The UK and the future of the Western Balkans Contents

Appendix 6: Visit notes from the region

1.In the course of its inquiry, Members of the Committee made two trips to the Western Balkans, visiting four countries (Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina). Many meetings were held under Chatham House Rule.

Kosovo

2.Baroness Coussins and Lord Grocott visited Kosovo on 19–20 September. They were accompanied by the Policy Analyst and the Specialist Adviser.

3.In the course of the visit they met:

Current political context

5.The political context, the EUSR explained has been very difficult with a snap election, three months of political deadlock and now local elections are planned. The new government has a very slim majority. This means that many EU reforms are challenged as they will require a 2/3 majority–the votes of the Serbian coalition partners would be critical.

6.Many witnesses informed us that the Serbian coalition partners—Srpska Lista—were united and navigated by President Vučić of Serbia. Witnesses informed us of the situation whereby on the day of the opening of parliament, business was delayed while parliamentarians from Srpska Lista returned from Serbia “taking their orders from President Vučić”.

7.The clear political demand, witnesses informed, was the state-building project which was as yet incomplete. However, beyond the practicalities of building the political state, witnesses were unclear on their loyalty and identification to the Kosovan state. Few witnesses identified themselves as Kosovan purely. Most notably, young people at BONEVET—an NGO—did not identify themselves as Kosovan but rather Kosovo-Albanian, Albanian or Serbian. There was also very little or no intermingling amongst young people: one young Kosovo-Albanian noted that his only contact with Serbians was the “old woman at my local shop”.

Economic situation

8.The economic condition, the EU office informed was, extremely challenging. The IMF has stopped its programme and the EU programmes, which constitute some 80 million Euros, are now threatened. This was the real problem, said Mr Lumir Abdixhiku, former Reinvest director and Member of Parliament. There was far too much focus on the Serbian-Kosovan Dialogue but that “is not what people talk about around the table”. The real problem is unemployment, with unemployment rates at 56% and only 19% of women participate in the labour force. The private sector is weak and there is a bloated public sector. The public administration increases with every government. It is easy to hire but hard to fire.

9.The economy is growing at 3.5%, but as the IMF as noted, to bring 30% unemployment needs a higher growth rate.

10.The IMF judged that the current economic growth model is not sustainable being entirely dependent on remittances and spent on consumables. This was not adding to the productive capacity of the country. Remittances amounted to 600–700 million Euros, which was 12–13% of GDP. During the financial crisis, countries continued to send remittances, which buffered Kosovo during that period. The diaspora community was also buying real estate but again this was not creating productivity. Kosovo is as small landlocked country with geopolitical disadvantages and must at least create the conditions for higher growth.

11.Two recommendations were proposed by the IMF:

Corruption

12.Mr Abdixhiku noted the extent of political and economic corruption, Firms are related to the political system, the awarding of public tenders is a matter of political favour, businesses can be bankrupted and criminal prosecutors are appointed by the by party system. Nora Latifi Jashari, GAP institute, added that the state budget is used to support political aims and sectors. She did note that the civil society is putting on more pressure.

Kosovo-Serbian relations

13.Edita Tahiri, the former minister for dialogue, said that the critical challenge was to draw Serbia away from the Russian orbit. In the north of Kosovo, Serbia offers a parallel loyalty. The Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue has helped remove of the Serbian meddling and parallel institutions, such as the parallel police. In the north, there have not been any inter-ethnic killings, functioning authorities, it is now possible to register companies and in 2013, elections for the northern municipalities were held.

14.The only real option is mutual recognition: “Sustainable peace is mutual recognition and there is no alternative”

North Kosovo

15.The city of Mitrovica, in the north of Kosovo, is divided between two administrative units with a Serb-majority municipality in the municipality of North Mitrovica and Kosovo-Albanians in South Mitrovica. The Committee visited South Mitrovica.

16.The mayor of South Mitrovica, Agim Bahtiri, pointed to the notable decrease in inter-ethnic conflict in the city. The incidents of inter-ethnic violence have reduced to seven incidents in the last four years. The mayor noted that KFOR and the UK had been helpful partners but also a clear policy of promoting economic development had gone a considerable way to easing conditions. He stressed that he was a businessman and he had urged people not to think about borders and ethnicities but to focus on business and economic opportunities: he had found a receptive audience amongst the Serbs in the north.

17.The security situation and relations between Kosovo-Serbia was under control. The mayor was in in touch with his counterpart and citizens crossed the bridge connecting the two municipalities, Serbs and Albanians work on either side and the barricades have been take down. He was confident that there would be no more ethnic conflicts. Furthermore, there was an effective policing programme and Mitrovica was now the safest city in Kosovo, he added.

International Organisations

18.Multiple international organisations are active in Kosovo, including NATO, EU, IMF, OSCE and various bodies of the UN. Under the Chatham House Rule, we were informed that there was no alternative to international organisations and many witnesses could not see a future for Kosovo without considerable and extensive international support factored in.

19.Witnesses informed us of the risk of donor dependency noting the sense that could be present that international donors will step in and fix things and also that when the conditionality was too onerous, there was always another international actors ready to step in. The key focus for the international community, witnesses informed us, was to integrate Kosovo into NATO and then into EU structures. Both of these projects would complete the state building project.

20.On the other hand, there was a note of optimism. In the interim period where there was no government in place, the public administration had functioned and ministries had run. This was a qualitative change. The administration was moving despite the lack of government and state consolidation was progressing.

