Strategic Analysis Balkan Brief

First half of November 2023

Petra Bošková, Victoria Valová, Natália Lešňovská, Matúš Vicen, Sára Gregová, Simona Škríbová, Dominik Boris, Aneta  Migátová

Durmitor Mountains, Montenegro. Photo:

Albania’s Refugee Deal with Italy – Criticism and Xenophobic Memes

The PMs of Albania and Italy, Edi Rama and Giorgia Meloni, signed a memorandum of understanding on November 6, 2023, related to Albania’s hosting of Italian-run migrant facilities in Shëngjin and Gjader. These centres are said to be able to process claims of up to 36,000 migrants yearly rescued at sea by Italy. Meloni stated that the centres are expected to be operational by spring 2024 and will be established by Italy at its own expense. Albania’s role will be to cooperate on their external monitoring.

The three main objectives of the memorandum, as proclaimed by Meloni, are as follows: first, to combat illegal migration; second, to combat human trafficking; and lastly, to accept only those who are entitled to international protection. The agreement pertains solely to immigrants rescued in the Mediterranean by Italian government ships. It excludes immigrants rescued by NGOs, those who arrive on Italian soil, minors, pregnant women, and vulnerable persons.

Migration and human rights experts, lawyers, civil society groups, and activists have criticised the arrangement and are concerned about the deal’s details, as they have not been published. Furthermore, such arrangements remain a worrying trend of European Union (EU) countries attempting to control migration outside their borders, especially if migrants are not picked up in international waters but in the territorial waters of the EU.

Following the announcement of the agreement, memes have circulated on Albanian social media, some of which contained racist content. The mayor of Lezha, Pjerin Ndreu – a member of Rama’s ruling Socialist Party, joined the trend by announcing a competition for the “nicest meme” related to the arrangement. Ndreu said the winner would be announced on December 5 based on likes. He wrote: “Whoever finds the nicest meme, or makes a new one, a committee of three, nominated by me will announce a winner! The winner will be guaranteed seven days of vacation in one of the best resorts in Shengjin with a white owner! Although it is unknown whether the announcement of the competition was a joke, the mayor received backlash for his racist rhetoric.

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Regular Report Presented to the United Nations  

On November 3 2023, the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, presented his regular report to the United Nations Secretary-General. The report monitors the implementation of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina between April 16 and October 15 2023.

The report describes the progress in integration towards the European Union and better institutional functionality while noting an unprecedented level of attacks against the General Framework Agreement for Peace (GFAP), which has been able to stabilise the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina since late 1995”. According to Schmidt, the attacks are directed against his person but also against the Constitutional Court as the institution that protects the GFAP. He adds that the Republika Srpska authorities, led by President Milorad Dodik, are responsible for the attacks. The report also notes a slowdown in economic activity, a persistently high level of corruption (although it is the lowest in the region), and a major issue of discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation in the country.

The High Representative points to the misinterpretation of the Dayton Agreement by Republika Srpska officials in support of their secessionist aims. He states “that the State of BiH is not a union of states or confederation; there is only one state on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that is Bosnia and Herzegovina itself. The RS is not a state, but an entity which is part of the sovereign state of Bosnia and Herzegovina”. In its report, it says that the Republika Srpska is not a “State of Serb people” but a multi-ethnic entity that is supposed to serve all citizens, and statements about the right to self-determination of the Serb people call into question fundamental aspects of the GFAP. According to the report, Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to face several challenges in achieving international standards in democracy, social policy, and the rule of law.

Željka Cvijanović, Serbian member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, noted that the report contains several lies and manipulative statements in order to cast a bad light on the Republic of Srpska. Republika Srpska officials have long questioned High Representative Schmidt, saying that his nomination to the position of High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina is not legitimate. Cvijanovic believes that this is a report from a man who does not have a mandate to hold the post of High Representative from the UN Security Committee.


Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo:

Croatian Defense Minister Mario Banožić was dismissed after causing a fatal car accident

The Croatian Government, led by Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, is undergoing a significant shakeup in its defence leadership following the dismissal of Defense Minister Mario Banožić. This decision was prompted by Banožić’s involvement in a fatal car accident, where he collided with a van while overtaking another car in adverse weather conditions. The car crash, which happened on November 11,  resulted in the death of the van’s driver and left Banožić with serious injuries.

In response to the incident, Prime Minister Plenković promptly removed Banožić from his duties, citing “extraordinary circumstances”. To fill the vacant spot left by Banožić, Plenković proposed Ivan Anušić, the former prefect of Osijek-Baranja County, as the new Minister of Defense. Anušić’s nomination, the Prime Minister says, resulted from consultations within the HDZ, and the final decision received support from both the ruling party and his political partners. During a press conference, which was held on November 13, the Prime Minister expressed confidence in Anušić’s ability to effectively manage the Defense Ministry. “I believe that he will perform the duties of the Minister of Defense very well until the end of the mandate of our second Government,” he said. Plenković also addressed past disagreements with Anušić by emphasising their shared party affiliation.

The procedural steps for Anušić’s appointment included sending a letter to the President of the Croatian parliament, with a parliamentary plenary vote scheduled for Thursday, November 16. Anušić’s role as a defence minister was approved by the Croatian lawmakers, with the HDZ member receiving 77 votes from the 151-seat parliament. The Government previously emphasised the urgency of the process, citing global circumstances and the importance of maintaining stability in the Ministry of Defense.

As questions arise about the circumstances leading to Banožić’s removal, Plenković has indicated uncertainty regarding the activities of the former minister on the night before the accident. He also dismissed inquiries about Banožić’s prior involvement in traffic accidents, asserting that such information was unknown to him.

The rapid replacement of Defense Minister Banožić with Ivan Anušić reflects the Government’s commitment to swift decision-making amid global as well as regional security challenges. The emphasis on procedural efficiency and political unity surrounding Anušić’s nomination underscores the Government’s multifaceted efforts to maintain stability within a crucial ministry.

Trepça Miners’ Fight for Labor Rights

After more than 30 years, the Trepça mines have once again become a battleground for the ongoing struggle of Kosovan miners seeking improved labour rights. At its peak, the Trepça mines employed 200.000 workers and played a vital role in the Yugoslav economy. Although the current workforce has decreased to around 700 miners, their significance remains. The mines have a rich history dating back to the Roman era and have always been an integral part of the region’s economy. However, following the Kosovo War of 1998-1999 and Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, Trepça faced financial challenges, including declining production and a lack of investment.

On October 29, the workers of the Trepça mine initiated a 10-day hunger strike, echoing a similar protest that took place in 1989. During the 1980s, the miners protested the abolition of autonomy for the former Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo, which triggered a chain of events and garnered significant support in Slovenia and Croatia. The recent strike is a response to deep-rooted issues faced by the employees, such as inadequate and delayed salaries and harsh working conditions. The miners firmly believe that their demanding and hazardous labour should be rewarded with higher pay. Additionally, they express concerns over the lack of life and health insurance provided by the mining company.

The hunger strike served as an appeal for improved working conditions, the appointment of a new company director, and on-time payment of salaries. Trepca’s leadership declared the strike unlawful since, in their opinion, it had not been announced seven days beforehand. An agreement was eventually reached after ten days of work disruptions and lengthy negotiations with the miners’ union, the ruling Vetëvendosje party, and the Ministry of Economy of Kosovo.

The Trepça mines symbolise both prosperity and struggle in the history of Kosovo. Given their historical and economic significance, the ongoing struggle of the Trepça labour force for better conditions remains relevant. The hunger strikes, which encompass both political and labour rights demands, serve as a testament to the miners’ unwavering determination. They also shed light on the challenges faced by Kosovo in effectively managing state-owned enterprises in the post-war era.


