Compiled by Eva Jovanova and Hristo Voynov
1. With the exception of Romania, Croatia and Slovenia, all Balkan countries scored low on the Rule of Law Index published by the World Justice Project. The index measures countries’ rule of law performance across eight factors: Constraints on Government Powers, Absence of Corruption, Open Government, Fundamental Rights, Order and Security, Regulatory Enforcement, Civil Justice, and Criminal Justice. Serbia had the lowest score with 0.5. It was followed by Albania with 0.51 and then by Macedonia, Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina, all scoring 0.53. Other Eastern European countries scored even worse than the Balkans.
2. US and Russian relations have had the most eventful week in a very long time. A Russian fighter jet flew within 5 feet of a US surveillance plane over the Black Sea, causing a dispute over the legality, safety, and message of this act (which was caught on camera). The director of Russia’s foreign intelligence, Sergey Naryshkin, went to the US to discuss counter-terrorism with top US intelligence officials. The issue is that this was kept secret in the US, as Naryshkin is legally blacklisted in the US because he is believed to be Russia’s top spymaster, and it was only revealed in the US after it was reported in Russian media. The Trump administration declined to sign US sanctions against Russia into law, instead, they put forth a “Kremlin List” of 210 Russian leaders that the US says will act as a deterrent for further actions as the individuals on it are put on notice and the threat of sanctions is real. Russian president Medvedev joked that a Russian politician “not making it into the list is reason enough to step down” from office. But the biggest news is that the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD hacked into surveillance footage of the hacker group Cozy Bear, believed to be a front group for Russian cyber-warfare, and have recorded footage of Russia’s election meddling that was given to the FBI a long time ago. This explosive revelation has been dismissed as ‘fake news’ by both Russia and Trump loyalists and has little strength unless the footage is publically released, which is complicated because of the top secret nature of what supposedly happened.
3. President Vladimir Putin awarded the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs and leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia, Ivica Dacic, with an “Order of Friendship”. The award was established in 1994 by the then President Boris Yeltsin and is the highest state-awarded honor foreigners can receive for their contributions for strengthening friendship and cooperation with Russia. Other notable people from the Balkans who have received this order are Milorad Dodik, Tomislav Nikolic, Emir Kusturica and Slobodan Markovic. Other people bestowed with this honor are Rex Tillerson and Ban Ki-moon.
4. Incumbent President Milos Zeman won the Czechian runoff election against his liberal rival Jiri Drahos. Zeman won 51.36% of the vote compared to Drahoš’s 48.63%, with a turnout of 66.60%, which was the highest in 20 years. This is a victory for the Euroskeptics and Czechia’s V4 allies of Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, as the alternative Drahoš was seen as a liberal that is content with Czechia’s current position in the EU. The top two posts in the country are now held by close political allies who have much potential to enact change, stymied only by PM Babis’ inability to form a ruling coalition.
5. Tens of thousands people shook the streets of Tirana, calling for Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s resignation last Saturday. The main opposition parties united in the protest and claimed that Rama and his cabinet was enriching through widespread corruption. They also allege that Rama’s government has ties to the black market and is colluding to make Albania “the Columbia of the Balkans”. The leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Albania and former Tirana mayor Lulzim Basha called for an anti-mafia government. The Democrats came second with 43 seats at last year’s general elections, while Rama’s Socialists won an outright majority of 65 seats.
6. Poland is in a diplomatic spat with Israel over a new law regarding the phrase “Polish death camps”. If the law passes, as it is on its way to do so, the phrase would be outlawed. According to Poland, this is because the camps were set up and run by the Nazis after they occupied Poland and so all blame should rest with them. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that this law is instead Poland’s way of removing itself from blame from the holocaust. The truth is complicated as the Nazi occupiers found local collaborators to legitimize their rule (as occupying powers tend to do), though Polish freedom fighters fiercely resisted Nazi rule. What is interesting is that the law allows for prosecution under it regardless of where the statement was made, and it ironically makes denying the massacre of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists illegal.
7. Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Behgjet Pacolli reported in front of the MPs sitting in the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs that Serbia was blocking Kosovo’s accession into different international organizations and is hindering new countries to recognize Kosovo’s independence. According to him, Serbia has spent 300 million dollars on lobbying against international recognition of Kosovo. Ahead of the adoption of the EU enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans, Spain submitted a paper this Tuesday which aims at blocking Kosovo’s participation at the EU and Western Balkan Summit in Sofia.
8. Belarus’ controversial ‘parasite tax’ has been canceled almost two years after it came to power. It has been changed to remove any government subsidies from state services for the ‘parasites’, or unemployed individuals, and a special commission to help the unemployed find jobs. This is a small but significant victory for Belarusian civil society which seldom sees large-scale protests such as the ones sparked by the parasite tax.
9. According to the UN envoy Matthew Nimetz, the momentum to put an end to the 25-year long name dispute was now. After his visit in Athens, mediator Nimetz arrived in Macedonia yesterday and met with the leadership of the country. Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced plans to change the name of the country’s main airport “Alexander the Great”. In Davos, Zaev met with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras, and decided together to rename the “Alexander the Great” highway into “Friendship”.
10. The Hungarian elections are coming up and the many parties are busy posturing their position to try and win as many votes from the ruling FIDESZ as possible. Gábor Vona, the head of the nationalist Jobbik party said that FIDESZ’s migration policy had “collapsed” ahead of revelations that small numbers of refugees were allowed into the country, along with the claim that the ruling party was incapable of protecting Hungary. The left wing opposition party Democratic Coalition stated that this was the correct position, but that along with these actions, FIDESZ was fueling anti-refugee sentiment. Meanwhile, a Socialist politician plans to do the unspeakable; he will contact George Soros himself to ask him about the Soros Plan, and the response will be made public, a unusual approach considering how controversial Soros has become in Hungary.