Category: Land of the Balkans


November 24, 2018

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Tensions in Kosovo rose again Friday after police arrested three ethnic Serbs, including two police officers, on suspicion of involvement in the killing earlier this year of a leading Serb politician in the north of the country.

The three men were arrested in the Serb-dominated town of Mitrovica, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the capital, Pristina, as suspects in the January slaying of Oliver Ivanovic, police said in a statement. A fourth Serb was arrested for resisting police. A fifth person is still at large, police said.

Police said they seized evidence for the investigation into Ivanovic’s killing during raids in four locations. Police showed photos of a drone, automatic weapons and ammunition and other equipment found in the raids.

Prosecutor Syle Hoxha said they have questioned more than 40 witnesses to date in the case. Nobody has yet been charged in the slaying. Thousands of Serbs protested in Kosovo towns, some blocking all main roads leading to Northern Mitrovica, as well as several border posts with Serbia. No violence was immediately reported.

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians fought a bloody war with Serbia from 1998-1999 which ended with a 78-day NATO air campaign in June 1999. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 which Belgrade still refuses to recognize.

Earlier this week, tensions soared after Kosovo failed to become a member of the international police organization, Interpol, following intense lobbying by Serbia. Kosovo slapped a 100 percent tax on goods imported from Serbia in apparent retaliation.

In Belgrade, Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic said the arrests were a “demonstration of force” that he said was designed to frighten the Serbs in Kosovo and avert attention from the taxes that Kosovo imposed in violation of a regional trade agreement.

“We must prepare ourselves for long-term support for our people (in Kosovo) that won’t be easy, simple or cheap,” said Vucic. “Serbia will not agree to new rules and new blackmail against our country and our people.”

Vucic spoke after a meeting with the members of the Serbian government. He held meetings earlier on Friday with security officials and the ambassadors or Russia and China, Serbia’s allies in its refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj’s Cabinet appealed for calm and said the police operation was not linked to any political development. NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo, a force known as KFOR, also urged calm and said “there was no unlawful operation or military action and there has never been any threat to safety and security of the citizens.”

KFOR said in a statement that the situation “remains stable and under control on the ground,” but acknowledged rising tensions “at political level due to some international and economic developments.”

Haradinaj met with ambassadors of Western powers including the United States, Britain, Germany, and France, for talks on the country’s situation and to explain the tax on Serb and Bosnian goods. Ethnic Serb leaders in Kosovo also called for calm and asked Serbia and the international community to assist them.

Goran Rakic, mayor of Northern Mitrovica, told The Associated Press that ethnic Serb leaders had formed a crisis center and called on the international community and Serbia for help. He said he had talked by phone with Vucic.

Vucic’s adviser Nikola Selakovic said the arrests of four Serbs in Kosovo were designed to “spread fear, intimidate and demonstrate force” against the Serbs in Kosovo. “This is a game of nerves, a walk on thin line. The goal is to provoke our reaction which would be immediately used for measures against us,” Selakovic said.

Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania. Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia. Bojan Slavkovic contributed from Northern Mitrovica.

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October 28, 2018

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanian authorities have forced their way into a private zoo and removed 12 animals due to fears they were malnourished. Police and conservation officials on Sunday forced their way past a locked main gate into the Safari Zoo Park in Mbrostar, 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the capital, Tirana. The zoo had been closed by owners after criticism emerged about the treatment of its animals.

Veterinarians from Four Paws, an international animal welfare charity, sedated 12 animals there — three lions, a bear, a waterbuck, four deer, a fox, a zebra and a turtle — to transport them to Tirana’s public zoo.

Albania’s environment and tourism ministry said it took the animals because their living quarters were too cramped and some were sick. Zoo owners have denied that the animals were sick or malnourished.

September 19, 2018

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Germany’s foreign minister has called on Albania to work hard on its reforms so as to convince all European Union members to launch membership negotiations next year. Heiko Maas, visiting Albania’s capital on Wednesday, said that the EU members “have made it clear that June 2019 does not mean the talks will start automatically.”

