With new regional and international tensions, internal political quarrels, stagnating economies and worsening public services, many people in the Balkans will probably want to forget the past year as 12 wasted months.
From deepening political divisions and tensions over the general elections in Bosnia, to worsened relations between Kosovo and Serbia, and from mass protests in Serbia and Romania to the arrests of so-called “Gulenists”, sought by Turkey, the Balkans saw a good deal of turmoil and political and economic instability in 2018.
In addition to country reports looking at each country’s perspectives in 2019, which promises to be at least as interesting as this year, BIRN is offering this brief overview of the key developments in the Balkan countries in 2018.
Bosnia in 2018: Politics overshadowed by elections
One of the defining events in Bosnia and Herzegovina was the general election held on October 7. As in previous years, the election year was dominated by radical rhetoric, populist moves and statements as well as by blocked reforms. Before, during and after the ballot, there were allegations of election fraud, none of which were upheld by the local courts, however.
Another election-related controversy concerned the fact that the vote took place under a part-annulled election law, which Bosnia’s state parliament had failed to amend.
The law was missing the section regulating elections in Bosnia’s Federation entity to the House of Peoples. The state-level Constitutional Court struck it down two years ago.
Reform of this and other parts of the election law was a hotly disputed issue throughout the year.
Bosnian Croat parties complained that, under the current rules, far more numerous Bosniaks used their superior numbers to outvote Croats and in effect elect nominally Croat candidates.
This issue also triggered tensions between Bosnia and Croatia, which also called for legislative and constitutional changes in Bosnia to bolster Croats rights with other two ethnic groups.
However, some local and international experts insisted that the ruling Croatian party in Bosnia, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and its leader, Dragan Covic, did not truly want to resolve this issue so much as to use it to block the formation of new governments and push for the re-creation of an autonomous Croat entity.
The elections, meanwhile, saw another victory of the three main national parties, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats SNSD, of Milorad Dodik, Covic’s HDZ and the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, SDA.
The SNSD and SDA candidates, Milorad Dodik and Sefik Dzaferovic, won seats on the state’s tripartite presidency.
However, in another controversy, the third, Croat, seat went to Zeljko Komsic who clearly won thanks mainly to Bosniak votes. The result, while fully legal, created more tension with the Bosnian Croat community and with Croatia.
The elections results also showed that the HDZ and SNSD could not be left out in the formation of state and entity governments, while their most likely coalition partner from the Bosniak parties would be the SDA.
Late in December, Bosnia’s much-criticised Central Election Commission finally fixed the broken election law, to allow the lawful formation of a Federation government, but its decision was likely to end up before the Constitutional Court, after Bosniak leaders said they would challenge it.
Because of this and other political quarrels, formation of new governments and progress on key reforms remained uncertain.
Bulgaria in 2018: Euro-presidency success marred by scandals at home
Bulgaria showed two distinct faces in 2018. On one hand, it was the European Commission’s darling, hosting the Council of the European Union Presidency for the first time during the first six months of the year, and organizing two international summits at which the EU first met Turkey and then the Western Balkan states.
Despite the modest results of both events, Bulgaria showed good organizational skills and seemingly pushed forward its agenda of joining the passport-free Schengen area, at least partially, and the European Banking Union in 2019.
But Bulgaria also showed another face during 2018 as Bulgarian nationalists in government and MEPs backed Hungary’s nationalist leader Victor Orban, when the EU decided to penalise him for undermining the rule of law and the freedom of expression in Hungary.
A seemingly never-ending wave of public discontent against controversial decisions or, in other instances, lack of adequate measures, meanwhile shook the country and forced the government to replace four ministers including one deputy prime minister in only a few months.
Two other ministers, of Energy and Social Welfare, almost resigned, but Prime Minister Boyko Borissov did not let them quit.
The year started with the Save Pirin protests against the decision of the government to allow some construction in the Pirin National Park and UNESCO site, which activists fear could pave the way towards the widespread destruction of the precious mountainous area.
