Category: Land of the Balkans

January 04, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — French police have detained Kosovo’s former prime minister based on an arrest warrant issued by Serbia the Kosovo foreign ministry said Wednesday. Ramush Haradinaj, who is also a former guerrilla fighter, was stopped as he flew in to France from Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, on Wednesday.

Kosovo’s government said in a statement it is trying to resolve the matter. It said it considered Serbia’s charges as “illegal, unfair and tendentious.” Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, also a former guerrilla leader and Haradinaj’s friend, described the detention as “unacceptable.”

“We, members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, are proud to have fought against discriminating and criminal laws of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime,” he said on Facebook. Haradinaj was cleared of war crimes charges in two lengthy trials by a U.N. war crimes tribunal. But Serbia accuses him of committing war crimes including kidnappings, torture and killings against Serb civilians when he was a senior rebel commander in western Kosovo during the 1998-99 war.

Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008, although Belgrade has not recognized that. Haradinaj’s party is now in opposition.

December 14, 2016

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina (AP) — Up to a thousand people gathered Wednesday in Sarajevo — the Bosnian city that survived a brutal 44-month siege during the Balkan wars of the 1990s — to rally against the carnage in Syria.

Representatives of Bosnia’s Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities said they felt a moral responsibility to voice outrage at the international failure to stop crimes against civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

“Here in Sarajevo, we must do everything in our power to show to (Syrian) people that we understand them and to call on humanity to wake up and raise their voices against war,” Eli Tauber, the leader of Bosnia’s small Jewish community, said.

Participants recalled their own suffering and the sense of having been abandoned by the rest of the world during the 1992-95 interethnic war that left 100,000 people dead and another 2 million homeless.

“I was born during the war in Sarajevo in a hospital that was under mortar fire,” said Smirna Kulenovic, 22, a Bosnian Muslim student. “I am here today to raise my voice against all war crimes, equally those that were committed here 20 years ago and those that are now being committed in Syria.”

November 19, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — A former top-secret nuclear bunker reopened Saturday as a museum in Albania’s capital to show visitors how Communist-era police persecuted the regime’s opponents. The 1,000-square-meter (1,077-square-foot) bunker with reinforced concrete walls up to 2.4 meters (8-feet) thick was built between 1981 and 1986 to shelter elite police and interior ministry staff in the event of a nuclear attack.

The museum that opened in Tirana now holds photographs and equipment that illustrate the political persecution of some 100,000 Albanians from 1945 until 1991. The “Pillar” museum, as the nuclear bunker was codenamed, is one of several former hideouts the Albanian government has repurposed for the public since it came to power three years ago.

Both an island fortress and another underground bunker designed for Albania’s army command are now open to tourists, as is a leaf-covered villa that once housed the former communist country’s secret police, known as Sigurimi.

More may come from the scores of military installations erected during the paranoid, isolationist regime of the late dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled with an iron fist after the end of World War II until December 1990.

Hoxha’s regime, with an imaginary fear of invasion by the “imperialist United States and social-imperialist Soviet Union,” built concrete bunkers of all sizes around the country. At one time there were rumored to be as many as 700,000, but the government says 175,000 were built.

Prime Minister Edi Rama said the new museum reflects his Cabinet’s “will to pay back a debt to the memory of the former political persecuted, forgotten in the last 25 years.” Located downtown, it was designed to attract visitors from Albania and beyond “to learn about the ways that the former communist police persecuted their opponents,” curator Carlo Bollino said.

“This is the first memorial for the victims of the communist terror,” Bollino said. Twenty rooms in the new museum show Albania’s police history from 1912 until 1991, as well as the names of 6,027 people executed during the communist regime, the 34,000 imprisoned and the more than 50,000 sent to isolated internment camps.

The bunker was never used, “though it has always been operational,” according to Mehdi Sulo, 70, a museum guide. It also has been a focus of political demonstrations. In an anti-government rally a year ago, supporters of the main opposition Democratic Party destroyed part of a replica bunker built as the museum’s entrance. They complained that Rama’s governing Socialist Party was trying to glorify the country’s dark past.

The holes the demonstrators made in the entrance purposely were not repaired. “Bunkers once aimed at putting the enemy away, now they serve to attract people to remember the difficult past,” Rama said.

November 08, 2016

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Several newly-elected mayors on Tuesday boycotted the swearing-in of a convicted war criminal as new mayor of the western Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa. Fikret Abdic was released in 2012 after serving his 15-year sentence in Croatia.

The 76-year-old Abdic was called up first during a ceremony in Sarajevo at which the mayors chosen during Oct. 2 local elections were certified. Mayors of towns around Velika Kladusa walked in to receive their certificates only after Abdic received his.

