1. Vucic urges Republika Srpska to ‘reconsider’ court referendum

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has urged the leader of Bosnia’s Serbs to rethink a referendum that would challenge the powers of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s courts over that country’s Serb-dominated region.

Lawmakers in the autonomous Republika Srpska last week backed the decision to hold a vote, defying international warnings that it violated the Dayton peace agreements and would stoke tensions with Bosnia’s Muslim- and Croat-dominated region, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Vucic told a 17 July news conference in Belgrade that the referendum was “a sovereign decision” of the Republika Srpska, the Tanjug news agency reports. But he added, “I asked, on behalf of Serbia, that they once again consider that decision. I am grateful that this point of view of Serbia is respected – which I think is at this moment comprehensive, all-encompassing, and serious.”

The Serbian prime minister held talks with Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, who attended the news conference.

“Serbia has never and in no way interfered in the internal affairs of Bosnia-Herzegovina, nor in the internal affairs of the RS,” Vucic said, according to Tanjug. “But today I am grateful to Dodik for accepting, on my initiative, to have this kind of conversation,” he said, noting that “Serbia would find it difficult to exist without the RS, while the RS would find it no less difficult without Serbia.”

Dodik has argued that the courts are biased against Serbs, including cases involving war crimes, the BBC reports. The referendum was approved by 45 of the region’s 83 lawmakers, with the remainder abstaining or not voting, according to the BBC.

The European Commission condemned the vote, saying a referendum “would challenge the cohesion, sovereignty, and integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to which the leaders of all the political parties represented in the [national] parliament, including entity President Dodik, committed themselves in February 2015.”

2. Vilnius removes Soviet-era bridge monuments

Work crews early today began removing the last major Soviet-era monuments in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, a move that is bound to strain already tense relations with Moscow.

Russia has repeatedly condemned recent moves in former Soviet satellite states to dismantle or relocate statues, memorials, and cemeteries. On 4 July, the Kremlin denounced the destruction of a Red Army war memorial in the western Polish town of Nowa Sol as a “direct and flagrant” violation of a 1994 accord on the protection of historic memorials.

Reuters reports that municipal workers in Vilnius began to raze the four sets of statues honoring soldiers, students, laborers, and farmers. But officials said the decision was for safety reasons and not in response to political tensions with neighboring Russia.

“The statues represent a lie,” Mayor Remigijus Simasius told Reuters. “Their heroic portrayal of the Soviet people – that is all a lie. … The statues are a mockery of the real people who had to live during the Soviet period.”

Simasius added that he did not want to pay for renovating the Soviet relics, which were installed on the city’s Green Bridge spanning the Neris River in 1952.

Deputy Mayor Gintautas Paluckas told The Guardian that all four statues, each weighing several tons, were corroded.

The decision not to restore the monuments was not without criticism. Larisa Dmitriyeva, a lawmaker from the Lithuanian Union of Russians, told The Guardian before the removal began, “I really don’t like this idea. The decision is absolutely populist. This is our history and there’s no way we can change it.”

The recent efforts to remove the relics have been less incendiary than the decision in 2007 to remove a Red Army monument in the Estonian capital, Tallinn. Riots erupted over the dismantling of the “Bronze Soldier” with some local media blaming the unrest on Russian agitation.

3. Macedonia plans to strengthen institutions ahead of elections

Macedonia could ramp up the authority of several independent government agencies as part of a broader deal to calm political frictions in the country.

Bipartisan working groups are looking at ways to empower the electoral and anti-corruption commissions, along with the revenue and media regulatory agencies, Balkan Insight reports today.

“We need to define concrete steps, legal changes, and personnel solutions to improve the work of these bodies,” Petre Shilegov, spokesman for the opposition Social Democratic Party, told Balkan Insight. “For example, we need to boost the authority of the Electoral Commission so that it is paramount over the Interior Ministry, not the other way around.”

