Serbia, UK Sign Agreement Regulating Post-BREXIT Bilateral Trade

Trade, Tourism, and Telecommunications Minister Tatjana Matic and British Ambassador in Belgrade Sian Macleod signed a Partnership, Trade, and Cooperation agreement between Serbia and the United Kingdom set a new legal basis to regulate bilateral trade, which was previously defined by the Stabilization and Association Agreement between the European Community and the member states and the Republic of Serbia, the Serbian government said in a press release on Monday (19.04). 

Matic is quoted as saying that the new agreement keeps in place the same level of cooperation in all areas, as well as the degree of trade liberalization that existed before December 31, 2020. She said the agreement will enable the resumption of normal trade and creates conditions to increase trade and bring investments. 

The press release said that Ambassador Macleod said that the agreement confirms the two countries’ commitment to bilateral relations and regulates unhindered trade in the interest of business people and consumers. 

The press release said that the first temporary bilateral trade agreement between Serbia and the UK was signed in March 1879. 

Reactions on Slovenian Non-Paper Redrawing Borders on Balkans

According to the Chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite Presidency and leader of the strongest Bosnian Serb party in the country, Milorad Dodik, the “only option” for Bosnia in the future is the peaceful secession of its Republika Srpska (RS) entity. 

Dodik made the statement in light of a controversial document that was published on Thursday (15.04) by the Slovenian news portal – an alleged non-paper that proposes redrawing borders in the Western Balkans. 

The document presents the options of Kosovo joining Albania and including parts Bosnia’s Serb-dominated RS entity into Serbia while the country’s mostly Croat-populated parts would be annexed to Croatia. 

While the Bosniak and Bosnian Croat members of the tripartite Presidency condemned the document, Dodik argued that a “peaceful separation” is being discussed. 

“This is the only option and it will certainly, be realized in some coming period”, he said. 

He arguing that there is no other option in a situation where the main Bosniak party in the country, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), and its leader, Bakir Izetbegovic, are working towards Bosnia becoming a unitary state without semi-autonomous entities. 

Dodik said that the separation line between Bosnia’s two entities, which he called a “border”, is something that will not be changed under any circumstances as it internationally recognized in the Dayton Peace Agreement. 

“Izetbegovic wants to realize the concepts of his father (late BiH President Alija Izetbegovic) to create a Muslim state. Muslims would then rule there and decide on everything. Serb would be punished forever. Of course, this will not happen”, he said. 

After some Slovenian media outlets reported on the content of a non-paper document that contains the ideas about the change of borders in the Western Balkans, there is a perception that some circles in the European Union work to jeopardize the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite Presidency Sefik Dzaferovic wrote to European Council President Charles Michel who, according to media, was a recipient of the document. 

“These developments have led to a serious destabilization and disturbance in our country, considering that the secessionist political forces, which have been threatening for some time with the secession of the Republika Srpska entity, are interpreting these allegations as proof of support to their secessionist plans within the European Union”, said Dzaferovic, adding that the EU is one of the witnesses of the Dayton Peace Agreement – the international document that ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which confirmed the continuity of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina in its internationally recognized borders. 

The Presidency member said the EU has been for the past 25 years the main stability factor in BiH along with the USA and that thanks to the Union’s positive influence the country has made achievements in its post-war recovery and reform development. 

Croatian President Zoran Milanovic on Saturday (17.04) blasted an alleged document on changing the borders in the Balkans, saying he hoped it did not come from Slovenia. 

In the past few days, the public in the region has been focusing on an alleged non-paper on changing the borders of the Balkan states and reorganizing them along ethnic lines. According to the media, the authors are Slovenia’s highest officials, which they have denied. 

“Regarding a peaceful break-up in Bosnia and Herzegovina – that’s such a flippant and dangerous topic that it shouldn’t be put even in a non-paper, regardless of who did that”, Milanovic told the press. 

“Any peaceful break-up, Croatia all the way to the Drina River, Belgrade to the Una River – that’s out of the question”, Milanovic said 

Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, said on Saturday (17.04) that he never saw the alleged unofficial non-paper on redrawing borders in the Western Balkans and that Serbia has nothing to do with it. 

The Serbian President stressed that he never saw such a map and that “the fact that some want to blame Serbia for it only speaks about them”, referring to “certain groups in Montenegro, Bosnia, and Herzegovina and Zagreb.” 

