WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW IN THE BALKANS TODAY

MORALE DOWN AT U.S. EMBASSY IN KOSOVO: Nahal Toosi of Politico obtained a cable from Ambassador Philip Kosnett to the U.S. State Department. The cable reportedly says that morale at the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo is “near breaking point” due to Covid-19 and other issues including air pollution, few green spaces, and bad infrastructure. She highlighted that diplomats are working longer hours than normal and nearly 20% of staff (mostly local staff) have contracted Covid-19.

  • From the cable: “Kosovo behaves like a country free from COVID-19 … But Kosovo is a country ravaged by the pandemic … In the U.S., if you don’t wear a mask in public you might end up in a viral video; in Kosovo you’re more likely to trend on social media because you’re wearing a mask.”
  • “Repeatedly raising expectations, then dashing hopes with regards to vaccine distribution has taken a hard toll on our community’s outlook for the future. Many survey respondents now doubt Post will ever get the vaccine, while others suggest indifference by the Department.”
  • A State Department spokesperson said around 80% of Covid vaccines have been sent to the field.
  • And added, “When it comes to vaccines, we intend to offer them to 100 percent of department personnel as quickly as vaccine supply permits.”
  • But it’s not just the Kosovo post that is facing trouble inoculating diplomats. The Washington Post last week wrote how 13 countries have offered to provide U.S. diplomats with vaccines from their supplies which the State Department has accepted. Meanwhile, some State Department personnel in Russia are hoping to receive the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

SPEAKING OF VACCINES…: Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and British Ambassador to Serbia welcomed 150,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by the Oxford Vaccine Group at the Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade. In addition, Serbia’s Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar announced Serbia will receive 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in Q2 instead of the planned 500,000 doses.

ALBANIA + U.S.: Albania’s FM Olta Xhaçka on Friday spoke with Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Reeker about the bilateral relationship and the April 25 elections. FM Xhaçka wrote on Twitter, “Very good 📞w/ 🇺🇸Acting Ass. Secretary @StateEUR Philip Reeker. #Albania continues to be a reliable partner to #US since re-establishing diplomatic relations 🇦🇱- 🇺🇸 30 years ago. Committed to foster our strong friendship &strategic partnership, as a cornerstone of 🇦🇱foreign policy. Albania is working hard to guarantee free and fair elections of the highest standards.”

LOCKHEED ON CROATIAN FIGHTER JETS: Executive VP of Lockheed’s Aeronautics unit Greg Ulmer told reporters that Croatia has “shown interest” in purchasing F-35 fighter jets. Croatia is weighing up bids from the U.S., France, and Sweden to upgrade their fighter jets from Russian MiG-29s. A representative from the Embassy of Croatia in the U.S. said, “We are evaluating an offer of the new U.S. F-16 Block 70/72 aircraft, together with some other responses to our tender for a multi-role fighter aircraft, new or used” without acknowledging the potential purchase of F-35s.

NATO & N. MACEDONIA BEEF UP CYBER SECURITY: NATO’s Assistant Secretary General David van Weel and Defense Minister of N. Macedonia Radmila Shekerinska signed an MoU “that will improve cyber defense cooperation and assistance between NATO and the country’s cyber defenders” and “facilitates information-sharing on cyber threats and best practices, helps prevent cyber incidents and will enable North Macedonia to increase its resilience to cyber threats.”

EU HOME COMMISSIONER WRAPS UP TRIP TO BiH, ALBANIA: EU Home Commissioner Ylva Johansson wrapped up her trip to Bosnia and Albania over the weekend with stops in Sarajevo on Friday and Albania on Saturday.

  • In Sarajevo – Johansson met with Council of Ministers Chairman Zoran Tegeltija and the Bosniak and Croat Members of the Presidency, Šefik Džaferović and Źeljko Komšić. While Bosnia’s stance remains it bears too much of the burden vis-a-vis the EU, Commissioner Johansson’s message is that there needs to be greater burden sharing within the country.
  • Johnasson said, “I’m here with two strong messages: first, the European Union is a strong and reliable partner to Bosnia and Herzegovina in developing structures to manage migration. Second, migration management is a national responsibility and for me, it’s clear that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to develop a better and stronger capacity on the national level to manage migration and also make sure that the whole country takes responsibility for managing migration.”
  • In Albania – Johansson visited the Kakavia border crossing between Albania and Greece and met with Albania’s leaders including President Ilir Meta and PM Edi Rama.  The talks in Tirana centered around Albania’s EU path and the April 25 parliamentary elections. She urged political parties to maintain the utmost integrity of the their candidates.