During the 1992-95 Bosnian war, Abdic formed the province of Western Bosnia which fought against fellow Muslim Bosniaks loyal to Sarajevo. For war crimes committed back then, he was tried and served in neighboring Croatia.

Asked after the ceremony how he thinks he will be cooperating with mayors of neighboring towns who chose to ignore him, Abdic told reporters that all his life he was successful in every job he did. “Now I can promise that I can be even better,” he said.

Among others sworn in is Mladen Grujicic, the mayor of Srebrenica and the first ethnic Serb elected in this Bosnian town whose name is synonymous with a slaughter carried out by Serbs. His election is a source of anxiety and anger to the town’s Muslim Bosniaks, because Grujicic doesn’t acknowledge that what happened in Srebrenica was “genocide,” as international courts have defined it.

Grujicic said he will work for the benefit of all citizens of Srebrenica and form a multiethnic team in his municipality. “By forming such a team, we intend to improve the life of all in Srebrenica,” he said. “I think this is the essence of the work in Srebrenica, that both Bosniaks and Serbs unite together,” Grujicic said.

November 02, 2016

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Hundreds of Bosnians protested Wednesday in Sarajevo, demanding a rerun of the municipal election in the southern town of Stolac that was halted by claims of irregularities and violent disruptions.

Members within Bosnia’s Central Elections Commission disagree over whether to sanction those who allegedly manipulated the voting process on Oct. 2 or those who tried to prevent them. But the commission says sanctions must come before a repeat election.

The mainly Muslim Bosniak protesters say a month has been enough to decide and claim the Bosnian Croat nationalist party that has run the town for two decades has gained power by rigging every election.

Violence erupted when the opposition tried to stop Bosnian Croats suspected using false names and other irregularities. Voting was canceled shortly after noon and no ballots were counted. Opposition representatives have filed complaints to the Central Election Commission, saying they were immediately fired by the head of the local election commission, a Croat, as soon as they reported irregularities. They said those included people voting with foreign passports, fishing licenses and in the name of dead people.

The local election commission chief, Ivan Peric, has denied the accusations. Bosnian Croat units expelled the majority Muslim Bosniak population as well as other non-Croats from Stolac during the bloody 1992-95 Bosnian war. After the war, many non-Croats returned to the area but say rigged elections mean they have no say in its local government. They say if the town does not produce a fair election, they will consider civil disobedience.

The incident turned international when two days after the election, a government delegation from Croatia visited Stolac to express support for the party ruling there, the Croat Democratic Union. The incident was also discussed during Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic’s visit last week to Sarajevo.

November 08, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Heavy rain in the Balkans caused swollen rivers to overflow Tuesday, flooding some homes and cutting electricity to remote areas. Authorities in Albania reported two deaths. Serbia’s state TV said surging waters cut a regional road in the southwest of the country and forced a dozen people to leave their homes.

A second day of rain caused floods in northern Montenegro, near the border with Serbia. Authorities in the town of Berane warned residents not to drink tap water. Albanian authorities said a body was found in a river in Tirana, the capital, while another man died while trying to cross a stream with his car, and there were unconfirmed reports of other deaths as the country struggled to cope with up to 100 millimeters (4 inches) of rain in some areas.

About 3,500 soldiers and emergency personnel have spread across the country to evacuate residents, more than 100 families, mainly ones living near rivers. The Defense Ministry said more than 200 troops and many specialized vehicles have been sent mainly to the northern Lezha district.

Speaking at an emergency meeting, Prime Minister Edi Rama said he expected rain to continue and that “the situation will be extremely grave.” Some 200,000 people were reported to be without power, and the Education Ministry called on all schools to suspend classes. Schools will be closed on Wednesday too.

October 19, 2016

SHKODRA, Albania (AP) — Where most people, even police, fear to set foot, Liljana Luani takes books, household supplies, and a lifetime of experience helping families marked for death. The 56-year-old school teacher from Shkodra in northern Albania uses her spare time to travel to remote hillside villages where children trapped in a centuries-old tradition of blood feuds are hidden by their families.

The feuds, often related to criminal rivalry, stem from an ancient code of conduct known as the Kanun, a detailed but primitive form of self-administration. A cycle of reciprocal killings that lasts for generations may start from an incident as serious as murder or as minor as a land dispute.

When Luani visits a village, the guard dogs recognize her and the people who live there barely react as she opens the metal gate and steps into a house. But the sense of danger is constant. “I am aware that my job is like walking through land mines. If I slip somewhere my family will pay for it,” Luani told The Associated Press, speaking in the home of a young boy hidden away to protect him from a vendetta. She gave him a lesson in math, grammar and the ancient Greek tale of “The Odyssey.”

