The New Montenegrin Government Changes the Law on Religious Freedom

On the proposal of the new Montenegrin government, the ruling coalition in the parliament headed by Democratic Front (DF) adopted early on Tuesday, December 29th,  the changes to the Law on Religious Freedom, while the opposition Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) boycotted the session. 

“Despite the opposition’s obstruction, violation of the Constitution and laws, the Parliament passed the changes of the Law on Religious Freedom. After a year, they corrected an injustice which the former regime wanted to bring upon the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), treating and using its property as its own”, Zdravko Krivokapic, Montenegrin Prime Minister said in his tweet following the session. 

He added the decision made all religious communities equal before the Law and that it was a victory for the legal state “which the people defended in the street for 12 months.” 

The Law triggered mass protests across Montenegro in 2020, gathering both people dissatisfied with the new Law and those unhappy with the 30-year-long rule by President Milo Djukanovic’s DPS which lost power in the last elections. 

DPS earlier said the changes favored only one religious community and one nation, i.e. the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and the Serbs. 

Justice and Human Rights Minister Vladimir Leposavic said the discussion on the Law lasted 365 days and that the people “almost as on referendum” demanded the changes. 

The DPS supporters protested against the changes to the Law. 

On Tuesday, former Prime Minister and DPS deputy Dusko Markovic said that the atmosphere in the country’s Parliament during the Law’s debate was scandalous and anti-constitutional, adding he would file charges against all those who “violated the Constitution.” 

SPC and official Belgrade backed the request for changes and protests across Montenegro earlier in the year, and the actual changes are a small victory to Belgrade and SPC above this tiny Adriatic republic. 

Many observers agreed on the dissent mainly contributed to the opposition victory last April, after 30 years. On other side, many Montenegrins support the idea to have their own church, independent from SPC, which has a fundament across the Serb population in Montenegro and the help of official Belgrade and Moscow, of course. 

Time for Robust Engagement in BiH

The international community’s High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, has said that the international community can be expected to step up its involvement in sorting out the situation in the country and that Germany will have a special role in that process. 

I think that now there will be a turnaround and greater engagement on the part of Germany, and that will be to the benefit of both Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans, Inzko said in an interview with the local FTV broadcaster on Saturday (26.12). 

He made the statement following speculation that he will be replaced early next year by a Conservative German politician Christian Schmidt, who is expected to lead increased efforts to remove blockades that have been preventing any progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina for years. 

Inzko would not confirm directly that he would be succeeded by Schmidt but he noted that a robust international policy was definitely necessary for Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Inzko is optimistic that this will happen also because of the fact that the office of US president will soon be taken over by Joe Biden, whose position on the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is similar to that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

Inzko noted that his efforts to make the situation in the country start to change had already yielded results because, after his ultimatum to Milorad Dodik, a plaque with the name of convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic was removed from the entrance to a student dormitory at Pale outside Sarajevo, and the compromised president of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (VSTV), Milan Tegeltija, who is close to Dodik, stepped down. 

That phase should continue, with me or the new High Representative, but that decision is up to the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), said the Austrian diplomat. 

He said that he had already prepared a bill to ban the denial of the Srebrenica genocide, based on the model in force in Austria strictly penalizes the negation of the Holocaust. 

The bill will be submitted to the parliament for consideration and adoption in early January. 

If that is not possible, Inzko said he would consider further steps, an indication that there was a possibility he would use his powers to impose such a law. 

Fear of Reforms and Blockade of NATO Path in BiH

Bosnia’s two key problems and challenges are the fear of reforms and political options that are declaratively committed to EU integration, while at the same time trying to block the country’s NATO path, Deputy Speaker of BiH House of Representatives (HoR) Denis Zvizdic said on December 27th

Asked whether the HoR had an adequate response to issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Zvizdic said he believed the response by all the levels of government in the country was inadequate, untimely and inadequately structured towards the needs of the health sector and branches of the economy that were hit the most. 

