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Posts tagged ‘Land of the Balkans’

Bosnian women set off for all-women convoy in Turkey

March 4, 2018

Around 200 Bosnian women on Saturday set off from Sarajevo to Istanbul to join an all-women convoy to raise awareness about the suffering of women and young girls imprisoned in Syria by the regime forces.

The International Conscience Convoy which describes itself as the “voice of the oppressed women in Syria” will set off from Istanbul on Tuesday with the participation of women from nearly 55 countries.

Among the women joining from Bosnia are women who shared the same fate with Syrian women during the Bosnian war between 1992-1995 including members of the Mothers of the Srebrenica group.

The President of the Association of the Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves, Munira Subasic joined the send off ceremony of the Bosnian women. Speaking to Anadolu Agency, she said:

Srebrenica’s mothers are well aware of what pain means, now Syrian women are experiencing the same pain we went through

“We are in the 21st century, the United Nations, the U.S. and Russia need to be ashamed,” she added.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, the Balkan Cultural Alliance Association (BAKIDER) representative Enida Gujo said that the Bosnian women joined the convoy with the support of Turkey.

“On March 08 we will all together call out for help for the Syrian women held in Syrian prisons,” she said.

Nearly 150 buses will take part in the journey which will make stops at Izmir, Sakarya, Ankara and Adana cities before reaching the southern Hatay province at the Turkey-Syria border.

Source: Middle East Monitor.



Migrants on stalled route hide in Greek city’s ancient walls

February 26, 2018

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — The stone walls that cut through the old quarter of Greece’s second-largest city defended Thessaloniki for more than 2,000 years. For a 24-year-old Pakistani immigrant, parts of the remaining ramparts mean survival.

Muhammed Adeel and other homeless men sleep in the old reinforced gun positions. Filthy blankets, rolled-up mattresses and empty food packaging fill the protected chambers that once housed cannon. “I came here with a dream, but I have nothing — no job, nowhere to live, nothing at all,” Adeel said after a near-freezing night in a dome-shaped casemate.

The European Union struck a deal with Turkey nearly two years ago to halt the surge of asylum-seekers attempting the dangerous sea voyage from Turkey to the Greek islands, the most popular route to Europe at the time. The crackdown also left tens of thousands of newcomers confined to Greece’s eastern islands or mainland camps during the long asylum application process.

Some desperate migrants, particularly those with slim chances of winning asylum, have turned to another route — heading overland through Turkey and wading across the heavily policed Evros River to neighboring Greece.

The land route’s increasing appeal is clear. Greek police caught 1,072 people who had entered the country’s Evros region illegally in October 2017, compared to 655 in the same month a year earlier. Adeel was among those who slipped through the cracks. The young man said he paid smugglers $2,500 to take him from Turkey to Thessaloniki, a trip that involved crossing the river and a six-hour ride hidden in the back of a truck.

His money and hope ran out in Thessaloniki, where destitute and homeless migrants number in the hundreds, afraid to seek help for fear of deportation. The vast majority hoped Greece was just a stepping-stone to more prosperous European countries. But when they got here they found the routes north into Europe closed off to keep them out.

With chances of successfully gaining asylum slim and jobs near impossible to find in a country where unemployment still runs at 21 percent, most get by in Greece as best they can while waiting for a way to smuggle themselves onward.

“Everyone in Pakistan has a dream. And everyone who makes it to (Europe) comes with hope of achieving something, to do something for their parents,” Adeel said. Taking shelter in a tiny casemate built in medieval times and depending on food handouts from volunteers and charities is far from his dream. Adeel wants to make it to the economically stronger heart of Europe, where he believes he has a better chance of landing a job.

“This is not a future,” he said. Border jumps usually get more expensive the farther into central Europe immigrants try to get. From Greece, they can expect to pay $3,000-4,000 for the next leg of their journey, according to multiple interviews conducted by the Associated Press.

