Alex Crevar, writing for Lonely Planet, takes the reader on a tour of a weekend in Novi Sad. From its rich cultural diversity to Novi Sad locals self-identification as ‘laid-back’ and ‘relaxed’, Lonely Planet shines a spotlight on an often overlooked destination.
By ERIC MAURICE
SOFIA, 12. JAN, 13:46
A 2025 deadline for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans is "realistic" but will depend on the region's countries efforts to meet the criteria, according to Bulgaria's foreign minister Ekaterina Zaharieva, whose country now has the rotating EU Council presidency.
"If all the society and political leaders focus on that and implement key reforms, it's not unrealistic," she told EUobserver in Sofia on Thursday (11 January)
"It depends on each of the [region's] countries, on how fast they deliver," she said, insisting that "of course, they will know that if they are not ready there will be no agreement for membership."
"The rules are clear for everybody," she added.
The 2025 target is to be formalised next month by the European Commission.
"The Western Balkans partners now have a historic window of opportunity. For the first time, their accession perspective has a best-case timeframe," the commission says in a draft document seen by EUobserver.
The EU Balkan strategy will be discussed in May, at a summit in Sofia with the region's countries - Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Giving them a "European perspective" - rather than a formal promise for membership - is one of the priorities set by Bulgaria for its presidency of the EU Council, which started on 1 January.
'Time to focus'
"It's time to focus on Western Balkan countries," Zaharieva told journalists in a press conference on Friday.
Seen from Sofia, it is a matter of security as well as EU influence on its doorstep.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov noted that China's interest in the region was "growing" and that "Russia might try to see greater influence." And he warned the bloc of the perils of inaction in the region, saying Brussels had been warned: "If we [the EU] don't do something about it, we should not have our feelings hurt."
Borisov insisted that for the EU, the "least-risk option" was to "think about" the Western Balkan and improve their infrastructure.
Bulgaria is pushing for railways, highways and energy projects in the region in order to win people's hearts and minds and increase economic links. Other ideas as the extension of roaming-free communications and of EU's free-wifi plans are also on the table.
"Europe can be stable, secure and developed only if the Western Balkans are stable, secure and developed," Zaharieva argued.
She pointed to the region's young generation, and said that an EU perspective would bring "ethnic stability" and "geopolitical security" in Europe.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who will travel in the region before the May summit, backed Bulgaria's ambitions.
"We'll have to take a closer and more targeted look to make sure they have the confirmation of a clear perspective," he said in Sofia on Friday.
Otherwise, he warned, "we may be looking at possible events that could lead us back to the 90s" - a reference to the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.
The minister stressed that a "perspective" was not a promise of membership and noted that the Western Balkan's six countries were each in different situations.
Montenegro is the most advanced in its negotiations with the EU, with 30 chapters already opened and three closed
Serbia is the second in line and could open "two or three" new chapters during Bulgaria's EU presidency.
Albania and Macedonia are candidate countries, but Macedonia - officially named Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia - has to first settle the dispute with Greece over its name.
Zaharieva said that she could see "really positive signals" in talks between Athens and Skopje on the issue.
The Greek and Macedonians have intensified their discussions in recent weeks and aim at an agreement this year.
"The name cannot stay like this," the Bulgarian minister noted, adding that Macedonia "should add something" to its name, in order to show that the country is not the same as the geographical Macedonia, which also covers parts of Greece and Bulgaria.
Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, are far behind.
The government in Sarajevo has not answered the European Commission questionnaire that is needed to start considering a membership application. And Kosovo is still not recognized by five EU member states.
In order to keep a political momentum towards closest links, Zaharieva called on all Western Balkan countries to show "reform hunger rather than reform fatigue."
She added that in return, the EU should "show that if and when they're ready with the pre-accession conditions, the door will be open."
A new report from the British House of Lords highlights concerns that countries in the Western Balkans are turning to authoritarian leaderships and nationalistic politics.
Maja Zivanovic, Gordana Andric | BIRN | Belgrade
The British House of Lords warns in a new report published on Wednesday that Western Balkan countries are increasingly turning towards authoritarianism, and that stability in the region is being undermined by outside countries like Russia.
The report highlights “serious concern that gains made towards good governance and the rule of law are in danger of being lost as countries in the region turn to authoritarian leadership, nationalistic politics and state capture”.
“This is being exacerbated by an apparent reticence on the part of the international community to challenge these tendencies, as well as endemic organised crime and corruption in the region. Stability in the region has also been undermined by the influence of third countries,” it adds.
The report, entitled ‘The UK and the Future of the Western Balkans’, says that although Balkan countries’ journey towards EU membership may be important, genuine progress to combat corruption, embed the rule of law, ensure freedom of expression and achieve other reforms must be made too.
“Outside the EU but remaining a champion for accession, the UK should be a critical friend of countries in the region. The [British] government should speak out when countries in the region fall short of the values and standards required and use its influence to ensure shortcomings are recognised,” it says.
The report is being published ahead of the upcoming 2018 Western Balkans Summit, which Britain will host in July.
“And in the run-up to that summit, we will enhance our security co-operation with our Western Balkans partners, including on serious and organised crime, anti-corruption and cyber security,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said last March.
The chairman of the House of Lords’ International Committee, Lord Howell of Guildford, told BIRN that the Western Balkan states will be of continuing importance to Britain even after it leaves the EU.
“The fact that we will not be part of the EU, we believe, doesn’t conflict with the interest and the commitment Britain has to the region,” Lord Howell said.
Asked whether Britain will align its policy on the Balkans with the EU after it leaves, International Committee member Lord Hannay of Chiswick told BIRN that it would be unwise to have a completely different policy.
“It wouldn’t be in the benefit for the countries of the Western Balkans either. We have to find the way from outside of the EU to continue to work with the EU countries,” Lord Hannay said.
The report highlighted some concerns that EU has chosen “stability over democratic values” in the Balkans.
“Stability is something that is achieved but it is inadequate as it is not companied by the rule of law,” Lord Hannay said.
The report expresses concern that Russia is trying to act as a “spoiler” in the region, intent on “disrupting any closer integration with the West”.
It also notes increased Chinese investments in the region, as well as growing interest from other countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
It urges the British government to use July’s Western Balkans Summit to set out in detail the contribution that Britain is prepared to make, in partnership with the EU, to support stability, democracy, the rule of law and prosperity in the region.
“This initiative, coming at an important stage of the Brexit negotiations, would demonstrate that the government is indeed not leaving Europe when it leaves the EU,” it adds.
By ERIC MAURICE
BRUSSELS, 9. JAN, 07:52
The border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia could block further enlargement in the Western Balkans, the European Commission president warned on Monday (8 January).
"The future enlargement of the EU to Western Balkans states is in the hands of Slovenia and Croatia," Jean-Claude Juncker said ahead of a meeting with Slovenian president Borut Pahor.
He said the deadlock between the two EU members states was "impacting the perspective of Western Balkan states to become members of the European Union."
"This is not only a bilateral problem, this is a problem that impacts the whole European Union," he said.
Croatia is refusing to implement a ruling handed down by a Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last summer over the route of its 670km border with Slovenia.The two countries have been at odds over the issue since the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Slovenia joined the EU in 2004. Croatia's accession in 2013 was, at the time, made conditional on its acceptance of international arbitration.
Croatia says that the process was tainted by links between a Slovenian arbitration judge and the Slovenian government. But the court, which dismissed the judge, said the incident did not impede its work.
Pahor went to Brussels, where he also met European Council president Donald Tusk, days after the deadline to implement the so-called arbitration award expired on 29 December.
Since then, several Croatian fishing boats have entered Slovenian waters in the Bay of Piran, the most disputed area between the two countries.
Juncker, who signed Croatia's accession treaty when he was Luxembourg's prime minister, said on Monday that he will "never agree again to put off until later the resolution of [candidate countries'] border problems."
Referring to Balkan states - among which Serbia and Montenegro have already started formal accession negotiations - the commission chief added that "they have to agree between themselves before they become member states."
Juncker at the same time noted that "nobody" in the EU knows what the dispute is about and that leaders in other EU countries "have very little interest" in the issue.
His comments on the grave consequences of the dispute was a gesture to Slovenia - which has been calling for months for EU support.
Speaking alongside Juncker, Slovenian president Pahor said he wanted the commission "to become more actively involved in implementing the arbitration award."
He said the EU executive had a "political, legal, and moral duty to intervene."
"This is a question of credibility," Pahor said.
He added that "any reluctance" from the commission would "give a lot of room for manoeuvre to those in both countries and to those in the Western Balkans who would like … to instigate nationalism [and] breaches of international rule of law."
Juncker repeated the commission's willingness to mediate between Slovenia and Croatia but gave no detail on when or how his services could do it.
He prepared the ground for discussion by saying Slovenia and Croatia still enjoyed "friendly relations" and that the differences between them were "tiny".
"There is room for a negotiated solution," he said.
Pahor, for his part, said that Croatia could "ease the pressure" by sending a message "on the record or off the record … from a reliable source … that they are willing to respect the arbitration award."
"It would allow to enter a spirit of dialogue, a spirit of cooperation," he said.
BRUSSELS, 9. JAN, 09:29
The EU is preparing to pledge a 2025 deadline for the next wave of enlargement, but Balkans disputes could hold things back.
"The Western Balkans partners now have a historic window of opportunity. For the first time, their accession perspective has a best-case timeframe," the commission is to say in a strategy paper to be adopted either on 7 or 14 February.
Zaev (l) said name dispute could be solved by June (Photo: ec.europa.eu)
"With strong political will, the delivery of real reforms, and lasting solutions to disputes with neighbours, Montenegro and Serbia should be ready for membership by 2025," the text is to add, according to a draft seen by EUobserver.
It aims to say Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo "should also be well advanced on their European path by then", or, according to alternative words in brackets, that their "negotiations … should be well advanced."
The paper marks a shift in tone after commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2014 there would be no EU enlargement in the foreseeable future.
Serbia and Montenegro have already opened accession talks.
Albania and Macedonia are hoping to do it this year, if Macedonia can resolve its name dispute with Greece.
Bosnia is angling to gain EU "candidate" status, while Kosovo is considering to formally ask to become a candidate.
The commission paper warned that local disputes could hold back what it called its "ambitious" timeline.
"The EU cannot and will not import bilateral disputes. This is why all the Western Balkans partners concerned must resolve such disputes as a matter of urgency," the draft said.
It proposed that border issues should be solved by international arbitration, for instance in The Hague, and that rulings must be "binding, final" and "fully respected".
The thorniest dispute is Serbia's non-recognition of Kosovo's independence.
The commission paper said, nodding to Belgrade, that "frontrunners on the EU path have a strategic interest" in advocating the EU "aspirations of their partners".
