Apostolova: The Ibar River Bridge is the Top Priority in the North

The Head of the EU Office in Kosovo and the EU Special Representative in Prishtina, Nataliya Apostolova, addressed journalists and representatives from the diplomatic community following the official publication of the Enlargement Package in Strasbourg by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Commissioner for EU Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Johannes Hahn, which includes seven individual reports for Western Balkan partners and Turkey.

Apostolova was asked about the timeline for the functionalization of the Ibar river bridge in Mitrovica, mentioned in the report, and stated that the report welcomed the significant obstacles had been overcome and signaled that the bridge “should be opened without further delay or obstructions”.

“The bridge is our biggest project in the north. The work on the bridge is ongoing, even as we speak. Of course it took some time until it was implemented. I can say we have good cooperation at the moment with the north municipality of Mitrovica and I really have the hope that the bridge is going to be finalized as soon as possible. There were some ups and downs in the implementation of this project. It was related to some concerns from the municipalities based on ethnic incidents that took place on the bridge. Nevertheless, the bridge is a symbol and it is the most important symbol of the dialogue,” said Apostolova in response to a question asked by KoSSev.

She also expressed her belief that since Prishtina had recently announced the formation of a managerial team to work on the drafting of the statute which would lay the ground work for the formation of the Association of Serb Municipalities, she did not expect any significant escalations on Friday the 20th, when representatives of Srpska lista and the Head of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija announced that the association would be formed “unilaterally”.

“Recently, Prime Minister Haradinaj announced the kick-off on the work of the association of Serbian majority municipalities. The EU, we welcomed very much this step. We waited for quite a long time for this process to start. Now this statute has a timeline of four months within which it has to be finalized. Very soon, the things on both sides with experts and the management team, they are going to be summoned in Brussels and they are going to start a consultation process on what exactly is going to put in this statute. Of course we should not be mistaken – it is not going to be an easy process and at least the first step has been done and we are going to grant all necessary support to the team to work,” said Apostolova.

The report, which serves as a measure of progress made by all Western Balkan partners including Kosovo, touches upon key aspects in their reform process on their path to gaining EU accession. This year's publication of the report was notably crucial for Macedonia and Albania, who received recommendations for the start of accession negotiations. 

The issues pertaining to Kosovo focused on the ongoing dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina, the mandating of judges and prosecutors who will become part of the judicial system in the north, and sharp condemnations about incidents in the north of Kosovo.

Fight against organized crime is “lacking”

The report states that Kosovo still finds itself in the “early stages” in the fight against organized crime. While certain progress was made in the reporting period in investigating and prosecuting high-level cases, “final convictions, financial investigations and final confiscation of assets” remain few and far between. “Measures need to be taken to strictly ensure there is no political interference with the operational activities of law enforcement bodies and the prosecution. The situation in the north of Kosovo with regard to organized crime poses particular challenges for law enforcement agencies”.

It also notes that “officials from the north of Kosovo did not meet their obligations regarding the submission of asset declarations to the Anti-Corruption Agency”.

Intimidation in local elections

The parliamentary and municipal elections held in 2017 were “generally competitive and well-administered in most places in Kosovo”, states the report. There is concern, however, about signs of intimidation noticed in the Kosovo Serb communities.

“Patterns of intimidation within many Kosovo Serb communities, targeting particularly candidates not belonging to the Srpska lista party, raised concerns. The context in the north of Kosovo poses particular challenges.”

The report continues, emphasizing that the response by law enforcement authorities was “not sufficient” with regard to cases of intimidation.

“The EU election observation mission noted that during the campaign, senior officials in Belgrade repeatedly urged voters to vote for Srpska Lista. All this raises deep concerns over the state of democracy in Kosovo.”

Municipal budgets in the north of Kosovo

The report welcomes the improved relations of municipalities in northern Kosovo with the “central government institutions” and states that “four northern municipalities complied with legislation on the adoption of the 2017 municipal budgets”. It stressed however, that due to “continued inconsistencies in population figures, a census should be conducted in all 4 municipalities.”

EU dialogue “needs to be accelerated”

While there were four high-level meetings between Aleksandar Vucic and Hashim Thaci in the reporting period, the “implementation of the 25 August 2015 agreements has overall been slow”. On April 4th, 2018 Kosovo has given a mandate to the Management Team to “start drafting the statute of the Association/Community”.

With regard to energy, Serbia needs to register and license two Serbian energy companies to be established in Kosovo “as a matter of urgency”. It welcomed the establishment of a telecommunications company as a subsidiary of Srbija Telekom, in lieu of Kosovo being granted the dialing code in 2017.

The 40 judges and 13 prosecutors and respective support staff that were mandated in October 2017 are currently undergoing a twelve-month training process in preparation for taking on their full responsibilities in the judiciary in the north. Further efforts are required to ensure access to judicial proceedings in the Albanian and Serbian languages across Kosovo and use of “both languages in the work of judicial bodies”.

Technical dialogue agreements, such as those pertaining to the issue of university diplomas, have not been fully implemented, according to the report.

Both Apostolova and Mogherini stressed the importance of reaching a “legally binding agreement” so that Serbia and Kosovo can “advance on their respective European paths.”

War crimes

Since the EU Rule of Law Mission is set to wrap-up its mandate in June, a significant amount of cases are being transferred or have been transferred to the war crimes department within Kosovo' Special Prosecution Office. Access to justice is being jeopardized by the “low number of prosecutors working on war crimes, insufficient cooperation between Kosovo's and Serbia's prosecution offices, including for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence”.

The lack of cooperation between Kosovo's and Serbia's prosecution offices have made it difficult to prosecute cases, for both offices. “Significant concerns remain about the willingness to investigate, prosecute and judge war crimes cases involving former Kosovo Liberation Army members”. The recent pardoning of three former KLA members by Hashim Thaci “raised serious concerns”.

Serbian Orthodox heritage

In May 2016, the Consitutional Court issued a final judgement on the land dispute case involving the Visoki Decani monastery and confirmed the monastery's legal ownership of the land. The judgement remains “unimplemented” due to local resistance, including “overt defiance by municipal officials”. Relations between Kosovo authorities and the Serbian Orthodox Church were “strained” during the reporting period. 

The Ministry of Culture is engaging with the SOC on ways to support the reconstruction of sites left unfinished. Terms of this support need to be clarified to ensure that the SOC can exercise “full discretion” in the management of its properties.

Ethnically-motivated incidents

The report states that the “overall security situation for minority communities remains relatively stable”. However, recurring incidents of property theft and burglary, which frequently affect Kosovo Serb returnees in western Kosovo and other minority communities in other municipalities. The “insufficient follow-up” by judicial authorities increases insecurity and hampers the return process. Law enforcement and judicial authorities should take “urgent” action to bring the perpetrators to justice. Continued efforts are required to “properly and consistently” address incitement to hatred and hate crimes against minorities.
 

Una Hajdari 

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