EU

21.The EU Special Representative (EUSR), Ms Nataliya Aposotolova, and her team, explained the work of the EU in Kosovo. The EU office in Kosovo is a double-headed—EUSR and EU Rule of Law Mission (EULEX)—but not a fully-fledged one as there are five non-recognisers of Kosovo amongst the EU member states. The office consists of 130 staff and covers the remit of rule of law, health and economic issues. There are also special EU programmes to improve life in the Serb dominated municipalities, in the north of Kosovo.

22.The cost of EU commitments have been 1.2 billion Euros for EULEX since its inception and the Instrument for Pre-Accession funding is about 70–90 million for 2007–13.

23.There are three main components to the EU role:

NATO and KFOR

28.The NATO mission, KFOR was “not a sleeping beauty mission” said Major General Giovanni Fungo, Commander of the mission. The mission has now increased to nine battalions. The mission has improves it situational awareness and is now more effective at gathering information about jihadis and the flow of foreign fighters. The fighters who have returned are likely to be released from prison in the next few months and the risk is that they will return to their communities more radicalised. The mission was also doing monitoring of the radicalisation. Within communities, KFOR scores highly in surveys of trust of institutions.

29.The region is seen as a whole, KFOR has been evolving but the strategy is not time driven but rather based on goals, currently in deterrence pasture and would like to move to minimal posture. The strategic aim is to provide stability in Kosovo and to spread that outwards.

30.There was strong support for NATO membership, which was seen as a key part of the state building project. Ms Tahiri said that the goal for Kosovo is to be in the EU and NATO, but the first priority was NATO. General Rrahman Rama, Commander of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF), stressed that transforming the KSF was an important step for Kosovo’s own sovereignty but also a step in its Euro-Atlantic/NATO integration.

31.The KSF was currently in the process of being transformed into the Kosovo Armed Force (KAF), which would include an increase in its numbers and its cost but the transformation also had a particularly important symbolic aspect of Kosovo having its own army. A move opposed strongly by Serbia. The KSF was taking steps to ensure that it was a multi-ethnic force with recruitment aimed at Serbians and other minorities as well. 50% of the KSF were women; the highest rank held by a woman was a colonel soon to be a general. The highest rank held by a Serb was major. The UK had an officer embedded within the KSF and was also involved in training. The KSF took part in NATO regional exercises as well as regional activities and had signed Memorandums of Understanding with defence ministries of the region. However, we were warned not to underestimate the complexities of deeper integration in the absence of full state recognition.

Russia

32.Witnesses were divided on Russian influence. Some witnesses suggested to us that there was evidence of Russian money in North Mitrovica. There are paramilitary organisations, so-called hunters and others who continue to receive Russian money. There is also evidence of Russian penetration into civil society and in the media, with fake news. There was little penetration of Russian influence amongst the Kosovo-Albanians. The main approach of the Russians in Kosovo was via covert influence, supporting fake media, acting via humanitarian agencies and NGOs.

33.Political analysts informed us that the current context opaqueness, authoritarianism and corruption is the ideal operating ground for Russians. Russia was exploiting the situation and the focus should not be on the Russians but rather on the systemic weaknesses. Under the Chatham House Rule, witnesses told us that the Russians had no plan for the Western Balkans or Kosovo, they only sought to create disorder, to prove that Russia was right, the west was wrong. Others informed us that an economically unsuccessful dictatorship does not want a successful democracy on its border.

34.The Commander of KFOR, the NATO mission, Major General Giovanni Fungo, was sanguine. The Russians are present but they are not active militarily. The main approach was intelligence related activities.

UK and Brexit

35.Witnesses repeatedly stressed the high standing of the UK in Kosovo; a historic legacy, a political supporter of Kosovo’s independence and an active political and financial supporter of good governance, civil society particularly women’ rights, anti-corruption and young people.

36.The EU office informed us that the country was shocked by Brexit, which left a question mark hanging on the UK’s role but some member states will have an active interest—Italians are engaged and German engagement is likely to increase.

37.Edita Tahiri, the former minister for dialogue, said that the role for the UK once it leaves the EU is to remain close to US. The triangular relationship that mattered was UK-EU-NATO. Ms Tahiri further encouraged the UK to increase its engagement. There are major challenges which Kosovo cannot manage alone, such as radicalisation. “Kosovo is not ready as yet (to manage alone), maybe never”

Sexual violence in conflict

38.The Committee met two NGOs working in the field sexual violence in conflict; the Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN) and the Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT). Ms Feride Rushiti, KRCT explained their work; KRCT, founded in 1999, in the aftermath of the war which saw massive rape and genocide. KRCT consists of 23 activists working to provide rehabilitation for victims of torture and rape, support their legal rights, protect them from violence and working at the legislative level on the legal and political rights. There is also a pastoral role undertaken to support the victims with income and treatment.

39.Ms Igballa Rogova, KWN explained that in a patriarchal society, victims can be stigmatised, isolated, rejected by their families. The KWN was set up to address this isolation. Ms Rushiti and Ms Rogova explained that there had been some progress. A State Council for Rape Victims was set up and there was now legal recognition of the sexual violence suffered. The Kosovo Parliament moved in 2014 to recognise victims of sexual violence as war victims, entitling them to a state pension. However, despite the law being in place, the budget has not been signed off which means that victims were still financially insecure with compensation remaining unpaid. Ms Rogova and Ms Rushiti stressed the importance of timely resolution of this issue; each day the situation is postponed, the problem regresses and the vulnerability of the victims continues.

40.Specific legal and political issues were an obstacle:

Macedonia

43.Baroness Coussins and Lord Grocott visited Macedonia on 21–22 September. They were accompanied by the Policy Analyst and the Specialist Adviser.