“I cannot agree to the unification of Kosovo and Albania, I must respect the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Vucic said. 

He said he advocates for the “existing borders of Serbia, with Kosovo and Metohija included” and the border with “Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Republika Srpska included.” 

“Peace and complete stability are the most important thing for us”, Vucic said. 

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s statement that the breakup of Yugoslavia is not over yet and the idea of Greater Albania is unacceptable and very harmful, provocations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a Friday (16.04) press conference in Russia, after a meeting with his Serbian counterpart Nikola Selakovic.  

Dismissing the idea of redrawing new borders in the former Yugoslavia territory, Lavrov said that the “Greater Albania”, as a form of a solution to the Kosovo issue, was unacceptable. He also called Janez Jansa’s statement that the breakup of Yugoslavia was not over, unacceptable and very harmful provocations. 

“Talks of Greater Albania are nothing new. We’ve always called on our EU and NATO partners to dismiss such plans and not allow the spread of such rhetoric,” the Russian Foreign Minister said. “It’s a very dangerous game. The UN Resolution 1244 still exists and it has never been repealed. The responsible politicians, especially the heads of governments of European countries, have no right presenting ideas that undermine the very concept set out in Resolution 1244.” 

He recalled that the Resolution respects Serbia’s sovereignty and that the status of Kosovo should be found in the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina. “As President Putin said, we will support any solution that suits Serbia”, Lavrov said.

Serbia Implemented Only 4 of 17 Recommendations

The Council of Europe (CoE) anti-corruption body GRECO said in a report released on Thursday (15.04) that Serbia had implemented just four of its 17 recommendations in 2020.  

“As of 31 December 2020, Serbia had fully implemented four of the 17 recommendations issued by GRECO. Twelve recommendations had been implemented partially, and one recommendation remained not implemented”, the report said and added that Serbia implemented 23.5 percent of GRECO recommendations. 

The report said that Serbia implemented 16.7 percent of recommendations on judges and the same percentage on prosecutors. 

The GRECO annual report reviews measure to prevent corruption taken in member states in 2020 concerning MPs, judges, and prosecutors’ top executives and law enforcement agencies. It called a member state governments to rigorously manage the corruption risks that emerged because of measures are taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including the infusion of large amounts of money into the economy to alleviate its economic and social impact. 

“By the end of 2020, GRECO’s member states had fully implemented almost 40% of its recommendations to prevent corruption in respect of MPs, judges, and prosecutors. The recommendations with the lowest compliance were those issued in respect of MPs (only 30% fully implemented), followed by judges (41%) and prosecutors (47%)”, a press release said adding that 16 countries, including Serbia, were subject to GRECO’s non-compliance procedure. 

Montenegro First Victim of ‘Chinese Debt Diplomacy’

The European Union has said it will not help Podgorica repay the billion-euro Chinese loan, making Montenegro the first European victim of ‘Chinese debt diplomacy’, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has reported on Tuesday (13.04.).  

„A billion Euro loan is a lot of money. Especially when the country has an annual GDP of four billion”, the newspaper wrote as carried by Deutsche Welle (DW). 

Official Podgorica has asked Brussels’ aid to repay the previous government’s loan from China in 2014 for a motorway section. 

But Brussels responded the EU did not finance loans from third countries and could offer favorable loans for other sections of the road instead. 

The Bar – Serbia’s border motorway should be 177 kilometers long. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the part from Podgorica to the northern town of Kolasin already cost a billion Euro, and the rest could be more expensive. 

According to FAZ, the coronavirus epidemic has crippled a small Balkan country’s economy heavily depending on tourism. The World Bank expects three percent growth in Montenegro this year. 

The first installment of the loan from the Chinese Exim Bank with an interest rate of two percent is due by mid-2021. 

„It seems Montenegro has become a victim of Chinese debt diplomacy that is emerging around the New Silk Road”, FAZ reported.
„It’s no surprise”, Sebastian Horn, a researcher at the Institute for World Economy at Kiel University, said. 

„The motorway financed and built by China had an unrealistic assessment of profitability from the beginning and exceeded the country’s ability to borrow”, Horn told FAZ. 

He recalled that several countries sought financial support from international organizations in the previous months due to debts to China. Among them are Ecuador, Kenya, Ethiopia and Pakistan. 

Mario Holzner, head of Vienna’s WIIW think tank dealing with Eastern Europe, recalled that China had reserved Montenegrin land as collateral if the loan was not repaid. 

