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Posts tagged ‘Land of the Balkans’

Conservative Serbia to get first openly gay prime minister

June 15, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s president on Thursday nominated the highly conservative country’s first openly gay prime minister, a move likely to infuriate both the Christian Orthodox church and ultranationalists.

President Aleksandar Vucic announced that Ana Brnabic, 41, was nominated as the prime minister-designate, which could also make her the first female head of government in the country’s history. Her cabinet needs formal approval by parliament next week.

It was “a difficult decision reached in the interest of Serbia and its citizens,” said Vucic, a former extremist-turned-reformist who has promised to boost gay rights as part of efforts to move closer to European Union membership.

“If elected in parliament, I will run the government with dedication and responsibility and I will do my job honestly and with love,” Brnabic told state Tanjug news agency. Brnabic’s nomination is considered part of Vucic’s apparent turn toward the West despite strong pressure from Russia to maintain its influence in the region. The British-educated Brnabic, a marketing expert, had worked for U.S. companies before she assumed her Serbian government job.

“I believe she has professional skills and personal qualities,” Vucic said. “I’m convinced she will work hard.” Brnabic is currently Serbia’s minister of public administration and local government. She is not a member of Vucic’s ruling populist Serbian Progressive Party but is considered loyal to him.

Her appointment to the government last year — she was hand-picked by Vucic who was then prime minister — was hailed by rights groups as historic for the Balkan country whose gay community regularly faces discrimination, harassment and violence.

“Hopefully this will blow over in three or four days, and then I won’t be known as the gay minister,” she told the Associated Press at the time. Pro-Russian nationalists blasted the choice Thursday. The conservative opposition Dveri group, close to the Serbian Orthodox Church, said Brnabic was obviously appointed under Western pressure.

“Is it possible that the ruling majority has no other candidate for the prime minister-designate but the one imposed by the West, which dictates all the moves by this government?” the party asked. Vucic’s coalition partners were also infuriated.

“Ana Brnabic is not my prime minister,” nationalist official Dragan Markovic-Palma told the private Beta news agency. Earlier he said he would not approve anyone for the post who does not have at least two children.

Vucic, who was prime minister before his election as president in April, was expected to appoint a loyalist to maintain control of the government as he moved into the largely ceremonial presidential position.

Associated Press writer Jovana Gec contributed.

State of emergency declared on quake-hit Greek island Lesbos

June 13, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Authorities in Greece have declared a state of emergency on the island of Lesbos after an earthquake left one woman dead and more than 800 people displaced. The 6.2 magnitude undersea quake on Monday occurred south of Lesbos but was felt as far as Istanbul, Turkey.

Officials from the island’s regional government on Tuesday said homes in 12 villages in southern Lesbos had been seriously damaged or destroyed. The mostly elderly residents affected were being housed with relatives, in hotels or at an army-run shelter.

The earthquake marked the second crisis to hit the island in the last two years, after hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees, including many fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, crossed to Lesbos on boats from Turkey as they headed to Europe.

Preliminary results: Ex-rebels win Kosovo election

June 11, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — The coalition of former ethnic Albanian rebel commanders won the most votes Sunday in Kosovo’s general election, which also saw a surge in popularity for a nationalist party, according to preliminary results.

The ex-rebels came in first with around 35 percent of the vote. The nationalist Self-Determination Movement was neck-and-neck with the coalition led by former Prime Minister Isa Mustafa, which had around 26 percent each after the counting of about 70 percent of the votes, according to Democracy in Action, a monitoring group.

No group can govern alone and coalitions will be likely. The new Cabinet will have a tough job in resolving several thorny issues, including the border demarcation deal with Montenegro. The approval of another agreement with Serbia giving more rights to the ethnic Serb minority, and the continuation of fraught talks with Belgrade, which denies Kosovo’s existence as a state, were also key concerns.

Ramush Haradinaj, whom the leading coalition has nominated to be prime minister, hailed Kosovars “for the trust given to the coalition,” adding “these are the best elections ever held” in Kosovo. “The victory is convincing and make us capable of operating further to create the country’s government,” he said.

