Contains selective news articles I select

Archive for the ‘Land of the Balkans’ Category

A look at the 2 candidates for North Macedonia’s presidency

May 04, 2019

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — Newly renamed North Macedonia heads to the polls on Sunday for runoff presidential elections. Two candidates, both university professors, are competing for the post after the third candidate was knocked in last month’s first round.

Although the president has a largely ceremonial position, with some powers to veto legislation, the outcome of the vote could trigger early parliamentary elections in a country deeply polarized between the governing Social Democrats and the opposition VMRO-DPMNE conservatives. Turnout will be crucial, with 40% needed for the election to be valid. The first round barely made it past that point, with a turnout of 41.8%.

Campaigning in the first round centered on a recent deal the Balkan country reached with neighboring Greece to rename itself North Macedonia in exchange for Athens dropping objections to it joining NATO and the European Union. This time round, the candidates have focused more on the issues of corruption, crime, poverty and brain drain.

Here is a look at the two contenders for North Macedonia’s presidency.

Gordana Siljanovska Davkova, 63 — The first woman to run for president since the country declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Known for her love of yoga and rock ‘n’ roll, Siljanovska, a constitutional law professor, first emerged as a non-partisan candidate promoted by her university. Her nomination is now supported by the main conservative opposition VMRO-DPMNE party.

Siljanovska campaigned under the slogan “Justice for Macedonia, fatherland calls.” She has been a vocal opponent of the deal with Greece that changed the country’s name to North Macedonia and had hinted she would challenge the name agreement in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. But last week, Siljanovska said during a debate on national television MTV she will not “spend the whole mandate in reviewing the name agreement with Greece.”

“I will fight for democratization of the undemocratic Macedonian political system,” she added.

During a campaign speech, Siljanovska said her country needs a “radical reversal,” and described it as being “in many elements a failed state.”

Siljanovska served as minister without portfolio in 1992-1994 in the first government after independence and participated in writing the country’s first constitution.

Stevo Pendarovski, 56 — A former national security adviser for two previous presidents and until recently national coordinator for NATO, this is Pendarovski’s second bid for the presidency after being defeated by Gjorge Ivanov in 2014.

Pendarovski is running as the joint candidate for the governing social democrats and the junior governing coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration party. His candidacy is also supported by 29 smaller political parties.

He has defended the name deal with Greece, arguing it paved the way for the country to nearly finalize its NATO accession and led to hopes EU membership talks will begin in June.

His slogan “Forward Together” reflects his main campaign platform of unity, and he has made NATO and EU membership a key strategic goal, saying they will bring foreign investment, jobs and higher wages and prevent young people leaving the country.

“People should know what is at stake, they should not stay passive,” he said during the television debate. “They have to go out and choose between two concepts – the one that is for progress, cohesion and integration in the strongest international organizations, (and) the other that draws the country back in time.”

UEFA closes Bulgaria stadium for fan racism at England game

October 29, 2019

NYON, Switzerland (AP) — Bulgaria was punished Tuesday for the Nazi salutes and racist chanting of its soccer fans with an order to play a European Championship qualifying game in an empty stadium, although the team avoided expulsion from the competition.

UEFA’s options to deal with the incidents in Sofia at a Euro 2020 qualifier against England could have removed Bulgaria from the playoffs in March. The UEFA disciplinary panel also put Bulgaria on probation for two years, which should include most of the 2022 World Cup qualifying program. A repeat offense will trigger a stadium closure for a second competitive game.

Bulgaria fans made Nazi salutes and targeted monkey noises at England’s black players during a 6-0 loss two weeks ago. The game was twice stopped by the referee following UEFA guidelines to address discrimination.

The Bulgarian soccer federation was fined 85,000 euros ($94,000), including the mandated 50,000 euros ($55,500) for a second charge of racist behavior. A charge of fans throwing objects was also proven.

Although the England game was the third time Bulgaria fans were guilty of racist behavior this year, the previous incidents at back-to-back Euro 2020 qualifiers in June were judged together in July. UEFA’s disciplinary code states a team will be punished for a second offense with “one match played behind closed doors and a fine of 50,000 euros.”

A third offense “is punished with more than one match behind closed doors, a stadium closure, the forfeiting of a match, the deduction of points and/or disqualification from the competition,” according to UEFA rules.