That might be traveling across Greece’s northern border by foot into Macedonia and from there to Serbia, hiding in an Italy-bound freight container or risking a flight with forged ID papers. It’s a journey that remains out of reach for Kamran Misi, 33, a Pakistani immigrant who got stranded in Thessaloniki after he crossed the Evros River. Misi was homeless for six months until a church-run shelter took him in.

His goal now is to have something resembling a normal life. “When we came here, we came here with a lot of hopes,” Misi said. “We had lot of dreams that we would find a peaceful life, a place to stay, and get work, whatever — like what all normal people need.”

Elena Stamatoukou, a volunteer at Solidarity Now, a charity that serves both Greeks affected by their country’s economic crisis problems and new immigrants, said the organization received aid requests in December from 289 people in Thessaloniki.

“They wanted shelter or legal advice, and all had one thing in common: They were homeless,” she said. Many of Thessaloniki’s migrants sleep rough in the same places as the city’s resident homeless people — vacant buildings, park benches, abandoned construction sites, the main square.

“We go there at around 3 a.m., when there is nobody else around, and we leave very early,” Muhammad Fiaz, an 18-year-old Pakistani who has spent more than five months wandering the streets of Thessaloniki.

“I want to go to Italy,” he said. “But each time I try, the police arrest me.”

EU and Russia vie for influence in volatile Balkans region

February 24, 2018

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — For years, Russia has worked to gain influence in Southeast Europe, using Serbia as a foothold to establish a friendly pocket on a hostile continent. The European Union finally is pushing back. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is embarking on a seven-nation Balkans tour Sunday to promote the EU’s new eastward expansion strategy.

Russia mainly wants to discourage the Western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia — from joining NATO. But Moscow also is trying to deter them from joining the EU.

The EU sees the prospect of membership as an incentive for reform in the volatile Balkans region, which was torn apart by war in the 1990s. Its expansion strategy puts Serbia and Montenegro in position to join should the bloc open its doors to more members, tentatively by 2025.

Serbia is a major target of Moscow’s anti-Western activities in Europe because the two Slavic and predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian nations share deep cultural and historical ties. Their bonds also have experienced lows and highs, especially since the former Yugoslavia refused to join the Soviet bloc in 1948.

The Kremlin is so concerned about losing its ally that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly argued while in Serbia last week that EU membership isn’t all it’s cut out to be. Lavrov also gave a warning; the EU’s repeated calls for Serbia to align its foreign policies with the bloc as a precursor to membership and to impose sanctions on Russia, he said, are the same “mistake” the West made by pressuring war-torn Ukraine to choose between it and Russia.

Lavrov told Russia’s Rossiya 1 TV on Saturday that both Serbia and Russia are “the object of the West’s overt pressure” to turn Serbia against Russia. “We love our countries, and the Serbs love Russia, and the Russians love Serbia,” he said.

Serbian political analyst Bosko Jaksic thinks the “Russians are getting increasingly nervous as they lose allies one by one in the Balkans.” “It’s not clear how far they are willing to go to preserve their interests here, but judging from what they did in Ukraine, they are willing to go far,” Jaksic said, referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Lavrov also said that “Europe is facing an unhealthy situation” because of NATO’s eastward expansion. Montenegro joined the Western military organization last year despite Moscow’s strong opposition. He praised Belgrade for maintaining military neutrality and refusing to join NATO.

“We are convinced that this status is one of the main factors ensuring stability in the Balkans and the European continent in general,” Lavrov said. There have been mounting fears in the West that Russia is using Serbia to foment tensions in the Balkans by arming its ally with warplanes and tanks while working to destabilize neighboring Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

The European Union’s foreign and security policies grew out of Europe’s failure to respond to the wars in the Balkans that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia. The bloc remains wary that some of the ethnic cleavages that sparked the conflicts of the 1990s persist.

Three countries have become EU members: Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia in 2013. The rest either are candidates for membership of potential candidates. Although Serbia formally has declared its interest in joining the EU, the right-leaning leadership now running the country repeatedly has expressed anti-Western sentiments.

“Investing in the stability and prosperity of the Western Balkans means investing in the security and future of our Union,” Juncker said ahead of the trip. Juncker’s tour of the Balkans, which starts in Macedonia on Sunday and ends with an EU summit in Bulgaria on March 1, is seen as the EU’s belated attempt to counter Russia’s reach.

