Russia is Using the Pandemic to Exert Influence in the Western Balkans

In late April, BiH’s foreign ministry received a letter from the Russian embassy in Sarajevo requesting permission for a 24-member medical team, as well as five specialized military vehicles used for disinfection and decontamination to enter Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territory.

According to a document sent by Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic to Defense Minister Sifet Podzic, the entry into the Federation of BiH of Russian chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense vehicles and the medical team is at the request of the member of the House of Peoples and chairman of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) Dragan Covic, aiming to assist the Mostar University Hospital, located in an area populated primarily by Bosnian Croats.

Podzic says his ministry cannot allow foreign troops to enter BiH, as this issue is only within the jurisdiction of the country’s Tripartite Presidency, and he is not aware of any such decision that would allow the Russian military medical team to enter BiH’s territory. “Neither the Ministry of Defense nor the Bosnian Armed Forces participated in talks for any bilateral agreement that would include the stay and engagement of members of the Russian Federation’s armed forces on BiH’s territory”, Podzic underlined.

The arrival of the Russian military medical team, which was supposed to take part in the disinfection of the University Hospital in Mostar, has been postponed indefinitely, according to a statement (01.05) by the hospital spokeswoman Adriana Pandza: “Their arrival was delayed due to procedural problems. Based on the positive experience of Banja Luka University Hospital, where the Russian medical team performed disinfection 10 days ago, we asked them to do the same in Mostar”, adding that the request was made by Dragan Covic.

Later it became known that Covic had done so without consulting the Tripartite Presidency, responsible for the foreign policy of BiH and is the only institution that can send and approve such requests.

Responding to this precedent, the Bosnian and Croat members of the Tripartite Presidency said BiH did not need the support of the Russian military, who arrived about a month ago at Batajnica military airport near Belgrade with 8 planes of Russian humanitarian aid to fight the coronavirus.

There is no need for a Russian military medical team to disinfect Mostar Hospital, as Bosnian armed forces can do the job faster and more efficiently, the two Presidency members said (03.05). Serb Tripartite Presidency member Milorad Dodik, who initiated the arrival of the same Russian military team ten days ago in Banja Luka, did not comment the situation, but it became clear that Covic had not acted through him, despite their close cooperation over the last year and a half, and have sent the request directly to the Russian Embassy in Sarajevo.

BiH Security Minister Fahrudin Radoncic told reporters why the Russian military unit was allowed to come to Banja Luka but not Mostar. He said the BiH MFA had approved the arrival of the Russian medical team in Banja Luka because their actions had been presented as of humanitarian nature and it had not been clearly stated that the team members were military.

“The second request in the note from the Embassy of the Russian Federation to BiH regarding the entry of the same convoy and persons across the border, this time contains a much more detailed list of military-technical resources, names and surnames of the medical team, as well as their military ranks!”, informed minister Radoncic, adding that this could no longer be treated as a humanitarian action.

In an interview with FENA, Bosniak Tripartite Presidency member Sefik Dzaferovic said (03.05) that there is no need for military personnel from any other country to assist in the disinfection of any hospital, since the BiH’s army has a team trained for such opearations. According to him, the approval procedure is as follows: “The BiH’s Ministry of Defense and the competent ministries of other countries must first reach a bilateral cooperation agreement that is further agreed with EUFOR and approved by the Presidency”.

Croat Tripartite Presidency member Zeljko Komsic said (03.05) that any clinical center in BiH has the opportunity to hire a company to disinfect the premises if it cannot manage on its own. “I am sure that the clinical centers in Banja Luka and Mostar have previously engaged such disinfection companies. Even if this is not possible, such clinical centers must turn to the Bosnian Armed Forces for help and the army can do the job even better than the Russian unit”.

“All this raises the question of the true purpose of the invitation and arrival of the Russian unit in BiH, in particular Banja Luka and Mostar”, Komsic said, adding that the presence of this Russian military unit in BiH was “completely unnecessary” and that it was invited for “completely different reasons than those stated to the public”. According to him, the Russian military carried out “so-called special psychological activity” and that “it should not have come to BiH and should not return here”.

Kosovo Awaits Ruling by the Constitutional Court

Kosovo’s Constitutional Court convened (01.05) at an extraordinary session after being approached by the “Self-determination” party on April 30 for unconstitutional actions by the president in the nomination of a new prime ministerial candidate. With these actions “Self-determination” temporarily blocked the intentions of its former coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) of Isa Mustafa, and the former ruling Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) of Ramush Haradinaj, to form a new government. The two parties thanks to their smaller partners managed to gather the required parliamentary majority of 61 votes, meeting president Hashim Thaci’s demand. As agreed by Mustafa, Haradinaj and Thaci, the LDK convened an extraordinary parliamentary session at 1 pm on 02.05, at which a government headed by Avdullah Hoti (LDK) had to be elected.

In its 32-page letter “Self-Determination” asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the lawfulness of the presidential decree granting Hoti a mandate to form a government. The request to the court is to suspend the vote to form a government and to repeal the presidential decree mandating Hoti as prime ministerial candidate.

Acting Prime Minister Albin Kurti insists that after the coalition government which was led by the party that won the election was overthrown as a result of the no confidence vote initiated by LDK, a new elections must be held, as the country’s constitution dictates.

“Self-determination” will ask the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe for an opinion on the lawfulness of president Thaci’s actions in which he ignores the winner of the election and insists on a new government supported by smaller parties.

In addition to the Constitutional Court, “Self-determination” invited all relevant institutions, such as the Presidency, Parliament, and the Ombudsman, to decide on the case by 12 pm on 01.05.

This was done solely by the Constitutional Court which in turn asked the president, government, parliament, and the ombudsman to comment on the suspension of the vote on 01.05 and the presidential decree. With the entry of the Constitutional Court into the procedure for determining the legality of the scheduled vote for the election of a new government, a vote in parliament cannot be held until the final decision of the constitutional judges.

“The Constitutional Court is committed to the priority of the urgent review of this case in accordance with its constitutional responsibilities and function”, the Court said in astatement.

If the Constitutional Court had not been referred to or had entered into a procedure to rule on the lawfulness of the presidential decree, Kosovo could have entered into a potentially dangerous scenario of creating two governments.

The court gave the aforementioned institutions one week, by May 8, to submit comments on the president’s decree.

Following the statement by the Constitutional Court, president Thaci said (02.05) that he would respect its decision. In a Facebook post he wrote: “I have just been informed of the decision by the Constitutional Court of Kosovo. As president of the republic, I will fully respect the decision. Kosovo has considerable experience in complying with all decisions by the Constitutional Court. This experience provides strong evidence of the rule of law in the country”.

LDK’s leader Isa Mustafa has stressed that his party will also adopt the court’s ruling but remain committed to forming a new government and believe that Hoti will be allowed to do this after the final ruling by the Constitutional Court of Kosovo which is expected by mid-May.

The timeframe required for the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to come up with a decision is not yet known but its recommendations are not binding and only the decision of the Kosovo’s Constitutional Court is of importance, which in turn is not immune to the influence of the main political forces in the country.

The text of the constitution favors “Self-determination” insistence for new elections, following the vote of no confidence against the coalition government and an eventual court’s interpretation of the case in favor of forming a new government in the mandate of the current parliament, excluding Kurti’s party, has the potential to further deepen the political crisis in Kosovo.