44.In the course of the visit they met:

State capture and corruption

46.State capture was pervasive under the previous administration Many witnesses explained the extent: under the previous government—the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) even cleaners were vetted and at great cost to the public administration; there was a widespread phenomenon of fake jobs, an entire “shadow administration” whereby people would be paid for jobs within the state administration but, in fact, delivered nothing. Ms Slagjana Taseva, Transparency International, Macedonia, told us that there was “no separation between the state and the people” and often the party was the state.

47.Mr Vasko Popetrevski, 360 Degrees, said that the European Commission shared some responsibility in the extent of the state capture. The Commission was “soft even though the situation was declining”. Often Commission reports did not reflect the situation on the ground, allowing the former government to use this as a certificate vouchsafing their actions.

48.Ms Taseva and Emina Nuredinovska, Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation (MCIC) explained that the “spoil system” permeates the entire political system and discrimination on the basis of political parties remained a serious issue. In a session with the ambassadors of France, Germany, Italy, US and the EU, held under the Chatham House rule, we heard that “everyone has been vetted politically since 2008 and you cannot have illusions about that”. The new government faced a tension between choosing the right person for a role and choosing a political ally. The ambassadors and many other witnesses echoed the concern that one captured state should not be replaced by another.

49.There has been a shift under the new government: NGOs are now invited to meet the new government and there has been more engagement. Key areas for improvement, said Ms Taseva and Ms Nuredinovska, were the openness, accountability and transparency of the institutions. There was an anti-corruption commission. The real challenge was not that the laws and institutions were not in place but rather the circumvention of both. For example, Macedonia does have an e-procurement system in place but there are ways to circumvent the system, for example tenders are written in a very specific way and an unintended winner can also withdraw. Ilina Mangova, International Republican Institute (IRI) noted that while political power had changed there remained systemic challenges, and the willingness of the government to address these changes remains to be seen. Nothing would move too fast before the elections, she judged.

50.Ms Taseva and Ms Nuredinovska pointed to wider challenges in combating corruption—the lack of a culture of integrity in public service and the economic vulnerability of many people.

New government: 369 reform agenda and the Language Law

51.There was cautious optimism about the new SDSM government. Ms Sashka Cvetkovska, TV Nova noted that the atmosphere under the new government was better. She told us that there was more optimism about the aims and intentions of the new government in the field of the rule of law but it remained the case that the country was lacking skilled people to deliver its programme, and there were different visions between people in the government. For example, in the field of agriculture, there was one view that Macedonia’s environmental development should be based on tourism, eco-tourism for example, but in turn there was also a view amongst some members of the government that Macedonia should focus on mining. There were, Ms Cvetkovska noted, controversial businessmen in the government, and competing visions could lead to political deadlock.

369 reform agenda

52.Talat Xhaferi, Speaker of the Macedonian Assembly, introduce the government’s 369 reform agenda. Mr Xhaferi pointed to new reforms and legislation adopted by the government: the ministry of justice had just adopted laws on the state of prisons and an amnesty on minor crimes. He informed us that there was more openness and inclusiveness on parliamentary matters. He noted that the reform plan had not been supported by the opposition.

53.Deputy Prime Minister for EU Affairs, Bujar Osmani explained further: the 369 reform agenda was based on the recommendations of the “Priebe Report” (June 2015). The recommendations were adopted by the new Macedonian government with benchmarks to be achieved within 3, 6 and 9 months. The first set of reforms had been delivered and the second tranche of reforms, on good neighbourly relations and inter-ethnic relations were in progress.

54.The ambassadors noted that the first tranche of reforms were relatively easy to deliver–a “warming up exercise”. The next set of reforms to be delivered within 6 and 9 months were much harder and the changes would require a 2/3 majority in parliament, necessitating the cooperation of the previous governing party—the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE)—in parliament.

55.Under the Chatham House Rule, we heard, that VMRO-DPMNE had not accepted the loss of power, was in no mood to compromise and remained in a campaigning mood. The party was hedging its bets on the upcoming local elections. The predicted outcomes, a loss for VMRO-DPMNE, could change that calculus.

Language Law

56.Members of Parliamentary Committee on the Parliamentary System and Inter-Ethnic Relations focused on the new Language Law, being debated in the parliament (21 September). Sonia Mirakovska (Social Democratic Party, NSDP) told us that the Language Law would broaden the use of Albanian in official institutions. There was an opportunity for the opposition to shape the law and, Ms Mirakovska saw the law as uniting rather than dividing the country.

57.Rexhai Ismaili, Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) noted that the Language Law was the last remaining provision of the 2001 Ohrid Agreement (the peace deal that ended an armed conflict between Albanian insurgents and Macedonian security forces) and would not only benefit the Albanian minority but also other minorities such as the Roma, allowing them to use their languages in local government. He noted that there was further to go on the matter of representation of minorities in institutions.

58.Mr Afrim Gashi, BESA, told us that since Macedonia gained its independence and the Ohrid Agreement, there has been a sense of not delivering for the Albanians. Macedonia, he said, is a multi-ethnic country but the state is mono ethnic. He added that if the country cannot build a multi ethnic state, then it will continue to be unfair to its Albanian citizens.

Economic conditions

59.Mr Zoran Jovanovski, co-owner, Economy and Business stressed the vulnerable economic conditions. The idea that a free lunch is possible was sold to Macedonians; that irrespective of economic conditions, public salaries and pensions could increase. The subsidies in the agricultural sector are increasing and key political stakeholders are competing to whom can offer more to the people, said Mr Jovanovski. The focus has been short term and extremely deleterious to public finances: public debt doubled between 2008 and 2015 from to 23% to 67% and the building project -. Skopje 2014 - is estimated to have cost 700 million Euros. For Mr Popetrevski the challenge was the Macedonia did not have functioning democratic institutions.