LAJČÁK ON DIALOGUE: In an interview with European Western Balkans EU Special Representative to the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue Miroslav Lajčák highlighted that he expects the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue to continue fairly soon. He underscored the final comprehensive agreement must come from the two parties and the EU will facilitate the negotiations. He will be visiting Belgrade and Pristina “in the coming days.” Watch the full interview HERE.

ELECTION RERUN IN SREBRENICA, DOBOJ HELD: The Municpalities of Srebrenica and Doboj held a rerun of the November elections yesterday after irregularities marred the previous election. The Bosniak coalition named Srebrenica: My Address made the decision to urge supporters to boycott because they do not think enough has been done to mitigate the underlying problems with elections in the municipality.

  • The OSCE Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina highlighted that “Election boycotts are not in the best interests of a healthy democracy.”
  • While the Srebrenica: My Address coalition claims the boycott was successful, the incumbent mayor, Mladen Grujičić, said, “Nothing is going to happen to them if there are no Bosniak representatives around” and underscored that he “called on all Bosniaks to do so because I believe that would be a good move for them. And finally, I guarantee you that the Bosniaks will have to accept the mandates they won.”
  • Preliminary results in Srebrenica show Mladen Grujičić received 67.62% of the vote while the leader of the My Address: Srebrenica coalition candidate Alija Tabaković received 31.70% of the vote despite the boycott.
  • Meanwhile in Doboj, Bosi Jerinić (SNSD) received 67.44% of the vote while Srdjan Todorovic (Socialist Party) received 16.35% and Cvijan Filipović garnered 16.20% of the vote.

KURTI CALLS FOR SOCIAL SUPPORT: Kosovo’s next PM Albin Kurti on Saturday tweeted his aim to increase social benefits for families which make less than 7,000 euros a year. He also noted his goal to have 12 months of maternity/paternity leave. Kurti cited Article 50 in Kosovo’s Constitution.

SLOVENIA + AUSTRIA: Slovenian FM Anže Logar on Friday met with Austrian counterpart Alexander Schallenberg to discuss bilateral relations including the importance of the 100th anniversary of the Carinthian plebiscite and procuring Covid vaccines.

N. MACEDONIA + UAE: FM of N. Macedonia Bujar Osmani began a two day official visit to the UAE yesterday at the invitation of counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. FM Osmani is set to meet with multiple state ministers to discuss bilateral relations and economic opportunities. This is the first official visit of a FM of N. Macedonia to UAE.

CROATIAN SUPREME PRESIDENT SEAT: “President Zoran Milanovic has announced that he will not support any of the three candidates running for President of the Supreme Court and that he will reveal the name of his candidate ‘shortly.’

“‘I will not accept any of those persons. It’s nothing personal. This is a serious deviation in constitutional practice and custom,’ Milanović said in an exclusive interview for Nova TV on Thursday evening marking his first year in office.

“‘I have been thinking about this for a while, talking about it and trying to keep it discreet. I want to come out in public with my proposal in good time, proposing a person who meets my criteria and who is acceptable to both the ruling majority and the opposition,’ the president said.” (N1)

N. MACEDONIA PROPOSED LAW WON’T ALIGN WITH THE EU: After a meeting with Minister of Economy Kreshnik Bekteshi on Friday, EU Ambassador David Greer commented on the proposed legislation that would entail including a person’s ethnicity on ID cards. Amb. Greer warned the government, “At the present, ID cards in EU countries are regulated by the issuing member states, however the regulation that I mentioned containing the first rules that are relevant to these documents at the EU level will come into force in August 2021.”

OSCE COMMENTS ON DENIAL OF ENTRY FOR JOURNALISTS: The OSCE Mission in Kosovo was concerned with the denial of entry to Radio Television Serbia (RTS) journalists into Kosovo last week. The official reasoning from Kosovo’s side was no prior notification and communication Kosovar and Serbian officials per the 2013 Brussels Agreement, but that stipulation only applies to politicians.