Bulgaria’s next home game is against the Czech Republic on Nov. 17. The stadium closure will likely cost the national soccer body at least 100,000 euros ($110,000) in lost revenue. Bulgaria drew about 5,000 fans for home games against Kosovo and Montenegro, then more than 17,000 to see England.

Bulgaria is last in Group A with no chance to advance to Euro 2020 by finishing in the top places. However, the sanctions do not affect Bulgaria’s second chance to reach the final tournament from the playoff round in March. Potential playoff opponents include Iceland and Scotland.

A UEFA charge of Bulgaria fans causing disturbance during the national anthem for England accounted for 10,000 euros ($11,100) of the 85,000 euros ($94,000) fine. The English Football Association was fined 5,000 euros ($5,500) for a similar charge.

Tens of thousands of goats munch Greek island into crisis

October 06, 2019

SAMOTHRAKI, Greece (AP) — With oak and chestnut forests, waterfalls and rugged coastline, Samothraki has a wild beauty and a remoteness that sets it apart from other Greek islands. There are no package holidays here or even a reliable ferry service to the mainland. Island authorities hope to achieve UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. Yet still, the natural environment is under threat from an insatiable assailant.

Goats outnumber human inhabitants 15-fold and they are munching stretches of Samothraki into a moonscape. After decades of trying to find a solution, experts and locals are working together to find a 21st-century way to save the island’s ecology and economy.

Semi-wild, the goats roam across the island, which is roughly three times the size of Manhattan, and can be spotted on rooftops, in trees or on top of cars as they scour the landscape for anything to eat. Their unchecked overgrazing is causing crisis-level erosion.

Torrential rains two years ago swept away the island’s town hall and severed its roads. There were no trees or vegetation left on the steep, goat-eaten hillsides to stop the mudslides caused by the downpour.

“There are no big trees to hold the soil. And it’s a big problem, both financial and real because (the mud) will come down on our heads,” says George Maskalidis, who helps run Sustainable Samothraki Association, an environmental group.

Samothraki, in the northern Aegean Sea, is a two-hour ferry ride south of Alexandroupoli, a Greek city near the country’s border with Turkey. With just 3,000 inhabitants and hard to access, the island has largely missed out on Greece’s tourism boom. Mountain herding is still a way of life here and despite trying for three decades, regional authorities have found it hard to build a local consensus on how to deal with the issue.

The goat population, meanwhile, soared fivefold to an estimated 75,000 by the late 1990s. Some parts of the countryside were simply nibbled away. The goat numbers have since dropped to below 50,000 as there is little left to graze on. But this has left the island in a trap. Most of its goats are malnourished and too scrawny to be used commercially for meat, animal feed is too expensive to maintain a sustainable business and much of the soil is too depleted for trees to grow back.

At the same time, prices for wool, leather, meat and milk have dropped, leading Samothraki’s farmers to grow increasingly desperate. Yiannis Vavouras, a second-generation goat farmer, says many island farmers have few alternatives.

“Most of us are ready to give up. If I had another job, I would drop the goats,” he says, speaking over the noise of jangling goat bells. “It doesn’t make enough to buy you a coffee.” Herds soared due to European Union subsidies, under a system that critics say was poorly monitored and lacked any long-term planning. It now may have to be reversed as a livestock reduction appears inevitable, along with grazing limits.

But that correction doesn’t have to be painful, at least according to the island’s resident optimist Carlota Maranon, a Spanish lawyer who settled here a decade ago. She heads the sustainability initiative and has eased islanders’ deep-rooted mistrust of solutions from the mainland or beyond.

The environmental group has worked with overseas researchers and helped create a herd management app, among many other pilot projects, to tackle the issue. Fiercely independent livestock farmers have even joined a new cooperative to try to pool resources and establish a brand for the island.

“It is possible to do things in a more sustainable way,” Maranon says. “That might mean fewer goats but that could actually work out better for the farmers.” Having a tight-knit community, she says, will also help.

“Everyone here is connected to the herders in some way, so this issue affects everyone. To live off the land, you have to keep it alive,” she said.

Albania holds local elections amid political turmoil

June 30, 2019

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians were casting ballots on Sunday to elect mayors and city councils, or parliaments, amid a tense political conflict with the opposition boycotting the municipal elections.