Inter-ethnic relations: OSCE in Skopje

60.Mr Jovanovski pointed set out two political and social challenges. First, divided populations with “hate going deep” which was evident amongst football fans and even divisions within families. Second, populism which was on the rise. Other witnesses also raised the issue that loyalty and identification was often along ethnic lines, tribal or familial networks and not towards the Macedonian state.

61.The OSCE in Skopje has been in place since 1992. Their main role is monitoring. The monitoring unit is staffed with 18 mission members in two locations: Tetovo and a headquarters office, staffed with a similar number of mission members. Tetovo is the mission centre for security issues, working closely with the police development unit.

62.An area of, across the country and the OSCE seek to meet a broad range of people across the ethnic communities, including mayors, community and religious leaders. There was an acknowledgement that the community leaders do not necessarily always represent the rights of women and children, particularly in a patriarchal society, so the OSCE makes efforts particular efforts engage with young people and women.

63.The OSCE tasks include maintaining permanent contact with these local counterparts, but also covers protests, and has undertaken mediation efforts in local disputes, such as in particular example of a mosque being built without planning permission as well as supporting education issues, particularly in mixed schools In the period running up to the election, the OSCE undertook election monitoring and monitored protests, including the attacks on the parliament (27 April).

64.According to their monitoring, inter-ethnic violence has diminished since 2001 but the issues are simmering and used by the political elites. Therefore, issues such as protests about pollution, football related violence—a fairly typical phenomenon—can have an inter-ethnic dimension. They offer an excuse and can trickle down into violence. The OSCE was also on guard against the view that all violence should be seen as inter-ethnic.

65.Reflecting on the parliamentary protests in April, the OSCE explained that there were a variety of groups—nationalists, fringe groups and so-called “hunters”—who protested daily, voicing anti-Albanian rhetoric outside the parliament building while the government was being formed. They seemed to congregate conveniently during the day when the speaker was to be elected and there was a sense that something was to happen. In total there were 19 indictments, some police officers have also been sanctioned and as well as MPs who opened the doors to the protesters.

Trafficking

66.The Committee met with La Strada, an NGO working to combat trafficking working through lobbying, advocacy and prevention. La Strada works on identifying victims, when they are not identified by the state and offer a helpline whereby trafficking can be reported, and rehabilitation programmes for victims and engaging with potential victims of trafficking. Shelters are also provided. Victims can stay in the shelter for six months, if a longer time is needed then a plan is made. There is also a process of integration, which can also be about educating the families about returning the girls to the families.

67.La Strada pointed out that trends within trafficking are changing. Macedonia is now both a transit and destination country, with Romanian, Serbians and Kosovans being trafficked through as well as internal trafficking from central and eastern Macedonia to the west. Around 99% of victims are under 18 years old, the majority are between 16 and 18 years old. According to La Strada, dysfunctional families and poverty are the push factors. Furthermore, they judged that every young person is at risk on the internet on multiple levels (false profiles, luring of victims and as a source of blackmail).

68.There is a challenge of identifying victims. The identification of victims has decreased; only six victims were identified last year but the numbers for neighbouring countries was 150 victims a year. This decrease is due to a number of factors. The nature of the abuse has changed to domestic slavery whereby victims are effectively hidden in domestic and private spaces and sometimes do not recognise themselves as victims of trafficking. Furthermore, the relevant department within the ministry of interior does not have enough capacity, people are rotated and have not been trained to recognise victims of trafficking or to make the distinction between prostitution, migration and smuggling. The official identification has to be done by the state or the police and that official identification is necessary for court cases, which can impede how many case cannot be brought. The Palermo Convention is clear that victims should for pay for their costs and that in cases of trafficking, they are both witnesses and victims. Nevertheless, more training needs to be done in this field.

69.La Strada used to provide training but has been hampered by the lack of funding and understaffing. La Strada does not receive any state funds; its main sources of funding are international organisations such as UNHCR, UNESCO, EU and bilateral partners such as the UK and Switzerland. The NGO does receive funds from the UK’s Department for International Development but there is little stability as the funds are given annually.

EU membership

70.Witnesses judged that the EU was a key actor but its capacity to deliver changes was currently limited, as accession negotiations were stalled by the dispute with Greece over the name Macedonia.

71.Mr Zoran Nechev, IDSCS and Ms Mangova said that the EU was still the main actor in the country and Russian influence would narrow if the EU steps up. However, the EU process is not strong enough, and there will still have to be a discussion with Greece. Once negotiations start, Mr Nechev believed, it would act as a strong incentive for reforms. Mr Popetrevski noted that the EU accession process has slowed down, the capacity for the EU to deliver changes was limited and there was not sufficient political will to make such catalyse the political will within the country.

72.Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs, Bujar Osmani, said that the country had been an EU candidate country since 2005 and used to be leader in reforms but progress had now stalled. The approach of the SDSM government was not to focus on the next election but on the next generation. In the meantime, the government was also trying to build bridge, which including having meetings with the Greek side and considering confidence building measures. Mr Osmani was clear that the country was “returning to EU and NATO”. He note that there was a window of opportunity—a year without elections in both countries to make progress.

73.The Deputy Prime Minister added that it was now time for the EU to deliver. The EU, he said, “has to grant us a day to start negotiations, we have earnt that”. One option to overcome the Greek veto would be to have a parallel process with Greece. Mr Osmani also pointed out the safeguards within the accession process: there are 103 opportunities for Greece to veto Macedonian accession and finally the process of ratification can be halted by a referendum. June 2018 will be a key date when the Commission might open accession negotiations for both Macedonia and Albania. Mr Osmani stressed that it was important to have some progress, to take advantage of the positive momentum and prevent Moscow from saying nothing has been delivered.