“I am a teacher and teaching is not a profession for me. It’s a mission.” Typically only men are targeted in blood feuds. The feuds were largely suppressed during communism, but have been revived mainly in remote areas where the rule of law is perceived as weak. Victims are typically pursued over years and eventually ambushed, gunned down in the street, in a country awash with unlicensed weapons.

Police don’t report figures on the motives for murders, but revenge killings are blamed for dozens of deaths every year. Women are generally exempt, allowing Luani to travel without being targeted or followed. But post-communist revenge killings have occasionally strayed from traditional rules and the male bloodline to include women, minors, multiple killings and the use of assassins.

Luani says she is still haunted by the memory of a teenage boy who insisted on attending school and was shot dead in an ambush. For that reason, she doesn’t give specifics about the students she visits or why they are embroiled in blood feuds, because she’s scared that they will be identified. AP journalists also met with some blood feud targets who asked not to be identified for fear they would be found and killed.

On a typical weekday, Luani finishes classes, cooks at home for her family, and then sets off into what locals call the “accursed mountains,” steep and inhospitable, traveling by taxi van for up to an hour to reach the stranded children.

Several years ago, she helped start and support a pioneer shelter school in southern Albania, in some cases taking additional risks to persuade parents to let their children travel. “The school was a miracle, but it closed after three years due to corruption in public administration,” she said.

She fought in court to have it reopened, insisting that private donations were squandered through mismanagement by regional authorities. She won the case, but no action was taken. Groups that track blood feuds estimate that several thousand people, including young children, live in isolation because of them. Treated by many as outcasts, they often only venture out at night to get firewood, food and other supplies.

“Confined children do not grow up the way normal children do,” Luani said. “They miss everything. They miss freedom. They grow up fearing they will be killed or are focused on how to kill … Imagine that life.”

One recent visit was to a rundown house where a 40-year-old woman lives with her three sons, ages 14 to 19. They use a small yard to grow vegetables, and keep chickens and a cow. Neighbors and relatives provided some assistance, while Luani persuaded the power company to offer electricity at a discount.

The woman’s husband is in jail for murder and the family is unaccustomed to visitors. The mother cried frequently, while the two older boys disappeared into another room. Luani teaches the youngest son, in the hope it will help him escape the cycle of violence.

“I believe that when people are educated they usually do not fall prey to the blood feud phenomenon,” she said. Much of her effort, Luani says, is now focused on trying to persuade mothers not to bring up their sons to continue the vendettas. She accompanies them to municipal classes to that teach basic cooking, hygiene and personal care skills.

“Many say ‘well done’ to me, and make me out to be a hero. I don’t want that. I want much, much more to be done for these people,” she says. “As long as I am physically able to walk and talk, I will be with my students, my children.”

Llazar Semini in Tirana contributed to this report.

September 30, 2016

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnians will vote Sunday in local elections marked by a battle over who will run the municipalities in the part of the country run by Bosnian Serbs — a pro-European Union coalition or the already ruling separatist party with close ties to Russia.

(1 of 11) Bosnian Serb Milorad Dodik, President of the Bosnian Serb region of Republic of Srpska, attends a pre election rally of the “Alliance of Independent Social Democrats” party in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, 240 kms northwest of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. Bosnians will vote in local elections on Sunday Oct. 2.

Municipal councils and mayors will be chosen throughout the country, but the main contest will take place in Republika Srpska region between the party of regional President Milorad Dodik — the Alliance of Independent Social-Democrats — and a coalition called The Alliance for Changes.

Dodik advocates secession from Bosnia and has promised Bosnian Serbs a 2018 referendum on independence — something many of them have been seeking since Yugoslavia collapsed during the 1990s. The equally nationalistic coalition sees the future Republika Srpska as a semi-autonomous region within a Bosnia that is an EU member.

The coalition led by the Serb Democratic Party focused its pre-election campaign on bread and butter issues, but also published details of Dodik’s alleged corruption and accused him of throwing the region into poverty during his decade in power.

However, Dodik managed to shift voter’s attention away from the accusations by holding, a week before the regional elections, a divisive Bosnian Serb referendum over a disputed Republika Srpska holiday that the country’s constitutional court had banned because it discriminates against non-Serbs.

The court also banned the referendum, but Dodik conducted it anyway and portrayed the court’s actions as an attack on Serb autonomy. Voters overwhelmingly approved the holiday, although non-Serbs mostly boycotted the vote.

The opposition says the “unnecessary” referendum cost taxpayers 750,000 euros ($840,000) and was used as a ploy by Dodik to divert attention from serious issues facing the region. Each of Bosnia’s two regions — Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation — has its own government, president and parliament, but the two are linked by a shared state-level government, parliament and a three-member presidency comprised of a Muslim Bosniak, Christian Orthodox Serb and Roman Catholic Croat.