The final results for the new 120-seat parliament are expected later in the week. Ethnic Serbs and other minorities have 20 out of 120 seats in the parliament. Self-Determination Movement officials celebrated the results, which saw the party double its share of the vote. The party has been a disruptive force in the previous parliament and is the biggest opposition party to shun pre-election coalitions. The party’s members and supporters released tear gas inside parliament and threw firebombs outside it to protest the contentious deals with Montenegro and Serbia.

The party has nominated its former leader, 42-year-old Albin Kurti, as a candidate for prime minister. If elected, the party says it “is the only one which is going to fight corruption in a successful way,” send former officials to jail, end the current talks with Serbia while seeking a closer union with neighboring Albania.

Kosovo’s election authorities say that preliminary figures put turnout in the country’s general election at 41.79 percent. Central Election Commission head Valdete Daka says that “there have been no problems that would gravely damage the process.”

The turnout is smaller than in the previous polls, for example in 2014, when it was 42.63 percent. Kosovo is the only western Balkan country whose citizens need visas to enter the EU’s Schengen zone. To join, Brussels insists Kosovo’s parliament must first approve a border demarcation deal signed with Montenegro in 2015.

Opposition parties say that deal meant a loss of territory, over 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres), or less than 1 percent of Kosovo’s land. The former Cabinet, international experts and the country’s Western backers dispute that claim.

The Self-Determination Movement and others also oppose another deal signed in 2015 that gave more rights to the ethnic Serb minority. A further issue is the prospect of former ethnic Albanian senior rebel commanders facing prosecution in the newly established war crimes court. The court in The Hague is expected to shortly issue indictments for crimes committed against civilians during and after the 1998-1999 war with Serbia.

Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.

Kosovo votes amid thorny issues of border, talks with Serbia

June 11, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Voters in Kosovo were casting their ballots Sunday in an early general election for the new 120-seat parliament. At stake are thorny issues of the border demarcation deal with Montenegro that brought down the previous government, and the approval of another deal with Serbia giving more rights to the ethnic Serb minority.

The continuation of fraught talks with Belgrade — which denies Kosovo’s existence as a state — is also a key concern. Nineteen political parties, five coalitions and two citizens’ initiatives, all promising to secure economic growth and ease Kosovars’ travel restrictions to the European Union, have nominated candidates.

Among the contenders are a coalition of three major parties run by former rebel commanders. They have proposed Ramush Haradinaj, still regarded by Serbia as a war criminal, as prime minister. Others include Prime Minister Isa Mustafa’s party, which nominates former finance Minister Avdullah Hoti for leadership, and the Self-Determination Movement, the biggest opposition party to shun pre-election coalitions, which put forward their founder Albin Kurti as a candidate for prime minister.

Valdete Daka, head of the Central Election Commission that manages the electoral process, called on Kosovars to vote “to show to the world we are part of democracy and know how to hold elections properly” after casting her ballot at a polling station in the capital, Pristina.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The new state has been recognized by 114 countries, including the United States and most of the EU members, but not by Belgrade. Kosovo is the only western Balkan country whose citizens need visas to enter the European Union’s Schengen zone. To join, Brussels insists Kosovo’s parliament must first approve a border demarcation deal signed with Montenegro in 2015.

Opposition parties say that deal meant a loss of territory, over 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres), or less than 1 percent of Kosovo’s land. The former Cabinet, international experts and the country’s Western backers dispute that claim.

The Self-Determination Movement and others also oppose another deal signed in 2015 that gave more rights to the ethnic Serb minority. A further issue is the prospect of former ethnic Albanian senior rebel commanders facing prosecution in the newly established international war crimes court. The court in The Hague is expected to shortly issue indictments for crimes committed against civilians during and after the 1998-1999 war with Serbia.

Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.

Kosovo’s general election poses headaches for the winner

June 10, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovars vote on Sunday to choose the new 120-seat parliament that will face some seemingly intractable problems. There is the thorny issue of the border demarcation deal with Montenegro that brought down the previous government; the continuation of fraught talks with Serbia, which denies Kosovo’s existence as a state; and potential war crimes trials of some senior political leaders.