74.The ambassadors (US, France, Germany, Italy and the EU) also noted a new mood in the country and a sense of hope that membership of the EU might progress. The ambassadors judged that Greece was feeling the international pressure, was cognisant that Macedonia was a different country and recognised that there were dangers of leaving it in limbo. The deadline of shifting to membership negotiations by 2018 was a realistic one. There was also caution from the ambassadors, who recognised that the process would be long and painful but agreed that it was necessary to give Macedonia an encouraging sign of openness from the EU. There has been a considerable change in attitude in the country, and it is important to give people the sense that what they do matters, that they can exercise effective sovereignty over their country. This in Macedonia was missing—a country with little history of building and forming their own country.

NATO

75.Both the Deputy Prime Minister and members of the Parliamentary Committee on the Political System and Inter-Ethnic Relations told us that there was unity across the political spectrum on the desirability of NATO membership. For Mr Osmani, the question of NATO was an “existential issue” the absence of which could lead to the further penetration of Russian influence and intelligence into the country.

Regional relations

76.Vasko Popetrevski, 360 Degrees explained that the new government has been putting forward a foreign policy based on long-term partnerships and stable partners. Mr Popetrevski noted a new dynamic of relations in the region. For example, Macedonia and Bulgaria had signed an agreement of good relations. Bulgaria, he noted, had previously supported Greece on the name issue but the new agreement allowed for better relations with both sides. However, he also noted the remaining frictional relations between countries: Greece does not recognise Macedonia, Bulgaria does recognise Macedonia but has concerns about the use of Bulgarian, Serbia does not recognise the Orthodox Church and relations with Kosovo and Albania are fractious.

77.Zoran Jovanovski, Co-owner, Economy and Business magazine, added that the strategic inclinations of countries in the region varied: Some are more western orientated such as Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro while, Bosnia and Herzegovina favoured stronger ties with the Middle East. Into this mix, Russia was selling the idea of a neutral zone.

Russian activity

78.Mr Zoran Nechev, ICDCS and Ms Ilina Mangova, IRI, discussed Russian influence: there is not a lot of cultural affinity and connections between the two sides; there are ebbs and flows of Russian sympathy within the country. In terms of the political activity, no one could say that they will align with the Russians and since no one moved during the crisis then that means no one will move The Russians will act through surrogates and they have mounted very effective propaganda. Even if they do not have political allies, the propaganda through the media is sufficient.

79.Sashka Cvetkovska explained that there has been considerable press about Russia’s intelligence activities. The wiretapping leaks showed the extent of corruption and intelligence activity. Deputy Prime-Minister Bujar Osmani noted that Russia did not have a positive strategic vision for the region and rather sought “latent instability” as well as ensuring that countries do not join NATO. NATO membership, he said, would decrease the risk of geopolitical games, increase stability in the economy, attract more investment and thereby deliver tangible results for the people.

Young people

80.The Committee met with representatives of the National Youth Council of Macedonia (NYCM). NYCM is an umbrella organisation bringing together foundations working with young people. NYCM constitutes 49 organisations including youth organisations, wings of political parties and a union. Membership is irrespective of ethnicity.

81.They informed us that the NYCM, since its establishment in 2013, has been working to build connections with ministries and to include young people in processes at the national and international level, including the Berlin Process and active in the European Youth Forum (the European family of youth organisations). They are currently running programmes on youth engagement on political decision making processes, increase the capacity of youth organisations. They also pointed to a programme, funded by the UK, which offered training for young people from a diverse ethnic backgrounds training skills required by businesses.

82.On political participation, they informed us that they would be interested in joining parliament as it offered an opportunity to make a difference. There was also analysis on how political parties engaged with young people and their view was that more programmes and expertise was required at the political party level. The view was that young people in Macedonia are engaged and want to “be seen as a resource and not a problem”. Finally, they pointed to the main concerns of young people from the region: better education, health programmes and jobs.

UK assistance

83.Ms Cvetkovska recommended that the UK should abandon the policy of intervening and focus on the preventative, in particular engaging with young particular. Mr Popetrevski advised the UK to continue to support civil society organisations. Mr Xhaferi said that practical assistance to Macedonia could be provided by supporting the economy, boosting investment ensuring that the economy is able to absorb more foreign direct investment.

84.Vladko Gjorchev (VMRO-DPMNE), member of the Parliamentary Committee on Political Systems and Inter-Ethnic Relations advised the UK to support Macedonian NATO membership which should be a priority, support sustainable economic development and finally, wished to see the programmes by the Westminster Forum for Democracy programmes extended.

85.Representatives from the National Youth Council of Macedonia (NYCM) supported deeper engagement with the British Parliament and valued the work of the British Council.

86.Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani saw the UK as a key strategic partner. The UK was president when Macedonia became a candidate country. On Brexit, Mr Osmani noted that financial support to the country would likely decrease by some 15% from the EU—absent the UK’s contribution to Commission programmes—and noted that the UK’s reform process was dependent on the EU.

87.Mr Bujar Luma, Centre for Balkan Cooperation, advised the UK to support non-state actors as well as ensuring that Russian and Turkish influence should be countered. He urged the UK to integrate civil society into the Western Balkans Summit. Within the Berlin Process, of which the Western Balkans Summit was one aspect, the role of civil society is very weak, there are no concrete projects in place and civil society engagement can appear to be tacked on at the end. Mr Luma noted that Macedonian young people are skilled, consider themselves to be European but have no avenues to engage, and this could be a focus of the Summit.

