Strategic Analysis Balkan Brief
Monthly review of May and June 2022
Petra Bošková, Matúš Babulík, Ivan Iliev
Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia; Photo: Sietske van Hienen/Shutterstock
The former highest military leader as the new President of Albania
Bajram Begaj is the new Albanian President, elected by the Parliament on June 4, 2022. Begaj is the eighth president of Albania and the third presidential figure from the military ranks. The post of President is just ceremonial in Albania, but it has some powers in the judiciary and concerning the armed forces.
The ruling leftist Socialist Party nominated Begaj after failing to reach a compromise with the opposition over a candidate to replace the previous President Ilir Meta. Begaj has been Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Albania since July 2020. He has previously held several army posts, including positions in public and military hospitals, and was trained in the US in strategic medical leadership and defence management.
Albania’s PM, Edi Rama, was pleased with the selection of Bergaj. He claimed that “Albania has gained a normal president, an unquestionable personality in his integrity, humanity, and commitment to the country and its people. I look forward to future cooperation!”
The European Union, the United States, and other Western countries congratulated the new President on his election. Josep Borell tweeted that he looked forward to working together on “a prosperous, secure and strong relationship between the EU and Albania as members of one European family,”
- Reuters, „Albanian army chief voted in as new president“, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/albanian-army-chief-voted-new-president-2022-06-04/
- VoA News, „Albania Elects Top General as Country’s New President, https://www.voanews.com/a/albania-elects-top-general-as-country-s-new-president-/6603918.html
Bosnia and Herzegovina
October elections: problems with the financing
In May 2022, the Central Election Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina set October 2 as the date for the general elections. However, to hold such a large-scale election, the Commission had to secure a loan worth several million EUR, causing renewed tensions in the country’s political sphere.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s election law states that state institutions must provide funds to hold elections within 15 days of the polls being announced, but that deadline passed on May 19. The fact is that since 2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina has not had an approved state budget. That is causing economic instability in the country, as the state operates based on special financial allocations that have to be voted on by Parliament every three months.
The amount initially requested was 6.5 million EUR, but Finance Minister Vjekoslav Bevanda, a member of the Croatian Democratic Union, blocked the decision. Bevanda eventually agreed to 5 million EUR, saying that the elections might not even be held due to lack of funds.
The ‘stalemate’ over the financing of the elections was addressed by Christian Schmidt, the High Representative overseeing the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement in BiH. Schmidt used his so-called “Bonn powers” to allocate funds to the Central Election Commission after several unsuccessful attempts by the BiH Council of Ministers to agree on financing the elections at the state level.
Finally, Schmidt ordered the state of BiH to fund the elections and a loan of 6.5 million EUR, which the Commission requested at the outset.
On the other hand, Schmidt expressed he is aware that the funding will not be sufficient. However, he stated it is necessary to ensure that the elections can occur orderly, where monitoring and resources will be provided.
- Azem Kurtic, Balkan Insight, „Bosnia’s International Overseer Orders State to Fund Elections“, https://balkaninsight.com/2022/06/07/bosnias-international-overseer-orders-state-to-fund-elections/
- Azem Kurtic, Balkan Insight, „Bosnia’s Election Commission Borrows Money to Hold Polls“ https://balkaninsight.com/2022/06/06/bosnias-election-commission-borrows-money-to-hold-polls/
- Radio Free Europe, „Bosnia Calls Elections For October 2 Amid Concerns Over Lack of Electoral Reforms“, https://www.rferl.org/a/bosnia-general-elections-set-october-2/31834074.html
New “political brochure” from Croatia: practical policy changes or reopening of “old wounds” for its neighbours?
At the end of May, the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts (HAZU) produced a “policy brochure” outlining several demands that should be met in the negotiation process for the integration of Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina into the EU. On the other hand, the HAZU document lists, among other things, some conditions that it believes Zagreb should set to protect Croatian national interests in the region.
Croatia has been an EU member state since 2013. However, Serbia, along with Montenegro, is still the only candidate country that has been in the accession process for several years. That is because they have not fulfilled all the requirements and procedures necessary for accession, which Croatia wanted to point out in the document in question. In contrast, as far as Serbia is concerned, the recommendations made by HAZU were received with great anger.
In the case of Serbia, they include the demand that Belgrade ’renounce the Greater Serbia propaganda’, which Russia is helping to spread. Also included in the document is recognition of Belgrade for its ‘aggression’ against Croatia during the 1991-95 war and payment of compensations.
HAZU also calls for the completion of the demarcation of the border between Serbia and Croatia on the Danube River and the recognition of the disputed river island of Sharengrad as Croatian, as well as for better protection of the rights of the Croatian minority in Serbia and the distinction of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Croatia.
As part of its recommendations for Montenegro, HAZU suggested guaranteed seats in the Montenegrin Parliament for Croats. HAZU also calls on Podgorica to publicly apologize and pay compensation for supporting Serbian military operations in Croatia during the civil war in the 1990s.
In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, HAZU is demanding recognition of the just, liberating role of Croatia and Croats in the creation and defence of the state against Serbian aggression. Currently, the Croats share one of the two Bosnian entities with the more numerous Bosniaks and have been demanding their entity.