Nineteen political parties, five coalitions and two citizens’ initiatives, all promising to break the isolation and secure growth, have nominated candidates. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The new state has been recognized by 114 countries, including the United States and most of the EU members, but not by Belgrade.

Kosovo is the only western Balkan country whose citizens need visas to enter the European Union’s Schengen zone. To join, Brussels insists Kosovo must first approve the border demarcation deal. That deal with Montenegro was signed in 2015 but opposition parties say it meant a loss of territory, over 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres), or less than 1 percent of Kosovo’s land. The former Cabinet, international experts and the country’s Western backers dispute that claim.

Another looming issue is the prospect of former ethnic Albanian senior rebel commanders facing prosecution in the newly established international war crimes court in The Hague that is expected to shortly issue indictments for crimes committed against civilians during and after the 1998-1999 war with Serbia.

There are three key groupings in the contest:

FORMER REBELS

Three major parties run by former rebel commanders have joined forces to back Ramush Haradinaj for prime minister. Haradinaj briefly served as a prime minister in 2005 but was forced to resign after a U.N. war crimes court put him on trial for crimes allegedly committed during Kosovo’s 1998-99 war with Serbia. He was acquitted twice.

Serbia still regards Haradinaj as a war criminal. Kosovo suspended EU-sponsored talks with Serbia earlier this year after Haradinaj was arrested in France on a warrant from Serbia. A French court refused to extradite him.

Haradinaj claims his coalition is “a new beginning ” and has pledged he will persuade the EU to admit Kosovars to the visa-free regime within 90 days, and also bring fast improvements in the country’s ailing economy.

PEACENICKS

The party of Prime Minister Isa Mustafa has joined forces with billionaire Behxhet Pacolli and Mimoza Kusari-Lila, a former deputy prime minister and trade minister from the Alternativa party. They have proposed the former finance minister, Avdullah Hoti, as a future prime minister.

Hoti boasts that he was successful in fighting corruption and bringing the customs and financial department in line with European standards. He earned a Ph.D. in economics at Staffordshire University in Britain and is a professor at the Pristina University.

NATIONALISTS

The Self-Determination Movement, an aggressively disruptive force in the previous parliament, is the biggest opposition party to shun pre-election coalitions. Self-Determination Movement members and supporters released tear gas inside parliament and threw petrol bombs outside it to protest the contentious deals with Montenegro and Serbia.

The party has nominated its former leader, 42-year-old Albin Kurti, as a candidate for prime minister. Since the 2014 election, Kurti has been at the forefront of opposition forces. If elected, the party says it “is the only one which is going to fight corruption in a successful way,” send former officials to jail, end the current talks with Serbia while seeking a closer union with neighboring Albania.

Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.

Unaccompanied minors among stranded migrants in Serbia

May 18, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Asad Ullah, a 10-year-old migrant from Afghanistan, spent weeks travelling in the cold and rain after his father sent him off to look for a brighter future in Europe. Ullah told The Associated Press on Thursday that he set off in a group of migrants with smugglers through Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria before reaching Serbia nearly two months ago. During his journey, Ullah slept out in the open and lived in makeshift migrant shelters with little food and no facilities. He kept close to other migrants, afraid not to get lost.

“It is very hard, but I am going to Europe,” said Ullah, who was among more than 100 minors brought last week to a center for asylum-seekers on the outskirts of the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Previously, he had spent weeks in a now-demolished migrant shelter in the city center. He said his father sent him away to Europe rather than stay in Afghanistan where “there is no life.”

“He (his father) said to go to Europe for American life,” Ullah said in broken English. “I said: ‘OK, I go to Europe.'” A report by the U.N. children’s agency published on Wednesday warned that more than 300,000 children like Ullah have been migrating alone worldwide over a two-year period, in a dramatic escalation of a trend that has forced many young refugees into slavery and prostitution.