“At a time when human lives are at stake and most economic flows are slowed down or disrupted, leaving thousands of existential jobs lost, citizens expect governments and parliaments to show leadership with a clear vision and effective decisions, plans, and measures, which, unfortunately, in the case of the Council of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH, it was completely absent”, said Zvizdic. 

He added that the work of the BiH Parliament was practically based on the engagement of individual MPs instead of the work of the BiH Council of Ministers (as the state-level government is called), which is a worrying fact. 

“I have personally proposed several laws and sixteen initiatives, which, if ultimately adopted and implemented, will improve the health, economic, investment and security situation in BiH”, Zvizdic noted. 

When it comes to Bosnia’s Euro-Atlantic path, he said that most activities that were implemented in this or are planned for the next year are based on measurable and credible progress made by the previous government. 

But the Deputy Speaker of BiH House of Representatives noted that the country is facing two key issues: 

“The first is the non-acceptance of the reality that BiH is a united, democratic, and European state, a society of equal constitutional peoples and citizens who are the bearers of political sovereignty and that is why the fiction about the non-existent statehood or independence of BiH and the independence of its Republika Srpska (RS) entity is completely counterproductive and leads, above all, to the social and economic regression of the RS. As a consequence, we have a blockade of the work of institutions at the level of BiH in an effort to give primacy to the entities in relation to the state. The other problem is the fear of accepting the EU legal practice and the inevitable reforms in the area of the constitutional, the political, judicial, and economic system and the strengthening of the rule of law. Without these reforms, there will be no progress on BiH’s path to Euro-Atlantic integration, no access to European and other funds, no economic recovery and development, no new investments, and no new jobs. This is clear to everyone who wants to see BiH in the company of modern European countries in the future”, Zvizdic concluded.

Kosovo to Hold Early Elections in 40 Days

Kosovo’s Constitutional court ruled on Monday (21.12) night that the vote by Etem Arifi’s, an MP, which helped to form the Government led by Prime Minister Avdulah Hoti, was invalid and ordered early parliamentary elections within 40 days. 

The decision said to be taken unanimously accepted the appeal of the Self-Determination Movement, the most considerable opposition and former ruling party. 

The ruling said the court followed the Constitution of Kosovo and the Law on General Elections, stipulating that a person convicted by a final court verdict in the last three years could not be a candidate for a deputy or hold a valid mandate in Kosovo’s Parliament. 

The Constitutional Court ruled that Kosovo’s Parliament decision of June 3, 2020, when the current cabinet was elected, was not under the Constitution, because the Government did not get the majority of votes of all deputies, and ordered the President to call early elections for not later than 40 days. 

The verdict has no retroactive effect to Hoti’s decisions. They remain in force, and the Government remains in office until the election of a new cabinet. 

No Recognition of Kosovo, or Membership in NATO

President Aleksandar Vucic said on Friday (18.12) that Serbia would not recognize Kosovo as long as he is in office, nor would it become a member of NATO. 

Speaking on a live talk show on the pro-government Serbian TV Prva, Vucic said that “Belgrade certainly will not recognize Kosovo” by April 2022 when the next presidential elections are to be held.   

Vucic said that Serbia also won’t join NATO because it is a militarily neutral country. “I think that is the best position, safeguarding our country ourselves, as well as the skies and the people and we will continue to do that”, he said. 

The Serbian President said that any changes to the Dayton, Agreement can only be decided by the three constituent nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and its two entities (the Republika Srpska and BiH Federation) and not by the president of Serbia. He said that the pressure to create a functional state of Bosnia-Herzegovina “is pressure leading in another direction” and is essentially about “reducing the competencies of the Republika Srpska”. “The essence lies in taking away powers and jurisdiction from the Republika Srpska, not making Bosnia-Herzegovina a functional state”, he said. 

Ukraine Embassy Demands Answers From BiH on Orthodox Icon presented to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Ukrainian Embassy to Bosnia asked the country’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday (17.12) to provide detailed information on the origin of an Orthodox Icon belonging to Ukrainian Cultural Heritage, which BiH Serb Presidency member Milorad Dodik gave to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his official visit to the country on Monday (14.12). 