A senior official in the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party confirmed that the discussions were ongoing and that “if all goes well, we should have most of our work done by the end of this month,” according to Balkan Insight.

Representatives of Macedonia’s political parties are part of the talks on finding ways to insulate independent agencies from political influence.

Under a European Union-negotiated deal reached on 15 July, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has agreed to resign as prime minister and turn over authority to an interim government. Meantime, Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev and his party have agreed to end their boycott of the parliament.

Under the agreement brokered by the EU, the interim government is not due to take power until 15 January and parliamentary elections will take place 24 April.

Macedonia has been riven by months of tension between the two lead political parties, with both Gruevski and Zaev engaged in bitter rhetoric over allegations that include corruption and treason. The crisis gained urgency in May when clashes between police and ethnic-Albanian gunmen left more than 20 people dead and wounded dozens of others in the northern town of Kumanovo.

In a related development, demonstrators who have called for Gruevski to resign began to de-camp from the government square in Skopje following the announcement of the agreement on new elections, according to Balkan Insight. The tent city went up some two months ago as pro- and anti-government forces launched competing demonstrations.

4. Faceblocked: Strident Russian newsman reportedly barred from social media

Two social media accounts opened by Dmitry Kiselyov, the outspoken head of Rossiya Segodnya news agency, were inaccessible just hours after they were created.

Kiselyov used a Russian social media site to declare that his new Facebook and Instagram accounts were blocked, The Moscow Times reports. There was no further explanation of who was behind the move to block Kiselyov’s profiles.

“The page was unexpectedly deleted. Attempts to restore it by the recommended methods – confirming one’s identity via one’s mobile phone and even sending in [a copy of one’s] passport – did not work,” the director of the government-run news agency said in a post on the Russian site VKontakte, according to The Moscow Times.

Kiselyov is among the top government officials targeted by European Union sanctions. The EU identifies him (pdf) as a “central figure of the government propaganda supporting the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine.”

Last week, RT reported that Britain’s Barclay’s bank had frozen the bank account of Rossiya Segodnya, a move that Kiselyov denounced as “censorship.”

Kiselyov is widely know for his overtly pro-Kremlin, anti-Western rants. But in a reversal of earlier anti-homosexual remarks, he recently endorsed civil unions in Russia.

“The LGBT community is a fact. And we can figure out how to make life easier for adults who want to take upon themselves – including on paper – the obligation to care for one another,” he said on a recent TV show, according to The Washington Post. “In the end, love works wonders. Who is against it?”

5. Baltic states’ diet advice for Greece: Try humble pie

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all endured financial hardships during the global financial meltdown that began in 2008.

Within a few years, all three had joined the eurozone and have staged economic recoveries. Now they are offering advice to struggling Greece: tighten your belts if you want to get back to financial health.

“I think that Greeks have to face up to the challenges that we experienced. They have to tighten their belts,” a female passer-by in Riga told Deutsche Welle. “I suffered during the crisis, too, and they have to accept the situation. I did, life goes on.”

Morten Hansen of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga told Deutsche Welle that people in the three ex-Soviet republics doubt whether Greeks are as enthusiastic about being part of the euro currency union as they are.

Hansen said austerity measures imposed by the Latvian government were “front-loaded,” so the impact hit all at once during a severe recession.

“It meant that the downturn was really sharp and caused a lot of people deep suffering,” he told the German broadcaster. “There is absolutely no doubt that things were very tough here. That is one major reason for the differences of opinion toward austerity in Latvia and Greece.”

Baltic leaders, along with their counterparts from Finland and Slovakia, have been among the most vocal skeptics of a third, 86 billion euro ($93 billion) bailout package for Greece.

Estonia was the first Baltic state to replace its currency with the euro, in 2011, followed by Latvia in 2014 and Lithuania this year.

Timothy Spence is TOL’s former managing editor and a freelance writer, editor, and journalism trainer in Vienna.