The government’s troubles continued with the controversial attempted sale of CEZ, the country’s largest energy supplier, to a small, family-controlled company with connections to Energy Minister Temenuzhka Petkova.
This was followed by an announcement that Bulgaria was re-starting two large energy projects that looked likely to tighten Russia’s grip over the country.
After a quiet summer, a new wave of discontent sprung up – first after a badly communicated mass cull of sheep and goats in the Strandzha region in August, and then after a deadly bus crash near Svoge, close to Sofia.
This led to three ministerial resignations and half-hearted admissions that corruption in the road infrastructure sector might have contributed to the deaths of 20 people.
The topic of corruption in the field of public procurements was heightened by the arrests of investigative journalists, Attila Biro from Rise Project Romania, and Dimitar Stoyanov from Bivol-Bulgaria.
They were detained after they tried to stop the destruction of evidence of public procurement fraud involving one of the largest winners of public tenders for road repairs and construction, GP Group.
This was followed by the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov for offending protesting mothers of children with disabilities, and by a 77-million-euros fine for not complying with EU competition rules.
While the ruling GERB-United Patriots coalition continued to claim it offered the country “stability”, the picture was, clearly, a lot less rosy.
Kosovo in 2018: Raising the stakes with Serbia
In March, the Kosovo parliament finally ratified the long delayed border agreement with Montenegro, a controversial deal that since 2015 had sparked violent clashes between the opposition and the ruling coalition.
After three years of leading opposition to the border agreement with Montenegro, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj accepted the deal, with a new annex that left open the possibility of “correcting” the exact borders later on.
The European Union had insisted on the deal as one of the criteria for granting Kosovo visa-free access to the passport-free Schengen area – which had not happened by the time 2018 ended, however.
Meanwhile, that same month, tensions were sparked with Serbia following the arrest of Marko Djuric, the head of the Serbian government’s Kosovo office. Despite being banned from entering Kosovo by the authorities, Djuric visited the Serbian stronghold of North Mitrovica to participate in a debate with Kosovo Serb leaders.
After the arrest, Djuric was taken to Pristina in handcuffs with his head held down before numerous journalists, photographers and TV crews. Djuric later described the treatment as an attempt to humiliate him, and Serbia, saying that he was “walked liked a dog”.
Further tensions with Serbia erupted in November when Kosovo imposed a 10-per-cent tax on Serbian and Bosnian imports.
Despite international pressure to withdraw the decision, the government did the opposite and sharply increased the tax from 10 to 100 per cent, one day after Kosovo failed to join the international police organisation Interpol at its general assembly in Dubai.
This setback was credited to strong Serbian lobbying. Haradinaj stressed that Kosovo would not revoke the tax until Serbia recognised Kosovo’s independence.
In December, the Kosovo parliament adopted another controversial decision, a package of three draft laws expanding the competences of the Kosovo Security Force, KSF, and creating a legal base for its transformation into a regular army.
By adopting laws on merely changing the KSF’s remit, parliament bypassed the need to adopt the regular constitutional changes required to change the KSF into an official army – which Serbia and Kosovo Serbs bitterly oppose.
Representatives of the main Kosovo Serb party, Srpska Lista, said the new de-facto army would have no mandate to operate in mainly Serbian north Kosovo – and it would challenge the vote before the Constitutional Court.
Macedonia in 2018: Breakthrough marred by ex-PM’s escape
Macedonia in 2018 witnessed a major breakthrough, with the signing of the historic “name” agreement with Greece.
But this achievement was undermined by events at home, when the scandalous escape of the former autocratic Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, who had been sent to prison, caused major ripples.
After spending much of the first half of the year in hard UN-sponsored “name” talks with Greece, on June 17, the two countries finally signed an agreement on ending the decades-long dispute over Macedonia’s name, under which the country would be renamed Republic of North Macedonia.
The signing of the agreement won international praise and was regarded as the most positive political development in the Balkans that year.
However, it also stirred tensions as far-right nationalists in both countries staged sometimes violent protests.
At the consultative referendum that followed in September 30, the majority of Macedonian voters supported the agreement. But the turnout failed to meet the required 50 per cent threshold, which emptied the result of any real force.