In June this year the bloc’s member states agreed to open membership talks with Albania and Macedonia next year if the two nations continue with reform progress. Maas said that the bloc should see concrete results in the consolidation of the rule of law and independence of the justice system.

His Albanian counterpart, Ditmir Bushati, said the country already has started the screening process with Brussels and added that he considers Germany’s assistance as “precious, irreplaceable.”

March 4, 2018

Around 200 Bosnian women on Saturday set off from Sarajevo to Istanbul to join an all-women convoy to raise awareness about the suffering of women and young girls imprisoned in Syria by the regime forces.

The International Conscience Convoy which describes itself as the “voice of the oppressed women in Syria” will set off from Istanbul on Tuesday with the participation of women from nearly 55 countries.

Among the women joining from Bosnia are women who shared the same fate with Syrian women during the Bosnian war between 1992-1995 including members of the Mothers of the Srebrenica group.

The President of the Association of the Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves, Munira Subasic joined the send off ceremony of the Bosnian women. Speaking to Anadolu Agency, she said:

Srebrenica’s mothers are well aware of what pain means, now Syrian women are experiencing the same pain we went through

“We are in the 21st century, the United Nations, the U.S. and Russia need to be ashamed,” she added.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, the Balkan Cultural Alliance Association (BAKIDER) representative Enida Gujo said that the Bosnian women joined the convoy with the support of Turkey.

“On March 08 we will all together call out for help for the Syrian women held in Syrian prisons,” she said.

Nearly 150 buses will take part in the journey which will make stops at Izmir, Sakarya, Ankara and Adana cities before reaching the southern Hatay province at the Turkey-Syria border.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180304-bosnian-women-set-off-for-all-women-convoy-in-turkey/.

February 18, 2018

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — The Kosovo Assembly, or Parliament, convened in a special session Sunday to celebrate the country’s 10 years of independence — a ceremony boycotted by the country’s ethnic Serb lawmakers.

Speaker Kadri Veseli pledged that “the second decade of independence would be focused on the economic well-being of Kosovo’s citizens.” The second day of celebrations continued with a parade of military and police forces and a state reception.

In Feb. 17, 2008, Kosovo’s Parliament unilaterally declared independence from Serbia nine years after NATO conducted a 78-day airstrike campaign against Serbia to stop a bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanians.

Kosovo, one of poorest countries in Europe, has taken a first step to European Union membership by signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement. But the country faces serious challenges besides its relations with Serbia, including establishing the rule of law and fighting high unemployment, corruption and organized crime.

Kosovo is recognized by 117 countries, including the U.S. and most Western powers but Serbia still sees Kosovo as part of its own territory and has the support of Russia and China. A day earlier in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said Kosovo’s independence remains fragile and won’t be concluded without an agreement with Serbia.

Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania contributed.

February 16, 2018

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Every country has a national anthem, a musical compilation that aims to stir patriotic emotion, and Kosovo is no exception. Except for one peculiarity: its anthem has no lyrics.

Ten years after the former Serb territory declared independence and nearly two decades after it was engulfed in war between ethnic Albanian separatists and Yugoslav government forces, there is still difficulty in finding someone able to pen words of unity for Europe’s newest country without causing offense to one of its ethnic groups.

“The text should be written in a way that does not leave the impression to the minorities they are threatened or offended,” said Mendi Mengjiqi, who composed the anthem in June 2008, just a few months after Kosovo’s Feb. 17 declaration of independence.

So far, no attempts have been successful. A decade after its independence, Kosovo seems to have all the trappings of a modern, if rather poor, Balkan country. The bombed-out buildings and tank tread-destroyed streets of the 1998-1999 war have been replaced by highways and shopping malls, bustling cafes and shiny new office complexes.

Construction cranes can be seen on the drive into Pristina, the capital, as workers busily build new homes and businesses. “Kosovo is a joint success story, of the international community and the Kosovars,” President Hashim Thaci, a former commander of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, told The Associated Press.