The document has provoked particular outrage, especially from the Serb side. However, Belgrade sees the demands not as reopening “old wounds”.
- Saša Dragojlo, „Serbian Academics Denounce Croatian Counterparts’ „Inflammatory“ Demands, https://balkaninsight.com/2022/05/24/serbian-academics-denounce-croatian-counterparts-inflammatory-demands/
- HAZU, „Prilozi za zaštitu Hrvatskim Nacionalnih Interesa Prilikom Pregovora Republike Hrvatske s Bosnom i Heregovinom, Crnom Gorom i Srbijom u Pogledu Njihova Ulaska u Europsku Uniju“, https://www.info.hazu.hr/en/2022/05/prilozi-za-zastitu-hrvatskih-nacionalnih-interesa-prilikom-pregovora-republike-hrvatske-s-bosnom-i-hercegovinom-crnom-gorom-i-srbijom-u-pogledu-njihova-ulaska-u-europsku-uniju
Kosovo aims to increase renewable energy to at least 35%
Kosovo is planning to increase the renewables in energy consumption to at least 35% by 2031, according to the latest draft energy strategy presented by Minister of Economy Artane Rizvanolli, delivered on June 8. However, Kosovo’s renewable energy capacity is currently low, as the primary energy source comes from two obsolete lignite-coal power plants, which cover 84% of domestic needs. Therefore, attention will be focused on wind and solar energy and splitting distribution losses to 9%.
Another priority of Kosovo’s energy strategy is to achieve market integration with Albania next year. The energy systems of Kosovo and Albania are complementary. The complete operation of the Albanian Power Exchange is expected to launch in 2023. In addition, Albania is preparing a project for a 110 kV power line to Kosovo. The overhead line will connect the Albanian substations in Bajram Curri and Kukës with Kosovo’s neighbouring areas.
The Kosovo government has said that vulnerable households will be provided subsidies for the energy transition. In addition, the government will support house insulation, installing solar panels, and purchasing efficient household appliances and heating systems. The goal of the energy strategy is also to integrate within the European Union Emissions Trading System by 2031.
There is a plan to reconstruct two old lignite thermal power plants as the country is still highly dependent on them. The government plans to renovate Kosovo B’s power plant and install a system to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions to a level that would comply with European regulations. However, the World Bank and the European Commission are urging to close the power plant instead of renovating it.
- Todorović Igor, Balkan Green Energy News, “Renewables are the cornerstone of Kosovo energy strategy through 2031”, https://balkangreenenergynews.com/renewables-are-cornerstone-of-kosovo-energy-strategy-through-2031/?fbclid=IwAR1iPwlMtjYh-cH4cGn-rokk9hIyTHn6Syx8Yb_UEnov_QxoodgeShh7gIo
- Todorović Igor, Balkan Green Energy News, “Albania planning two more power interconnectors with Kosovo, Montenegro”, https://balkangreenenergynews.com/albania-planning-two-more-power-interconnectors-with-kosovo-montenegro/?fbclid=IwAR1ppkaXH8phIz1znyflOMd_Fi-bNBdC3y3jqatp88e1FBkQ9PvzxbgrmZA
- Todorović Igor, Balkan Green Energy News, “Rizvanolli: No new coal plants in Kosovo’s* draft energy strategy”, https://balkangreenenergynews.com/rizvanolli-no-new-coal-plants-in-kosovos-draft-energy-strategy/
Bridge over river Tara, Montenegro. Photo: Hike the World/ Shutterstock.com
Montenegro as an observer at the Open Balkan Summit
The Open Balkan initiative is an economic and political grouping of Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania, which aims to increase trade and cooperation and improve relations between the countries. On Wednesday, June 8, the summit was held in Ohrid, where potential “candidate” countries such as Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo were invited for the first time.
The new PM of the minority government in Montenegro, Dritan Abazović, expressed a dose of optimism about the initiative. He stated, “I see Open Balkan as helping to co-create a future of economic progress, entrepreneurship, greater mobility of citizens, and greater cooperation in all areas. Any initiative that can lead to progress and reconciliation will have the support of the Montenegrin government”.
On the other hand, the invited representative of the Bosnian Council of Ministers, Zoran Tegeltija, was more sceptical about the initiative. He stated that the entry of Bosnia and Herzegovina was not so much hindered by a business community in the country but by a lack of consensus in internal politics.
By contrast, Kosovo did not even attend the summit as an observer. Kosovo’s PM, Albin Kurti, said that the country is involved in the Berlin Process, which also seeks to build and improve relations with the Western Balkan countries and therefore sees no reason to join another initiative.
Montenegro is aware that the initiative helps improve relations and build effective relations and economic cooperation in the region, which is more than necessary for further progress toward the European Union. However, on the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the Open Balkan is not an alternative to the EU, as Serbian President Vučić has also stressed.
