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August hot topics in the Western Balkans: U.S. shifts policy on Serbia and Kosovo; Uljanik shipyard workers go on strike; Croatian and BiH heads of state meet with Merkel; Kosovo special prosecutor resigns

White House’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has announced in Kiev last month the United States does not oppose the idea that Serbia would swap land with Kosovo in exchange for recognising its independence. “There are new signs that both governments very quietly may be willing to negotiate on this. The U.S. policy is that if the two sides can work it out and reach an agreement, we won’t exclude territorial corrections. It’s really not for us to say”, Bolton said in a response to a question from Radio Free Europe. He added he doesn’t think “anyone in Europe would stand in a way if the two sides in the dispute achieve a mutually satisfactory solution”.

A great shift on the horizon?

Bolton concluded the United States is ready to help, but it’s up to Serbia and Kosovo to agree on a solution between themselves. U.S. position directly contradicts Germany’s stance on the issue, with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejecting any changes to borders in the Balkans. “The territorial integrity of the states of the Western Balkans has been established and is inviolable,” Merkel said earlier this month at the news conference in Berlin with Denis Zvizdić, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

On Monday this week Merkel confirmed she discussed the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations in a phone call with President Donald Trump. She said that both herself and Trump encourage all dialogue that would lead towards one goal – the settlement of the Kosovo dispute. Merkel reaffirmed this in a joint press conference with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković on Tuesday, adding that preventing any new problems from arising and keeping territorial integrity should be taken into consideration in the negotiations. “We have to be careful that certain moves applied to one territory will not lead to similar moves on other territories,” said Merkel. The fact that Merkel and Trump talked about Kosovo and gave support for talks that tackle this issue is a great shift and proof that things have changed, said the Serbian foreign minister Ivica Dačić in a comment to Serbia’s daily Blic.

Croatia’s government helps its troubled shipmaker 

Around 4,500 employees at Uljanik group, Croatia’s largest shipyard that owns docks in Pula and Rijeka, have gone on strike on 22 August over late payments. The workers, who control less than 50% of the company, demanded the management to step down and, under pressure, the shipyard’s chairman Gianni Rossanda offered his resignation on Monday together with all management boards within the Uljanik group. The state, a minority shareholder, is hoping to secure funds for wages for at least one month by the end of August, according to Darko Horvat, Croatia’s economy minister. Since European rules do not allow direct financial help from the state, the government has turned to commercial banks to try and secure a loan.

Uljanik group has been trying to stay afloat for months and in January this year the European Commission cleared Croatia’s state guarantee for a EUR 96m loan to help the ailing shipyard. The group has also found a strategic partner, Kermas Energija, a local company, in its attempts to secure recapitalisation and restructure the company. The plans for restructuring have been sent to Brussels and are still being reviewed. Croatia’s shipbuilding industry has been struggling for decades and lost a lot of  business to competition, especially from Asia.

Croatia aims to strenghten ties with Germany

Last month the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, met her counterparts from Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Croatia. Talks with both countries included tackling illegal immigration and stepping up efforts for closer cooperation on the issue. BiH in particular struggles to cope with migrants as the country is now used by those looking to bypass tighter border controls along the “Balkan route”. So far this year, Bosnia has recorded the arrival of 11,000 migrants, compared to only 755 in 2017. At any one time, around 4,000 migrants are in BiH, with hundreds arriving via Serbia and Montenegro each week. The need to control the migrant situation in BiH is urgent, especially since some Bosnian politicians are using anti-migrant messages before the election on October 7.

At the meeting with the Croatian Prime Minister, Andrej Plenković, the German Chancellor discussed the adoption of an action plan aimed at strengthening political and economic relations between the two countries. The ten-point action plan, that is expected to be signed in the coming months, is looking to strengthen political, economic and cultural relations between the two countries. Merkel also noted Croatia’s good progress in managing its borders and handling migration issues as it seeks to join the Schengen area.

Kosovo prosecutor resigns over threats to his life

Kosovo special prosecutor, Elez Blakaj, resigned from his post last month due to receiving threats to his life. Blakaj was investigating the war veterans’ list where he found that some names on the list were false. The veterans on the list are entittled to state pensions. Blakaj was also prosecuting former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an ethnic Albanian paramilitary organisation that fought against Serbian military and police during the Kosovo war in 1998-99, who were later suspected of terrorist links. US ambassador to Priština, Greg Delawie, commented that Blakaj’s resignation was a sad day for the rule of law in Kosovo. »It is especially discouraging to hear the news of the resignation of Special Prosecutor, Elez Blakaj, mostly because he was working on important issues such as the investigation and prosecution of massive pension fraud,« reads the statement by the U.S. embassy on its Facebook page. »But also because of his background and promise—he was supported by the US government to study at Wake Forest where he got an LLM degree and investigated important cases in Kosovo. Kosovo must prove its commitment to rule of law not only by supporting prosecutors, but also by ensuring that all those who are convicted serve their time.”

Adriatic Journal


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