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Balkan Story concentrates on Balkan Diplomacy, with a central focus on relations between FYROM and Greece, the internal political scene of FYROM and its international relations.

The purpose of this site is to present as many sources of information as possible, both so as to be a solid news-source for the country but also so as to explain how it is perceived by third-parties.

Articles are mostly in English, to simplify access to the information for an international audience, although occasionally original sources might be presented in French or German. Articles not originally written in English have been translated.

Contributions of translations of articles or other texts, as well as original texts are welcome, so do not hesitate to email abalkanstory AT gmail DOT com. You can also use the same adress to indicate source-material that might be of interest.

Balkan Story reserves the right to reject articles of a racist, defamatory or extremist nature.

Let it also be noted that the opinions presented in articles that appear on Balkan Story, be it in their original form or in translation, do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Balkan Story on a given subject.

[Note on the nomenclature: Given that the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is under dispute, the choice of the name used in texts is often interpreted as taking one side against the other. Thus in Greece the term "Skopje" is frequently used to denote the whole state, while the other side almost always employs the term "Macedonia" or "Republic of Macedonia" to the same effect. The only term whose use has been agreed upon by both sides (with the Interim Agreement of 1995) is "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" or "fYROM/FYROM". Thus, this is the term that shall be employed in original texts; in translated or reproduced texts the term used in the original texts shall be preserved, to reflect the authors opinions.]

Macedonians Renew Protests Against Abortion Curbs

Macedonian rights groups are resuming protests in front of parliament on Monday as  lawmakers are expected to vote on a new government law to restrict abortion.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Balkan Insight, 10.06.2013

 

Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Rights groups vowed to rally again on Monday against the draft law which they say will curb women’s basic rights and could be a step towards a complete ban on abortions.

Ninety-one local and international rights groups, including the Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and the Association for Health Education, have signed a joint letter to Macedonian legislators protesting about the proposed legislation.

Two weeks ago, the right-of-centre government of Nikola Gruevski surprised many by submitting the draft to parliament using a shortened procedure.

The move prompted protests at the parliament building with demonstrators carrying banners with slogans like “My Body, My Decision” and “I Am Not a Child Killer”.

Last week, health minister Nikola Todorov promised that he would make some concessions on the draft.

One of the concessions that he offered was to remove a provision that would put himself in charge of the formation of a commission that would decide on women’s requests for abortion.

But he said he was not planning to withdraw the draft, which he described as “liberal”.

“There will always be opposing opinions over which right is greater, the right of the woman to decide on her own or the right to life of the child in her womb,” Todorov said over the weekend.

The current law, dating from 1976, leaves key decisions on terminations to women and doctors.
But under the proposed changes, women will now have to file requests for abortions and will have to confirm that they attended counselling, informed the “spouse” of their intention to abort and met a gynaecologist.

The law would further prohibit women from having a second abortion within a year of the first one.

“These restrictive measures bring us back to the times when other people decided about women’s rights,” said Liljana Poplovska, head of the small DOM party, the only governing coalition party that opposes the bill.

Ermira Mehmeti Devaja, a legislator from the junior ruling Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, was the only other woman from the ruling majority who publicly said that she would not support the bill.

Some see the move as a step towards a ban on terminations. In 2009, the government launched a media campaign against abortion, which was backed by the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

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Panos Panagiotopoulos: “Skopje must respect our history”

Source: Proto Thema, 08.06.2013 (Translated by B.S.)

The assurance that the Greek armed forces remain strong and proud and maintain the dissuasive power of the country at the highest level, was given today, from Thessalonike, by the minister of Defence, Panos Panagiotopoulos, speaking at a ceremony commemorating the Macedonian Struggle, in the War Museum.

Mr Panagiotopoulos also stated that the period of the Macedonian Struggle provides valuable lessons to overcome the present crisis through unity, as there are common points between that period and today for Greece.

“Our nation at that time proved that it can coordinate, as long as there is a great idea […]. In but a few years from the bankruptcy of 1893 […] Greece reconstructed itself and advanced [….]. There are many common characteristics today with that time. The bankruptcy, the international economic control of the country from the troica of that time, sic European powers. And yet our grandfathers did not despair […]. The Greeks did not succumb to a national depression […]. When we unite we create miracles” he stated, reminding that, on the contrary, division brings situations like the experience of Asia Minor.

Message to Skopje

He also underlined that in Greece “We do not forget History, nor do we delete our heroes, as some newly-made, so-called historians would like”. He added that Greece wants to remain a peaceful force and respects the frontiers and international treaties.