It added that a "comprehensive normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in the form of a legally-binding agreement" was "crucial" for both their EU prospects.
Kosovo's problems go beyond Serbia, however.
Five EU states also do not recognise its independence.
Meanwhile, its new leader, Ramush Haradinaj, has vowed to block an EU tribunal in The Hague on Kosovo guerrilla war crime allegations.
The US, on Monday, refused to grant him a visa to attend an event in Iowa on 11 February in what looked like punishment.
A Serb general said the same day that Nato had "specific" information on a "security threat" in Kosovo due to the court row.
The Macedonia-Greece name dispute could be resolved by June.
Greece has blocked Macedonia's EU and Nato entry talks for a decade on grounds that Macedonia's name implied a claim to a Greek region of the same name.
But Skopje and Athens say they are close to reaching a UN-mediated deal.
"We have a window for a solution," Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras said on Monday after holding talks with Macedonian leader Zoran Zaev.
Zaev said: "I believe there's a chance by the end of the middle of 2018 to find a settlement."
The Greek foreign minister said Macedonia should adopt a composite name with a geographical qualifier. Zaev declined to comment, saying: "I don't want to ruin the procedure of the imminent negotiations".
The list of Balkans disputes goes on 20 years after the wars there ended.
Croatia and Slovenia, which are already EU members, cannot agree on their maritime border in what Juncker said on Monday could hold back wider enlargement.
Croatia also has open border talks with Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia.
Kosovo had agreed on its border with Montenegro, but Pristina is now refusing to honour the accord.
Juncker's Balkans agenda is taking shape under Bulgaria's six-month EU presidency, which started on 1 January.
The EU will hold a Western Balkans summit on 18 May in Sofia - the 15th anniversary of a previous one in Thessaloniki, Greece, when member states first promised to take in the region.
The commission also aims to publish its regular progress reports on the Balkans aspirants in April.
"We will decide … in the next eight, nine months how to proceed with each and every one of these countries," Juncker's spokesman said on Monday.
Turkey is the only other country with an EU perspective.
The Western Balkans paper seen by EUobserver did not mention it, but the commission will take stock of relations with Ankara in its April reports.
Juncker's plans are also taking shape in the context of increased Russian activity.
Russia is flooding Balkans media with anti-EU propaganda and stoking Serb nationalism with arms deals.
Last year, suspected Russian spies were behind a failed coup in Montenegro designed to stop it from joining Nato. The Albanian foreign minister, Ditmir Bushati, recently told EUobserver he expected similar tricks in Macedonia this year.
"This is a possible scenario," Bushati said.
By SVEN AGTEN
BEIJING, 19. DEC 2017, 12:19
For several years now China has been increasingly investing in Europe.
In 2016 Chinese companies invested €35 billion in the EU.
Often these investments are in advanced manufacturing sectors or meant to buy certain technologies. Afraid of losing some crown jewels of the European economy, the EU is preparing measures to halt this trend.
But perhaps Europe shouldn´t worry too much about this. After all, the next wave is already coming: Chinese innovation and technology which will conquer the world.
And the first signs are visible. A few week ago, Europe launched two initiatives which are symptomatic and a reaction to the Chinese threat. Europe decided to form an alliance among some top European companies in order to regain lost ground on Chinese electric car battery manufacturers.
And because Chinese high-speed trains and their technology are being sold worldwide, French Alstom and German Siemens have formed a coalition against the Chinese train manufacturing company CRRC, which has recently won several projects in Europe.
Over the past few years China has implemented a policy which focuses on mass entrepreneurship, technology and innovation.
Pivot to private sector
Now the traditional sectors which spurred its economic growth have become weaker - a trend reinforced by increasingly more expensive Chinese labour - the Chinese government hopes that the private sector and innovation will become the new drivers of the economy.
As so many trends in China, big government is the driving force behind this. And that might just work. China has a labour force of 800 million, among whom 170 million have received higher education or possess high professional skills.
Add in the massive number of Chinese students who studied abroad, and return now in increasingly bigger proportion back home, and one can understand that China possesses a critical mass of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.
The effects of this policy are becoming increasingly clear.
In 2016 China's ZTE Corporation overtook its crosstown rival Huawei Technologies as the biggest filer of international patent applications.
Last year Chinese companies spent 14 times more money on R&D than in the year 2000.
Only US companies spend more on R&D. Additionally China is home of a thriving startup scene which plenty of venture capital and hot money pouring in. In 2016 Chinese venture capital funds tripled their budgets to €320bn. They are responsible for 25 percent of the global venture capital investments.
From 'Made in China' to 'Invented in China'?
Especially in the internet sector Chinese innovation is leaving its global mark. Chinese society is already much more digitalised than western counterparts, but nowadays it's simply impossible to live without a smartphone in China.
Last year alone, 467 million smartphones were sold in China, and there are more than 730 million active internet users. The Chinese e-commerce market is simply gigantic and is predicted in 2020 to be bigger than the Unites States, Great Britain, Japan, France and Germany combined.
WeChat, with its 900 million users, is an absolute marvel of Chinese technology.
It is one platform for communication, marketing, payments and e-commerce. All-in-one and made in China.
Chinese tech companies are also conquering the world with new products and services of superior quality. Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Xiaomi belong to the top ten of the biggest internet and technology companies worldwide.
But three of them only entered the rankings since 2013.
In 2014 Xiaomi was the world's most valuable tech startup. Silicon Valley is looking now more and more to China where innovation and entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand.
The focus is especially on Shenzhen with its 30,000 technology companies - and a combined value of more than €200bn.
That evolution is also starting to leave its mark internationally. In the past only big (ie state-owned companies) were expanding globally, but now the second wave of internationalisation is taking shape. Buses from BYD, the global leader in electrical cars, are already driving around in the London city centre.
One third of all 'unicorns' are now coming from China.
Ambitious Chinese startups expand internationally from the very beginning, with increasing success.
Besides famous names like Xiaomi, Mobike or DJI, is Musical.ly - with its 100 million users worldwide - one of those startups which go global form the very start, which is way they are being called micro-multinationals.
It's obvious that China is transforming itself again, and that the next wave of innovation and private entrepreneurship will be the wave of the future, with huge global consequences.
Sven Agten is an author on China, and Asia-Pacific president for a German multinational
REG project countries made the list of Forbes 27 Best Budget Travel Destinations
11. Herceg Novi, Montenegro
Nestled between the picturesque Adriatic Sea and the impressive backdrop of Mount Orjen, Herceg Novi has one of the most turbulent histories in Europe. For a budget traveler, this means you can see incredibly eclectic architectural styles and enjoy some history, while traveling the more affordable parts of Europe. The area is also famous for hot springs, mud spas and hidden beaches. Many of the beaches are only accessible boat and we’re hoping to make it there in early 2018 ourselves. Maybe you’ll catch us there!
17. Herceg Novi, Montenegro
This European country offers history, culture and vibrant green nature full of rivers and waterfalls. The more you travel through Bosnia, the more you want to get to know it. It is less expensive than other European countries, which makes it a steal, in my book.
With the first snows of the winter having already fallen across Emerging Europe, many people’s thoughts would have already turned to winter holidays, and to skiing. While for many the countries of the region are not the first to spring to mind when planning a ski trip, there are in fact a number of very good ski resorts in this part of the world. From Jasna in Slovakia to Tsakhkadzor in Armenia, many offer some superb, rugged skiing amidst fantastic scenery, usually at prices well below those in Western Europe. Not that the low cost is the only attraction. For a new breed of adventurous skier, jaded perhaps by the increasingly busy motorway pistes of France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy, the search for fresh powder, for empty slopes and for new experiences is the real draw. That’s where Emerging Europe comes in, and that’s why our editor-in-chief Craig Turp, who has skied in more countries than most people have visited, decided to put together this short guide to skiing in some of the region’s top – and in some cases surprising – locations.
Yes, you can ski in Armenia. The country’s only real resort of any size, Tsakhkadzor (perhaps best known as a summer retreat) is just over an hour’s drive from Yerevan, set at an altitude of 1900 metres. The resort’s lift network rises to the top of the Teghenis mountain at over 2800 metres, and the terrain up here is steep, offering some seriously challenging skiing: throughout the resort there is little for beginners. While some of the lifts could do with upgrading (queues can be long at busy times) the snow record is good and you can often ski until the end of April. The lift pass is cheap, gives access to 35km of pistes and the views from the top of the mountain are sensational. There’s even a Marriott hotel at the foot of the slopes. The most disappointing aspect are the mountain restaurants, which are few and far between and relatively expensive.
Boasting more than 1000 metres of vertical drop, Azerbaijan’s leading ski destination, Shahdag (above) is a modern resort featuring state-of-the-art lifts, dominated by the monolithic Shahdag hotel at the foot of the slopes. There are 12 lifts in all and around 30km of skiing, all of it set quite spectacularly above the treeline. While it doesn’t snow all that much in these parts, the entire resort is covered with the latest in snowmaking technology, guaranteeing snow for most of the winter. What you get instead is sunshine: fans of spring skiing will love the place. Shahdag is three hours by car from Baku, while slightly further away is Azerbaijan’s equally spectacular, equally modern (although slightly smaller) second resort, Tufandag.
It’s easy to forget that Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, and Bosnia’s best skiing is just 30 minutes drive from the centre of the capital, at Jahorina. There are over 30km of pistes, including the Olympic women’s downhill, slalom and giant slalom routes. The men’s events were held at Bjelasnica on the other side of the city. Both of Sarajevo’s ski areas have seen much investment in recent years, although Jahorina is currently the best of the two, boasting new lifts and shorter queues. Another, smaller resort – Ravna Planina – is even closer to the city centre, but it offers very limited skiing. While all three of Sarajevo’s ski areas boast snowmaking equipment, snow cover can still often be an issue. Those of you with long memories will recall that the men’s downhill back in 1984 was delayed over a week due to a lack of snow.
Probably the best-known skiing destination in Emerging Europe, Bulgaria’s three main resorts: Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo have been staples of the winter holiday brochures for four decades. All three resorts have seen upgrades in recent times, most recently Pamporovo which has extended its ski area and linked up with neighbouring Chepelare. While none of the skiing in Bulgaria is particularly challenging, and there is little off-piste, it’s all easily accessible from either Sofia or Plovdiv airports and prices remain amongst the lowest in Europe. Our pick of the Bulgarian resorts this year is Bansko, not least as there are so many activities off the slopes, making it perfect for mixed groups which may include people who do not ski. The town’s many mehana offer great food – specialising in lamb dishes – and its narrow streets are charming, meriting exploration. One tip: the gondola up to the ski area gets very busy around 10am. Make sure you arrive early. And for anyone on a business trip in Sofia with a few hours to spare, note that there is a half-decent ski area in the city’s suburbs, on Vitosha mountain.