Prishtina, Kosovo. Photo: OPIS/

Newly Formed Government Led by PM Spajic Sets Ambitious Agenda Amidst Uncertainty

In the wake of Montenegro’s parliamentary election in June this year, which left the country in a prolonged state of political uncertainty, the “Europe Now Movement” emerged victorious against the alliance led by the “Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro.” The victory, marked by the lowest voter turnout recorded at 56%, signified a pivotal moment in the country’s political landscape, overshadowed by three years of turmoil. This triumph saw the Europe Now Movement secure its second win, having previously ousted long-serving President Milo Dukanović through the presidential candidacy of Jakov Milatović.

Subsequently, on August 10, the President appointed Milojko Spajic to form a new government, granting him a 90-day window for this task. The culmination of weeks of negotiations finally materialised on October 31, as Spajic secured support for his coalition, making him the newly appointed prime minister of a diverse governing body. The coalition comprises of pro-Serbian parties – moderate the “Europe Now Movement“ and „Democratic Montenegro“ (Demokratska Crna Gora/Demokrate), Socialist People’s Party – Democratic Alliance (SNP-DEMOS), and two small Albanian minority coalitions.

Notably, the inclusion of the strongly pro-Serbian nationalist coalition “For the Future of Montenegro” (Za Budućnost Crne Gore) sparked controversy. Led by the pro-Serbian/Russian Democratic People’s Party, despite warnings from the European Commission, Spajic chose to form the Government with their support. In return, the coalition secured the post of the parliament speaker and four ministerial positions.

Spajic said his Government remains committed to fulfilling pre-election promises, encompassing economic and judicial reforms, as well as advancing Montenegro’s EU accession process. However, uncertainties loom over the stability of the newly formed Government and the feasibility of the ambitious reform agenda.

Shortly after assuming office, Prime Minister Spajic received a visit from Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. During this meeting, von der Leyen underscored the imperative for Montenegro to redirect its focus entirely toward the EU accession process, emphasising the country’s historical leadership role among the Western Balkan six.

Following these developments, Montenegro’s parliament appointed a new government on October 31, consisting of a coalition of pro-European and pro-Serb parties, reflecting the aspirations of the small Balkan country to join the European Union. Led by economist Milojko Spajic of the Europe Now Movement, the Government is set to comprise 19 ministries and five deputy prime ministers.

Prime Minister Spajic outlined the Government’s four main foreign policy priorities before lawmakers, emphasising full EU membership, active and credible NATO membership, improved relations with neighbours, and strengthening the country’s role in multilateral organisations. Economic policies will aim to enhance the living standards of Montenegro’s population, encompassing reforms for increased fiscal revenue, investment, a better business climate, and judiciary. The Government secured the support of the pro-Serb and pro-Russia coalition For A Better Montenegro, led by Andrija Mandic, in exchange for the position of the parliament speaker and four ministerial posts after a government reshuffle tentatively scheduled for the next year. This move raises lots of concerns among the partners from the EU and the West.

In its initial session, the new Government postponed a scheduled population and household census due to technical problems and a planned boycott by opposition parties. Prime Minister Spajic assured citizens of transparent census proceedings, with software allowing individuals to verify their data and opposition members included in census commissions. Despite economic challenges, as outlined by the World Bank, predicting a 4.8% growth in 2023, Montenegro remains committed to its Euro-adopted economy and has played a distinct role on the international stage, joining NATO in 2017 and actively participating in EU sanctions against Moscow after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s response has placed Montenegro on its list of unfriendly states despite mounting questions of how strictly the sanctions are in praxis observed.

  • Samir Kajosevic, Balkan Insight, „Montenegro’s New Govt Faces Challenges to Reform Agenda: Analysts“,
North Macedonia
European Commission’s report on North Macedonia

 On November 8, the European Commission adopted the 2023 Enlargement Package, providing an extensive evaluation of the current situation and progress of all six Western Balkan countries, as well as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.

