Western Balkan countries easing COVID-19 measures at different speeds

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The reported number of COVID-19 cases in the Western Balkans currently ranges from several hundred in Montenegro and Albania to more than 1000 in North Macedonia, and more than 10.000 in Serbia. In some countries, the situation is gradually beginning to stabilize.

Serbia recently lifted the state of emergency and curfew. It also allowed restaurants and coffee shops as well as shopping centres to be opened. However, epidemiologists in the country expressed concern about the organisation of political rallies immediately after the measures were lifted. The concerns have also been raised about the apparent decrease of discipline among the citizens.

Protest rallies, some of which saw clashes between the protesters and the police, have also taken place across Montenegro following the arrest of Serbian Orthodox Church bishop Joanikije for holding a religious gathering on 12 May, violating the preventive measures. The bishop and other priests were later released.

Montenegro opened some religious sites in the country for worship on Monday. To maintain social distancing, a limited number of congregations will be accepted, and it is obligatory to wear a mask.

Meanwhile, Albania allowed shops, hairdressers, dental clinics, and shopping centres to be opened. The country earlier announced that the removal of measures in the country will take place today.

Monday also marks the start implementation of the second phase of easing COVID-19 restrictions in Kosovo, by doubling time for movement of citizens and opening of retail shops.

The caretaker Prime Minister Kurti said that as of Monday Kosovo residents will be allocated four-hour time slots in order to make essential trips. The schedule is determined by the Ministry of Health based on penultimate digit of the personal number of the ID card. He also said that as of 18 May a few economic operators will reopen to offer their services.

North Macedonia extends the state of emergency

President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski announced on Friday that the state of emergency in the country will be extended for another 14 days due to the coronavirus pandemic.

During his address to the public, Pendarovski declared that this decision was made during a session of the Security Council held on Friday.

Pendarovski noted that his decision was based on extensive consultations with experts in several fields and the advisors in his cabinet.

“I decided to declare a new state of emergency lasting only 14 days instead of 30 days as the government requested given the positive trends of the pandemic situation in the country,” Pendarovski said.

The President underlined that authorities need to extend the state of emergency in order to deal with the economic effects associated with COVID-19, as well as to complete the health responses to the pandemic.

Pendarovski called on the government to consider gradually reducing restrictions on the movement of citizens and the work of businesses.

Republika Srpska, entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, will decide on the lifting of its own state of emergency on 20 May.

The region moves towards opening of border crossings

Serbia has decided that as 1 of June as part of easing COVID-19 restriction measures to open borders with four neighboring countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Albania. The fact that Kosovo was not included was condemned by the acting foreign minister Glauk Konjufca.

The Serbian government announced that entry to Serbia for foreign citizens will require a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before arrival AND a “stay authorization” or “authorization to transit” from the Serbian government.

The government of Serbia reportedly plans to launch a web portal where foreign citizens can apply for this authorization, but that web portal is not yet operational. The PCR test must be given by the national reference laboratory of the country the foreigner is coming from. Tests will not be required for children up to 12 as long as the parent/guardian has the test results.

The borders of BiH with Serbia and Montenegro have been closed to private transport. The transport of goods is excluded from this. There are delays at the border crossings.

Many Montenegrin border crossings have been closed, resulting in considerable delays. There is a shortage of cargo space, as more drivers have to be quarantined. There are long waiting times at the border, as all goods that require hygiene controls must be cleared.

Last week, European Commission presented a package of guidelines and recommendations to help the Member States gradually lift travel restrictions and allow tourism business to reopen, after months of lockdown, while respecting necessary health precautions.

European Commission said that they are ready to include the Western Balkans in the plan. Implementation depends on member states, but Brussels expects takeovers to be less chaotic than not being introduced.