It was he who declared Kosovo’s independence in 2008, nearly nine years after NATO conducted a 78-day airstrike campaign against Serbia to stop a bloody Serb crackdown against ethnic Albanians. Kosovo is recognized by 115 countries, including the United States and most Western powers, and has joined about 200 international organizations.

But Serbia, which for centuries has considered Kosovo the cradle of its civilization, still sees it as part of its own territory, and has the support of Russia and China. Five European Union members also do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

A close look reveals a young country still struggling with nationhood. The Serb minority, which was the territory’s politically dominant ethnicity before the war, lives in enclaves. Although people generally are no longer physically attacked for entering a different ethnic area, tension can be easily sparked. Some 4,500 NATO-led peacekeepers are still stationed in Kosovo to ensure nothing gets out of hand. Crime and corruption are rampant.

Kosovo Serbs, who live mostly in the northern Kosovo neighboring Serbia, are adamant that they not come under direct rule from Pristina. Serbia has rejected Kosovo’s statehood, but is pressed by the West to compromise with ethnic Albanians on “good neighborly relations” or jeopardize Serbia’s prospects of joining the EU.

Serbian officials have hinted they would recognize Kosovo as an independent state only if northern Kosovo is handed over to Serbia — a proposal flatly rejected by Pristina. EU-mediated negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade, which began in 2011, will be key in the country’s progress, and have achieved significant improvements in the nation’s governance and conditions for minorities.

But substantial hurdles remain. “Both Kosovo and Serbia should make drastic compromises, which I see as very difficult,” said Momcilo Trajkovic, a Kosovo Serb analyst and former politician living in the Serb enclave of Gracanica, near Pristina.

In January, moderate Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, one of the few who promoted the idea of Kosovo Albanians and Serbs living together, was gunned down outside his office in northern Mitrovica, the edge of the Serb-dominated part of northern Kosovo. His murder was condemned by both Pristina and Belgrade.

The key issues facing Kosovo now are “rule of law, fighting unemployment, corruption and organized crime and progressing in the talks with Serbia face Kosovo,” said U.S. Ambassador to Pristina Greg Delawie.

Kosovo hopes one day to join the EU and has begun the first step but still has a long way to go. “I very much hope that with good homework we could increase the speed of our expectation toward EU, NATO, United Nations and other memberships,” said Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, also a former KLA commander.

The EU’s special representative to Kosovo, Nataliya Apostolova, said progress had been made in the past decade between the nation’s two ethnic groups but “fragility persists, and can be easily tested even by a train, a wall or an improper initiative.”

But, she noted, the biggest concern for Kosovo’s people is economics. If there is one issue that the country’s Serbs and Albanians can agree on, it’s the lack of job prospects and the nation’s crushing unemployment, which in 2017 ran at 30.5 percent. Youth unemployment stands at 50.5 percent, according to the Kosovo Agency of Statistics.

A Pristina apartment can easily go for 1,000-1,500 euros ($1,238-1,857) per square meter and it costs half a million euros ($619,000) for a villa at the Marigona Residence, five miles from Pristina, where the country’s prime minister lives. But that is not affordable in a nation where the average salary is about 360 euros ($450) a month.

With their future looking bleak, many youngsters long to leave. “When will we have visa-free travel so I can get to Germany or Switzerland and build a better life?” wondered Shait Krasniqi, a 28-year-old economics graduate who works as a waiter in Pristina. “There are no prospects here, especially for us, the young people.”

Kosovo has a young population and with the jobless rate so high, many pack the capital’s cafes, nursing a single coffee for hours. “If my uncles did not live in Switzerland and support us, my family would die,” said Ilir, a young cafe client who was too embarrassed to give his last name. “My father gets a little money from selling agricultural products he grows from our small land. No other jobs for me or my sister.”

In the Serb enclave of Gracanica, home to a medieval Serb Orthodox monastery, the sentiments are the same. “Regardless of ethnicity, the situation is grave for all the people,” said Mirjana Vlasacevic, a 57-year-old court employee in Gracanica. “That is the reason that they, the youngsters, are looking to leave.”

Florent Bajrami in Pristina, Sylejman Kllokoqi in Gracanica, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.

