The Economist by T.J. Jan 8th 2014
THIS year promises to be an important year for the western Balkans and here are some of the important stories we expect to cover:
The biggest and flashiest Balkan news event will be the commemoration of the centenary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914, which sparked the first world war. The issue is a divisive one in Bosnia as we have noted here in our sister magazine, Intelligent Life. Many Bosniaks and Croats view Gavrilo Princip, the assassin, as a terrorist. Serbs see him as a liberator.
Big showpiece events taking place in Sarajevo in June include a major cycle race featuring former Tour de France stars and a performance of the Vienna Philharmonics in the city’s Austro-Hungarian city library building (pictured), which was burned down at the beginning of the Serbian siege of Sarajevo in 1992. Workmen are now racing to restore it.
In Serbia the big question is whether early elections will be called. Most likely this will happen by the end of this month. The result looks set to change the balance of power in government. Aleksandar Vucic, the deputy prime minister and leader of the largest party in parliament, is likely to become prime minister. However, as many analysts have pointed out, those who have called early elections in recent years have all had nasty shocks. Mr Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party is almost certain to remain the biggest party but it might not do as well as its members calling for an election hope.
In Croatia the mood is one of introspection. In his new year’s message the president, Ivo Josipovic, talked of disappointment since joining the European Union in July. He went as far as to ask whether Croatia had only been wearing a mask to enable it to gain membership. A Social Democrat, he and his government, are facing a resurgent right, but the main challenge is extra-parliamentary. Following the defeat of the government in its opposition of a referendum against gay marriage in December, the use of Serbian Cyrillic in the Vukovar region is now on the agenda. The Catholic Church and militant former soldiers are playing leading roles.
In the wake of last year’s historic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia brokered by the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, much of the first part of the year will be taken up with implementing it. New municipalities in Serbian majority areas need to begin operating and problems are already emerging. According to the agreement an association of Serbian municipalities now needs to be formed and its competences need to be defined.
The really big unknown in Kosovo this year relates to the Special Investigative Task Force of the EU’s police and justice mission. It was set up in the wake of a report by Dick Marty, a Swiss prosecutor for the Council of Europe, which was officially published in January 2011. The report implicated Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s prime minister in drug smuggling and murder and accused his former Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas of harvesting the organs of murdered prisoners in 1999. Mr Thaci has always dismissed the allegations as ridiculous and later this year the SITF should either vindicate or indict him and other important Kosovar politicians. In rather dramatic contrast Mr Thaci and Ivica Dacic, his Serbian counterpart, have been nominated for this year’s Noble Peace Prize by members of the American Congress.
The economy and high unemployment continue to plague the whole region, though the last few months have seen some encouraging indicators. They only serve to show however just how reliant the western Balkan economies are on the fate of the euro zone in terms of demand and remittances, despite much excited talk of Russian and Chinese investment. Indeed Milan Bacevic, a Serbian government minister, has announced that China is to invest €10 trillion ($13.5 trillion) in the Balkans and central and eastern Europe and that Belgrade is to be the centre for its infrastructure projects. Sadly, this figure, which he insisted was correct, and represents a little less than the entire American GDP is unlikely to be right. If it was, that would be the Balkan story of the century, let alone the year.