Serbia

88.Baroness Hilton of Eggardon, Lord Howell of Guildford, Lord Purvis of Tweed and Lord Wood of Anfield visited Serbia on 26–28 September. They were accompanied by the Clerk and the Specialist Adviser.

89.In the course of the visit, members had meetings with:

Serbia’s relationship with other countries

90.A number of witnesses told the Committee that Serbia under President Vučić was attempting to replicate Tito’s policy of non-alignment. Though the country was committed to joining the EU, it also wanted to maintain good relations with Russia, China and the Middle East. Some thought that this was unsustainable: Serbia would have to align itself with the EU and the West in due course. For as long as Serbia tried to remain non-aligned, it would be a “playground” for Russian influence.

91.Within the Balkans, Serbia was very keen on increasing regional cooperation. President Vučić had already visited Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. Serbia strongly supported the action plan on creating a regional economic area adopted at the Trieste Western Balkan Summit. The government wanted Bosnia and Herzegovina to be a single, stable state: there was no interest in supporting Serb separatists in the Entity of Republika Srpska. There was no indication that President Vučić and President Dodik of the Entity of Republika Srpska were close.

Kosovo

92.It was in the interests of Serbia, Kosovo and Albania to resolve the issue with Kosovo. In Serbia there was a feeling that the country was being diminished, Belgrade having once been the capital of Yugoslavia. Normalising their relations with Kosovo was seen by some of losing yet another part of their country. However, all sides needed to feel they had gained something from resolving it in order to take any settlement back to their people. Negotiations were ongoing—President Vučić said he saw his Albanian counterpart more often than his wife!—and this was producing results. Hostilities were being diffused and it had been some time since there had been any ethnically-inspired violence.

93.President Vučić had launched a process of “internal dialogue” on the issue of Kosovo (as had the government in Kosovo). This was an attempt to gather views from around the country about how Serbia should approach the issue of Kosovo. Some hoped that President Vučić, as a “reformed extremist”, would be well placed to resolve the Kosovo situation and take public opinion with him. Comparisons were made with De Gaulle in Tunisia and Nixon in China.

94.Many witnesses were critical of this dialogue. The government had not set out its own approach. Without a government proposal to discuss the dialogue could only be a “cacophony of voices” with no constructive outcome. There were also fears that the process was simply being used both to flush out views to be discredited by the government at the end of the dialogue and to provide political cover for whatever the President ultimately decided to do. There was also criticism that a dialogue was being proposed for this issue when debate on other important issues was severely restricted.

95.The issue of Kosovo was being used and abused to create a narrative in which the EU was Serbia’s partner in efforts to resolve the issue and make progress towards accession but Russia was Serbia’s friend, preventing international recognition of Kosovo.

96.In Kosovo, the issue was similarly used for political gain. This had resulted in Kosovo electing an alleged war criminal, Hashim Thaçi, as President. A number of witnesses noted that Kosovo had also not delivered on its side of the Brussels Agreement.

Russia

97.Most told us that Russian influence in Serbia was significant (or, at least, more significant than in any other Western Balkan country). Russia found opportunities to assert its influence where confidence in public institutions was weaken by corruption and where the international community was not coordinated. But there was very little actual financial support for Serbia from Russia. The EU was the country’s most important trading partner and donor—the President said that even Kosovo was a more important trading partner. Russia was presented as being an unconditional friend, whereas the EU required reforms and difficult decisions as the price for its support.

98.Russia’s agenda was not to help Serbia but to make money from its energy sector and to undermine its democracy.

99.Some argued the claims of Russian influence were overstated. For example, we were told that Serbia had 22 military exercises with NATO compared to only two or three with Russia. In most respects Serbia was close to Western Europe; it was only in culture and religion that it was close to Russia. Though Serbia was not hoping to join NATO this was not because of Russian opposition but a legacy of the war.

100.A number of witnesses said that if Serbia and Kosovo were able to normalise their relations, Russia’s influence in Serbia would be much reduced.

International community

101.Some witnesses felt let down by the international community. There had been a focus on big-picture issues—Kosovo, EU accession, for example—but ignored real, day-to-day problems like corruption and lack of press freedom. It had taken the attitude that stability in Serbia was more important than progress towards rule of law and creating strong democratic institutions.

102.For example, under the constitution the President can hold no other public office. Rather than resigning the presidency of his political party, President Vučić created a concept of “freezing” his party political office. Despite this being a subversion of the constitution, there had been no protest from the international community. “Strongman” politicians held the country to ransom with the threat of instability. This approach of supporting the strongman for the sake of stability was therefore counter-productive and unsustainable.

103.The Berlin Process had ensure the Western Balkans remained on the agenda, though it was still not given a high enough priority. The process was also undermined by a lack of delivery. The proposed highway from Nis to Pristina was announced in 2016 but construction had still not yet begun. Investment from China was seen as delivering results.

EU

104.Support for EU membership had weakened since accession had been barred until at least 2025. Some were keen to know when accession might happen so that there could be an impetus behind the necessary reforms. Others, including the Prime Minister, argued that though membership was the goal, the reforms required by the EU were good things in themselves—the journey was as important as the destination. Even if the EU decided to rule out any more enlargement for another 10 years, Serbia would still need to tackle corruption, strengthen its public institutions, open its markets, and so forth.

105.There was concern that reforms towards EU membership were being made in name only (such as the privatisation of state media). Witnesses agreed that if Serbia were to join before it was truly ready this would be bad for both Serbia and the EU. One group of witnesses even suggested that Serbia was drifting further away from meeting the requirements for EU membership and that in 10 years’ time wouldn’t even be an eligible candidate.

106.The UK’s support for Serbian accession was questioned in the light of Brexit. The UK had been seen as a strong advocate for enlargement within the EU. Post-Brexit, the UK’s support for Serbian accession rang hollow: why would the UK advocate something it was leaving?