At risk of annoying the Slovenes, the Slovaks, the Bulgarians and just about everybody else on this list, I hereby declare that Emerging Europe’s best skiing is in Georgia, at Gudauri (which features, above, in the main photo). Boasting a top elevation well over 3000 metres the resort offers both long, cruising blues for the smart set as well as tough blacks – and Europe’s cheapest heli-skiing – for adrenaline junkies. The lift pass too is incredible value (just over 50 euros for a week), and all less than two hours from Tbilisi. Our only complaint is that for a purpose-built resort the layout can be awkward (a lot of the accommodation is a long walk from the lifts), but most hotels and apartment complexes offer shuttle buses to and from the slopes. Once on the piste however, you are in a white paradise that is hard to beat. And with the exception of Georgian public holidays you are likely to have the place for yourself. For how much longer remains to be seen: Gudauri, like Georgia as a whole, looks set for a tourism boom as more flights link Tbilisi with Western Europe. We suggest booking a trip for this winter. And remember: you read about Gudauri here first.
There are plans to spend almost half a billion euros on developing Brezovica as an international ski resort: ecological concerns as well as Serbian objections (there are issues over land ownership) may delay those plans, however. Until then, it will remain a very old-fashioned ski resort worth visiting if only to say that you’ve skied in Kosovo. The chair-lifts are old, the slopes are poorly groomed and the access road becomes blocked at weekends: there is virtually nowhere to park near the slopes and so you could end up walking a long way in your ski boots if you don’t arrive early. Once you do make it to the top of the mountain however, it is easy to see the potential of the place: snow is guaranteed, and there is vast scope to create a rather special ski area here. It’s less than two hours from either Prishtina or Skopje.
Poles are crazy about ski jumping, and Zakopane is the country’s ski jumping capital. Competitions are held all winter, the highest calibre being the World Cup event which takes place at the end of January. Alas, when it comes to more conventional skiing, you will almost certainly leave Poland with the impression that it could be fantastic, if only they could get their act together. Zakopane in the Tatras is a good base for exploring a number of different ski areas, of which the closest (and biggest) are Kasprowy Wierch and Gubałówka, on either side of the town centre. The two areas are not connected however, and despite the recent installation of new chair-lifts, the crowds and lift queues remain the stuff of legend.
Poiana Brasov (which in the 1950s went by the name Poiana Stalin) has been welcoming skiers for more than 70 years, Sinaia longer than that. Both resorts (neither of which is more than two and a half hours from Bucharest) offer a small yet decent amount of skiing: 25km at Poiana and 40km at Sinaia. Both resorts have seen much investment, and have upgraded their lift systems. The only real downside is cost (lift passes are relatively expensive for this part of the world) and unreliable snow cover (Romania, contrary to popular belief, has very dry winters). Both resorts are also susceptible to long queues, and on holiday weekends the main road linking the Romanian capital to the mountains can resemble a giant car park. To get the best out of skiing in Romania take a day or two during the week just after a heavy snowfall: you will have the slopes to yourself. Better still, combine a day’s skiing with a visit to the wonderful Transylvanian city of Brasov, not 20 minutes from Poiana Brasov.
Kapaonik, on the border of Serbia and Kosovo, offers 55km of tree-lined pistes. Runs are quite short but good fun, and there are few crowds: the resort is very well designed and the lift system, which has seen investment in recent years, including a new six-seat chair-lift, keeps queues to a minimum. The highest slope barely tops 2000 metres, but snow cover is usually guaranteed until the end of March. Accommodation is good value, and there is plenty to choose from. Access, however, is a problem: it’s almost five hours from Belgrade, longer from Podgorica. Prishtina is in theory far closer, but as you are not allowed to cross the border directly from Kosovo to Serbia, you need to go via Montenegro.
Slovakia over the past few years has made giant strides towards becoming a serious destination for skiers. Resorts are dotted across the High and Low Tatra mountains, my pick of which is Tatranska Lomnica north of Poprad, and Jasnato the south. Jasna is the largest resort in the country and offers some very good skiing, but the lift pass is pricey and it can get very crowded at weekends. While the skiing at Tatranska Lomnica is not as extensive, it’s a more relaxed resort and a great weekend destination. It’s also home to probably the most difficult ski terrain in the country. The surrounding villages are packed with cabins and bed and breakfasts, all offering great homemade food amidst some of the most superb forests Emerging Europe has to offer. Slovakia also remains hugely keen on cross-country skiing: just about every village has a groomed track.
As locals will be the first to point out, you don’t merely come skiing in Slovenia, you come for a whole winter experience. After all, if there is a more picture postcard perfect place on earth than Lake Bled when covered in ice and snow, then I have yet to see it. Kranjska Gora is the country’s best-known, and largest resort, famous for the slalom World Cup races held here each year and superb cross-country tracks. In my opinion however, there is far better (and less crowded) skiing to be had at the other ski centres in the country, particularly at Vogel near Bohinjska Bistrica and Slovenia’s highest resort, Kanin, which now has direct access from the town of Bovec on the other side of the Triglav National Park. This being Slovenia, no resort (with the exception of Bovec) is much more than an hour’s drive from Ljubljana
One of the best-kept secrets on the Emerging Europe ski-circuit is the immaculate resort of Bukovel. There are more than 60km of pistes, and while the resort’s elevation is not the highest (the top lift reaches a modest 1372 metres) the resort’s latitude makes it one of the most snow-sure in the whole region. What’s more, all the slopes – most of which are tree-lined and sheltered from the elements – are equipped with snow cannons for when nature fails to supply enough of the white stuff. There is a good range of accommodation, and prices are very cheap. Now the bad news. One of the reasons Bukovel has remained something of a secret is its inaccessibility. It is more than four and a half hours drive from the nearest international airport, Lviv, and the roads in this part of world are not the best. Should the airport at Ivano-Frankivsk (less than two hours from Bukovel) open up to international flights (it currently only serves domestic flights from Kyiv) expect skiing in Ukraine to take off.
LONDON, 24. NOV 2017, 17:01
At the fifth Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels on Friday (24 November), Armenia and the European Union signed a new framework agreement, dubbed the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (Cepa).
The Cepa came in to replace the old Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) from 1999 - long overdue, since Yerevan wasn't able to sign its earlier negotiated Association Agreement, including a 'deep and comprehensive free trade agreement' (DCFTA), back in 2013, due to a Russian blackmail to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
It took Yerevan and Brussels two years to reopen negotiations and two more to negotiate a new agreement, often referred to as an 'Association Agreement-lite', which has kept most provisions from the old AA.
Cepa doesn't contain free trade arrangements, however, as that is now beyond Armenia's jurisdiction and within that of the EAEU's.
The new agreement is thus a compromise between the old AA and Armenia's new commitments following accession to the Eurasian Economic Union.
Following the fallout of the Eastern Partnership initiative and an overhaul on the part of the EU of its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the new agreement between Yerevan and Brussels was cautiously calculated to avoid a possible repetition of 2013.
The common sense is that Moscow has been kept informed all along to make sure that it is on the same page with Yerevan - although, arguably, that had been the case with the failed Association Agreement as well, so tension remained until the deal was done.
Both Yerevan and Brussels have kept a rather low profile - characteristic to EU-Armenia relations in general - throughout the negotiations.
Cepa was initialed unexpectedly, without prior notice or indication, in March 2017, and the agreement's text was officially made public in October 2017, a month before the Eastern Partnership summit. This was perhaps intended to avoid speculation about the contents of the agreement.
Political context has played its role too.
Armenia in 2013 was the first 'clashpoint' between the EU and Russia in what escalated further with the events in Ukraine.
By 2017, with Armenia in the Eurasian Union, Moscow perceived the signing of the new agreement between Yerevan and Brussels as less of a threat.
The signing of the Cepa is a milestone in Armenia-EU relations. Politically, both Yerevan and Brussels 'win', in having reached a middle ground that combines Armenia's EAEU membership with an upgraded agreement with the EU.
This gives Armenia a degree of its long-nurtured political balance. And Brussels demonstrates adaptability in ensuring that the EU and EAEU can co-exist in the post-Soviet space.
Ahead of Minsk and Baku
Second, Cepa pulls Armenia out of the group of Eastern Partnership 'laggards', namely Belarus and Azerbaijan, where it found itself after failing to sign the AA together with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
Minsk and Baku are either not interested or have not yet signed similar agreements with the EU. Cepa thus embodies the principle of differentiation - a key element in the reviewed ENP - which implies a tailored, rather than one-size-fits-all, approach in the EU's relations with its neighbours. This sets the Eastern Partnership's current format to 3+1+2.
However, for Armenia the Cepa is also the second best option; it is still a departure from the more sophisticated Association Agreement which contained more benefits.
Importantly, the underlying causes that hindered the latter's signing still continues to pose a challengeto Armenia.
While Armenian policy-makers are likely to boast that they have, after all, managed to achieve their original policy goal of 'and/and' (as opposed to 'either/or') vis-a-vis European and Russian integration projects , the balance is tipped in the direction of EAEU, which ties Armenia's hands in trade arrangements with third parties.
While in strategic terms Yerevan acquires a degree of diversification by signing a new agreement with the EU, the mere signing of Cepa will not alter the balance of power in Armenia's foreign policy.
There is a risk that for Armenia the bar will be lowered, as regards foreign policy diversification, to the Cepa-signing only. The Armenian government will have to work in other directions as well to truly achieve this goal.
Ultimately, Cepa's rewards are hidden in its implementation. It offers EU tools and money to facilitate reform across different sectors.
Among Armenia's civil society and progressive circles, EU is seen as the only driver of the country's modernisation, while Cepa is expected to create an enabling environment for reforms.
The EU, in turn, will need to continue to empower Armenia's civil society for the latter to have a bigger say in policy decision-making and carry out oversight of Cepa's implementation.
But adhering to 'common values' and building a truly democratic and corruption-free European state will mostly depend on the Armenian government's political will, and it still needs to prove that all this is not mere rhetoric.
The clauses of conditionality in Cepa are not strong, and they are anyway unlikely to be invoked for political (in)expediency reasons.
But the Armenian government needs to heed another 'conditionality' – the one enshrined in the social pact between the state and Armenian citizens.
Anahit Shirinyan is an academy associate with Chatham House
We are 10 years into a war. A war most people don’t realise is happening, and which our governments are only just beginning to see. This is the Great Cyber War.
If this was a conventional war, by now your street would have been bombed, friends would have been killed at the Front, and food would be running short. But this is a new war, a hybrid war, an information war. So instead, you are confused. Whenever you think you are sure of something, someone else will either counter it with an alternative truth, or will disagree with you so strongly that you wonder if your take on reality is correct. Our houses are still standing but our perception lies in ruins.