Despite this setback, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev narrowly steered the agreement through parliament and the process is expected to end by late January. In return, Greece agreed to stop blocking Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU.
Amidst renewed optimism over this breakthrough, Macedonia was shocked in November when former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who was ousted in May 2017, mysteriously fled the country, so avoiding serving a jail sentence.
This was a major blow to Zaev’s government, which took power on a promise to deliver justice for the past regime’s crimes.
While some critics attributed the escape to government incompetence, many suspected that Gruevski had been allowed to escape as part of an elusive deal with the government.
Gruevski was supposed to report to start serving his two-year jail term on November 9, but failed to do so.
On November 13, a post on his Facebook account announced that he was in Hungary, where he was seeking political asylum, having supposedly received numerous threats to his life.
Hungary soon granted Gruevski asylum, a move attributed to Gruevski’s long political friendship with Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban. Albania, Montenegro and Serbia meanwhile confirmed that Gruevski had used their territory to flee to Hungary, and that Hungarian diplomats had aided his escape.
Moldova in 2018: Populism puts EU path in danger
Throughout 2018, Moldova witnessed growing political tensions and quarrels, which posed a threat to the EU-Moldova Association Agreement signed in 2014.
The worst political unrest occurred in June, after an allegedly politically influenced court ruling cancelled the results of the mayoral elections in Chisinau, which an opposition leader Andrei Nastase, had won – fairly in the view of most observers.
Soon after, the European Commission suspended 100 million euros in macro-financial, accusing Moldova of backsliding on democratic standards.
As a counter-measure, aimed at getting more money into the budget, all the main three institutions in Moldova – parliament, government and the presidency – gave the green light to a highly controversial fiscal reform.
Critics said the new law would enable people to clean “dirty” money as it allows any Moldovan citizen to register and keep any illegally gained financial gains or assets, as long as he or she pays a 3-per-cent fee to the state.
Moldova also offered 5,000 passports to anyone wanting to purchase Moldovan citizenship for a 100,000-euro donation to the government, or a 250,000-euro investment in any business in Moldova.
The name of the “new” citizens will also remain secret. The changes disturbed many in the country, and abroad.
Besides these and other decisions, which clearly went against Brussels’ advice and demands, the ruling Democratic Party hardened its nationalist rhetoric ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, due in February 2019.
By the end of 2018, relations between Moldova and EU had turned distinctly frosty.
Romania in 2018: Political turmoil and social uprisings
Romania experienced continuous political turmoil in 2018, with politicians entrenched in a battle against prosecutors over the policies of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate, DNA.
Street protests against the government intensified throughout the year, some ending up in violence.
Under the management of Laura Codruta Kovesi, the youngest and first woman prosecutor to lead the DNA, the agency had in recent years indicted hundreds of politicians and former dignitaries, many of them Social Democrats. The Social Democrat-led government in Bucharest duly fired her in July.
The battered anti-graft agency lacks a new chief in 2019 as President Klaus Iohannis has refused to appoint the government’s nominee, Adina Florea, citing her cooperation with the intelligence services.
Kovesi’s dismissal came too late for Social Democrat strongman Liviu Dragnea, however.
He was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail in a second corruption trial, although the June 21 verdict was not final and he is now appealing the sentence.
Following a rally organized by the ruling party to show its large support base on June 9, and following Kovesi’s dismissal, several anti-government groups, including some based in Romania’s large diaspora, announced a large protest of their own on August 10.
The rally drew tens of thousands of people from across Romania, but ended in a violent clash with the riot police, which used tear gas to disperse demonstrators around the government building in Bucharest.
The incidents on August 10 left hundreds wounded and police, as well as the Interior Minister, faced harsh criticism for using disproportionate force against peaceful protesters, including elderly people and children.
Prosecutors started an investigation into the allegations of violence, which the government dismissed, saying the use of force had been “justified”.
The violent crackdown on August 10, as well as the push by the Social Democrats to change the criminal codes and several laws on the organization of courts and prosecutor’s offices – all designed to relax the fight against corruption – resulted in the European Commission slamming the government in November with the harshest report on the country since it joined the EU.