He did, however, send a clear message to Skopje, underlining that. “We demand from the neighbouring state of Skopje to respect our history and not to embezzle and counterfeit it”.

Macedonia Leaders Agree to Speed up Inquiry

The Prime Minister and the new opposition leader agreed to step up talks on forming an inquiry into last year’s events in parliament, which triggered a prolonged political crisis.

 
Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Balkan Insight, 07.06.2013

 

Nikola Gruevski [left] and Zoran Zaev [right] | Photo by: MIA

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and the head of the Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev, agreed on Thursday to finally form a commission of inquiry into the events of December 24, 2012.

“Interlocutors agreed to intensify the communication” on this issue, a press release from the government said, adding that “Both [leaders] showed their full commitment to the process”.

The meeting, which lasted an hour-and-a-half, was the first meeting between the two leaders since Zaev was elected last weekend as new head of the Social Democrats. The meeting came after Gruevski congratulated Zaev on his election by telephone.

Brussels has been urging the country’s leaders to set up the commission of inquiry, agreed as part of an EU-brokered deal struck on March 1 that ended a months-long political crisis.

The EU said it would show that Skopje means business when talking about its commitment to starting EU accession talks.

The commission was initially intended to be formed in March. But delays occurred when Gruevski’s VMRO DPMNE party and the opposition failed to agree on several issues, most importantly on the chair of the body.

The commission is to comprise political party representatives and experts working under the supervision of the European Union.

The EU-brokered deal of March 1 ended a long political crisis in the country, which began on December 24, 2012, when the government parties passed a budget for 2013 in only minutes, after opposition MPs and journalists were expelled from the chamber.

Weeks of street protests followed, along with a boycott of parliament and an opposition threat to boycott the recently finished local elections.

Macedonian Journalists Seek Reporter’s Release

A delegation of journalists, demanding the immediate release of their incarcerated colleague Tomislav Kezarovski, emerged unsatisfied from Tuesday’s talks with the court’s head.

 

Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Balkan Insight, 05.06.2013

 

The head of Skopje’s criminal court, Vladimir Pancevski, told journalists he had no power to influence the judge who ordered 30 days of detention for Kezarovski and advised the defence to file a formal complaint.

“Detention has been ordered for two reasons: the risk of his escape and the danger that he may influence the witnesses who in this phase of the investigation have not yet been examined,” the spokesperson for the court, Vladimir Tufegdzic, said after the meeting.

This explanation was deemed unacceptable by journalists.

“These reasons are unacceptable to us,” said journalist Zoran Dimitrovski. “We demanded the re-examination of his detention… and, taking into consideration that he is a journalist, that the public interest and the dignity of the profession are at stake.”

Kezarovski, an investigative journalist at the Nova Makedonija daily, is currently being detained for 30 days in relation to an article he wrote in 2008 for Reporter 92 magazine in which he revealed the identity of a witness in a murder case.

Last week, during his arrest by special police, Kezarovski was paraded in handcuffs in front of the cameras as he was led to and from the court.

According to media reports, he is being charged with revealing the identity of a protected witness and has been asked by an investigative judge to reveal the identity of his source.

Last Friday, the association of Macedonian Journalists, ZNM, the Independent Journalist’s Union, SSNM, and the Macedonian Institute for Media, MIM, held a protest before the court in Skopje, demanding his release.

The ZNM also sent a letter to ambassadors in the country, seeking their help and voicing suspicions that the only reason for his arrest was to press him to reveal his source.

Meanwhile, condemnations of the arrest have mounted.

Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE representative for freedom of the media, described the detention as “excessive”. It “sends a negative signal about the state of media freedom in the country,” Mijatović said.

“Journalists must be allowed to carry out investigative reporting of issues in the public interest free from the threat of imprisonment and without being forced to reveal their sources,” Mijatovic added.

The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders demanded “the immediate release” of Kezarovski, adding that he had been jailed “on suspicious grounds.

“We are very worried by the constant decline in freedom of information in Macedonia, which is now ranked 116th out of 179 countries in our 2013 press freedom index,” it added.

“Imprisoning a journalist for investigative reporting that was clearly in the public interest will not improve this situation,” it continued.

The Association of European Journalists also sought the immediate release of Kezarovski.

In 2008, police said they had uncovered the suspects behind the 2005 murder of 57-year-old Lazar Milosevski in the village of Orese near Veles.