The Great Cyber War started in 2007, and developed into two fronts. The Eastern Front began when Russia cyber-attacked Estonia, and the Western Front when Robert Mercer and Cambridge Analytica used social media to manipulate the Brexit Referendum, and then, alongside Russia, the Trump election. Along the way a smaller South Eastern Front opened up when kids in Macedonia realized they could cash in on the chaos. Other countries and dictators are also carving out their bits of the action, but the main war is Russia in the East, and Mercer in the West. Through highly targeted uses of Facebook and Twitter to disseminate fake stories, these forces have been working to undermine the democratic and open world order that rose from the ashes of the Second World War. In its place they seek to create a state of chaos, uninhibited capitalism, authoritarianism, and nationalism.
This is the story of the Great Cyber War. In writing about it I link to articles that go into much more detail about each part of the story. If you want to understand what’s happening right now, you have to read a lot and connect the dots. What should we make of Brexit and Trump when it’s now clear they were the preferred outcomes of the Russian intelligence services, and a coterie of secretive billionaires?
Traditionally, war is a noisy thing. Bombs and guns are loud, and tanks and soldiers are pretty obvious wherever they go. When Hitler started to invade Germany’s neighbours, whether they surrendered or fought, in the end either columns of soldiers and tanks rolled noisily along the roads, or planes dropped bombs and the armies made a lot of noise. Wars cause damage. There is no doubt about war; people die, cities get destroyed. It is an ugly, noisy, violent thing.
But people slept through the beginning of the Great Cyber War. It made no noise. No one was killed. Cities remained intact. Most people didn’t even realise the Great Cyber War was happening, even when it was happening to them. It began quietly in a small country in North East Europe a decade ago.
In 2007, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip of Estonia decided he would move the Bronze Soldier — a statue of the fallen Russian soldier that stood in the middle of his country’s capital, Tallinn. On the surface, this was a reasonable thing to do. Estonia had been occupied by Russia and Stalin transported Estonians to gulags in Siberia as part of a plan to suppress the Estonian language and culture.
But Ansip was also a politician, and the Bronze Soldier was a touch-paper. Estonians, still angry about how they had been treated by Russia, wanted the statue out of the centre of their Capital. Why should they celebrate the heroes of a war that had left their country occupied and brutalised? But for Russians, the removal of the Bronze Soldier was yet another affront, a reminder that since the end of Communism they had been relegated to second-class citizens. Arguably the whole thing was handled badly, but unrest was also provoked in a way that would now be familiar to us, but then was a mystery.
On the night work began to move the statue, a small number of police encircled it as it was excavated to be moved to a cemetery on the edge of town. Protests turned to riots, and Tallinn fell into chaos for the night. Mysteriously, Russians across Tallinn were receiving text messages encouraging them to take to the streets. Back then, before we knew what we now know, it didn’t occur to anyone to wonder where these messages came from. At the same time, Nashi, a “youth NGO” sponsored by Putin’s Kremlin, formed violent protests outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, and the Estonian Ambassador was attacked as she left the building. The riots were accompanied by a serious and coordinated cyber attack against government websites, banks, and the media. Estonia considered it an act of war, and contacted NATO.
This was not the sort of military attack NATO was set up to repel; there were no tanks, no soldiers, no planes, no bombs. It was not grounds to trigger Article 5. Discussion developed about whether this constituted an attack, or act of war, and these led to the NATO cyber defence centre being established in Estonia, to monitor the situation and plan for future attacks.
In 2008, what appeared to be an anomaly with Estonia was repeated in Georgia. This time the cyber attacks came alongside actual military attacks. Whilst Russia denied sending their army to attack Georgia, in a move that was to set a precedent later in Ukraine, they argued that soldiers had been volunteering, and that Russia itself had only sent in Peace Keepers. This early example of hybrid warfare, mixing apparent mercenaries, cyber attacks, and military intervention legitimised under the guise of protection and peace keeping, destabilised Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and undermined Georgia, including preventing it from joining NATO. This left the area in what came to be called a “frozen conflict,” an engineered situation that prevents a region from joining organisations like NATO, thwarting progress.
One reason Estonia had been attacked back in 2007, three years after joining the EU, was because it was doing too well. Russia could not afford other satellite countries thinking that leaving Russia’s orbit, and joining Europe and NATO, would lead to stability, wealth, and democracy, as Estonia’s incredible success since 1991 had shown. Such a pattern might lead to countries still under Russia’s sway to face West and pull out of Russia’s orbit. Indeed, such successes just over the border might even lead to unrest within Russia itself, as street protests from 2011 were beginning to show.
Estonia and Belarus had both started their journey at the same time, after the fall of Communism. One had embraced capitalism, democracy, and modernity with full vigour, while the other embraced old-style Communist dictatorship with equal drive. One had joined NATO and the EU, firmly turning away from Russia, whilst the other had been shunned by the world, and remained closely tied to Russia. As Wired suggested, this provided an A-B test for the two routes for a post-Soviet country. The comparison between the two states paints a picture that contradicts Putin’s message to his people, and to the satellite states Russia still tried to control. Escaping Russia had led Estonia to take off and fly, whilst Belarus had stagnated. Putin needed countries like Estonia to be less successful, or even better to fail.
Putin’s grip on power relied on the Russian people believing in the social contract he’d propagated, that they give up their freedom in return for Putin making Russia stable and successful. His argument was that if Russia tried to become a Western style democracy it would collapse into chaos, as it had done after the fall of Communism.
Russia could not directly invade countries like Estonia, and risk taking on NATO; Russia has an economy the size of Italy, and until recently a dilapidated military, so direct confrontation wasn’t an option. So they devised a way to undermine countries, chipping away at them: Hybrid Warfare.
This experimentation with hybrid warfare, and that fear of Russian satellites turning to the West, in particular joining the EU and NATO, came to a head in 2014 when the Ukrainian people removed the Kremlin-backed leader, the deeply corrupt Viktor Yanukovych (who paid out $2 billion in bribes during his four years in office). This posed a risk both of Ukraine leaving the grips of Russia and becoming a success like its neighbour Poland, and of inspiring a similar rebellion against Putin himself. Hybrid warfare and the creation of “frozen conflicts” came of age with Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine was not just a military intervention, but the result of a coordinated information war. There was so much misinformation it is easy to forget this fact, which is the point of bamboozling people with contradictory stories and facts. Igor Strelkov, the agent sent into the Donetsk, the Eastern region of Ukraine, by Russia to foment dissent, later turned against Putin, andadmitted his role. In interviews, he later said:
“Donetsk did not fight and was not preparing to…life was absolutely peaceful there, before we left Sloviansk, the Ukrainian side did not prepare to assault Donetsk, they estimated that it would return to them peacefully. No-one wanted to make war at first… but in April and May [of 2014] everything was building up, and the rebellion area was expanding. We were gradually taking control of populated areas of the Donetsk Republic.”
The campaign was directed by Putin’s strategist, Vladislav Surkov, the architect of Putin’s Russia, and of the strategy of sowing chaos and confusion that has developed into Russia’s main weapon. Alongside the military action, Ukraine also suffered then, and has continued to suffer, massive cyber attacks. Their banks, transport systems, energy grid, and more have been hit in the years after the war was started. One attack cut power to over 250,000 people, prompting Wired Magazine to suggest Ukraine had become “Russia’s test lab for cyber warfare.”
Maidan Square, Kiev. Photo: NurPhoto/Corbis HIstorical/Getty Images
By now, the Great Cyber War was well established. The war had started in 2007 in Estonia, and now peaked in 2014 with a full-scale military operation in Ukraine, leading to the shooting down of a passenger airline by Russian army missiles, and the seizing of Crimea, an island off Ukraine’s Southern coast with a population similar to the European country of Latvia. It was the first time a country had taken land from another country by force since the Second World War.
Now at this point you may think I am wrong, or this didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen like that. You may question whether the MH17 was shot down by Russia, or may point out that there was a referendum in Crimea, and the people voted to leave Ukraine. You may also argue any number of conspiracy theories about the war in Ukraine.
You have been info-bombed.
Around the Ukraine war, vast amounts of misinformation, false propaganda, and conspiracies were churned out by Russia, as part of their Hybrid War. This was a system already set up years back, based on Soviet and KGB practices, and honed for the modern era in Estonia and Georgia.
A recent report published by NATO, and authored mainly by Estonian officials, looks back at what happened, and is happening in Ukraine. It concluded that:
“Russian information operations skilfully target a wide range of audiences with different beliefs and convictions. The anti-Ukrainian approach relies on a variety of stylistic forms and nuances. It can take on the form of sensationalism and blaming… or use a more restrained approach. In addition to the content of the messages, Russian technically ensures that certain messages reach specific audiences and others do not.”
They include the recommendation that we must stop taking Russia seriously as an exporter of “alternative opinions,” because it is a country where there is no democracy or freedom of speech, and therefore it is able to propagate lies unrestrained and unchallenged.
As an example, the BBC reported in November 2017 about the St Petersburg “Internet Research Agency,” the Kremlin-backed troll factory, being involved with fake videos being produced to fan the flames of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine:
“The Russian Liberation Movement videos were distributed through seven fake accounts on the Russian social network VK. The accounts used false names and photographs of random people as profile pictures. The accounts were opened just a few days before the material appeared and were largely reposting entertainment content in an effort to look ‘real.’
BBC Russian also found that a social media account sharing the material was computer generated and belonged to a botnet--a large controlled network of social media accounts.”
A mainstay of Information Warfare is that for every true story or fact, numerous other contradictory stories are pushed out. It is immaterial whether they are believable, or believed, vaguely true or total fantasy. The aim is to bury the truth in a messy pile of crap, so nobody can work out what is true at all. We shouldn’t be surprised, as this method is no secret; it’s called theGerasimov Doctrine and was written up in 2013 by the Russian General, Valery Gerasimov, in a report. He explained:
“The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. … All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character.”
On Twitter, Putin opponent and famous chess player Garry Kasparov explained it thus:
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
We end up wasting time arguing about which story or fact is true or not, rather than addressing any core issues. That is precisely the intention of those bombarding us with conflicting facts. We are increasingly distracted by falling down rabbit holes of argument about what did or didn’t happen, all of which is designed to distract us from what is actually happening. Surkov and Gerasimov have told us this, but they are so good at it that they can explain to us in detail that they are about to con us, and still con us despite that.
And so Russia managed to get away with invading Ukraine. Putin later proudly admitted that he had in fact invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea, despite denying previously that his “little green men” and disruptive touristswere Russian soldiers. Lying to the world, then admitting to that lie, and still getting away with it is as much a reflection of his audacity as of our stupidity.