Bosnia’s Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic said that they had received a diplomatic note from the Embassy of Ukraine asking for a statement on how the 300-year-old icon was in the possession of a BiH official, more precisely, the Chairman of BiH Presidency, Milorad Dodik. 

She added that the note was forwarded to the tripartite Presidency whose members need to provide a statement regarding the issue.
“I see there are suggestions that the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA), as well as the state Prosecution, should be engaged in this case”, Turkovic added. 

The item in question is a 300-year-old gilded icon from Luhansk, Ukraine with a seal proving its originality, as shown in the photo published by the SRNA news agency. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov received the icon at the seat of the Republika Srpska in Istocno Sarajevo during a meeting attended by Republika Srpska government officials, the President of that Bosnian entity Zeljka Cvijanovic and Milorad Dodik, BiH Presidency Chairman. 

Camp Lipa in Bosnia to Close on Friday, Leaving 1,365 Migrants on the Streets

The migrant camp Lipa in the western part of Bosnia and Herzegovina will close on Friday after Bosnia’s Council of Ministers failed to reach an agreement on declaring it as a permanent institution, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced.

The IOM said it will distribute sleeping bags and one more breakfast to the 1.365 migrants there. 

After that, they are on their own and will be again on the streets where about 1.500 migrants are already spending the winter, hoping to cross the nearby border to Croatia and enter the EU. 

The Security Ministry said it had proposed three important issues concerning the migrants to be discussed at the Council of Ministers session. 

The Council decided to form a working group that will develop a strategy and an action plan for the period from 2021 to 2025 regarding the migrant problem and adopted a report containing a Plan of measures and activities for effective management of the migrant crisis which had been taken off the agenda from 2019 until Thursday. 

With the adoption of the Plan, the Security Ministry now has an official document that defines the priorities, sets the measures and activities that need to be taken and defines the responsibilities and deadlines. 

It called on the relevant authorities to execute their parts of the plan. 

The Security Ministry proposed the establishment of a temporary migrant reception center for those who so far resided in the Lipa camp but Serb ministers rejected it, leaving the Lipa camp without further financing. 

The Ministry’s statement said that this will create a serious humanitarian, security, and political crisis in the Una-Sana Canton, where most of the migrants are. 

Tens of thousands of migrants arrived in Bosnia and their way to the EU but Croatian police keeps pushing them back when they try to cross the border and Bosnian Serb authorities do not allow them to stay on their territory. 

This puts the entire burden on the Una-Sana Canton. 

The Ministry said it expects the burden of the responsibility for managing the migrant crisis to be distributed more evenly in BiH, arguing that the Una-Sana Canton and the Sarajevo Canton cannot continue to serve as places where all the migrants are being sent from across the country. 

The Ministry also said it expects all levels of government to get engaged in resolving the issue. 

EU Delegation Official Says Serbia Should Step Up Efforts to Align with Brussels

A senior official of the European Union Delegation in Serbia told the annual ISAC Fund conference on Wednesday, December 16th, that Serbia has to step up its efforts to align its policies with the EU’s common foreign and security. 

Dirk Lorenz, the head of the political department at the EU Delegation told the conference that Brussels wants Serbia to progressively align its foreign and security policy with that of the EU in the pre-accession period. He said that this would certainly have a positive effect on the speed of the process. He is quoted as saying that the EU respects sovereign choice, autonomous decisions, including Serbia decision to maintain military neutrality but we believe that military neutrality does not mean political neutrality”, he said.   

EU Delegation chief Sem Fabrizi said during a meeting with Serbian Economy Minister Andjelka Atanaskovic that the Union will continue supporting Serbia’s economic growth through the platform to coordinate reforms in the business environment. 

Lorenz said that Serbia is expected to step up the aligning of its policies before an agreement is reached with Pristina. “We know that a binding agreement on comprehensive normalization of Belgrade-Pristina relations will probably make it easier for Serbia to do that”, he said.   