  • The OSCE Mission in Kosovo wrote on Facebook, “The OSCE Mission in Kosovo is concerned with the denial of entry of journalist crews at the Jarinje/Jarinjë crossing point in recent days. Such actions not only contribute to the difficulties that journalists face in conducting their work, but also send a negative message about press freedom and the tolerance for a pluralistic media landscape. Media should be free to travel and report objectively.”

BOSNIA’S INTEL CHIEF NOT GUILTY: “Bosnia’s state court ruled on Friday that the head of the country’s secret service, Osman Mehmedagic, is not guilty of abuse of power which prosecutors said he committed in order to establish the identity of the person who reported him for allegedly lacking the necessary qualifications for his job.

“Mehmedagic was, alongside an employee of the BiH Security-Intelligence Agency (OSA), indicted in October last year.

“The two stood accused of abusing their position and power as well as OSA’s resources during August 2020 to obtain information and photos about the person who filed an anonymous complaint against Mehmedagic, warning that he has an invalid university diploma and lacks the necessary qualifications for his job.” (N1)

CROATIA CENSUS TRIAL: Croatia announced it will conduct a trial census from March 1 to 15 in Varaždin, Primorje-Gorski Kotar, Osijek-Baranja and Split-Dalmatia Counties and the City of Zagreb to identify successes and areas of improvement for future censuses. Croatia originally planned a census for April but has been delayed to at least June.

IN OTHER NEWS

OP-ED: “Alarming backsliding in press and media freedom in Europe” by MEPs Ruiz Devesa, Klara Dobrev, and Petra Kammervert in Euraktiv

OP-ED: “The Mayor of Tirana an ‘Hero of Mobility’? Excuse my Cynicsm” by Alice Taylor in Exit.al

OP-ED: “China pins hopes on Balkans as gateway to Europe but faces growing scepticism” by Laura Zhou in the South China Morning Post

ANALYSIS: “Twelve Candidacies for Zagreb Mayor Announced So Far” in Total Croatia News

ANALYSIS: “‘Undisputed Capo’: The Albanian Behind a Cocaine Pipeline to Europe” by Elton Qyno in Balkan Insight

ANALYSIS: “Sputnik V: Why hasn’t the EU approved Russia’s COVID vaccine yet?” in Euronews

ANALYSIS: “Kosovo’s Parliamentary Election: A Box of Chocolates for the Fledgling Nation” by Chinyere Obasi in Harvard Political Review

ANALYSIS: “The Pipeline No One’s Celebrating: Balkan Stream’s Operability and the Future of Europe’s Energy Security” by Fabio Telarico in Global Risk Insights

CULTURE: “As it adapts to the pandemic, Sofra Family Bistro remains an Albanian delight” by Nicole Hasse in The Cap Times (Madison, WI)

CULTURE: “Phyllo, cheese, heaven: Balkan women have been making these treats for centuries” by Monica Obradović in the St. Louis Dispatch

CULTURE: “Interview with Mrs. Bjelopoljak: ‘I Am Proud That so Many People want to Learn my Language’” in The Sarajevo Times

SPORT: “Red Star Belgrade Apologises to Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Ethnic Abuse” by Saša Dragojlo in Balkan Insight

SPORT: “Djokovic Beats Medvedev to win Ninth Australian Open” in VoA

SPORT: “Ivan Dodig and Filip Polašek win doubles event at Australian Open” in The Voice of Croatia

ENTERTAINMENT: “Crowds across ex-Yugoslavia republics mourn singer’s death” in Reuters: “Large crowds gathered on streets in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb on Saturday, lighting candles and laying flowers to pay respects to one of former Yugoslavia’s most beloved singers who died of coronavirus. Djordje Balasevic, 67, who had been appointed goodwill ambassador of the United Nations High Commissionaire for Refugees in 1998, passed away on Friday evening in a hospital in his hometown Novi Sad in northern Serbia.”

TRAVEL: “Hilton Hotels & Resorts to debut in Albania” by Lauren Jade Hill in Top Hotel

TRAVEL: “Rick Steves goes off the beaten path in Bosnia-Herzegovina” by Rick Steves in The Herald

TRAVEL: “How COVID-19 Became a Great Croatian Tourism Promo Gift for USA Market” by Paul Bradbury in Total Croatia News