Two brothers, Ordan and Ljupco Gjorgievski, were charged as perpetrators while Gjorge Petrovski, who was then extradited from the United States, was charged with ordering the murder.

But, in a spectacular twist, in February, the former protected witness, Zlatko Arsovski, admitted false testimony against the defendants, saying he acted under police threats.

The sensational admission resulted in release of the defendants who had claimed all along that a police inspector had framed them out of revenge.

Adding to the confusion, while Kezarovski is charged with revealing the identity of a protected witness in the article from 2008, the witness himself told the court in February that he only became a protected witness in January 2010.

Number of Balkan Asylum Seekers to EU Falls

A report by the European Commission notes that the number of asylum seekers from the Western Balkans has dropped.

 

According to the third biannual report on the functioning of the EU’s Schengen area, the overall number of asylum applications by people from the Western Balkans in the top five EU/Schengen states decreased by 44 per cent in January 2013 compared to the same month in 2012.

The number from Serbia fell by 61 per cent, Montenegro by 45 per cent and Macedonia by 46 per cent.

However, “there was a considerable increase of asylum seekers from Albania (+74%) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (+51%),” the report adds.

The top destination countries for asylum seekers continue to be Germany, followed by Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxemburg.

In December 2009, the European Union lifted visa requirements on Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, allowing their citizens to travel freely into the EU’s so-called Schengen zone.

The issue of mass migration and asylum is a worrying one for the region, as it endangers the liberalized visa arrangements that these countries have with the EU.

Macedonians Protest Over Journalist’s Arrest

Macedonian journalists on Friday protested in front of the Skopje criminal court, demanding release of the journalist Tomislav Kezarovski.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Balkan Insight, 31.05.2013

 

Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Carrying banners reading “Freedom for Kezarovski,” “Who is Next?” and “What is the Cost of Freedom?”, about a hundred Macedonian journalists on Friday signed a petition demanding an explanation for his arrest.

Special police arrested Kezarovski in his home town of Veles on Wednesday in relation to a murder case from 2005.

Kezarovski is accused of revealing the identity of a protected witness in the case in an article that he wrote in 2008 for the newspaper Reporter 92.

The article raised suspicions that the defendants in the case, who have all since been released, were framed.

He was paraded in handcuffs in front of the cameras as he was led to and from the court, which ordered 30 days of detention.

“Kezarovski has been arrested for protecting the public interest and for revealing a false witness. This interest is more important than protecting the identity of a false witness,” Petrit Saracini, from the Macedonian Institute for Media, said.

“Kezarovski has acted professionally, respecting the journalistic code and revealing facts in a case where innocent people risked being jailed,” Saracini said.

The association of Macedonian Journalists, ZNM, the Independent Journalist’s Union, SSNM, and the Macedonian Institute for Media, MIM, all backed the protest, describing the arrest of a journalist in this manner as unprecedented.

The second largest journalists’ association, the Macedonian Association of Journalists, MAN, also condemned the arrest.

“MAN deems his incarceration inappropriate. He is being treated as a criminal without a final verdict,” MAN said in a statement.

In 2008, police said they had uncovered the suspects behind the 2005 murder of 57-year-old Lazar Milosevski in the village of Orese near Veles.

Two brothers, Ordan and Ljupco Gjorgievski, were charged as perpetrators while Gjorge Petrovski, who was then extradited from the United States, was charged with ordering the murder.

But in a spectacular twist, this February the former protected witness, Zlatko Arsovski, admitted false testimony against the defendants, saying he acted under threats from the police.

“They threatened to charge me for everything that had happened in Orese. So, I had to sign everything that was put on paper… I had to memorize the statement and repeat everything to the prosecution and to the investigative judge,” Arsovski told a court in Skopje.

The sensational admission resulted in release of the defendants who had claimed all along that a police inspector had framed them out of revenge.

Adding to the confusion, while Kezarovski is charged with revealing the identity of a protected witness in the article from 2008, the witness himself told the court in February that he only became a protected witness in January 2010.

Opposition MPs Lost for Words in Macedonia

Opposition MPs have started a “silence treatment” in parliament, protesting against what they call the government’s failure to honour an EU-brokered deal on ending a political crisis.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Balkan Insight, 31.05.2013
Macedonian Parliament

At Thursday’s session dedicated to legislators’ questions, opposition MPs in Macedonia, led by the Social Democrats, SDSM, were present in the hall but remained silent in a sign of protest.