„Of course, the EU has a chance to bind Montenegro to itself in the long run if it financially supports the country”, Holzner said. 

EU Position on Western Balkans and Borders is Clear

European Union’s position on the Western Balkans and borders in that region is very clear, there is nothing to be changed on that, European Commission’s spokesman Peter Stano said on Tuesday (13.04) in a daily press briefing. 

Stano was responding to a question about the alleged non-paper document that Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, according to some media outlets, sent to Brussels and which speaks about redrawing of borders in the Western Balkans.   

EC spokesperson said they were not aware of such document and suggested that any question on this matter should be addressed either to the Slovenian partners or the European Council. 

But, Stano said, the EU position on the Western Balkans and borders is very clear. 

“There is nothing that needs to be changed on that. We should work towards regional cooperation, reconciliation, this is the idea and this is the logic of the accession process. To try to solve all the issues that might be between the countries in a process that does not go into dangerous areas and sticks to the EU law and EU principles,” he said. 

The Slovenian PM himself denied the allegations, saying that he last met European Council President Charles Michel last year and that he could hardly hand over any document in February or March this year. He said that Slovenia is “seriously seeking for solutions towards the development of the region and the EU perspective of the Western Balkan countries” and that such claims are “trying to prevent such goals.” 

The allegations coincided with a statement by Bosnia Presidency’s Croat member Zeljko Komsic, who told media on Monday that Slovenian President Borut Pahor asked the Presidency members during his recent visit to Sarajevo if peaceful dissolution was possible in BiH. 

Bosniak Presidency member Sefik Dzaferovic also confirmed this was a topic of the conversation. 

Dialogue Crucial for European Aspirations of Both Serbia and Kosovo

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday (12.04) that lasting peace, stability, and social-economic development in Kosovo and the region depended on improving the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue on the normalization of relations.  

Guterres told the UN Security Council’s video session about the sixth-month report on the UN mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, that „though I welcome clear statements about the dialogue’s importance, I highlight the importance of a true commitment to the resumption of the talks at the high level under the European Union auspices soon.” 

The Secretary-General praised Kosovo’s institutions, political parties, and voters for well-organized early general elections, calling on Pristina leaders to use that élan. 

Guterres also said that despite three rounds of negotiations at the expert level and both sides’ readiness to meet and solve pending issues, Belgrade and Pristina have to reconcile views, including the formation of the Community of Serb Municipalities.

Macron Supports EU Membership Prospects of Western Balkans

French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed his full support for the integration of Montenegro and other Western Balkan countries into the European Union, the government in Podgorica said in a statement on Wednesday (07.04). 

Macron has sent a letter to Montenegrin Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić offering France’s support in the reform process in Montenegro on its path towards European Union membership, according to the statement. 

You can rest assured that France stands by you in the present situation when your country is facing the challenges of the pandemic as well as the challenges of strengthening the rule of law and economic and social development, Macron wrote. 

He said that as part of the strategy for the Western Balkans, the French development agency (ADF) will begin activities in Montenegro with a €50 million project to support the financing of small and medium enterprises and municipalities in accordance with the goals of sustainable development. 

Macron said that he wanted their bilateral relations to continue getting stronger and that the forthcoming visit by the Montenegrin foreign minister to Paris would contribute to that. 

Krivokapić took the office of Prime Minister in mid-December. At the start of his term, he spoke by video link with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that Germany would remain a reliable partner to Montenegro in the process of its integration into the EU. 

China Invests an Additional $408 Million in Bor

The Chinese company Zijin said on Wednesday (07.04) it planned to invest 408 million dollars in production and ongoing projects in Bor and Majdenapek mining complexes in eastern Serbia. The company added it would mean the realization of over 1.1 billion dollars in investments in the last three years.  

In the two-and-a-half-year of the strategic partnership with Serbia, the company said it had invested 700 million Dollars, or twice as much as the company’s price paid for the recapitalization of the mining metallurgical plant in December 2018. 

„In the technical renovation and expansion of four mines and smelters in Bor, as well as in numerous safety and environmental protection projects, 360 million dollars were invested last year alone”, the company’s statement said. 

It added it invested 53.5 million Dollars in environment protection in 2020 and that „effective measures have been taken to dispose of solid and liquid waste, as well as to combat dust and flue gases.” 

