The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyzes developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. In the context of the Tirana summit of leaders of the regional initiative “Open Balkan”, IFIMES made an analysis of the current political situation in the Western Balkans. We bring the most important and interesting parts of the extensive analysis titled “2022 Open Balkan: One voice and an opportunity for all.”
In early October 2021, during the Slovenian presidency of the European Union (EU) an unsuccessful EU-Western Balkans countries summit was organized in Brdo pri Kranju, within the framework of strategic cooperation of the EU with the Western Balkans. The summit reaffirmed the words of the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (SNS) from the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, when he said that the EU “was a fairytale on paper” and underscored that “there is no great international or European solidarity.”
Lack of interest of the EU in enlargement prompted the leaders of the Western Balkans countries to think about the future and seek optimal solutions for the complex situation. Recognizing the situation for the Balkan countries with respect to enlargement of the EU to the Western Balkans, three leaders, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev (SDSM) and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (PS) decided in October 2019 to “take destiny in their own hands” and launched a visionary idea of establishment of a “mini Schengen.” In late July 2021, this idea evolved into a regional initiative “Open Balkan.” The initiative is no substitute for membership in the EU, but a path to accelerated membership and utilization of the existing but insufficiently used potential, which will facilitate economic prosperity.
Leaders of the regional cooperation initiative “Open Balkan” met on 21 December 2021 in Tirana/Elbasan to sign several agreements that will facilitate movement of people, goods, capital and services among the three countries, as well as make business operations easier. They signed an Agreement on work permits that will enable workers from Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia to obtain more easily the necessary work permits and documents. The agreement on integrated electronic systems should enable citizens of the three countries to file applications in other countries from any place. Furthermore, the four agreements related to veterinary and phytosanitary inspections, which were also signed, will facilitate trade in livestock, as well as products of vegetable and animal origin.
Economic prosperity is unimaginable without good neighborly relations and regional cooperation. Majority of trade in goods takes place in the region, which is a strong incentive for improvement of bilateral and regional relations. There is no leadership and prosperity in an insecure and distrustful neighborhood. As in the recent history the region had experienced tragic armed conflicts, it is important that states provide for adequate facing with the past and eliminate the rhetoric of hatred that creates tensions and deters regional cooperation. Therefore, it is important to halt the abuse of universal competences with respect to prosecution of war criminals and allow judicial prosecution to be conducted in the state in which respective crime had been committed and/or in line with agreement brokered between states, with no secret or unilateral arrest warrants and arrests. Unilateral referral of war crime cases from Serbia to the BiH judiciary is a new practice and a positive contribution to the process of facing the truth and development of mutual trust.
Analysts believe that the “Open Balkan” initiative is regional initiative for the Balkans for the 21st century, because it will eliminate border controls and other barriers in order to facilitate movement (people, goods, capital and services) in the region, enable citizens to travel using only their ID card as a travel document. Furthermore, the initiative will also enable citizens to find employment anywhere in the region, if they have proof of their qualifications, as well as provide for recognition of diplomas and better cooperation in the fight against organized crime and response to natural disasters. The experience with the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the importance of cooperation, and the current energy crisis the importance of mutual solidarity. The exchange of experiences and assistance provided among the countries in the region within the framework of integration into the EU is valuable.
Western Balkans countries have to establish stronger political, economic, scientific, cultural, sport and every other form of cooperation and act towards the EU as a group of countries with clearly defined requests and interests. As for the EU enlargement process, it is necessary to define when the enlargement will actually take place, as the EU cannot postpone the enlargement endlessly. In this context, it is important to emphasize that regional cooperation does not imply that countries from the region have given up on their European path and membership in the EU.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić called on all members of the so-called “Balkans six” (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Albania and Serbia), to join the “Open Balkan” initiative, independent of all the differences that exist with respect to the issue of recognition of independence of Kosovo.
In its functioning the “Open Balkan” initiative can draw on the experiences of the cooperation within the so-called Visegrad group of states (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia), which often pursue a common approach within the framework of EU with clearly articulated requests and stances. Furthermore, the Visegrad Group (V4) was formed so that the respective countries could easier and faster become EU and NATO members, which they had achieved. Therefore, it is important that countries from the region pursue a joint approach to the EU and/or other foreign policy initiatives with a single voice, because actions of individual countries are insufficient and do not guarantee success.
Problems with regional cooperation are still present in the Western Balkans. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti (LVV) refused participation in the “Open Balkan” initiative under the explanation that Kosovo already has a clearly defined path, which is membership in the EU and NATO. In fact, Kosovo officials, including Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti, had stated that this was an attempt of establishment of a fourth Yugoslavia and “great Serbia”. Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović (DPS) and some leaders from Bosnia and Herzegovina offered similar reasons form refusing membership in the initiative. It is surprising that the current Montenegrin government, which has still not made a significant departure from the policy and stances of Milo Đukanović, has taken a similar stance. Simultaneously, some political leaders in the region believe that the initiative is aimed at creation of “greater Albania.”
Current Albanian President Ilir Meta (LSI) stated “[the project for] greater Serbia failed, and the one for greater Albania is not possible.”
Spreading information about the so-called hegemonic projects, regardless of whether they are projects for a greater Serbia, greater Albania, greater Bulgaria, greater Hungary or greater Croatia, deters the region from pursuing necessary cooperation in all areas and creating the direly needed spirit of cooperation and togetherness
Analysts believe that Kosovo is the most isolated area in Europe. Namely, Kosovo does not have a visa-free regime with EU member countries. In fact, it does not even have a visa-free regime with Bosnia and Herzegovina, which causes enormous damage to Kosovo and its citizens. Kosovo leaders have to be aware of the fact that cooperation must be established and togetherness built in the region, as on the global scene the actors are the regions, not the states. EU is a regional integration, while “Open Balkan” is an economic cluster in making. It is no longer a question will but when will the remaining countries join the “Open Balkan” initiative, as any delay will mean enormous losses to their economies and businesspersons, which as taxpayers pay the most to the budgets of their respective countries. It is unacceptable that Kosovo declares a tw0-month state of emergency due to the shortage of power supply, instead of being able to seek assistance on solidarity bases within the “Open Balkan” framework.
There can be no economic prosperity, if good neighborly relations are not developed and cultivated. Leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania were fully aware of this when they launched the “Open Balkan” regional initiative in an historic attempt to promote closeness, cooperation and togetherness. Prospects of the Western Balkans are in mutual understanding, interconnection and cooperation. Achievement of the three requires enduring peace and stability. When all six Western Balkans countries pursue a joint approach and speak with one voice to the EU, it will constitute a new quality and strength. Numerous opportunities for synergy and cooperation have remained unused. Economy of scale is an important element in the context of regional cooperation. “Open Balkan” is an economic cluster in making and it will create a competitive edge for the member countries and the region. “Open Balkan” is a peace project. It is a choice between the past and the future. At the Tirana summit, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said, “think less about the past, and more about the future.” Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro still need convincing.
Ljubljana/Brussels/Washington/Tirana, 6 January 2022
 IFIMES – The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)/UN since 2018.