The numbers of refugee children have grown in Serbia too, where about 7,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded, unable to cross the heavily guarded borders of neighboring EU countries Hungary and Croatia. Michel Saint-Lot, the UNICEF representative in Serbia, said that around 3,200, or 46 percent, of all refugees and migrants in Serbia are children, while every third child is unaccompanied.

“That is one too many,” he said. Saint-Lot added that while on the road on their own, unaccompanied children are exposed to abuse and violence and face “potential issue of being trafficked, for sexual exploitation, for slavery and lack of access to basic care.”

“Those are major challenges for the children,” Saint-Lot insisted. While some minors set off with their families, they end up separated either by chance, or by smugglers who often split up families as a way to control them. Some, like Ullah, are sent away from home by parents who want them to reach Western Europe so they eventually can bring the rest of the family over, or earn money to support relatives who stayed behind.

Saint-Lot said that the fact that they are stranded in Serbia, unable to move on to their desired destinations in Europe, has put additional strain on the children — leading to psychological pressure and breakdowns in some cases.

“The most important aspect is ensuring that all children have access to learning, that they are protected from abuse, neglect, sexual exploitation, that there is proper psychological care,” Saint-Lot said.

Insah Ullah from Afghanistan, who is 17 and isn’t related to Asad Ullah, was also brought from Belgrade city center to the camp in the suburb of Krnjaca last week. On Thursday, he and other migrants could be seen playing in the camp yard on a sunny day. Insah Ullah said he would never have left his home if he had hope for a future in Afghanistan.

“I miss my family and I love my family too much and I miss my country,” he said. “No one wants to leave his country, no one wants to leave their parents, because if parents are with you, everything is with you.”

“If they are not, nothing is with you” Ullah said.

Jovana Gec contributed to this report.

Macedonia’s Zaev wins confidence vote to form new government

June 01, 2017

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Macedonia’s parliament elected a new center-left coalition government led by former opposition leader Zoran Zaev late Wednesday, ending a six-month political stalemate. Lawmakers voted 62-44 just before midnight to confirm a 26-member Cabinet proposed by Zaev, who leads the Social Democrat party. Five lawmakers abstained and nine were absent.

Zaev, 42, was sworn in as prime minister by the parliament speaker immediately after the vote. The businessman and former mayor of Strumica formed an alliance with two small ethnic Albanian parties to control 62 of parliament’s 120 seats, after his party finished second in December elections that produced a hung parliament. Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s conservative party won the elections but fell short of a parliamentary majority.

About a quarter of Macedonia’s population is ethnic Albanian, and inter-ethnic tensions brought the former Yugoslav republic close to civil war in 2001. “The concept of one society for all is the future of Macedonia,” Zaev said Wednesday, rejecting opponents’ criticism that his pledge to consider enhancing the Albanian minority’s standing would undermine Macedonia’s sovereignty.

Under the coalition deal, nine Cabinet portfolios are held by ethnic Albanians, including the economy, justice and European integration posts. The country has been roiled by political crisis since early 2015, sparked by a wiretapping scandal that left Zaev’s party and Gruevski’s formerly governing VMRO-DPMNE conservatives with irreconcilable differences.

Zaev has pledged to focus on the economy, strengthening public institutions and joining the European Union and NATO. He wants to start negotiations with the EU and NATO as soon as possible. Macedonia was granted EU candidate status in 2005. Neighboring Greece has blocked Macedonia’s accession to NATO due to a long-running dispute regarding Macedonia’s name, and the Greeks also have raised objections to its joining the EU.

Zaev tapped Nikola Dimitrov, a former negotiator with Greece, as foreign minister. Radmila Sekjerinska, a former minister for European integration, was named to head the defense ministry. President Gjorge Ivanov earlier had refused to give the mandate to Zaev, accusing him of endangering Macedonia’s unity and sovereignty.

The crisis threatened to re-ignite inter-ethnic conflict, with ethnic Albanian parties demanding as a condition for joining any new government that Albanian be designated a second official language. A month of protests followed across the country.

A mob stormed the parliament building last month after disagreements about the election of a new parliament speaker, leaving more than 100 people injured.

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