“Paradoxically, the Russians and their policies in the Balkans have triggered alarm bells that woke up the European Union into action,” Jaksic, the analyst, said.

AP Writer Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.

Kosovo celebrates 10 years of independence, Serbs boycott

February 18, 2018

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — The Kosovo Assembly, or Parliament, convened in a special session Sunday to celebrate the country’s 10 years of independence — a ceremony boycotted by the country’s ethnic Serb lawmakers.

Speaker Kadri Veseli pledged that “the second decade of independence would be focused on the economic well-being of Kosovo’s citizens.” The second day of celebrations continued with a parade of military and police forces and a state reception.

In Feb. 17, 2008, Kosovo’s Parliament unilaterally declared independence from Serbia nine years after NATO conducted a 78-day airstrike campaign against Serbia to stop a bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanians.

Kosovo, one of poorest countries in Europe, has taken a first step to European Union membership by signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement. But the country faces serious challenges besides its relations with Serbia, including establishing the rule of law and fighting high unemployment, corruption and organized crime.

Kosovo is recognized by 117 countries, including the U.S. and most Western powers but Serbia still sees Kosovo as part of its own territory and has the support of Russia and China. A day earlier in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said Kosovo’s independence remains fragile and won’t be concluded without an agreement with Serbia.

Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania contributed.

Challenges ahead as Kosovo, Europe’s newest nation, turns 10

February 16, 2018

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Every country has a national anthem, a musical compilation that aims to stir patriotic emotion, and Kosovo is no exception. Except for one peculiarity: its anthem has no lyrics.

Ten years after the former Serb territory declared independence and nearly two decades after it was engulfed in war between ethnic Albanian separatists and Yugoslav government forces, there is still difficulty in finding someone able to pen words of unity for Europe’s newest country without causing offense to one of its ethnic groups.

“The text should be written in a way that does not leave the impression to the minorities they are threatened or offended,” said Mendi Mengjiqi, who composed the anthem in June 2008, just a few months after Kosovo’s Feb. 17 declaration of independence.

So far, no attempts have been successful. A decade after its independence, Kosovo seems to have all the trappings of a modern, if rather poor, Balkan country. The bombed-out buildings and tank tread-destroyed streets of the 1998-1999 war have been replaced by highways and shopping malls, bustling cafes and shiny new office complexes.

Construction cranes can be seen on the drive into Pristina, the capital, as workers busily build new homes and businesses. “Kosovo is a joint success story, of the international community and the Kosovars,” President Hashim Thaci, a former commander of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, told The Associated Press.

It was he who declared Kosovo’s independence in 2008, nearly nine years after NATO conducted a 78-day airstrike campaign against Serbia to stop a bloody Serb crackdown against ethnic Albanians. Kosovo is recognized by 115 countries, including the United States and most Western powers, and has joined about 200 international organizations.

But Serbia, which for centuries has considered Kosovo the cradle of its civilization, still sees it as part of its own territory, and has the support of Russia and China. Five European Union members also do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

A close look reveals a young country still struggling with nationhood. The Serb minority, which was the territory’s politically dominant ethnicity before the war, lives in enclaves. Although people generally are no longer physically attacked for entering a different ethnic area, tension can be easily sparked. Some 4,500 NATO-led peacekeepers are still stationed in Kosovo to ensure nothing gets out of hand. Crime and corruption are rampant.

Kosovo Serbs, who live mostly in the northern Kosovo neighboring Serbia, are adamant that they not come under direct rule from Pristina. Serbia has rejected Kosovo’s statehood, but is pressed by the West to compromise with ethnic Albanians on “good neighborly relations” or jeopardize Serbia’s prospects of joining the EU.

Serbian officials have hinted they would recognize Kosovo as an independent state only if northern Kosovo is handed over to Serbia — a proposal flatly rejected by Pristina. EU-mediated negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade, which began in 2011, will be key in the country’s progress, and have achieved significant improvements in the nation’s governance and conditions for minorities.