Zijin said its priority was to construct a desulphurization system and secondary chimneys, together with a new converter and a new anode furnace. This comprehensive reconstruction should be completed by this October. 

The reconstruction includes the construction of a wastewater treatment system in which preparatory work has begun and the implementation of the wastewater treatment. 

Last October, the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS)reported that the Zijin Bor Copper company and a manager had been fined some 3,800 Euro for air pollution. 

The pollution emitted from the company prompted several protests by the local population

Serious Violations of Media Freedoms in BiH

Amnesty International issued its latest country reports on the state of human rights in 2020, saying that top issues concerning human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina included the disproportionate movement restrictions for children and older people during the pandemic and limited right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, which came as a consequence of an emergency measures introduced by the authorities. The organization also said media associations reported dozens of “serious violations” of media freedoms in 2020. 

“As a part of the COVID-19 emergency measures in March, the authorities imposed a blanket 24-hour curfew on children and people aged 65 and older. The curfew was eased after several weeks but over 300 people found in violation of the order received fines that could exceed the average monthly pension. In April, the Constitutional Court ruled the measures were disproportionate and breached the right to freedom of movement enshrined in the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights”, said the report. 

Another part of the report which referred to the pandemic said that the journalists and others who criticized the government’s COVID-19 response “faced backlash and censorship”, while the BH Association of Journalists reported some 30 cases of serious violations of media freedom, including physical assault and deaths threats against media workers. 

“In several cantons, independent journalists were denied access to government briefings on the COVID-19 crisis. In March, the Republika Srpska (entity) government issued a decree prohibiting the “incitement of panic and disorder” and imposed heavy fines for violations. At least 18 people were charged under the decree before it was repealed in late April, including a medical doctor who expressed concern on social media about the lack of equipment and capacities in local hospitals”, the NGO said in the report, adding that authorities in Bosnia’s other entity, the Federation BiH, “actively monitored private social media accounts and criminally charged at least five people for “spreading false information and panic” in March.” 

“At the end of the year, there was no credible information on whether any of the charges were dropped. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the measures limited the right to freedom of expression”, the AI said. 

“According to the European Commission, laws regulating assemblies were contrary to international law as they severely restricted public places for protests and placed a disproportionate burden on organizers, who had to cover the costs for additional security and emergency measures during events”, it added. 

The report also said that the authorities in several parts of the country cited public health grounds in disclosing personal data of individuals, including minors, who were diagnosed with COVID-19 and of those with orders to self-isolate, which led the BiH Data Protection Agency to warn that this breached national data protection legislation and prohibited further public disclosure of personal data by the authorities. 

A whole section of the report was dedicated to the treatment of refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants, with a note that BiH failed to provide effective access to asylum and adequate reception conditions for thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers traveling through the country on their way to the EU. 

“The asylum system remained largely ineffective due to persisting institutional gaps, including limited capacity in the Ministry of Security, resulting in a significant backlog of pending cases and people awaiting registration. Political inaction from the Council of Ministers and the reluctance of authorities at all levels to co-operate led to failures in identifying additional suitable accommodation and prevented the transfer of existing reception centers from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to BiH authorities”, the organization said. 

Vjosa Osmani – Kosovo New President

Vjosa Osmani became Kosovo’s new president late on Monday (05.04) after three rounds of voting in Pristina’s Parliament with 70 out of 120 deputies in her favor, promising to strengthen the state, the rule of law and protect every inch of its territory, but warned there would not be peace before Serbia repented.  

“The justice would not be served until Serb criminals face it”, Osmani said. 

Her elections ended the formation of all Kosovo’s top institutions, the parliament, government, and the head of state, following February’s early vote. 

Petar Petkovic, the head of Serbia’s Government Office for Kosovo accused later on Monday (05.04) Osmani of starting a new cycle of relations with Belgrade with hate and hostile campaign, instead of with messages about the dialogue and joint solution of the problems. He added Osmani and Prime Minister Albin Kurti should “find the strength to overcome the anti-Serbian obsession and turn to dialogue, compromise, conversation, joint search for a solution, and fulfillment of internationally recognized obligations.” 

The first congratulation for Vojsa’s election came from Josep Borell, The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign and Security policy. 

Vjosa called on all Kosovo politicians “to build the spirit of cooperation and tolerance” and described the US, EU, and Albania as Pristina’s “three pillars.” 

Regarding the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue on the normalization of relations, she said it was the right way but should be fair and equal.