By now you’d have thought people would have noticed something was going on. If this Great Cyber War had been a conventional war, by now we’d all have been mobilised. Three countries had been attacked, a civilian airliner had been shot down, part of Ukraine had been taken by force. The thing that connected all this was Russian information and cyber warfare. We were all lost in arguing about who shot the plane down, whether Crimea chose to join Russia or was invaded, whether the CIA had been behind the protests in Kiev, whether the Russians in Eastern Ukraine were soldiers or tourists. And all the while we were distracted by the mad propaganda stories spreading over social media. We were distracted by the white noise from the simple reality that Russia had invaded Ukraine, seized Crimea by force, and shot down a passenger plane.
Some voices were trying to shout through the noise, but they were not the headlines, and anything they posted online was attacked by pro-Russian comments, which we now know were coming either from Russian “social media factories,” or from Russian bots, which automatically post again and again to swamp the other real comments.
Meanwhile, Russia stepped into a new arena, backing Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. A popular rebellion against him threatened to remove a Russian ally from the Middle East. The ensuing war also offered Russia a chance to show its military might in full public view, and position itself as a relevant player in world affairs. It also triggered an event that was to rock Europe.
The Russian-backed war in Syria led to a humanitarian crisis that slammed into Europe, unsettling it to its very core. The flood of refugees challenged the liberal order in Europe, and cornered some of its leading politicians.
Through all this chaos we did not notice the Great Cyber War, but all of this was the Great Cyber War. These were all connected events, battles of the same war, parts of the same plan.
It will take as many as six decades for income levels in the Western Balkans to catch up with those of the European Union (EU) if economies in the region continue to grow at the average speed achieved between 1995 and 2015, says the World Bank’s Western Balkans: Revving Up the Engines of Growth and Prosperity report, looking at how Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia can speed up economic growth and achieve faster income convergence with the EU.
“In recent years, the Western Balkan countries have made strides in reforming public finances and rekindling economic growth, but citizens may not yet feel the benefits of this progress,” said Linda Van Gelder, World Bank director for the Western Balkans. “Focus on structural reforms can speed up economic growth and boost livelihoods so that income levels can catch-up with those in the European Union.”
According to the report, reforms and macroeconomic stability that can enable average growth rates of 5 per cent a year would allow the Western Balkans to converge with the EU in just two decades, instead of six.
While average growth in the region of 5-6 per cent annually in the years before 2008 was faster than both in the EU and worldwide, this growth halved following the global financial crisis — stalling the pre-crisis convergence of countries in the Western Balkans with EU living standards and calling for a new growth model based on higher productivity and investment, more exports, and a greater role for the private sector.
“The growth we witnessed in the region in the years leading up to the global financial crisis is evidence of the overall economic potential of the Western Balkans,” says Harald Waiglein, director general for economic policy, financial markets and customs duties at the Austrian Ministry of Finance. “The key, now, is to prioritise policies that can spur private sector investment, help deepen regional integration, and create jobs.”
According to the report, increasing exports, investments, and employment are all priority areas for policymakers. Stronger regional integration can help raise exports as a share of GDP, which would have to double in order to match those of other small transition economies that are now in the EU, while private investment in countries where the public sector is still the main driver of the economy will also need to increase. Low and slow-growing productivity levels in the Western Balkans call for improvements in the business environment that can attract private investment and spur enterprise growth.
The unemployment rate in the region is almost two times higher than in other small transition economies that are now in the EU. With half of the working age population in the region seeking work and a quarter of job-seekers failing to find it, the need to increase participation in the labor market in the region remains key. This can be done by addressing disincentives for work, while simultaneously removing barriers to employment faced by older workers, youth, women, and minorities.
“The growth outlook in the Western Balkans is positive, with regional growth expected to increase to 3.6 per cent by 2019,” World Bank Country Director for Western Balkans, Linda Van Gelder, told Emerging Europe. “The growth outlook is, however, vulnerable to the risks of policy uncertainty and policy reversals, which would negatively impact investment and growth. Ongoing fiscal consolidations in Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the recent fiscal adjustment in Montenegro are expected to reduce risks and improve confidence. To be prepared for shocks including natural hazards, Western Balkan countries need fiscal space for maneuver. Thus, it is essential to ensure fiscal sustainability. In addition, it is important to maintaining reform momentum to improve the business climate, build human capital, and ensure that all citizens have equal opportunities.”
Mrs Van Gelder also pointed out the importance of investment: “At least 25 perc ent of GDP in investment is required for a strong and sustainable growth, and investment rates in an average upper-middle-income country is more than 30 per cent of GDP,” she said. “With the exception of Albania, investment rates in Western Balkan countries are somewhat lower. Rebalancing the economies from consumption-driven to investment-driven growth is not an easy task. Macroeconomic stability is a precondition for a strong investment climate, reducing investor uncertainty and safeguarding gains during shocks. In addition, bold reforms to remove barriers to investment, increase firm-level productivity, and spur regional and global integration would help attract and retain investment.”
Dramatic is the operative word for the Belgrade–Bar railway line, which promises authentic culture and geographic riches around every bend as it rumbles over unsullied, mountainous landscape from the Serbian capital to Montenegro’s Adriatic Coast. During the 12-hour journey, the train disappears into the Dinaric Alps, charges through canyons, teeters on stilted bridges spanning river gorges, and skims atop an ancient tectonic lake.
There are many ways to get to Montenegro’s Adriatic Coast, my taxi driver assured me, raising his voice over a chorus of horns that angrily saluted his laissez-faire attitude toward lane use during morning rush-hour traffic in Belgrade. ‘But it makes no sense to take the train.’ He weaved through less aggressive vehicles like a skier clearing slalom gates. A cold, grey autumn rain began to fall harder, drops beading down my window, as the main railway station came into view. ‘Let me take you to the airport,’ he sounded genuinely concerned. ‘You will be in the sea and in the sun and with a beer in half an hour. This thing you are doing, it will take all day … and into the night.’ He finally relented as we pulled up to the curb: ‘At least buy water, sandwiches, and toilet paper.’
The cabbie left me in front of the crenellated railway station, a faded Habsburg-yellow throwback opened in 1884. He was already speeding off to advise another tourist before I could throw my bag over my shoulder. Inside, I found the ticket office. The woman behind the glass informed me that the trip from Belgrade, Serbia, to Bar, Montenegro – on the Adriatic edge of the Balkan Peninsula – takes 12 hours. It costs 21 euros (there would be an additional three-euro charge for a seat reservation). ‘Yes, there is a bakery nearby,’ she said and pointed. ‘It is behind you. The shop for water and tissues is next to it.’ She slid the window closed, stood, picked up her pack of cigarettes, and disappeared.
I had heard about this rail line for years. Truth be told though, I had never before considered taking it. The Western Balkans is a region that relies, largely, on bus service for public transport. Trains can be a mixed bag, in every way: quality, cleanliness and timeliness. Before boarding, and committing to the all-day odyssey, I stood on the platform and took in the busy station. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine I was watching 19th-century travellers making the same pre-voyage preparations – water, bread, cheese: check; flask of rakija (local schnapps): check – they would have made when Belgrade was a key stop along the Orient Express.
That sense of old-world drama would serve me well, I would soon learn, along this route. On the outskirts of the Serbian capital – as I settled into my seat in a weathered, six-person cabin – we passed Topčider Station, where the hulking locomotives from Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito’s famous Blue Train are stored. The behemoths sat dishevelled, graffitied, but still regal and almost lifelike, wishing me a safe passage to the outer lands. Within an hour, the tangle of urban metal and concrete unravelled, and the countryside spread out in all directions with the urgency of a jailbreak. The sun came out as wet, emerald-green hummocks began to play leapfrog across the vista, rolling until they dove out of sight over the horizon.
Though the Belgrade–Bar line doesn’t have a sexy moniker (like the Royal Scotsman or Rocky Mountaineer), the Yugoslav Flyer would be appropriate. When construction began on the 476km railway in 1951, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was in its infancy: a tenuous post-WWII cadre of states on the Balkan Peninsula’s western half. By the time the route opened in 1976 – complete with 254 tunnels and 234 bridges winding down from the Pannonian Plain to the island-studded Adriatic Sea – the country had implanted itself as a geopolitical force and a synapse between the West and the Soviet Union.
Yugoslavia has since splintered into seven nations. The railway, thankfully, endures, connecting Serbia to Montenegro with a brief blip across Bosnia & Hercegovina’s eastern border. But the line’s existence represents more than just a continued, now international, transport option. These tracks are the Balkans – and a lifeline to a swath of land where cultures have intertwined since before history. Here, the train takes adventurers across vistas crisscrossed by Greeks and Illyrians, as well as the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Along the way, visitors have a literal window onto a living museum frozen in time.
Those natural exhibits were on full display as we rumbled through the foothills of the Dinaric Alps in the southwestern corner of Serbia. When we crossed the border into Montenegro, the museum’s lineup of canvases – pristine panoramas and landscapes – changed again. The Western Balkans’ rotating collection now included towering mountains and canyons that engulfed us whole.
‘I had no idea what to expect,’ said Colin Smith, a fellow passenger and UK native. Outside the window, an old couple leaned against pitchforks next to haystacks. Behind them, vegetable gardens and a small-but-dense orchard of plum trees surrounded a stone farmhouse. ‘But I am so surprised by the beauty: the mountains, steep ravines and endless drops.’
Like any showman, the line saved its biggest superlatives for the finale. As the sun sank on the horizon, the tracks were bathed in a salmon-orange glow that bounced off limestone cliffs and framed the train. About 30 minutes north of Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, we soared atop the 499m-long, 198m-tall Mala Rijeka Viaduct, one of the planet’s highest railway bridges. On the south side of the city, we glided over the Balkans’ largest lake, Skadar (or Shkodra), which straddles the Montenegro–Albania border. Finally, the train pulled into Bar – home to one of the world’s oldest olive trees, more than 2000 years old – where the Adriatic’s salty air stamped the route’s end…and the beginning of my, now earned, Balkan odyssey.
Before I went to sleep that night, I remembered my taxi driver: ‘But it makes no sense to take the train.’ Lying in bed, I could hear the sea washing onto the shore outside my rented apartment’s window. If I ever saw him again, I would make sure to tell the cabbie he was right: a flight would have been much faster and easier, and more sterile.
Make it Happen
The Belgrade–Bar railway line runs twice per day, in both directions. From Belgrade, the train departs at 9:10am and at 9:10pm; the trip takes 12 hours. For more information, route stops and timetables (in English), see www.srbvoz.rs/eng.