Media freedom

107.As part of the accession process the EU had required Serbia to privatise state media. This had been done but media outlets had been bought by companies closely linked to the ruling party. All of the main media outlets were therefore now controlled by the ruling party. They were used to promote the party and Russia. Newspapers that attempted to provide an alternative voice were attacked, subjected to constant tax inspections or simply lost funding and advertising revenue until they could no longer carry on. The country did not have a free press. The media was used purely as a tool of political control for the government. We were told that an analysis of front pages over a certain time showed that 97% of political coverage was about President Vučić and was positive; the remaining 3% was about leading opposition politicians and was negative. In protest of this on 28 September a number of broadcasters temporarily shut down and newspapers were printed with a black border. One editor of a regional paper had gone on hunger strike. Many described this situation as “state capture”.

108.However, the Prime Minister saw evidence of plenty of criticism of the government and herself. Despite this, she agreed that if the media were perceived to be biased this was cause enough for concern.

109.The party-controlled media was also used to stoke tensions within the country. We were told that in the previous two months there had been nine or ten front pages with headlines about the risk of war with other Balkan countries. This was irresponsible rhetoric designed to solidify support for the government—the risk of a renewed conflict was very low.

110.Much of the Russian influence in the media came from Sputnik—a pro-Russian media agency which provided a lot of free content. This free content was then repeated by other media outlets. Witnesses therefore welcomed the return of the BBC World Service to Serbia. The World Service would be an online-only service. Some were concerned that this would only allow it to reach a small audience: around 60% of Serbians had internet access but in the pro- Vučić and pro-Russian countryside internet use was very limited. Others were hopeful that it would provide an alternative source of free content for others to reuse.

Corruption

111.Corruption was a serious problem in Serbia. One witness said that levels of bribery in the Balkans were three or four times higher than in Central Europe. The Prime Minister recognised the problems of corruption. Part of the solution would involve e-government and digitalisation. This would create systems where clear and auditable processes would have to be followed; there would be no opportunity for corrupt practices. Work towards this was being supported by the UK’s Good Governance Fund and she hoped it would be a focus of the Western Balkans Summit in London in 2018.

Young people

112.There were concerns that young people in Serbia had once been very pro-EU but as accession was delayed until at least 2025 their attitude was turning more nationalistic. They were easy targets for the rhetoric of the pro-Russian press. However, despite this they were less concerned with the regional problems of the past and had no nostalgic memories for Yugoslavia. They needed to be empowered to become the next generation of leaders in the country. The Regional Youth Cooperation Board established during the 2016 Western Balkans Summit needed to be supported and promoted.

113.A number of the young people we spoke to felt let down by the UK. Brexit was cited as one reason for this but the UK’s visa regime for people in the Western Balkans was also cited. It was much more time consuming and expensive to get even a temporary visa to the UK than to most other countries.

114.It was also noted that that the demographic of Serbia made it the second oldest country in the region.

Role for the UK

115.One witnesses said that Serbia’s message to the UK was “please come back”. The UK’s profile in the country was seen as being very low. The UK needed to remain engaged as security in the region affected the UK, as did corruption and organised crime. Although, for better or worse, Serbia appeared stable at the moment, recent events in Macedonia demonstrated how quickly everything could unravel.

116.We were told the UK could usefully play a role in Serbia by focussing its efforts on:

Bosnia and Herzegovina

118.Baroness Hilton of Eggardon, Lord Howell of Guildford, Lord Purvis of Tweed and Lord Wood of Anfield visited Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) on 26–28 September. They were accompanied by the Clerk and the Specialist Adviser.

119.In the course of the visit, members had meetings with:

Legacy of Dayton

120.The Dayton Peace Agreement had ended the war but the divisions within society remained. The political system of the country was too deeply layered, with power distributed between the state, the entities and the cantons. Although this had helped to keep the peace, it had also bred dissatisfaction with the political system. It allowed for too many choke-points, where necessary action or reforms could be blocked. In addition, the system of the rotating tripartite presidency meant that there was often not sufficient continuity in policy.

121.Some saw Dayton as now being an obstacle to progress, whereas others (especially Bosnian Serbs) considered it the necessary guarantee of entity rights. Regardless, witnesses agreed that Dayton had provided a lasting peace. Any talk of BiH being a fragile state or at serious risk of resumed conflict was wrong. Such talk simply emboldened those who wished to stir up discontent for their own political aims.

Role of the international community

122.Two broad arguments were made about the role of the international community in BiH. Some took the view that it was time for the international community to take a less interventionist role in the country and encourage Bosnian politicians to take more responsibility for finding solutions to the country’s problems. As long as the international community was seen as a safety net, Bosnian politicians would have no reason to make necessary reforms.

123.Others argued that it was necessary to return to a more prescriptive role (taking Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon’s approach as High Repetitive as a model). The concept of “local ownership” at state and entity level had not worked. For example, a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that the requirement of the constitution to reserve the tripartite presidency and membership of the House of Peoples for ethnic Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats violated the human rights of Bosnia’s Jewish and Roma citizens had yet to be addressed. Without direction and pressure from the international community, local politicians would only pay lip service to reform. However, the as the international community had moved to a more hands off approach, the powers of the High Representative had been reduced. There was no consensus within the Peace Implementation Council to return to the more robust approach of Lord Ashdown.

124.The international community also had to show results. The Berlin Process had not delivered on its promises whereas funding from other countries was providing for bridges, airports and other infrastructure to be built. Too often the international community had been content to believe that progress was being made as the situation in BiH was simply not high enough up on countries’ foreign policy agenda.