The EC report on North Macedonia aims to provide a clear and objective assessment of progress. It highlights certain areas of progress but is also very open about areas where there has been no or limited progress, such as the rule of law, the fight against corruption, public health administration reform or fundamental human rights.

Corruption in the country remains prevalent in many areas. According to Oliver Varhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, many concerns have been caused after the Criminal Code amendments related to several high-level corruption cases.

North Macedonia is only slightly prepared for public administration reform. The Commission observed that, with the adoption of the new public administration reform strategy and accompanying action plan in July 2023, only limited progress was made during this reporting period.

When it comes to fundamental human rights, the Commission observed challenges in the reinforcement of capacities of independent bodies (especially the Ombudsman’s Office), improving the rights of persons with special needs and prison conditions for convicted persons.

One of the most positive things resulting from the report is the full commitment of North Macedonia to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. According to the Commission, the country is showing itself as a reliable partner.

Other important progress has been made in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism, in line with the goal outlined in the Western Balkans joint action plan on counterterrorism and the new bilateral implementing agreement.

According to Bojan Maricic, Deputy PM for European Affairs, North Macedonia has achieved an appropriate level of preparedness in 80% of the chapters. However, he stated that the adoption of the constitutional amendments (relating to Bulgaria) remains an unavoidable requirement.

The Prime Minister, Dimitar Kovachevski, stated that North Macedonia has accomplished a lot and is doing well on its accession path. On the other hand, the VMRO-DPMNE president, Hristijan Mickoski, thinks that this report is the worst the country has ever received so far. According to Mickosi, the report finds no progress in a long list of important chapters.


Belgrade City Centre. Photo: Shutterstock. com


Serbia’s Pro-Russian Security Chief Resigns, Blaming US-EU Blackmail

 Aleksandar Vulin has decided to step down from his role as the head of Serbia’s Security Information Agency (BIA). Vulin, a pro-Russian politician who is under sanctions by the United States, resigned on November 3, having served in the position less than a year. Vulin asserts that his decision to resign is a result of perceived threats and alleged blackmail from both the United States and the European Union.

In his resignation letter, Vulin claims that „the United States and the European Union are asking for my head as a precondition for not imposing sanctions on Serbia.“ By resigning, he wants to preempt potential additional embargoes against Belgrade. He aims to remove the danger of Western „threats and blackmails“ to Vučić and Serbia over joining international sanctions against Russia. „My resignation will not change the policy of the USA and the EU towards Serbia, but it will slow down new demands and blackmail,” Vulin said.

„Sanctions imposed on me are proof of my persistent struggle for the unity of the Serbs, but the imposition of sanctions on Serbia, for which my further management of the BIA would be used, would be proof of my selfishness,“ he added.

 In July, the United States imposed sanctions on Vulin, alleging his engagement in illegal arms shipments, drug trafficking, corruption activities and the abuse of public office. The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) asserted that Vulin leveraged his official position to facilitate the movement of illegal arms shipments across Serbia’s borders for a Serbian arms dealer, Slobodan Tesic, who is also sanctioned by the US.

OFAC also accused Vulin of using its political power to support Moscow’s malign activities in the region, thereby aiding the Kremlin’s effort to undermine the stability and security of the Western Balkans and providing Moscow with a platform to further its influence in the region.

The sanctions resulted in freezing any assets held by Vulin under the US jurisdiction, and US businesses and institutions were barred from engaging in financial transactions with him.

Vulin is the highest-ranking Serbian official to be placed on a US sanctions list since the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came to power in 2012.

In his resignation statement, Vulin also complained that Belgrade was facing pressure concerning the recognition of the former province Kosovo,  perceived interference in Bosnia’s Serbian entity and Belgrade’s refusal to enforce EU sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

Vulin predicted that the next requirements would involve the expulsion of Chinese investments, increased reliance on Western technologies and trade, and the political and territorial disintegration of Serbia and the acceptance of Western values.