How to hike across four European countries in two weeks
Pack those boots and get ready to explore the region on foot
Days 1—4: Croatia
Day 1: Begin with a tour of Zagreb’s historic buildings and edgy art. Day 2: Trek the limestone gorges of Paklenica National Park inside a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and dip in the Adriatic Sea. Day 3: Hike up the stunning coastal Mosor Mountain. Day 4: Go on a heritage tour of Split, notably the UNESCO-listed Diocletian’s Palace that now houses shops and restaurants. Head to Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina for dinner overlooking the 16th-century Stari Most bridge, whose bombing and subsequent reconstruction became a symbol of the 1990s wars. In 2014, the 1,930km-long Via Dinarica opened as an adventure and cultural corridor to help connect the region.
Days 5—10: Bosnia & Herzegovina
Day 5: Glimpse one of the world’s largest karst landscapes on the way up Cvrsnica Mountain, via a former royal hunting trail, beech forest and springs. Day 6: Brave avalanche corridors for the vista from Plocno, atop Cvrsnica Mountain. Day 7: Admire watermills and Studeni Potok’s cascades en route to Lukomir, Bosnia’s highest village, known for medieval tombstones. Day 8: Hike through Sutjeska National Park and its Donje and Gornje Bare Lakes. Day 9: Climb Bosnia’s highest peak, Maglic Mountain, and reward yourself with lunch overlooking Trnovacko Lake in Montenegro. Day 10: Drive to Tara River to raft in Europe’s deepest canyon.
Day 11: Montenegro
Navigate the 14 jagged ‘teeth’ that give the Zupci massif its name and cross the Zeleni Vir glacial lake to edge up Montenegro’s highest peak, Bobotov Kuk in the UNESCO- listed Durmitor National Park.
Days 12—14: Albania
Day 12: Ease into Albania with a boat ride on Skadar Lake, which also borders Montenegro, andis the largest freshwater lake in the Balkans. Drive to the isolated hamlet of Theth, whose tower was once a refuge during blood feuds. Days 13 & 14: Hike past an ancient stone chapel and waterfalls in Theth National Park. Exit through Tirana.
Need to know: Book this 14-day itinerary with Bosnia-based Green Visions (€1,950 or Rs1,46,080 per person inclusive of ground transport, guide, accommodation, meals and activities). Best for experienced hikers, the itinerary includes a mix of treks and drives between trails, and the best time to do it is between July and August.
Getting there: Fly to Zagreb from most Indian cities with Emirates via Dubai, or Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Indian passport-holders can apply for a multiple-entry Schengen visa with VFS Global. Visas cost around Rs4,480 and take at least 15 days to be processed.
The following is a reposted article from Emerging Europe written by Eva Keller.
Ukraine is the UK’s offshoring destination of the year according to the Global Sourcing Association (GSA) UK. The GSA looked at the outsourcing market from the perspective of the United Kingdom, the world’s second-largest outsourcing market.
“This is a significant achievement for Ukraine, as the Award has been judged by their industry peers, including buyers and providers of outsourcing services, as well as legal and advisory firms in the industry,” says Tom Quigley, Director of Outsourcing at Emerging Europe.
“I’ve been saying for months that the UK sourcing industry will begin to take a closer interest in the CEE region as an alternative destination to the more traditional locations such as South Africa and India, and this has proven to be the case. They now need to capitalise on this award and go forward boldly and with confidence, especially as India’s ICT industry is mis-firing. Ukraine now has the attention of the outsourcing industry in the UK and they need to maximise this opportunity, and the rest of the CEE region needs to quickly follow suit,” Mr Quigley adds.
“Few people really know that Ukraine is a significant player, the potential it has as a destination to set up in, nor the strength of Ukrainian service providers,” said Kerry Hallard, chief executive at the GSA UK. “There are a number of key service providers, SoftServe, Ciklum, Eleks, Nix Solutions, to name a few, all battling one by one to raise the profile of Ukraine”
Mrs Hallard, who is also president of the Global Sourcing Association, was speaking during the EBRD Emerging Europe Outlook on Ukraine investment conference, held in London in October.
In 2016, Ukraine’s ICT segment showed a 15 per cent increase in the country’s total exports, taking the third position after agriculture and metallurgy. In the Human Capital Index, Ukraine ranks 26th, and is in 31st place in the UN Education Index. Every year, some 16,000 IT specialists and 130,000 experts graduate from Ukrainian universities.
“One of Ukraine’s greatest resources is its human capital,” Daniel Bilak, director of UkraineInvest and chief investment adviser to the Ukrainian prime minister, told Emerging Europe during the investment conference. “Our competitors are neighbours, Eastern Europe and Poland. They need highly skilled workers and there are currently 1.3 million Ukrainians working in Poland. We have some regulatory issues, we’re aware of them and we’ll work them through, but our biggest challenge is to continue educating our young people and providing them with challenging, well-paid jobs.”
“I think the future prospects are good for Ukraine. There is a lot of IT that is needed, that needs to be customised, culturally and time-zone-sensitive and we cannot do that in India, the Philippines or in China,” says Elias van Herwaarden, EMEA service leader at Global Location Services, Deloitte. “If there is a huge shortage of IT skills in the EU, where can they go? Ukraine should act very quickly. I think they can.”
The following a reposted article from EIR Europe.
By Max Gurvits
Last week we sat together with our outgoing EIR in Macedonia, Rebecca Rachmany, as we wrapped up her stay in Skopje, and talked a bit about her experience mentoring local entrepreneurs.
Rebecca, you have now spent almost one month as our first Entrepreneur-in-residence in Macedonia. What are your impressions and takeaways?
Macedonia is an absolutely fabulous place, and I had the pleasure of working alongside many wonderful entrepreneurs here. One of the things that struck me is how much people love their country and are willing to stay here and make things work. That’s impressive.
Another thing I noticed is that the concept of (scalable) entrepreneurship as a whole is a very new thing here in Macedonia, and probably in the rest of the Balkans too. There are very few local sources of skills for building globally relevant products. These are mainly soft skills, related to communication, strategy, etc., and it’s very hard for local entrepreneurs to obtain these skills on the ground here.
How is the Macedonian startup ecosystem in your opinion?
It’s formidable how much stuff is going on here! During my four weeks in Skopje, I spent time at two incubators, one co-working space, one venture fund, and a lot of time with several successful local startups that have created an informal growth network. It’s all very new, and it’s exciting to see how people are organizing themselves into organizational structures. One thing that is still very new to this community is long-term strategy. Probably due to historical and cultural reasons, most activists in the local startup scene still think one shot-term goal or problem at a time. I hope that I was able to help with that, but it’s a deeply rooted local attitude that these organizations need to help go away.
What should the local players focus on to improve this?
I guess it’s part learning new skills, and part attitude. I have the feeling that some of the local and regional investors look too much at blueprints from Western counterparts when assessing local opportunities. One of the local companies I worked with has managed to build very impressive traction with their product, with very little means, but I heard their investor is pushing them for more. As a business development professional, I know that any more growth would require a substantial investment in marketing/sales skills that the team doesn’t currently have, so I spent part of my time here to help them design that strategy.
You also mentioned attitude. What do you mean?
One of the things I keep hearing in Macedonia is “but the problem is….”. One time the problem is that there aren’t enough investors, very often the problem is also something related to the government. I’m trying to help people here understand that government, although it sure can be helpful, isn’t the place startups should be looking to for help. And again, this is obviously a mindset issue, used to as people are here to see problems first and solutions second. It’s been a wonderful journey helping Macedonian entrepreneurs on the way to change that realization, and I hope I have been helpful with that.
The following is a reposted article from Balkanist.net by HANNAH WEBER
Montenegro’s Boka Kotorska, or Bay of Kotor, is as vast and impressive as a Norwegian fjord, but it’s pushing 40°C and we’ve already had to dodge a line of cows on the motorway. The bay draws nearer with each hairpin turn, its clear blue water dotted with boats and sea birds. Two buildings and a copse of cypress trees rise out of the water — a chapel and a private residence within swimming distance of the village of Perast. It seems that everyone, from scowling pubescent boys to ancient, tea-wielding women, is in the water.
Kotor has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, not only for the historied mountains and pristine bay waters, but also for architecture stretching back to the Middle Ages, which UNESCO lauds for its “harmonious integration to the cultivated terraced landscape on the slopes of high rocky hills.”
However, in July 2016, UNESCO gave the region just under a year to curb thoughtless seafront development in order to keep its World Heritage status. Sandra Kapetanović, a sustainable planning architect in the area, reported that the concerns over real estate development in Kotor date back to 2003.
From 2002 to 2016, the number of foreign visitors to Montenegro multiplied by 10, and not entirely organically — the country has made conscious efforts to make itself an attractive destination to Western European tourists. While longstanding use of the Euro as official Montenegrin currency has been controversial, this problem promises to be erased by the country’s EU candidate status, granted in 2010. In addition to EU candidacy, Montenegro became the 29th member of NATO in June of this year, which has brought it closer to EU accession but may weaken its ties with Serbia and Russia.
In 2016, the tourism’s total contribution to the country’s GDP was 22.1 percent. For businesses in the Bay of Kotor, it makes sense to piggyback off of Croatia’s commercial success, with Dubrovnik’s busy airport only a few hours away. The local airport makes the corporate intentions for the region clear with signs advertising the Bay of Kotor as the new Monaco. Yes, the growing influx of euros is definitely boosting the economy, but for whom?
My host Ana — without question the tallest woman I have ever seen — ducks under the doorframe to show me in. The state of her apartment is indicative of the appeal of the outdoors: four bare rooms that serve as a vessel for sleeping and washing up. She towers over me in a frayed bikini, sipping orange juice while she talks.
I didn’t know it then, but 2017 is the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Its slogan? Travel, Enjoy, Respect. Tourism for development: the idea that, marketed correctly, a country’s natural and cultural wonders could help pull it out of economic instability. The initiative’s goals mirror the UN’s goals for sustainable development worldwide, including eliminating poverty and reducing inequality within and between countries.
Ana hosts tourists all summer long, but when the season is over she drives north over the mountains and back to Belgrade for work. She’s kept this pattern for more than a decade but recently she has begun to fear for the authenticity of the area, and admits that she never heads into the centre of town anymore. Ana is caught in the trappings of “tourism for development”, like many of the locals.
“On the one hand,” she says, “I can make money renting the extra rooms in the house. I’ve always done it, but Western tourists can pay more than families from Serbia or Bosnia.” She also worries about the impact of people who don’t stay overnight: “The [cruise] ships ruin the atmosphere and the people arrive and buy plastic souvenirs. They stop in the nearest square to pay a fortune for sardines, make a mess, and leave.” Of course, these floating hotels also keep all of their accommodation money onboard.