Moreover, the fact that neighbouring Bulgaria simultaneously received praise from the EU for its progress, and various politicians in Brussels called for its speedy admission to the Schengen area, caused further discontent in Romania.
The year ended with Romania still mired in controversies and rumours that the cabinet was still mulling a decree on amnestying and pardoning corruption convicts similar, to the one that triggered the January-February 2017 protests – the biggest the country has seen since 1989.
Serbia in 2018: Worsening tension with Kosovo
Unresolved relation with Kosovo remained the main political issue in Serbia. While EU increased pressure on both sides to resolve their decade-long dispute over Kosovo’s independence, proclaimed in 2008, their relations were dogged by arrests, cancelled meetings, exchanges of strong words and import taxes.
Tensions in Serbia increased in March, after Kosovo police arrested the head of the Serbian government’s Office for Kosovo, Marko Djuric, for entering Kosovo despite a ban on his presence.
In September, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic scrapped a planned meeting with his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaci, in Brussels.
He then paid a visit to the Serbian community in Kosovo instead.
After Kosovo war veterans blocked roads leading to the village of Banje, south of the Ibar River, the Kosovo government cancelled Vucic’s planned visit to the Serbian village, though it caused no problems about him holding a rally in the Serbian stronghold of North Mitrovica.
In his speech, the Serbian President praised Serbia’s late president Slobodan Milosevic, a hate figure in Kosovo, sparking strong reactions also from Kosovo officials.
Two months later, Kosovo imposed taxes on imports from Serbia and Bosnia. The decision caused four mayors in Serb-majority municipalities in North Kosovo to resign and to end their communications with Kosovo institutions.
Another row erupted between two countries in December. On December 18, at a UN Security Council session, called by Belgrade, when Kosovo’s President Thaci defended the controversial decision to transform the country’s lightly armed security force, the KSF, into a de facto army, which Serbia claimed would jeopardise peace in the region.
Besides rockier than ever relations with Kosovo, another key development in 2018 in Serbia was the series of anti-government protests, which started in early December, following the brutal beating of the leader of opposition Serbian Left party, Borko Stefanovic. He was assaulted late in November.
Thousands of people gathered weekend after weekend in the Serbian capital, condemning the attack, the widespread corruption and political violence in the country, and demanding that the public broadcaster give them fairer treatment in its reports.
The calls for a fairer media were strengthened following an incident on December 12 when the home of a journalist for the website Zig Info, Milan Jovanovic, was shot at and then set on fire by unknown individuals, apparently because of his reporting on local corruption.
On December 23, the Interior Minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, said three persons had been arrested for this crime.
The latest BIRN report on the state of the media in Serbia notes abuses of funding, lack of pluralism in terms of content, an unclear legislative framework and administrative pressure on independent media as some of the most concerning issues.
While the street protests came relatively late in the year, the number of people attending them grew steadily.
The protests are expected to continue in 2019, and their impact on the country’s political scene, and on the regime of President Vucic, has yet to be tested.
Croatia in 2018: Sporting triumph – and shame, too
The event that Croats will surely remember most from last year is winning the silver medal in the 2018 World Cup. After the national football team took the silver, the country threw itself a massive party, with hundreds of thousands of people pouring onto the streets to welcome the players back from Moscow.
Marketing experts said it could be another great way to promote Croatian tourism.
However, another sector of the Croatian sporting world aroused less national pride.
On June 6 in a first-degree ruling, controversial football mogul Zdravko Mamic was found guilty of siphoning money off from football clubs and damaging the state budget.
This verdict was major news, but Mamic – who also holds Bosnian citizenship – fled there to avoid imprisonment at home.
Many commentators remained unsure whether this would mark an end to the endemic culture of corruption in Croatian football.
The key event for the Croatian economy was the much trumpeted rescue of the indebted food giant Agrokor, Croatia’s biggest private company, which found itself in major financial trouble from the beginning of 2017.