January 16, 2018

MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) — A leading Serb politician in northern Kosovo was gunned down Tuesday morning, an attack that raised ethnic tensions in the Balkans and prompted the suspension of EU-mediated talks between Kosovo and Serbia.

Assailants opened fire on Oliver Ivanovic, 64, close to the offices of his political party in the Serb-controlled northern city of Mitrovica. He was taken to a hospital but doctors were unable to save him.

The doctors said Ivanovic had received at least five gunshot wounds to his upper torso. The assailants escaped in a car that was later found burned out. Kosovo police sealed off the area of the shooting and began a manhunt for the attackers.

Ivanovic was one of the key politicians in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, a former Serbian province where tensions still remain high a decade after it declared independence in 2008. Serbia does not recognize that independence.

Ivanovic was considered a moderate who maintained relations with NATO and EU officials even after Serbia lost the control of its former province following NATO’s 1999 bombing to stop a deadly Serb crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists.

A Kosovo court convicted Ivanovic of war crimes during the 1998-99 war. That verdict was overturned and a retrial was underway. In Pristina, the Kosovo government strongly denounced the slaying, saying it considers the attack a challenge to “the rule of law and efforts to establish the rule of law in the whole of Kosovo territory.”

In Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic held a top security meeting to discuss the shooting. Afterward, he called the killing “a terrorist act” and said Serbia is demanding that international missions in Kosovo include Serbia in their investigation into the slaying.

“Serbia will take all necessary steps so the killer or killers are found,” he said. At the news of Ivanovic’s slaying, the Serb delegation at the EU talks in Brussels immediately left to return to Belgrade.

Delegation leader Marko Djuric said “whoever is behind this attack … whether they are Serb, Albanian or any other criminals, they must be punished.” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo to express the EU’s condemnation of the killing. She appealed for both sides “to show calm and restraint.”

The head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, Ambassador Jan Braathu, said he was “shocked and deeply saddened” and considered Ivanovic “among the most prominent Kosovo Serb representatives for almost two decades. ”

He also urged “all sides to avoid dangerous rhetoric and remain calm at this sensitive time, and recommit themselves to continue the work toward the normalization of relations and improvement of the lives of the citizens of Kosovo and Serbia.”

Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec in Belgrade; Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania; and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.

December 07, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The leaders of Greece and Turkey publicly aired their grievances Thursday in a tense news conference as a two-day visit to Athens by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got off to a rocky start.

The Greek government had expressed hopes that the visit — the first to Greece by a Turkish president in 65 years — would help improve the often-frosty relations between the two neighbors. The NATO allies are divided by a series of decades-old issues, including territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea, and have come to the brink of war three times since the early 1970s.

But from the outset, the discussions focused on disagreements. On the eve of his visit, Erdogan rattled his Greek hosts by telling Greece’s Skai television that the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne should be “updated.” The treaty delineated modern Turkey’s borders and outlines the status of the Muslim minority in Greece and the Greek minority in Turkey, among other issues.

In a visibly testy first meeting with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the two engaged in a thinly-veiled verbal spat over the treaty and Greece’s Muslim minority, which Erdogan is to visit Friday.

“This happened in Lausanne, that happened in Lausanne. I get that, but let’s now quickly do what is necessary,” Erdogan told Pavlopoulos. “Many things have changed in 94 years. If we review these, I believe that all the sides will agree that so many things have to (change.)”

The spat continued during Erdogan’s appearance at an unusually candid joint news conference with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The two listed a series of grievances their countries have with each other, including religious and minority rights, the divided island of Cyprus and the case of ten Turkish servicemen who have applied for asylum in Greece following a Turkish government crackdown after a failed coup last year.

“It is very important to strengthen our channels of communication, and this can only happen on the basis of mutual respect,” Tsipras said. The prime minister said the two also discussed tensions in the Aegean Sea, where Greece complains Turkish fighter jets frequently violate its airspace.