But substantial hurdles remain. “Both Kosovo and Serbia should make drastic compromises, which I see as very difficult,” said Momcilo Trajkovic, a Kosovo Serb analyst and former politician living in the Serb enclave of Gracanica, near Pristina.

In January, moderate Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, one of the few who promoted the idea of Kosovo Albanians and Serbs living together, was gunned down outside his office in northern Mitrovica, the edge of the Serb-dominated part of northern Kosovo. His murder was condemned by both Pristina and Belgrade.

The key issues facing Kosovo now are “rule of law, fighting unemployment, corruption and organized crime and progressing in the talks with Serbia face Kosovo,” said U.S. Ambassador to Pristina Greg Delawie.

Kosovo hopes one day to join the EU and has begun the first step but still has a long way to go. “I very much hope that with good homework we could increase the speed of our expectation toward EU, NATO, United Nations and other memberships,” said Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, also a former KLA commander.

The EU’s special representative to Kosovo, Nataliya Apostolova, said progress had been made in the past decade between the nation’s two ethnic groups but “fragility persists, and can be easily tested even by a train, a wall or an improper initiative.”

But, she noted, the biggest concern for Kosovo’s people is economics. If there is one issue that the country’s Serbs and Albanians can agree on, it’s the lack of job prospects and the nation’s crushing unemployment, which in 2017 ran at 30.5 percent. Youth unemployment stands at 50.5 percent, according to the Kosovo Agency of Statistics.

A Pristina apartment can easily go for 1,000-1,500 euros ($1,238-1,857) per square meter and it costs half a million euros ($619,000) for a villa at the Marigona Residence, five miles from Pristina, where the country’s prime minister lives. But that is not affordable in a nation where the average salary is about 360 euros ($450) a month.

With their future looking bleak, many youngsters long to leave. “When will we have visa-free travel so I can get to Germany or Switzerland and build a better life?” wondered Shait Krasniqi, a 28-year-old economics graduate who works as a waiter in Pristina. “There are no prospects here, especially for us, the young people.”

Kosovo has a young population and with the jobless rate so high, many pack the capital’s cafes, nursing a single coffee for hours. “If my uncles did not live in Switzerland and support us, my family would die,” said Ilir, a young cafe client who was too embarrassed to give his last name. “My father gets a little money from selling agricultural products he grows from our small land. No other jobs for me or my sister.”

In the Serb enclave of Gracanica, home to a medieval Serb Orthodox monastery, the sentiments are the same. “Regardless of ethnicity, the situation is grave for all the people,” said Mirjana Vlasacevic, a 57-year-old court employee in Gracanica. “That is the reason that they, the youngsters, are looking to leave.”

Florent Bajrami in Pristina, Sylejman Kllokoqi in Gracanica, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed.

Far-right nationalists march in Bulgaria’s capital

February 17, 2018

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Hundreds of Bulgarian nationalists marched through the country’s capital on Saturday to honor a World War II general known for his anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi activities. The government had banned the rally saying it harms the image of the country, which currently holds the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union, but the organizers secured a court order overturning the ban.

The annual “Lukov March,” staged by the far-right Bulgarian National Union, attracted hundreds of dark-clad supporters who walked through downtown Sofia holding torches and Bulgarian flags, and chanting nationalist slogans.

Police guarded the procession from possible attacks of opponents of the event. The marchers praised Gen. Hristo Lukov, who had supported Germany during the Second World War and was killed by an anti-fascist resistance movement on Feb. 13, 1943. The general served as war minister from 1935 to 1938, and led the pro-Nazi Germany Union of Bulgarian Legions from 1932 until 1943.

Organizers deny that Lukov was an anti-Semitic fascist or that they were neo-fascists, but claim that the descendants of the murderers of Lukov were afraid of the event. One of the leaders of the Union, 32-year-old Plamen Dimitrov, said ahead of the march that a “vast majority of young Bulgarians” approve of their activities.