In general elections two years ago, Dodik’s party lost the Serb posts in the state elections to the opposition coalition, but retained power in the regional parliament and government. Since his opponents joined the central government, Bosnia made progress toward obtaining EU membership and begun major socio-economic reforms. Dodik has called them Serb traitors.

A poor showing for Dodik’s party in Sunday’s municipal elections, following the loss at the national level, would be a sign of his diminished popularity among Bosnian Serbs after more than a decade in which he has gone unchallenged.

September 25, 2016

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnian Serbs on Sunday voted in a referendum banned by the country’s constitutional court, risking Western sanctions against their autonomous region and criminal charges against their leaders.

The vote was whether to keep Jan. 9 as a holiday in Republika Srpska, commemorating the day in 1992 that Bosnian Serbs declared the creation of their own state, igniting the ruinous 1992-95 war. It comes despite the top court’s ruling that the date, which falls on a Serb Christian Orthodox religious holiday, discriminates against Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats in Bosnia.

Authorities said turnout was between 56 and 60 percent. Preliminary results after 30.76 percent of the ballots were counted say 99.8 percent of the voters were in favor of the holiday. The vote has raised tensions and fears of renewed fighting as Bosniaks and Croats see the referendum as an attempt to elevate the Serb region above the country’s constitutional court. It is also a test for a more serious referendum that Bosnian Serb leaders have announced for 2018 — one on independence from Bosnia.

During the 1992-95 war that killed 100,000 people and turned half of the country’s population into refugees, Bosniaks and Croats were persecuted and almost completely expelled from Republika Srpska territory.

After the war, Republika Srpska ended up not independent but an autonomous region of Bosnia. Bosniaks and Croats who returned there view the holiday as a celebration of their expulsion. Republika Srpska, a region of 1.2 million, marks the day with religious ceremonies, hinting the region is still meant just for Serbs.

The constitutional court has banned both the holiday and the referendum, a ruling that Bosnian Serbs see as an attack on their autonomy. The West has urged that the illegal referendum not be held, but Bosnian Serbs are backed by Russia. Western officials said they might consider halting projects in the mini-state or impose travel bans on its leaders and freeze their assets.

Tomislav Stajcic, a resident of Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, compared the holiday with a birthday. “There is no force on this earth, political or divine or any other really, which can change the date of your birth,” he said, calling the constitutional court’s decision “senseless.”

Opposition leaders have dismissed the idea of a new conflict, saying the Bosnian Serb ruling party scheduled the referendum a week before a local election to divert campaign topics from corruption to nationalism.

The Bosnian Serb member of the country’s presidency and one of the opposition leaders in Republika Srpska, Mladen Ivanic, said he doesn’t understand the “circus” about the referendum. “Who wants to celebrate it should and who doesn’t does not have to,” he said.

But the Bosniak member called for prosecutors to act, saying Bosnian Serbs have been pushing the limits for decades. “Now they reached a new level of spitefulness, exceeding all limits,” Bakir Izetbegovic said.

“These people pull the rope until it snaps and then, of course, they land on their back.”

July 20, 2016

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Responding to international pressure, Albania’s main opposition Democratic Party agreed Wednesday to accept the final draft of a judicial reform package, considered key to convincing the European Union to launch membership negotiations with the Balkan country.

Albania, already a member of NATO, has been working to reform its judicial system, which has been criticized as corrupt and lacking professionalism. Changes being sought in the reform package include checking the incomes and property holdings of judges and prosecutors, a step seen as helping to root out bribery.

Following a letter from the EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn on remaining issues, Prime Minister Edi Rama of the ruling Socialist Party and Democrats’ leader Lulzim Basha confirmed their disagreement was resolved and the draft would be passed on Thursday.

Hailing their response, Hahn tweeted: “This agreement shows leadership and responsibility for Albania on its EU path.” Basha also spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to confirm his party’s approval of the draft.

The opposition’s response, however, did not please Washington, a key player in the process. The U.S. embassy in Tirana said it was continuing talks with both sides “to bring them back to support for the hybrid proposal discussed by Assistant Secretary (Victoria) Nuland” who visited Tirana earlier this month. Details of the contested issues are not available.

The 18-month-old reform effort has been the main focus of talks of many Western diplomats, including Merkel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and others, who visited Tirana this year.

The draft has been prepared by local, EU and U.S. experts and it has also been reviewed by the Venice Commission, a body of legal experts with the Council of Europe. The Thursday vote is designed to allow the European Commission to decide whether full membership negotiations can begin this year.