While calls for sustainable tourism often (perhaps rightly) villainize cruise ships, it’s widely accepted that longer stays have a number of benefits. The economic benefit is greater for the community and there is a better chance for a genuine exchange of information and culture. However, as demonstrated in Venice, Barcelona, and other cities fighting “overtourism”, longer stays also contribute to dramatic rises in rent and living expenses, pushing out long-time residents. One has to ask if the benefits tourism has for the host city — an economic boost and job creation — compensate for the losses. Regardless of how long the visitors stay, Ana also feels that there is so much pomp piled on in the city centre in an effort to appear authentic, that it threatens to become an open air museum.
Perhaps her “authentic Bay of Kotor” is found out beyond the the old city walls where the air is hazy and the sun slams up hot against your skin. The whole coastline is up for swimming, even though there is hardly a beach in sight. Concrete boardwalks jut into the bay and the Adriatic laps lazily against them. From first light, seniors can be seen bobbing along in the shallows, their bodies comically expanded from the water’s distortion, some still wearing cloth bucket hats. Ana takes us to her preferred swimming spot, far from the city centre, where Montenegrin and Serbian children launch themselves into the water from a boulder and tease those too scared to jump. A tanned and wrinkled man does his washing in a sheltered pool, Ana abandons her flip flops and bikini top before paddling out into the bay, and everyone is smoking.
Lately, when I think of overtourism, a peculiar image comes to mind: Lorenzo Quinn’s piece during this year’s Venice Biennale, Support, where enormous resin-coated hands reach out of the canals to prop up a building. The message about the threat of climate change is clear and desperate. But I cannot help thinking that Support’s location—a city whose people have been calling for restrictions on tourism for decades—allows us to extend its meaning, and to think of the social and environmental consequences of mass tourism.
The federal Montenegrin government ordered a temporary construction ban in the city centre that went into effect in April — just in time to satisfy UNESCO’s demands. However, even these temporary measures have caused controversy. The opposition party says that the government still issued construction permits for several large tourist buildings in Kotor just before the protection measures were invoked, and that the ban was ordered only after the opposition gained power. The construction ban, mayor Vladimir Jokić argues, is just a tool to place political pressure on the local opposition government while the area’s UNESCO status remains in jeopardy over “the action and construction activities of powerful individuals and families interacting with the national administration.”
Calls for sustainable tourism exist in an echo chamber and often fall victim to hypocrisy — as one journalist noted, “no one wants to be a tourist — not even tourists.” The concrete blocks that have cropped up along the coast stick out dramatically amongst the burnished green domes and sun-bleached walls. Aside from the rapid development, the historic city is suffering from crowding — the sheer footfall of thousands of tourists a day in the summer puts unprecedented wear on the cobbled streets and crumbling stairways.
In neighbouring Dubrovnik, officials looking to control the cruise crowds that descend en masse have limited the number of tourists allowed to enter the city centre to 8,000 per day. On the 21st of September, 2017, Dubrovnik’s mayor Mato Franković, made an official visit to Kotor to emphasize the need for cooperation on the issues that affect both cities — managing cruise ship tourism, maintaining the integrity of the historical architecture, and protecting the quality of life for the locals.
On the boardwalk just outside Kotor’s city centre on a balmy evening, I’m one of only a dozen people on the beach. A cruise ship floats idly on the opposite shore, the lights of each cabin twinkling out to meet us. Wandering north and back into the suburbs, I notice that many of the concrete aberrations stand half-built and empty.
Kotor’s UNESCO status offers it invaluable environmental protection and monetary aid. If Kotor is going to develop the tourism industry sustainably, it must be answerable to both international regulatory organizations, like UNESCO, and the people who live there. As Dubrovnik’s mayor declared during his visit, what is best for both regions is a commitment to “create cities tailor-made to citizens.” It is up to both the local and federal government to predict and solve tourism-related problems before they erode not only natural and historical features, but also the locals’ quality of life. Whether this is done with tourist caps — as in Dubrovnik’s city centre –, a tourist tax, thoughtful and reasonable development, or even blanket bans on large cruise vessels should be left for citizens to debate. But with persistent in-fighting between Montenegro’s governmental strata and unabashed cronyism in seafront property sales, the response to UNESCO’s warning may only serve to prolong the problem.
WASHINGTON AND KIEV, 29. SEP, 09:27
Since 1 September, the Ukraine-EU Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement is in force. The debate about the next step of Ukraine's EU integration is in full swing.
Ukraine has declared it to be strategic national priority to apply for EU membership by 2020, but that is hardly realistic since EU member states are divided and enlargement is seen as challenging for elites and electorates in the EU.
For Ukraine, the right step now is to follow the successful track record of Central European countries in their EU integration.
Ukraine is currently in a similar situation as the six EU candidate and potential candidate countries from South Eastern Europe.
They have to wait in line, while reforming at home and convincing the EU of the benefits of extended membership. Progress on membership will depend on reforms and prosperity of the candidates.
If they jointly pursue reforms and progress in prosperity, they will accelerate the accession to the EU of all candidates as the Nordic, Baltic, Benelux, and the Visegrad countries have proven.
All European countries are entitled to apply for EU membership according to the European Treaty, and when they have fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria on democracy, rule of law, and market economic development, the EU can hardly turn them down. The question is how most effectively to accomplish that.
As strategic European integration gradually replaces the post-Maidan crisis, we recommend that Ukraine apply for membership of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) as the next stepping stone toward EU accession.
In 1992, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary - the Visegrad countries - founded the CEFTA, which has functioned as a useful preparation for EU membership.
As countries have joined the EU, they have departed from CEFTA, while other countries with the ambition to join the EU have joined CEFTA. Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia all acceded to CEFTA and left when the successfully upgraded to full EU membership.
At present, CEFTA has seven members - Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and Serbia. They all joined in 2006-7.
Its headquarters is in Brussels among the European Commission buildings. Membership requires membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO), an Association Agreement with the EU, and a free trade agreement with the current CEFTA members.
It does facilitate trade among these countries and prepares them for EU accession.
Rather than trying to develop a new Eastern Partnership Free Trade Agreement (EPFTA), Ukraine should join CEFTA.
An EPFTA with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine could not possibly work.
To begin with, Azerbaijan and Belarus are not even members of the WTO, and they are not likely to join for many years.
Second, Armenia and Azerbaijan are technically and sadly at war with one another.
Third, Armenia and Belarus are members of Russia's Eurasian Economic Union and would not be allowed to join.
EaP doesn't work
Face it! The Eastern Partnership does not work.
That leaves three countries that are members of the WTO and have Association Agreements with the EU, namely Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, of which Moldova is already a member of CEFTA.
Since Moldova is already a member, why should not Ukraine join as well? Moreover, CEFTA membership does not have to be approved by all EU member states.
The Western Balkans' endeavours to integrate their economies into a Regional Economic Area were agreed at the July Trieste summit.
Currently, discussions are going on about a customs union of the Balkan six.
Some in the Balkans might say Ukraine integration might be a burden for them, while some Ukrainians might argue that the small market size of the current CEFTA members renders CEFTA a less attractive group of poor relatives.
Furthermore the mutual knowledge of the Balkans and Ukraine is limited and both perceive each other as being poor and marginal.
However, combining the market, natural resources and technological capacity of Ukraine with the EU accession and impressive reform experience of the Balkans would strengthen all the countries involved.
Together they could build prosperity in South-Eastern and Eastern Europe, accelerating the EU accession for all members of CEFTA.
EPFTA would take years
Instead of considering setting up an EPFTA, which in the unlikely event that it would be formed, would take years to negotiate statutes, headquarters, and conventions Ukraine should join CEFTA, which is a highly successful free trade agreement with the splendid record of graduating eight former members into full EU member states.
Georgia should also be encouraged to join CEFTA. If other Eastern Partnership countries would fulfil the conditions for CEFTA membership, the organization will be open for them.
An enlarged CEFTA would improve all members economies and facilitate their EU accession, and it would hardly be politically controversial given that Moldova has already been a member for nine years.
Ukraine can fulfil all the conditions for CEFTA membership in 2018 to become a full member by January 2019. CEFTA can serve as the next essential building block for Western integration of Ukraine.
Anders Aslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington. Gunther Fehlinger is Chairman of Europeans for Tax Reform, an NGO in Brussels
The following is a reposted version of an article from Perceptive Travel by Tim Leffel.
Story and photos by Tim Leffel
Cycling through three formerly war-torn Balkan countries over six days means beautiful scenery pockmarked by sad reminders of the past.
t feels like we’re the only people left on Earth. There are no sounds, no people, and the buildings all look bombed out or long abandoned. As we park the bikes next to an old stone train station to stretch our legs, we hear a rustling sound coming from inside. It’s not a zombie though. A big cow lumbers out the front door, glances at us, then starts chewing on some weeds.
We’ve gotten here by bike, so it’s hard to believe that the night before we were in a different country, at the seaside, sipping a glass of wine with laughter around us in full cafes. In the former war zone of the Balkans, the countries are squeezed close together but a few miles can bring stark contrasts.
I’m on a tour called “Cycling the West Balkans Triangle” from BikeTours.com and Biking Croatia. In just a week it zig-zags through three countries and more than twice as many border crossings. From the Adriatic Sea of Croatia, around the Bay of Kotor, and through farmland of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it’s a challenging tour that rewards riders with some spectacular scenery and some history lessons.
I start out cranky, however, since our first night in Dubrovnik is not what I had imagined. The Serbs never conquered this city in the Balkan conflict, but they tried shelling it from positions above. Now there are invaders of a different sort: thousands of cruise ship passengers from around the world. Unlike the Serbs, they always make it through the old city walls, lumbering through the fortified city streets in huge clumps.
Up and Down on Two Wheels to Kotor
When we hop on our bikes just outside the city the next morning, as soon as we cross the border to Bosnia-Herzegovina we start climbing. And climbing some more. And then some more. On the first morning of our first day, the local tour operator decided four kilometers at an 8-10% grade was a fine way to loosen up our legs. I try to concentrate on the pavement right in front of me so I don’t have to see how far I must go. Every time I see a rare shady spot beside the road, I pull over for a rest.
One guy in our group flags down a support van that’s following us to the first hotel, but I make it to the top of the mountain without a ride and mentally pat myself on the back. After a picnic lunch of burek and another border crossing into Montenegro, we’re soon rewarded with panoramic views while gliding downhill to the Bay of Kotor. Over the next two days we are to circle the entire bay, seeing it all at a human pace instead of from a careening tour bus.
From a viewpoint we see Sveti Dorde Island, where there’s a monastery and a small graveyard. The other small island with a church on top wasn’t always there. Fishermen threw rocks into the water and then later sank boats to build an artificial island. The current church dates back to 1722.