125.The international community also needed to show consistency. We were told that judicial reforms had been undertaken following an Anglo-Saxon model, whereas police reforms had followed a German model. We were told, however, that after a period of not being coordinated, the international community were now “on the same page”.

Political culture

126.We were told that two features of the political culture of BiH were:

NATO and EU membership

130.The country was committed to pursuing NATO membership. We were told that there was “no plan B”. Support for NATO membership was high in the country overall, though memories of NATO bombing of Bosnian Serbs in 1995 meant that support was much lower in the Entity of Republika Srpska. EU membership was a unifying aim for the whole country.

131.However, we were told that although many politicians publically supported NATO and EU membership, they recognised that meeting the membership requirements would inevitably mean giving up the benefits they derived from an inefficient and corrupt system. Much of the support for NATO and EU membership was therefore likely to be less than sincere.

132.Some witnesses said that the reforms required for NATO and EU membership were needed not just to achieve membership but because they were good for the country in themselves.

The Entity of Republika Srpska

133.There were still serious tensions between the three people of BiH. One witness described the country still being at war, but without weapons—war by constitutional means.

134.The constitutional settlement of Dayton had embedded some of these tensions. There had been attempts at the state level to centralise power, which was objected to by government at the entity level (particularly in the Entity of Republika Srpska). Objections to this were in part because these moves had been seen as contrary to Dayton and therefore unconstitutional. They were also seen as accruing power to a coalition that was in the majority state-wide but in a clear minority in the Entity of Republika Srpksa.

135.There needed to be greater dialogue and understanding between the entities. It was not acceptable for positions, such as membership of NATO, to be decided by one level of government and imposed on all. There needed to be a unifying vision of what it meant to be Bosnian rather than a continued institutional conflict between the different entities and different levels of government. There was a sense that the Entity of Republika Srpska was being unfairly presented as a problem to be addressed, rather than as a constituent part of the country.

Corruption

136.Corruption was endemic (or at least perceived to be so). Some told us that there was relatively little outcry about this. There was a legacy from the Yugoslavian era where people did not equate public money with being tax payers’ money or “their money”. The direct effect of corruption on people’s livelihoods was therefore not fully understood. However, others were clear that without addressing the problem of corruption the country could not develop and foreign investors would stay away.

137.Corruption was also evident within the justice system, with some state prosecutors and judges having been arrested. Three state prosecutors in a row had resigned because of corruption charges.

138.Fighting corruption required not only funding, but also political support and pressure from the international community.

Economy

139.Despite political dysfunction and corruption, the economy of BiH was growing (by around 3.2%). However, not by enough for people to see increases in their living standards (which would require a growth rate of around 6–6.5%). The private sector was weak; there was a substantial grey market; and only around 23% of people pay tax. Many multiple generation families were supported by one salary; about 15.5% of GDP was spent on welfare; and youth unemployment was world’s highest at 67%. There was therefore little public money available for proper investment in services or infrastructure.

140.Efforts from the international community were focussed on promoting a rebalancing of the economy. By supporting the private sector the intention was to weaken the influence of political parties over society and to increase the pressure to deal with corruption.

Education

141.Education was a problem in BiH. Education was segregated between Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs. In some places there was a policy of two schools under one roof: in one school building one ethnicity would be taught in the morning and another in the afternoon. Three versions of Bosnian history were being taught. Ethnic divides were being entrenched and passed on to new generations. However, this needed not be the case. There were attempts by civil society organisations to foster better understanding. There were also other examples of good practice. In Srebrenica there were multi-ethnic music groups and kitchens, bringing school children together regardless of ethnicity. Other proposals to address problems in education were funding new textbooks to teach a single history of the country, student exchanges within BiH and the region, and increasing scholarships to universities in Western Europe.

Migration

142.We were told that BiH had largely been bypassed during the previous migrant crisis. However, incidents of BiH being used as a transit country for illegal migration were increasing. Though each country’s experience would be different, the solution to migration in the Balkans had to be regional. BiH’s border agencies were increasingly working closely with their counterparts in the region and with other EU countries.

143.With youth unemployment so high, there was a “brain drain” problem of youth migration. BiH was in danger of becoming the country in the Europe with the fastest shrinking population because of this. This was leading to a problematic demographic as the population growing disproportionately older. This trend particularly affected the Croat population as they were automatically eligible for Croatian, and therefore EU, citizenship.

Organised crime

144.There was a huge surplus of illegal weapons in BiH left over from the war. These were being smuggled into Western Europe by organised criminals. This trade was being disrupted through regionally efforts coordinated by the EU.

Terrorism and Islamist radicalism

145.It was necessary to make a clear distinction between Islamist radicals and Bosnian Muslims. The problems of Islamic radicalisation were brought to BiH during the wars of the 1990s and bore no relation to the Muslim population of BiH. The Muslim population of BiH was long standing and not in any way an immigrant population—they were “European Muslims”.

146.The issue of violent extremists was taken very seriously by the authorities. Where BiH citizens returned from fighting in Syria, they were dealt with according to law. Of 46 who had returned, 23 had already been convicted and were serving prison sentences. Others were also being proceeded against. The current maximum sentence for returning extremist fighters was five years but there were plans to increase this to seven. In addition to prosecution, there were increasing efforts in prevention and de-radicalisation. This work had been supported by EU and American funds.

Role for the UK

147.After Brexit the UK would still be seen as an important bilateral partner. With Germany and the USA, the UK had a reputation for being a robust and critical friend, not least through the UK’s continued role on the Peace Implementation Council. There was concern that the Brexit was being portrayed as a rejection of EU values and standards.

148.The UK should focus its support on:





© Parliamentary copyright 2018