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The year (not) to forget: Key events in the Western Balkans in 2020

Last year, as we reviewed the most important events of 2019, we assessed that, due to its lacklustre results, many in the Western Balkans would probably want to move on to 2020 as soon as possible. We would now like to take that assessment back.

2020 started somewhat positively, as it seemed increasingly likely that the new enlargement methodology would lift the French veto on the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. COVID-19, however, hit soon afterwards, and there has been little good news on enlargement, and most other issues, ever since.

Last year, EWB also warned that multiple countries in the region are facing electoral crises in 2020. This turned out to be quite accurate in Serbia. On the other hand, Montenegro managed to go through a mostly orderly change of the government for the first time since 1990. Belgrade-Pristina dialogue resumed, with an unforgettable episode in the White House, but it is yet to bear any tangible results.

After 2020, we are quite reluctant to make predictions about next year. Better, therefore, to focus on a retrospect of the most important events this year.

New enlargement methodology

Oliver Varhelyi presents the enlargement methodology proposal; Photo: European Union

On 5 February, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi presented the new methodology, initiated after the 2019 French veto on accession talks with Skopje and Tirana. The changes include clustering the negotiating chapters, giving the process a stronger political steer with the involvement of Member States, more focus on the fundamentals and stronger mechanisms of sanctions and rewards. Montenegro and Serbia, countries already negotiating their EU accession, expressed readiness to accept it. It is yet to be implemented.

Council opens accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, but the process gets stuck once again

Zaev and Borisov; Photo: Government of Macedonia

The hurdle of French veto was cleared on 26 March, as the world was struggling to find its footing in the pandemic. The European Council endorsed the Council’s conclusions on enlargement, which also welcomed the new methodology and set additional conditions for Albania to fulfil before it can hold its first accession conference.

However, by the end of 2020 Council failed to approve the much-awaited  North Macedonia accession conference. The reason was the ongoing Bulgarian objections, which cite unresolved historical issues between the two countries.  “That is a bitter blow to our Western Balkans policy,” Germany’s Minister for Europe, Michael Roth, whose country holds the EU presidency until the year’s end, stated after the meeting on 8 December. The issue is expected to be revisited in the coming months.

North Macedonia officially becomes the 30th NATO member

North Macedonia hoists flag at NATO; Photo: NATO

Just a day after the decision of the European Council on accession talks, North Macedonia officially became 30th NATO member, after the instrument of ratification of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been deposited through the US Embassy in Skopje into the State Department. The flag-raising ceremony for North Macedonia took place at NATO Headquarters three days later, while Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time Nikola Dimitrov attended the first ministerial meeting as a representative of a full member on 1 April.

Two Kosovo governments fall, Thaçi resigns over war crimes indictment

Albin Kurti and Hashim Thaçi; Photo: Twitter / HashimThaciRKS

On 25 March, Assembly of Kosovo passed a motion of no confidence to Albin Kurti’s Government, who had taken office just 51 days earlier. The coalition partner LDK and the opposition accused Kurti of authoritarianism, disrespect for the coalition, and of deteriorating the relations with the US. The immediate cause was Kurti’s dismissal of Interior Minister Agim Veliu, a member of LDK. As our portal analysed at the time, the disputes seemed to have been a part of a larger political rift. A new government, led by Avdullah Hoti of LDK, was finally sworn in on 3 June, only for the vote to be overturned by the decision of the Constitutional Court in December. Kurti now has an opportunity to return as Prime Minister in the snap elections.

Meanwhile, HashimThaçi, Kosovo’s most influential politician of the past two decades, resigned as President on 5 November following the confirmation of the war crimes indictment issued by the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) in The Hague. Thaçi voluntarily went to The Hague, where he pledged not guilty to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Speaker of Parliament Vjosa Osmani took over as acting President and the new head of state will now apparently be elected by the new Assembly.

EU appoints Miroslav Lajčák as a Special Representative, the Dialogue resumes

Miroslav Lajčak, Aleksandar Vučić, Avdullah Hoti and Josep Borrell in Brussels; Photo: Instagram / Buducnostsrbije

Miroslav Lajčák was appointed on 3 April as EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues. The former Foreign Minister of Slovakia once again returned to the region he had gotten to know quite well over his career.