He also said that several nationalist supporters from Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Estonia had arrived to join the event. “They are here today because the survival of all European people is jeopardized,” he told reporters.

Human rights groups, political parties and foreign embassies condemned the Lukov March and criticized its organizers for promoting racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The U.S. Embassy to Bulgaria expressed concern about “the display of intolerance represented by the Lukov March.”

“General Hristo Lukov was a Nazi supporter who promoted hate and injustice, and is not someone deserving of veneration,” the embassy said in a statement.

Serbia museum benefits from renewed interest in Nikola Tesla

January 30, 2018

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Along dimmed corridors in an elegant villa in central Belgrade, visitors are treated to a flashy presentation of Nikola Tesla’s technology — as well as a huge array of the visionary scientist’s clothes, hundreds of instruments, and even his ashes.

The Serbian museum, dedicated to everything to do with the 19th-century inventor and electricity pioneer, remained in relative obscurity for decades under the communist-run former Yugoslavia. But thanks to a global revival of interest in the scientist, the collection is now drawing big crowds from home and abroad.

Museum staff say some 130,000 people visited last year, compared to about 30,000 a year in the past — when its audience included generations of local school children but hardly anyone from abroad. Now the small museum is ranked among the top must-see destination for tourists.

Tesla is best known for developing the alternating current that helped safely distribute electricity at great distances, including from the hydro-electric plant at the Niagara Falls in mid-1890s. He experimented with X-ray and radio technology, working in rivalry with Thomas Edison.

Although he’s known to many science lovers, his following and name-recognition among the general public has rocketed in recent years thanks to Paypal billionaire Elon Musk’s Tesla electric car. In the U.S., Tesla admirers have raised money through crowdfunding to purchase his laboratory In Shoreham, N.Y.

An ethnic Serb born in 1856 in the Austrian Empire in present-day Croatia, Tesla spent most of his life abroad, working in Budapest and Paris before emigrating to the U.S. in 1884. The Tesla Museum in Belgrade holds a vast array of the scientist’s personal items, from his sleepwear, shaving kit, tailor-made suit and cane to tens of thousands of documents and his awards. Even pieces of furniture from the New Yorker Hotel room 3327, where Tesla spent the last ten years of his life — his bed, fridge, metal lockers and a cupboard — are included.

“He was a man who took great care of his belongings and saved a large number of documents, so thanks to that we can now reconstruct his life and his work,” curator Milica Kesler said. “He was fully aware of the importance of what he was doing.”

Packed in some sixty trunks and containers, Tesla’s entire property first arrived in the former Yugoslavia on a ship from New York in 1951, eight years after his death. Authorities set up the museum in 1952, which later struggled with scarce funds and low attendance.

Nowadays, thrilled visitors are given fluorescent light sticks that light up wirelessly with the discharge from the Tesla coil, a four-meter-tall transformer circuit that generates electricity. In a separate room, in a somewhat macabre setting of dimmed lights and dark drapes, are Tesla’s ashes in a golden ball urn.

There are now so many visitors that the museum has extended its working hours and introduced more guided tours. Museum worker Pavle Petrovic says “the holiday season is the busiest, of course, but numbers stay high throughout the year.”

Although Tesla visited Belgrade just once for 31 hours, Serbia celebrates him as the pride of the nation. Belgrade’s airport and a new city boulevard are named after Tesla, his image is on souvenirs, and the Serbian Orthodox Church wants Tesla’s ashes placed in the country’s main religious temple, triggering protests by the liberal scientific community.

Typical of the Balkan divide, neighboring Croatia also claims Tesla as its own, turning his house in the home village of Smiljan into a memorial center. The rival former Yugoslav republics have marked important dates in Tesla’s life separately amid strained relations stemming from the 1990s’ bloody breakup of the joint ex-federation.

Away from the crowds, Tesla’s archive of more than 160,000 documents, scientific plans, manuscripts and letters is stored carefully in the museum’s basement. Curator Kesler said Tesla made the experts’ job easy by keeping a neat chronology of the documents.

“Sometimes I have a feeling he left us some kind of a path, a guideline to follow,” she said with a smile.

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