Eventually we stop for coffee in Perast, the lesser-known UNESCO World Heritage city in this area, and collectively give thanks that we’re on a bike tour. We pass hundreds of tourists who must literally feel like a number: their cruise ship has made them put a number sticker onto their shirts so the guides can gather them up in an hour like cattle. As we sit at a seaside café while they hear the call to return to their bus, I think I see a little longing in a few eyes.
I’ve been looking forward to visiting Kotor for years after seeing photos. With its dramatic fortress on a steep mountainside and walls that are more than 1,000 years old, it makes a dramatic site with the jagged mountains behind it and the water in front. High season reality hits us in the face quickly though when we get caught in a traffic jam entering the city, breathing in bus and car fumes. There are two cruise ships in the harbor, but the passengers of many others are in for the day on tour buses from Dubrovnik. I walk through the 15th-century streets looking for quiet spots I can photograph with no people in them. I finally find one after taking some random turns and have snapped just one photo when a man with a megaphone rounds the corner holding up a sign. More than 50 people are following him through a narrow cobblestone alley like the Pied Piper of Hamlet.
“When do the ships stop coming?” I ask a woman who is hanging laundry, hoping she speaks English. “This place is lovely in November,” she says with barely an accent. She reaches into her apron and hands me a card for her guesthouse.
Around the Bay in Montenegro
Once we cycle a few miles down the road to Hotel Splendido though, it’s a different story. The view out my window matches the lovely photos I’ve seen for years, a blue swimming pool against the bay and the mountains, with ancient stone buildings on the shore. After a swim, I take a walk down the road and visit a church that’s a few hundred years old, beside buildings with walls thick enough to withstand invading armies. With five euros I buy a half kilo of cherries, two local dark beers, cheese, and some bread to watch the sun go down by the water.
We circle the rest of the bay and take a one-euro ferry to the other side to get to bustling Herceg Novi. We ride slowly along a pedestrian and bike path there, past gelato stands, seafront fish restaurants, and at least a hundred places to get a cup of coffee. The “beaches” here are really concrete platforms or collections of rocks, but the water is clear and beautiful.
This ends up being our longest day of cycling and the one with the most countries. We start in Montenegro, ride through Bosnia’s Konavle countryside, then after lunch head to the coast of Croatia. This trip has not been good for conserving blank pages in my passport that expires four years from now. Every crossing means two more stamps and I’m losing count of how many of these we’ve done. This despite the fact these places are biking distance from each other and we’re moving through an area smaller than the average U.S. state.
As we leave the bay, we climb a 10% grade for what feels like an hour to get over the surrounding ridge we came down from a few days earlier. Three of us groan, three just pump harder and conquer it.
There’s been a clear split in our group along the way. The guide loves to haul ass out front and there are two people in our group who love to join him. One of them is a female cyclist who has legs twice as muscular as mine. This is an easy trip for her. She and husband are on their own road bikes they brought along. They are wearing cycling jerseys commemorating a ride they did across the Alps in Switzerland, with all the elevation that entails.
I, on the other hand, am wearing one of two off-the-rack cycling shirts I own that don’t commemorate any great feat. My shorts have some padding, but they look just like regular shorts you could wear into a bar. I bike a lot, but in Florida, where the only hills are overpasses. While I’m huffing and puffing in the lowest gear, half the group is gliding up to the top like it’s a beach boardwalk ride on a cruiser bike.
As we ride through the countryside, we go by a few farm country buildings that still show bullet and mortar holes. It’s so serene around here that it’s hard to imagine that this was a battle zone during the Bosnian conflict. We hear a popping sound beside the road, but it’s not man-made. It’s an ongoing mystery that we finally identify when we make a stop: seeds popping out of pods amidst the wildflowers.
We spend the night in the postcard-perfect town of Cavtat, with yachts bobbing on the water in front of buildings going back to the 14th century. People have been living here since the Greeks founded it in the 4th century B.C. though and then the Romans and Slavs came after. It’s a great walking town, with a path around the peninsula leading to a bar perched on the side of a rock cliff, pine trees swaying overhead and the deep blue sea below. On both sides of the peninsula, restaurants face the water and some offer divine sunsets with the Croatian wine we all order up to celebrate our all-day workout.
"A little climbing today" in the morning starts with a half hour of pure uphill, but then we’re on that Ciro rail trail back in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Austrian empire built the railroad here originally when they ruled these lands, then abandoned it in the 1970s. Soon after that the war came, which hastened the decline and exodus.
Now the bees and butterflies rule, with an occasional squashed snake making me think I should be careful where I stop to pee. A sign outlining the work the UN is still doing to clear land mines gives me even more reason to stay on the trail.
Monks and Cold Caves
The end of the trail for us is the town of Zavala. We passed many abandoned train stations during the day, but we get to sleep in one here: the Zavala station has been restored and turned into a B&B. The town feels dramatic as we sit and rest: a Serbian film crew is making a historic TV show episode at the monastery from the 1500s, complete with men in armor riding horses
I take a walk up there later as the film crew is packing up and the only person around is a monk sitting quietly outside. (Is there any other way for a monk to sit?) We nod at each other and I check out the ancient paintings inside. As a group we go explore the famous Vjetrenica Cave, a long cavern complex that feels air conditioned at 11 degrees Celsius. Apparently it’s just right for the blind salamander species living in the pools.
When the film crew is all gone, the only sound in the small town is the music coming from the restaurant. After getting cleaned up we enjoy an epic saç dinner that has been cooking under hot coals in a fireplace for hours. As the waiter lifts off the lid, an aromatic wave of sizzling meat, potatoes, and spices makes us eager to dive in.
To the Long Wall and Oysters
“We will have some rolling hills today,” says our guide, so of course we start the day climbing up, up, up out of the valley to a border crossing atop a mountain back to Croatia. We roll through a mellow countryside with almost no traffic. There are so many butterflies that I start feeling guilty: some of them bash into my bike helmet when I’m rolling downhill. I’m starting to think we won’t see another soul not in a car when we come across a fruit stand where everything in it looks picture perfect. We stick with the seasonal theme and plow through a big bag of succulent cherries.
After a leisurely stop at a stone church surrounded by grape vines and olive trees, we roll into Mali Ston in the early afternoon. This duo of towns with the 15th century “Walls of Ston” between them actually make up the longest fortress system in Europe, at 5.5 kilometers. The thing to do here is to walk the whole wall from one town to another, but my usual exploratory impulses are drowned out when I approach the entrance gate high above town. “Are you F-ing crazy?” my legs ask me. “You want to give me even more pain, after all I’ve done for you this week?” In my mind my legs have the voice of Chris Rock and they get my attention. I forget that idea and go for a swim instead. I find out at dinner that the rest of my group made the hike, but after a nice seafood dinner with items from the local shellfish farms I’ve gotten over any feelings of missing out.
Blue Water and Wine on the Peljesac Peninsula
Our guide announces that the last day will consist of “rolling hills,” which means we’re going up and down mountains rising hundreds of meters along the Peljesac Peninsula coast of Croatia. Each climb up means heart-racing downhills after though, with gorgeous sea views and grapevines. We can see the mineral-rich wines get their flavor here, growing on the steep and rocky sides of hills. “There’s no irrigation here,” our guide at Grgich Vina winery tells us when we stop for a break and a tasting, “So the roots go very deep.” This winery was founded by Miljenko Grgić, the man behind Grgich Hills Estate in California, the vintner who beat the French in the famous blind tasting competition of 1976. In many ways, that was when the tables turned for Napa Valley .
It’s hard to get back on the bikes after tasting wines from this legendary figure, back on his ancestral soil. Sure, my legs are rock hard with muscle now and my lungs are used to the workout, but after six days of this, I’m feeling spent. I’m glad I’ve been able to shed some pounds while eating whatever the heck I want, but it’s clear I’m not in my 20s anymore.
We descend into the seaside town of Orebic and just like that, we’re done. This deserves a celebration, so the driver of the company van pulls out a cooler full of ice cold Orozco beers. I suck the first one down in five minutes flat and go for another, mentally congratulating myself for never having to get into that support van along the way. I think back on the beginning a week earlier when I said out loud, “I love this bike! It’s so fast!” Now I look at it like a regretted fling and say, “I am glad I never have to sit on that bike again.”
Dubrovnik in the Morning Calm
We spend the night back in Dubrovnik and I go to be thinking it would be nice to see the old city again, but can’t bear the thought of fighting cruise ship hordes again. So I set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. and walk across the hill from my hotel on the port side to the historic section as the sun is coming up. I can count the number of other people I see on two hands as I get photos without any of them in it and enjoy the fortress in the glowing morning sun, with no sounds except waves lapping against the shore.
By the time I climb the hill up to my hotel and go up one flight of steps, I hear the Chris Rock voice of my legs screaming at me, “What, again? Really? You couldn’t figure out something better to do after finishing than walk up and down hills after six days on a bike?”
“Don’t worry boys,” I reassure them. “After breakfast, we’re getting on a bus.”
The following is a reposted article from Emerging Europe.
The first Digital Business Space has opened its doors in Sarajevo; helping the city reach the level of other advanced metropolises. The concept, which was developed by the South Eastern European Business Agency (SEEBA), aims to offer business people a working place in the city centre.
“The idea for the Digital Business Space came as a response to the increasing interest of business travellers and remote workers who are relocating to Sarajevo for a period of time,” Hanna Cerić, business analyst at SEEBA, tells Emerging Europe.
“Sarajevo is the crossing point between the east and the west, and we have begun to see lots of business people from both directions either making a lay-over in Sarajevo, or settling down for a more permanent time, to do their business in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Following the trends in other European capitals, where business lounges are popping up in premium locations, we decided to set up and open the Digital Business Space at Ferhadija, in the midst of the city centre,” she adds
According to the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FIPA), the ICT sector is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, contributing around €75 million to the country’s GDP. There are around 1,400 companies and about 2,500 to 3,500 programmers, who, in terms of their knowledge, skills, experience and insight into modern trends, are frequently ahead of their colleagues in other European countries.
“Digital Business Space provides business people the work conditions they expect, while keeping the same standard and quality that one can find in other cities across Europe. We also offer a full virtual office service, if you decide to relocate your business, or open up a branch, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The space’s premium location, in the heart of Sarajevo, allows professionals to experience the true colours of this beautiful city whilst doing business,” Ms Ceric adds.
In order to strengthen Sarajevo’s position on the business map, the Digital Business Space also runs an SME Up-Skilling Centre, which is a business training and coaching session for local and international small and medium-sized enterprises. In order to enable and empower businesses, this Up-Skilling Centre will offer seminars, coaching sessions and mentorships, business model innovation boot-camps, networking event and digital innovation missions.