After an almost two-year break, the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue resumed in July 2020, with a high-level meeting of President Aleksandar Vučić and PM Avdullah Hoti with President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Negotiating teams of Serbia and Kosovo continued to meet in Brussels in the following months, achieving, according to Lajčák, full progress on missing persons and economic cooperation, but getting stuck on financial claims and status of the minority communities. The Dialogue continues in 2021, presumably after the Kosovo elections. In the meantime, the United States also decided to get involved (see below).

Partially boycotted elections plunge Serbia deeper into a political crisis

Photo: Twitter /nedavimobgd

Despite the initial mediation efforts by the Members of the European Tanja Fajon (S&D) Parliament Vladimir Bilčik (EPP), most of the opposition boycotted the elections on 21 June, claiming that there are no conditions for fair elections in the country. No participating opposition party managed to cross a hastily lowered threshold of 3%, leaving the ruling SNS with three-quarters of seats, alongside coalition partners SPS and SPAS, as well as national minority parties. Even before the new government was voted in, President Aleksandar Vučić announced snap elections by 2022. Several groups in the European Parliament strongly criticised the current situation. The EP-mediated dialogue is expected to continue in 2021, but its outcomes remain uncertain and the opposition currently seems even more divided than before.

Just two weeks after the elections, thousands of citizens gathered in front of the National Assembly in Belgrade on 7 July following the announcement of President Vučić that the new weekend-long curfew will be imposed due to rise in COVID-19 cases. The protests, which were held in several cities, were triggered by dramatic changes in Serbia’s policy on COVID-19 pandemic, with the government removing virtually all restrictions prior to the 21 June election, followed by the proclamation that the situation is close to a calamity only two weeks later, as well as the surfacing of reports claiming that the true number of cases and deaths has been hidden. The protests, marred by the disproportionate use of police force, assaults on journalists and numerous arrests described as unjustified, were the most serious unrest in Serbia since Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012. Opposition organisations distanced themselves from all acts of violence, claiming that some of the acts were committed by the government-backed infiltrators.

Meanwhile, Serbia failed to open (and close) a single chapter in 2020, for the first time since opening its first chapters in 2015. German Presidency made it clear that the lack of progress in the rule of law is to be blamed.

Elections in North Macedonia return SDSM-DUI coalition to power

Stevo Pendarovski and Zoran Zaev; Photo: Twitter / SPendarovski

President of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski gave the mandate to the leader of Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) Zoran Zaev to form his second Government following the election that took place in the country on 15 July. SDSM narrowly came in first, with the opposition VMRO-DPMNE winning just two seats less. The new Government was elected with 62 votes in favour and 51 votes against. It was supported by Social Democratic Union of Macedonia and Democratic Union of Integration, which reached a coalition agreement in August, as well as the sole MP of the Democratic Party of Albanians. Zaev first came to power in 2017, after the ten-year rule of Nikola Gruevski.

The first change of government of Montenegro in a generation

Abazović, Krivokapić and Bečić during the joint press conference; photo: Vijesti.me/Savo Prelević

On 30 August, three opposition coalitions won 41 out of 81 seats in the Assembly of Montenegro, meaning that the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) would relinquish power for the first time in 30 years. DPS’s decision to adopt a controversial Law on Freedom of Religion was seen as a significant factor behind the success of the right-wing opposition, as regular processions against the Law were held in the first half of the year, led by the Serbian Orthodox Church priests. As it became clear that the Democratic Front (DF) will be in the ruling majority, concerns were raised over its opposition to Montenegro’s NATO membership and pushing for stronger ties with Serbia and Russia. Leaders of the three coalitions, Zdravko Krivokapić, Aleksa Bečić and Dritan Abazović, therefore signed an agreement on foreign policy continuity the day after the elections. A “government of experts”, led by Krivokapić with Abazović as Deputy PM, took over in December. Its support is shaky, with the Democratic Front leaders already criticising the government they voted for, due to a perceived lack of a sharper breakaway from DPS rule.