They say the government is not honouring pledges it made on March as a part of a deal to end a months-long political crisis.

The say the government has stalled the formation of the promised commission of inquiry into the incidents of December 24 in parliament, which began the crisis.

They also say the coalition led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO DPMNE party is not willing to change the parliamentary rulebook and revise election legislation, as also agreed on March 1.

“We will reduce our participation [in parliament] to strict formalities until we see an honest political will from the authorities to resolve these crucial issues,” an opposition statement said.

The opposition said it will actively engage in parliamentary work only when the assembly discusses issues related to EU and NATO integration.

MPs said they chose this form of protest rather than an all-out boycott in order not to further jeopardize political stability, which could raise fresh questions about Macedonian readiness to join the EU and NATO.

On December 24, 2012, government parties passed a budget for 2013 in only minutes after opposition MPs and journalists were expelled from the chamber.

Weeks of street protests followed, along with a boycott of parliament and an opposition threat to boycott recently completed local elections.

In March, President Gjorge Ivanov said the commission of inquiry into the December events, which is to operate under his patronage, should be operational within two weeks.

However, several delays have followed since then due to the prolonged political negotiations between the government and opposition.

Prime Minister Gruevski recently blamed the opposition for the failure to form the commission, saying the main problem was choosing a head.

“We have made many attempts to reach out to the SDSM and choose a president of the commission. We proposed many people and they were all refused,” he saisd this week.

“In the end we agreed the SDSM would choose the president and in return decisions [in the commission] would be reached with consensus. They again refused,” he added.

Meanwhile, Brussels has urged Macedonia to form the commission of inquiry as soon as possible, saying it will boost the country’s chances of obtaining an EU accession talks start date this year.

The European Council is expected to make the final decision on this issue at a summit in June 27-28.

However, an important obstacle remains the longstanding Macedonian dispute with Greece over the use of the name “Macedonia”.

Macedonia Rescues Threatened Ministerial Summit

Nimble diplomatic footwork has saved the ministerial conference of the South-East European Cooperation Process, SEECP – due to take place in Macedonia on Friday – after Kosovo and Serbia agreed a compromise.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Balkan Insight, 31.05.2013

 

SEECP Foreign Ministers in Skopje | Archive photo

Macedonia has salvaged a threatened regional ministerial conference after two countries at the heart of a diplomatic stand-off, Serbia and Kosovo, agreed to sit at the same table at the meeting.

The breakthrough occurred after host country Macedonia downgraded the meeting to an “informal” one.

Kosovo then said it would send its deputy Foreign Minister, Petrit Selimi, while Serbia will be represented by its Foreign Minister, Ivan Mrkic.

Earlier, Macedonia’s plans to host a summit of presidents of SEECP states ended in fiasco after most guests pulled out, prompting Macedonia’s President, Gjorge Ivanov, to call off the meeting.

The Greek President, Karolos Papoulias, and Bulgaria’s Rosen Plevneliev were the first to cancel. Albania’s Bujar Nishani and Croatia’s Ivo Josipovic then followed, these two after Kosovo’s President, Atifete Jahjaga, was not invited due to Serbian objections.

Serbia opposes attending top-level meetings where Kosovo is represented as a state as it does not recognise Kosovo’s independence.

Kosovo complained that Serbia’s initial attempt to block Kosovo from attending the meetings in Macedonia violated the 19 April EU-led agreement on normalization of relations as well as an earlier February 23, 2012, agreement specifically concerning Kosovo’s representation at regional meetings.

On the other hand, Serbia’s Mrkic on Thursday said that Kosovo was not part of the SEECP process and should not have been invited, or tried to come.

“Even if Kosovo were a state, it is not a member of SEECP. The question is: can someone else attend if it is deemed as state by some and not by others?” Mrkic said.

As with the doomed presidential summit, Macedonia, which is presiding over the SEECP this year, faced difficulties over no-shows in staging the ministerial meeting.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu cancelled owing to urgent duties regarding the Syrian crisis.

Greece, whose relations with Macedonia are strained by the long-standing dispute over Macedonia’s name, is sending only a technical representative from the Foreign Ministry.

Croatia’s Foreign Minister, Vesna Pusic, on the other hand, announced her presence while Albania will send its Deputy Foreign Minister, Edith Harxhi.

At the meeting, chaired by Macedonia’s chief of diplomacy, Nikola Poposki, Macedonia will present the achievements of its presidency over the SEECP.