While the Socialist-run government is insisting on holding the election, the opposition wants to stop it taking place. The opposition, led by the center-right Democratic Party, blames a corrupt government linked to organized crime and is demanding fresh national elections.

Albania’s President Ilir Meta is sympathetic to the opposition and declared that the vote is canceled, but the government under Prime Minister Edi Rama has refused to abide by that decision. Votes will be cast to pick authorities that will run 61 districts across the country for the next four years.

On late Saturday the Democratic Party’s leader Lulzim Basha called on Albanians to boycott the vote and said they would hold non-violent protests. Police have said protests are not allowed the voting day.

Rama cast his ballot in Surrel, a village near Tirana where he lives. “This day confirms that no one can play with the people … and who dares take sovereignty from the people finds no other end but a failing and a shameful one,” he told journalists.

The opposition has been holding anti-government protests since mid-February when they also relinquished their seats in parliament. They say the political crisis will be resolved when Rama resigns and vote-riggers are jailed.

Small groups of opposition supporters in Tirana and a nearby town rallied in front of some polling stations, shouting “Rama go!” The ruling Socialists are the only candidates in 35 out of 61 districts, with some smaller leftist and center-right parties running against them in the rest.

Thousands of police officers guarded the polling stations Sunday. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said it was sending 174 election observers, who will give their preliminary findings on Monday.

Audrey Glover, head of the international monitoring mission, found the situation at a Tirana polling station “not conducive to observing.” Holding a free and fair election is considered key for the launch of EU membership talks for the tiny Western Balkan country, already a NATO member.

Voting ends 1700 GMT. Preliminary election results are not expected until Monday. The Central Election Commission, the institution running the election, said turnout at 11 a.m. (0900 GMT) was about 12%.

Albania’s local election is a test for its democracy

June 28, 2019

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s municipal elections don’t normally provoke much interest beyond the country’s border, but the holding of this weekend’s vote — or failure to do so — appears decisive for the tiny Western Balkan country in its bid to start full membership negotiations with the European Union.

While the Socialist-run government is insisting on holding the election, the opposition is boycotting the vote and says it will stop it taking place. Albania’s president, sympathetic to the opposition, has gone one step further by declaring that the vote is canceled, a decision that the government is refusing to abide by.

“Unfortunately we are showing our democracy is immature, weak and corrupt,” said Skender Minxhozi, an independent analyst. “We are unable to reach a sustainable dialogue and compromises.” After months of rowdy and sometimes violent opposition protests, where demonstrators have hurled projectiles at police officers who have responded with tear gas, the stage is set for a tense confrontation on Sunday.

The United States, the European Union, other international organizations and big Western powers have repeatedly called on the opposition to avoid violence and to engage in a dialogue to resolve the political deadlock. Though violence has been reduced recently, the standoff continues.

Leaders of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is sending 280 election observers, on Friday called on Albanian political leaders to show restraint, engage in a “constructive dialogue” and ensure that Sunday’s election is peaceful. It added that “both the perpetrators and instigators of violent acts should be held legally accountable.”

Holding a free and fair election has been post-communist Albania’s Achilles’ heel, with regular reports of shortcomings, vote rigging and violence. The move toward democracy is considered key for the launch of the EU membership talks for the nation, which is already a NATO member.

Earlier this month, the EU postponed the start of membership talks with Albania, as well as North Macedonia, despite warnings a delay could undermine reform efforts and stability in the Balkans region.

Sunday’s vote is due to elect mayors, town councils and district parliaments for the next four years. Some 3.5 million people are eligible to vote — that in itself is a problem, as the population of Albania is only 2.9 million. The other names on the electoral register represent Albania’s huge overseas diaspora, but no facilities are provided to allow Albanians outside the country to vote.

For the center-right Democratic Party-led opposition of Lulzim Basha, the issue is not really the local vote, however. They are trying to force the calling of early parliamentary elections, claiming widespread corruption in the government, vote-rigging and links to organized crime. They are boycotting the vote. Earlier in June, President Ilir Meta announced that he was canceling the elections, claiming they would be “undemocratic” without the participation of the center-right opposition. On Thursday he said the vote would now take place on Oct. 13.

Prime Minister Edi Rama of the ruling left-wing Socialist Party, however, continues to insist that the elections will take place as scheduled Sunday. Rama accuses the opposition of trying to disrupt efforts to launch EU membership negotiations.