“The increasing violations of Greek airspace in the Aegean and particularly the simulated dogfights in the Aegean pose a threat to our relations, and particularly a threat to our pilots,” Tsipras said.

For his part, Erdogan insisted once more that the Lausanne treaty needed to be reviewed, but stressed his country had no territorial claims on its smaller neighbor. On the topic of the Muslim minority in Greece — which the country recognizes only as a religious minority, while Turkey has long pressed for better rights — Tsipras said his government agreed that improvements must be made in their quality of life.

“But issues that concern reforms involving Greek citizens are not an issue of negotiation between countries,” he said. Tsipras noted it was unclear exactly what Erdogan was seeking with his call to update the 1923 treaty.

“The truth is I am a little confused about what he is putting on the table,” he said. Greeks have been aghast at Erdogan’s previous comments over possibly revising the Lausanne treaty, fearing that could harbor territorial claims.

Erdogan and Tsipras also sparred over Cyprus, a Mediterranean island divided since a 1974 Turkish invasion into a Turkish-occupied north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south. Another round of internationally-brokered peace talks to reunify the island failed earlier this year.

“Who left the table? Southern Cyprus did … we want the issue to reach a fair and lasting solution but that is not southern Cyprus’ concern,” Erdogan said. Tsipras retorted: “My dear friend, Mr. President, we must not forget that this issue remains unresolved because 43 years ago there was an illegal invasion and occupation of the northern part of Cyprus.”

Erdogan also raised the issue of Athens having no official mosque, to which Tsipras responded by saying Greece had restored several mosques around the country, including a centuries-old mosque in Athens.

The refugee crisis appeared to be the only issue the two sides did not disagree on, with both noting they had shared a significant burden of the migration flows into the European Union. More than a million people crossed from Turkey through Greece at the height of the crisis.

Later Thursday, several hundred leftist, anarchist and Kurdish protesters held a peaceful march through Athens against Erdogan’s visit. On Friday, Erdogan will visit the northeastern town of Komotini to meet with members of Greece’s Muslim minority.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Derek Gatopoulos and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed.

December 03, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanian authorities say that despite less rainfall and lower river levels, thousands of homes and scores of schools have been damaged, and agricultural land is still submerged.

The government said Sunday that 600 families were evacuated Saturday in two southwestern districts. More than 3,000 homes, 56 schools and 16,000 hectares (40,000 acres) of agricultural land have been flooded. Many roads and 28 bridges have been damaged.

Authorities have started calculating the damage to consider financial compensation. At least one person has died in the last several days of heavy rainfall that has flooded many parts of Albania. Ports and the only international airport were temporarily closed for part of the weekend.

Schools were closed Friday and the Education Ministry will make a decision soon about Monday’s classes.

November 24, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo police on Friday arrested a top opposition leader and two other lawmakers accused of disrupting the work of the previous parliament with tear gas and violent acts. Albin Kurti, Donika Kadaj Bujupi and Albulena Haxhiu of the left-wing Self-Determination Party were arrested while entering the parliament building.

Police used tear gas to disperse some opposition supporters trying to block their minivan that was taking Kurti. Visar Ymeri, leader of the Self-Determination Party, denounced the “brutal arrest of the three lawmakers based on political orders” and considered it “continuation of the overall persecution of Self-Determination during recent times.”

Since the signing of a border demarcation agreement with Montenegro in August 2015 the opposition has contested it, saying Kosovo is ceding territory — a claim denied by the previous government and international experts. The protesters disrupted parliamentary work, using tear gas canisters, blowing whistles and throwing water bottles.

Approval of the deal is a pre-condition for a visa-free regime for Kosovo citizens in the European Union’s Schengen countries. Political tension in the country remains high over who won mayoral election last month. It is not yet clear whether Self-Determination will keep the mayor’s post in the capital Pristina or it will go to the other now-opposition Democratic League of Kosovo.

Another aching issue is a special court established to prosecute crimes committed during and immediately after Kosovo’s 1998-1999 war with Serbia for independence. It is expected to issue indictments against former independence fighters.

Associated Press writer Llazar Semini contributed from Tirana, Albania.