The Washington Agreement

Kosovo-Serbia White House signing ceremony; Photo: Twitter / AIEmbassyUSA

President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister of Kosovo Avdullah Hoti pledged to normalize economic relations on 4 September, signing separate documents in the presence of US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. The agreement, mainly a result of Special Envoy Richard Grenell’s efforts, included many other elements without any connection to Kosovo-Serbia dispute, such as moving the Serbian Embassy to Jerusalem, fight against terrorism in the Middle East and diversifying energy sources. The seriousness of the commitment of all sides to the “Washington Agreement” is hard to assess at this point. Trump brought up the agreement as one of his achievements on several occasions during his ultimately failed re-election campaign.

Albania sees its share of protests in a pre-election year

The former building of the National Theatre of Albania; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hundreds of citizens took to the streets of Tirana in May after an Albanian state body dealing with illegal construction bulldozed the historic National Theatre. The demolition was strongly opposed by activists, opposition politicians and artists who wanted the building to be renovated. The second round of protests erupted in December after 25-year-old Klodian Rasha was shot dead during coronavirus curfew hours by a police officer. Interior Minister resigned as a result.

The unrests took place in a year marked by an attempt of the ruling and opposition parties to reach an agreement on electoral reform. Part of the agreement was indeed reached with a consensus in June, while the government introduced some significant unilateral changes later in the year. The parliamentary elections are scheduled for the spring of 2021.

Further initiatives for regional integration

Rama, Vučić and Zaev; Photo: Tanjug/Tanja Valić

In November, President Vučić and PM Edi Rama signed an agreement that enabled the citizens of Serbia and Albania to enter the territory of the other with a valid biometric ID card. This interstate agreement between the two countries was perceived as a first concrete move in year-long cooperation in the context of the so-called “mini-Schengen”. During the same meeting, the leaders of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia signed a memorandum on cooperation in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these tangible results, so far it seems that the initiative overpromised, and underdelivered, or it is perhaps yet to deliver?

In the meantime, the leaders of the WB6 endorsed the Common Regional Market 2021-2024 Action Plan at the Berlin Process Summit in November in Sofia, which is – just like the “mini-Schengen”, based on the EU four freedoms. EU-Western Balkans Zagreb Summit, one of the highlights of the Croatian Presidency, was held online due to COVID-19 pandemic in May.

Local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina shake the ruling parties in both entities

Dodik, Izetbegović and Čović sign the agreement; Photo: HDZ BiH

The elections on 15 November dealt a blow to the ruling SDA and SNSD in Sarajevo and Banja Luka. Opposition coalition won in several municipalities in Sarajevo and is expected to nominate the city’s mayor. In an important turn of events in a country dominated by ethnic politics, both the main candidate for the mayor of Sarajevo and one of the presidents of the municipalities will be ethnic Serbs. Meanwhile, in a direct election for the mayor of Banja Luka, opposition candidate Draško Stanivuković defeated the incumbent SNSD candidate. SDA and SNSD, led by Bakir Izetbegović and Milorad Dodik, as well as Croat HDZ, retained the majority of the remaining cities and municipalities. The general election is taking place in 2022.

In December, long-awaited Mostar elections also took place, with the citizens having an opportunity to elect a local government for the first time since 2008. Ethnic politics of the country came under scrutiny in the context of the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accord; initiatives for the reform of the political system of the country, perceived as dysfunctional, are once again on the rise.

To be continued: COVID-19 pandemic

Photo: pixabay

The first cases appeared in the Western Balkans in March, and throughout most of the spring, the region has been implementing some of the strictest measures in Europe. Governments’ handling of the pandemic has since been criticized on various accounts; in Serbia, investigative journalists accused the Government of hiding the actual numbers of cases; in Montenegro, the decision to reveal the identity of the infected citizens was also controversial. The soft power of the EU was challenged in the context of the pandemic, especially in Serbia, where President Vučić famously called its solidarity “a fairy tale”.

After a brief relaxation in late spring and early summer, second or even third waves of the pandemic took hold of the Western Balkans once again. By the end of 2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina has recorded the most official deaths (more than 4000), followed by Serbia and North Macedonia. Economic damage, as well as political consequences, are expected to be felt even more acutely next year. The procurement of the required number of vaccines will take longer than for the rest of Europe.

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