with temporary effect until June 15 this year, the government of Kurti executed the request from Brussels and Washington, and removed taxes on Serbian goods, resulting in benefits exclusively for the Serbian economy. The tariffs were the main reason for blocking negotiations with Pristina on normalizing relations. It remains to be seen whether Belgrade will make significant steps to resume dialogue by June 15, or whether it will be postponed again with the pretext of the coronavirus epidemic. The political crisis in Kosovo also contributes to further postponement of the negotiations, and in the event of new snap elections in Kosovo, the start of the normalization dialogue is likely to be off by the second half of the year. Until the start of the new dialogue, it would not be realistic to expect other significant steps, both from Belgrade and Pristina.