- Jakov Marušič Sinisa, Balkan Insight, „Montenegro Mulls Joining ‘Open Balkan’ Initiative, Kosovo Remains Opposed“, https://balkaninsight.com/2022/06/08/montenegro-mulls-joining-open-balkan-initiative-kosovo-remains
- European Western Balkans, „Open Balkan summit: Agreement on cooperation in the area of recognition of diplomas signed“, https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2022/06/08/open-balkan-summit-agreement-on-cooperation-in-the-area-of-recognition-of-diplomas-signed
Cancellation of Lavrov’s visit: the end of Serbia’s policy of “sitting on two chairs”?
On June 6 2022, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was due to visit Serbia after Russia and Serbia reached an agreement on natural gas supplies. The official visit by one of Putin’s closest associates was no coincidence. Lavrov was scheduled to arrive just three days before the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was due to visit Serbia.
The EU did not support a meeting between Vučić and Lavrov in the context of the war in Ukraine.
Bulgaria, along with North Macedonia and Montenegro, have banned official Russian aircraft from entering their airspace. That caused outrage on the Russian side, which the Russian foreign minister commented as “an unprecedented, hostile action that may cause some problems”.
Serbia has been pursuing a policy of “sitting on two chairs” for years – it wants to integrate into European structures, but at the same time, it wants to have good relations with Russia and China. The interior minister, Aleksander Vulin, noted that “those who prevented Lavrov’s arrival did not want peace and dreamed of Russia’s defeat”. Serbian President Vučić added that Serbia is always part of the imaginary middle ground between everything. He says he expects the government leaders to accelerate Serbia’s path to the EU significantly while pursuing a multi-pronged policy on its own.
Srdjan Cvijić, a member of the Advisory Group on Balkan Policy in Europe, stated that based on the violation of territorial integrity in Ukraine, Lavrov should not have been invited to visit Serbia at all. However, Cvijić also believes that the government in Serbia is set up so that the situation could change in the autumn and that there could be some compromise where Serbia will not have to impose sanctions on Russia.
However, the war in Ukraine confirms that if the Western Balkan countries want to be part of the EU, they need to create an environment to speed up the EU integration process.
- European Western Balkans, „Cancellation of Lavrov’s visit to Serbia – relief for official Belgrade“,https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2022/06/07/cancellation-of-lavrovs-visit-to-serbia-relief-for-official-belgrade
- Aljazeera, „Russia’s Lavrov cancelled visit a ‘diplomatic scandal’ for Serbia“, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/6/7/lavrovs-cancelled-visit-a-diplomatic-scandal
North Macedonia’s road to the EU: France as the mediator between Skopje and Sofia
Since November 2020, a bitter dispute has been ongoing between Bulgaria and North Macedonia over accession negotiations to the European Union for the lstter. However, from time to time, the states may seem to be gradually coming to compromises. Still, a recent incident in early June 2022, with the resignation of the coalition leader of a controversial party in Bulgaria, Slavi Trifonov, may put Bulgaria in a political crisis, which will also have consequences for North Macedonia.
Trifonov’s resignation was justified by Kiril Petkov, Bulgaria’s PM, who suggested lifting the Bulgarian veto of North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations. The coalition believes that the PM is pursuing his political line. Trifonov added that Macedonia is part of Bulgarian history and sees this as a national betrayal by Petkov. The possible political crisis has sparked further tensions between Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
France, which currently holds the presidency of the EU Council, has been trying to find solutions for a closure of the dispute between the two countries. Even though France is often portrayed as one of the most sceptical EU states towards enlargement, it openly supports the moves by both North Macedonia and Albania to be admitted to the EU together.
French President Macron is playing the role of mediator in this context. That is obvious for two reasons. The first reason, as we have already mentioned, is the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union. In its six-month presidency, France has had to deal with a dire situation in Europe – namely, the war in Ukraine, which has changed the whole course of the EU. France is aware that it has to show its position as an actor trying to bring peace to Europe. On the other hand, there is the fact that in June, there is another meeting of the General Affairs Council, which should decide on the progress of the EU candidate countries in their accession processes.
The PM of North Macedonia, Dimitar Kovacevski, has confirmed that France is one of the actors trying to facilitate talks between Sofia and Skopje within its competencies but has not made any concrete proposal. The situation is more complicated because of events in Ukraine. The French Presidency is trying to prioritize the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU. Still, unless there is agreement from all EU members on the question of access for other countries, the negotiations will again be prolonged.
The leaders of North Macedonia and Bulgaria stress that the issue will be resolved once a concrete solution is acceptable to both sides.
- European Western Balkans, „Macron attempts to mediate the dispute between Skopje and Sofia, which faces further challenges“, https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2022/06/07/macron-attempts-to-mediate-dispute-between-skopje-and-sofia-which-faces-further-challenges/
- Zeljko TrKanjec, Euractiv, „North Macedonia FM believes Skopje-Sofia dispute could be ‘frozen’“, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/north-macedonia-fm-believes-skopje-sofia-dispute-could-be-frozen/
- Svetoslav Todorov, Balkan Insight, „Bulgarian Ruling Coalition Cracks over North Macedonia Dispute“, https://balkaninsight.com/2022/06/08/bulgarian-ruling-coalition-cracks-over-north-macedonia-dispute/