According to Lorenz, Serbia has been stuck at 50-60 percent alignment with EU decisions over the past few years, adding that this is the lowest level in the region but that progress has been made by aligning with the two declarations on Belarus. 

Russia Respects BiH, but Opposes Revision of Dayton Accords

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said on December 15th, that Russia’s policy towards Bosnia is clear and consistent, based on the view that the country’s stability is connected with respect for the Dayton Accords and internal dialogue as a way of seeking solutions, without external interference. 

Lavrov made the statement at the conference he held in Sarajevo on Tuesday with Bosnia and Herzegovina Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic, with whom he held talks at which they agreed on a plan for bilateral diplomatic consultations for the next two years. 

The talks between the two ministers were overshadowed by a scandal caused by Lavrov’s statements made on Monday (14.12), in which he brought into question the possibility of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession to NATO and called for urgently shutting down the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in the country. 

This prompted Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) Presidency members Zeljko Komsic and Sefik Dzaferovic to refuse to meet with Lavrov so he met in the Presidency offices only with Milorad Dodik, the incumbent Serb chairman of the BiH Presidency with whom he had already held separate talks in East Sarajevo on Monday. 

Lavrov made no special comment on the scandal that cast a shadow on his visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, repeating only at the news conference that Russia respected Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty, called for the consistent implementation of the Dayton agreement and opposed its possible revision. 

He noted that it was Moscow’s view that the only solution for Bosnia and Herzegovina was internal dialogue and agreement based on compromise. 

Despite Komsic’s and Dzaferovic’s objections, Lavrov repeated his statement of Monday that the role of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina had been exhausted and that his term should end while Bosnia and Herzegovina should continue functioning as an independent country. 

Turkovic, too, avoided direct comment on the messages to Russia sent by Dzaferovic’s and Komsic’s boycott of Lavrov. 

She said that her meeting with the Russian minister was “constructive and open” and that they established that the two countries’ relations were good and that there was room for their improvement, notably on the economic front. 

“I hope… there will be an improvement in the coming period”, she said. 

Turkovic added that Bosnia and Herzegovina welcomed Russia’s commitment to respecting Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territorial integrity and sovereignty as defined by the Dayton peace agreement and expected Russia to help in its progress “based on documents supported at the state level by elected representatives.” 

“We should respect one another and respect the Dayton agreement”, she said, recalling that the Dayton Agreement guaranteed equal rights for all BiH citizens regardless of their place of residence, as well as respect for all court rulings on the entire BiH territory. 

Using diplomatic language, she said that the reason for current problem in the country was “tree different views” of the country’s future, including its path to Euro-Atlantic associations, and added that the only solution to that was a compromise. 

In that context she mentioned problems regarding integration with NATO and the future of the OHR, for which, she stressed, a middle-road policy was required with which all peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina would be satisfied. 

By meeting with Turkovic, Lavrov ended his two-day official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina and left for Belgrade, the next stop of his regional tour. 

Dayton Accords Prevents Bosnia from Joining the EU

Joe Biden has already made it clear that he will protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but, according to the current system, the country is a dysfunctional state, Daniel Serwer, Johns Hopkins University professor told on December 14th. 

He said, BiH nowadays cannot adequately respond to the needs of its citizens: it is too expensive to live in, it largely depends on international support, citizens do not feel protected and they do not feel safe. 

In his opinion, the Dayton Peace Agreement, which also contains Bosnia’s Constitution, needs reform because it does not work very well at recent years, and secondly, it will prevent Bosnia from joining the EU. The Constitutional Law has to be changed with giving more civil rights to the citizens despite the ethnicity and nationality.  

He thinks the Bosnian civil society has to raise the initiative of changing the Constitutional Law and to be involved in discussions for the future of BiH, and the International Community must help Bosnians in their efforts, including for the new Constitution, protection of Civil Rights and Rule of Law, but in the case of eventual negative influence from Serbia and Croatia too. In this respect, Serwer stressed that the police forces of Republika Srpska have been equipped with heavy armament incl. armored vehicles that create some worries in the other entity.