The former head of Serbia’s Security Information Agency is recognised for advocating strong ties with Russia over the West and has been called „the man of Moscow“ on many occasions. In 2022, during his visit to Moscow, he declared to Sergey Lavrov that Serbia is the sole European state that refrained from implementing sanctions and did not participate in the anti-Russian hysteria. Vulin also champions the idea of a “Serbian World,” mirroring the concept of the “Russian World” promoted by President Vladimir Putin. This envisions a collective identity for all ethnic Serbs residing in neighbouring states. In his resignation statement, he declares that he will not stop believing in the „inevitability of the unification of Serbs and the creation of a Serbian world.

The President of Serbia stated that everything Vulin mentioned in his letter was entirely accurate. Vučić has asserted that the true reason behind Vulin facing US sanctions is his stance towards Russia rather than any corruption allegations. He added that Vulin was not a Russian agent and had always worked for Serbia.

Aleksandar Vulin submitted his resignation at the beginning of the election campaign for the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 17 in Serbia. Vulin’s resignation was among the demands voiced during the “Serbia against violence” protests, which have persisted for the past six months in Belgrade. Initiated by the opposition, these protests commenced following a mass shooting at an elementary school in Belgrade.

Migrants Meeting Smugglers In Serbia: What Is the Police Doing About It?

Serbian Government claims it’s cracking down on violent smuggling gangs along the country’s border with European Union member Hungary. However, NGOs argue that migrants are bearing the brunt of these measures. Serbian police have conducted daily raids in the northern and eastern parts of the country,  detaining thousands of migrants as part of a nationwide operation initiated on October 30 following a shootout resulting in the deaths of three migrants.

Following a clash between Afghan gangs on October 27 that resulted in the deaths of at least three people, Serbia heightened its police presence in the region. This involved the deployment of police officers and anti-terrorism units. However, those most at risk are refugees and migrants who, while attempting to reach Western Europe, become caught in the crossfire between violent police and heavily-armed people smugglers.

Serbian Ministry of Interior declares that since October 27, they have apprehended approximately 4,500 migrants in the municipalities near the Hungarian border in the north and in the southeast, adjacent to the border with Bulgaria. The migrants have been relocated to government-controlled camps. It also said that eight people smugglers and 119 people have been arrested on charges including human trafficking and illegal possession of weapons and drugs.

However, NGOs say that the refugees and migrants they assist are facing unjust targeting for violence and are being criminalised by the police in operations ostensibly aimed at smugglers.

We want to leave Serbia, but there are a lot of problems at the border,” said Abdurahman, an Afghan migrant. “Hungarian police are hitting us, taking everything off us and pushing us back into Serbia.

Human rights lawyer Nikola Kovacevic, who has dealt with the rights of refugees and migrants, said the relocation of the migrants to government-controlled camps, as mentioned above, may be illegal. From a technical standpoint, migrants arriving in Serbia would have done so legally, and holding them in asylum centres against their will may be in violation of their legal rights.

While police units state that they seized five assault rifles, five handguns, and over 1.500 rounds of various calibres, little progress has been made regarding the resolution of the issue of weapons. An investigation by BIRN revealed that rival people-smugglers from Afghanistan, Morocco, Tunisia and Syria are arming themselves in northern Serbia. They frequently acquire weapons provided by Albanian crime gangs operating in Albania, Kosovo, and southern Serbia.

Another problem is the deployment of the police. The deployment is not sustainable in the long term, not least considering the cost of deploying so many officers, including special units. Moreover, while some residents of the areas adjacent to the borders have welcomed the increased police presence, others say it is little more than a show of force ahead of a parliamentary election called for December 17.

As a candidate for European Union membership, Serbia collaborates on joint border patrols with EU members Hungary and Austria. Belgrade has committed to harmonising its visa policies with those of the EU, aiming to assist in curbing the movement of illegal migrants towards the West.


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