The firm was taken under state-appointed management in early 2017 under a special law dubbed the “Lex Agrokor” to avert its collapse and the loss of more than 50,000 jobs across the Balkan region.
In October, a debt restructuring deal was confirmed by Zagreb’s High Commercial Court. But many questions were left hanging in the air. Experts noted that Agrokor’s new shareholders, the biggest of which is Sberbank of Russia, with 39.2 per cent, have little interest in food production.
While Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic claimed that the process of saving Agrokor was a great success, and tried to close this topic, many media and commentators said the country will not forget it so quickly.
A former member of his government, Martina Dalic, resigned in May as Economy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister after leaked emails suggested that she had used her position to help her friends and business associates during the process of passing the law imposing state management on Agrokor.
In December, the Conflict of Interest Commission decided that Dalic, and the current Finance Minister, Zdravko Maric, violated the principle of holding public office in connection with the Agrokor food and retail conglomerate. However, the violation does not carry any penalties.
The fate of Ivica Todoric, Agrokor’s former owner, was also uncertain. After spending a year in London, escaping pre-trial detention, he was extradited to Croatia in November.
After only 13 days of pre-trial detention, he was released on paying a million euros in bail. He is now on conditional release until the end of the investigation process and the eventual filing of an indictment. Interestingly, he has announced that he intends to run for elections.
Some “worldview” battles also erupted in 2018 in Croatia, as in other countries, between conservatives and liberals.
One of the main disputes was about so-called Istanbul convention, the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against woman and domestic violence. Conservatives noisily argued that ratification of the convention would undermine family values and promote a so-called gender ideology.
As in some other Balkan countries, Croatia also saw a great split over the UN’s non-binding Global Pact on Migration, signed in Morocco, which conservatives also denounced, insisting it would only encourage more migration.
Turkey in 2018: Economic fears and rows with West
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the presidential election for the second time by a tight margin, thanks mainly to the alliance between his ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, and nationalist parties.
Erdogan maintained his majority in parliament but was obliged to draw on the support of nationalist allies to pass laws.
After the elections, the new executive presidential system, which was endorsed in a highly controversial referendum in 2017, took force.
The new system gives the President almost unchecked power and makes him the only real decision maker in domestic and foreign politics.
Erdogan’s authoritarian rule continued to undermine Turkey’s once warm relations with the West.
Kati Piri, the EU rapporteur on Turkey, even said the EU should formally suspend membership negotiations with Turkey. The EU also reduced “pre-ascension funds” for Turkey by 105 million euros and froze an additional 70 million euros of previously announced spending because of “the deteriorating situation in relation to democracy, rule of law and human rights worrying”.
The US was also displeased, imposing new sanctions on Turkey on August 1, including not delivering F-35 fighter jets to Turkey as had been agreed.
In response, Turkey tried to get closer with Russia, especially on the issues of Syria, the defence industry, energy and the economy. Turkey took steps in 2018 to get Russian S-400 missile systems and the offshore section of Turkish Stream pipeline project was opened November 19.
Amid internal political quarrels and worsening relations with the US, the EU and NATO, the Turkish currency, the lira, plummeted by more than 50 per cent between January and December 2018.
The drop in the value of the lira was followed by other alarming indices in the economy and the government had to increase taxes and the price of main commodities, including gas, electricity and petroleum. This all also affected Turkey’s GDP growth, which shrank to a puny 1.6 per cent in the third quarter of 2018.
Besides strengthening his powers at home, Erdogan increased his hunt for supporters of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he blames for a failed coup attempt in 2016 and describes as the leader of the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation”, or FETO.
Erdogan and his government pushed Balkan countries on every occasion to shut Gulen-linked institutions and arrest his followers and deport them to Turkey.
Turkey’s intelligence agency, the MIT, conducted two such operations. One was in Kosovo on March 29.
The other one was in Moldova on September 6. The abduction of these alleged “Gulenists” to Turkey caused consternation in both countries, with Kosovo leaders claiming not to have been informed.
Several other court cases in which Turkey demanded the extradition of alleged Gulenists to Turkey continued in several Balkan countries.