Meanwhile, the former speaker of the Macedonian parliament, Stojan Andov, said President Ivanov had made a rushed decision when he scrapped the presidential summit due this weekend.

“It would have been better if the presidential summit had been postponed till September rather than cancelled,” Andov said. By then, he said, “the atmosphere around Kosovo would have been much clearer.”

Macedonia Scraps Regional Presidential Summit

Macedonian plans to host a summit of regional presidents end in fiasco after most of the guests pull out for a variety of reasons – forcing Macedonia’s president to call off the meeting.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Balkan Insight, 30.05.2013

 

Macedonia President, Gjorge Ivanov

Gjorge Ivanov said there was no point in holding the summit, or the complementary forum, called “Dialogue Among Civilizations”, after several regional leaders said they would not be coming.

“Old Balkan prejudices and complexes were reinvigorated in the wake of the summit,” President Ivanov complained.

The 16th summit of heads of states and prime ministers of the South East Europe Cooperation Process, SEECP, and the forum “Dialogue Among Civilizations”, were due to take place this weekend in Ohrid and nearby Struga as part of Macedonia’s annual presidency of the SEECP.

The first to announce a no show earlier this month was Greek President Karolos Papoulias, an expected move related to the long-standing dispute between Greece and Macedonia over Macedonia’s name.

But then President Rosen Plevneliev of Bulgaria less expectedly also pulled out. Later, the Albanian President also announced that he would not be coming.

He cancelled after Kosovo accused Macedonia of being “anti-European” for not inviting its own President, Atifete Jahjaga, to the meeting, presumably out of deference to the wishes of Serbia, which does not recognise Kosovo’s independence, though Serbia has since denied any role in the affair of the non-invitation.

Out of solidarity with his fellow Albanians in Kosovo, Albania’s Bujar Nishani called off his travel plans.

The last cancellation came on Wednesday from the Croatian President, Ivo Josipovic.

Washington said it regretted the collapse of the planned summit. Praising Macedonia for its attempts to organize a “positive and productive summit”, the State Department told MIA news agency: “It is a pity that the leaders in the region will miss this opportunity to address the challenges standing before all of them”.

The fiasco over the presidential meeting did not reflect on an earlier conference of the heads of SEECP member state parliaments, which opened on Monday, also in Macedonia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Turkey and Slovenia all sent representatives.

Member states laid the foundations for a joint parliamentary assembly, to be formed next year, aimed at boosting regional cooperation.

Macedonia’s Planned Abortion Curbs Draw Protests

Government move to restrict abortions prompts protests from rights groups, some of whom fear the curbs are intended to pave the way towards a complete ban on terminations.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Balkan Insight, 29.05.2013

 

Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Carrying banners reading “My Body, My Decision”, and “I Am Not a Child Killer”, several hundred people protested in front of the Macedonian parliament on Wednesday, urging legislators to reject a new draft law restricting abortion.

If adopted, women seeking an abortion beyond the tenth week of pregnancy will have to submit a written request that must be approved by the Health Ministry.

The current law from 1976 leaves key decisions on abortions to doctors.

Women will now have to confirm that they attended counselling, informed the father of their intention to abort and met a gynecologist.

For the first time, doctors who do not comply with these provisions will face a jail term.

The law would further prohibit women from having a second abortion within a year of the first one.

The right-of-centre government of Nikola Gruevski surprised many by submitting the draft to parliament through a shortened procedure on Tuesday.

“A draft tackling the basic human rights of women must not be passed in a shortened procedure,” an association of rights-related NGOs, including the Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, said.

The change would additionally “bureaucratize the procedure for women… and put the minister indirectly in charge of deciding on abortions”, the protesting NGOs said.

“Medical doctors should be left to decide on this matter as this is within their area of expertize,” Neda Korunovska, from Reaktor, an NGO, said.

Despite objections from opposition Social Democrats, parliament voted on Wednesday to put the bill up for discussion in the current session.

“These restrictive measures bring us back to the times when other people decided about women’s rights,” said Liljana Poplovska, head of the small DOM party, the only government party that opposed the bill.

“This provision will not increase the birth rate. That needs to be done with stimulants, not restrictive measures,” she said.

Health minister Nikola Todorov said the new law differs little from the old one, insisting that it will be beneficial for women.

“The law does not prohibit the abortion, it only restricts it in cases when the health of the woman is threatened”, Todorov told a press conference.

However, some see the move as a step towards a ban on abortions. In 2009, the government launched a media campaign against abortion, which was backed by the Macedonian Orthodox Church.