The Socialists have started a lengthy procedure to oust Meta, though they don’t have the two-thirds majority they need in parliament, and the final say anyway is with the Constitutional Court, which has been defunct for the past year after its judges were fired.

Minxhozi says the opposition has failed to topple Rama but has managed to hurt the country’s image. “It has weakened Rama, but has not toppled him. It has damaged elections, but has not stopped them,” he said, adding that “such a tense situation hurts EU negotiations and has withered democratic standards.”

Basha insists “there will be no election without the opposition,” though he has not explained how the election will be prevented. He has said, however, that civic groups around the country will “defend democracy.” The opposition has tried to prevent preparations for the elections in the districts they govern. They tried to destroy election materials and ordered election offices moved from schools.

Currently, the opposition runs 27 districts, while the governing Socialists are in control of 34. With the opposition boycott, the Socialist candidates are uncontested in 35 races, while in the others they face some smaller leftists and center-right parties.

Minxhozi said Sunday’s vote will be a “mysterious day” focused not on a political race but rather on a “logistic, security and public order problem.” Some 7,000 police officers will be on duty for election security.

“June 30 is a negative test for Albania’s image, our economy and the political class too,” he said.

Albania president rejects ruling to hold municipal elections

June 25, 2019

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s president on Tuesday condemned a decision by electoral authorities in favor of holding municipal elections this weekend, calling on the ruling Socialists to hold talks and not carry out an “imaginary” voting process.

President Ilir Meta said that full membership negotiations with the European Union wouldn’t open if Albania held Sunday’s elections without the opposition, which is boycotting them. The Electoral College ruled unanimously Monday that a small political party must take part in Sunday’s vote, a move against Meta’s decision earlier this month to cancel the elections. Meta said he feared the balloting would be “undemocratic” without the participation of center-right opposition parties.

Meta said the Electoral College was influenced by “political pressure and blackmail.” “Yesterday, the Electoral College considered the request of a political party against a decision of the Central Election Commission which didn’t allow it to deregister from the now imaginary election of June 30,” he said Tuesday.

“Only the Constitutional Court may judge the validity of a decree from the president of the republic,” Meta said. The court has been dysfunctional for about a year after most of its judges were fired.

The Democratic Party-led opposition also doesn’t recognize the ruling by election authorities. The opposition has threatened to physically prevent Sunday’s vote from being held. Last week, opposition supporters damaged ballot boxes and other election documentation to prevent the vote in some opposition-held districts.

“Albanians have united like never before to defend democracy and not allow an electoral farce and the constitutional crime of the autocratic-criminal regime,” Democratic leader Lulzim Basha said late Monday.

Left-wing Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama insists the elections will go ahead as scheduled. Rama also said the opposition’s main goal is to disrupt the country’s efforts to launch EU membership negotiations.

The opposition has been holding protests since mid-February, accusing the government of links to organized crime and vote rigging. The government rejects the accusations. Basha said the only solution is for Rama to resign and for those convicted of vote-rigging to be sentenced.

Last week, the EU postponed the start of membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia despite warnings a delay could undermine reform efforts and stability in the Balkans region.

Albania: Public officials try to block election preparation

June 18, 2019

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Public officials in some parts of Albania aren’t cooperating with the independent election workers assigned to prepare for local elections at the end of the month, the Albanian Interior Ministry said Tuesday.

The apparent disruption in regional districts governed by opposition parties are part of a political crisis within the national government. Regional officials in Shkodra tried to prevent election personnel from entering their offices on Monday, while civilian supporters of the opposition stormed the Tropoja election authority office in northeastern Albania on Tuesday.

Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj warned mayors at the helm of opposition-led districts there would be consequences “if they use force” to block the election workers. The opposition runs 27 districts, the governing Socialists in 34.

“If they will do mindless acts or not in line with the law, they will be confronted with the law,” Lleshaj said. President Ilir Meta tried to cancel Albania’s June 30 municipal elections, saying they would be “undemocratic” without opposition participation.

Center-right opposition parties are boycotting the vote after months of demanding an early national election and accusing the government of vote-rigging and other wrongdoing. The Socialist-led government said the president exceeded his constitutional authority and is trying to oust Meta. Prime Minister Edi Rama insists the municipal elections will go ahead as scheduled.

Tag Cloud