The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyzes developments in the Middle East, the Balkans and around the world. On the occasion of the recently held summit of leaders of the Open Balkan regional initiative in Ohrid and the EU-Western Balkans summit in Brussels, 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: The future belongs to the peoples of the Balkans.”
The European Union’s treats Western Balkans states as a wicked stepmother. While this has not significantly changed even after the Russian invasion on Ukraine, it did triggered a fundamental debate on whether the EU wants at all to admit the remaining six Western Balkan countries (Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo) to full-fledged membership. If the EU would have an intent to admit the listed countries to its membership, the question to be asked is how it could do that. Namely, 19 years have passed since the adoption of the Thessaloniki agenda for the Western Balkans, which envisaged membership of the Western Balkan countries in the EU. Other than the promises about European perspective of the respective countries, nothing concrete has happened with respect to their membership in the EU.
In the meantime, the fact that Ukraine and Moldova were given candidate status just three months after they had submitted their membership application with the EU, caused major disappointment on their part. While North Macedonia and Albania are still waiting for the beginning of the talks with the EU due to the blockade imposed by Bulgaria, which is “taking it out on” North Macedonia by factually negating the existence of Macedonia as a state, its people, identity and language. In fact, the Bulgarian parliament adopted a new decision “unblocking” the start of talks between the EU and North Macedonia, which includes requirements that are unacceptable for North Macedonia. Bearing in mind its text, the decision of the Bulgarian Parliament, which is unacceptable for North Macedonia, factually imposes an even more specific blockade. Unfortunately, all this is happening under the “spotlights” and is greeted with applause by the EU. Bulgaria and North Macedonia should use the upcoming period to find a compromise agreement that would unblock the process of the commencement of talks with the EU in line with the solution proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron.
The general perception is that the EU constantly avoids to take a concrete stance on membership of Western Balkans countries in the EU. In this respect, French President Emmanuel Macron had recently launched an initiative on establishment of a European political alliance which would encompass Western Balkans countries as well. As the EU is a political, economic, cultural and value-based alliance, why is there a need to propose establishment of a new political alliance, that is a block of countries that would primarily be aimed against Russia and ultimately China as well. A new global order is being established and the question is what place will the Western Balkans get in it.
The recently held EU-Western Balkans summit in Brussels confirmed something that all Western Balkans leaders have been emphasizing for quite some time already. Specifically, that the issue of membership of Western Balkans in the EU, before and after everything else, is a political issue. That is the essence, while everything else is a matter of harmonization with the EU acquis communautaire, adoption of its principles and standards in various spheres of social life, the legal framework, standardization of economies and other areas are just a justification for the political stance of EU member countries with respect to the EU enlargement process.
At the mentioned summit, all the hopes, assurances, negotiations and talks, conditioning and agreements with respect to membership of countries from the region in the EU lost their real, argument-based rationale and sense. The fact is that while without any order, procedure or rule, Ukraine and Moldova where granted candidate status, the “obstacles“ put before Western Balkans countries are of exclusively political nature and do not take into account all the efforts and achievements of candidate-states in the region so far, which in some cases covers a multidecade period. The best example of the above is North Macedonia. Namely, the fact that it had even agreed to change its name did not increase its chances on the country's European path even by a tenth of a percent.
On the other side, as an initiative that has unified the efforts of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia in establishment of West Balkans as a more secure, stable and prosperous region for all the peoples living in it, the Open Balkan has achieved exceptional and by many parameters measurable and very promising results. While this should only better qualify the countries in the region for membership in the EU, it should also serve as the crown evidence that the European commitment of candidate countries is unquestionable and lasting. Unfortunately, the facts deny the reality and the developments. Namely, that is why it is possible for the Open Balkan (which enjoys at least general, although partial, support of the EU, in additional to everything done and the criteria fulfilled so far) does not constitute a sufficiently strong and valid argument in the process of integration into the EU. Regardless of everything, the arguments that representatives of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia had presented to the public in their media appearances following the EU-Western Balkans summit in Brussels, as well as the fact that it is more than evident that EU member countries “do not see” (at least at this time, for which it is very uncertain how long it will last) Western Balkans countries as full-fledged members of the EU, lead to the conclusion that the Open Balkan project is the true opportunity for the region to continue to evolve, to fight for itself, as well as present and prove itself in the best light with respect to EU acceptable criteria and standards. Naturally, there are also challenges and theories about the Open Balkan being a version of “Serb world”, bearing in mind that Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and partly Montenegro claim this is a project that promotes Serbian policy and link it to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. The arguments coming from the listed countries are primarily informed by the responses and actions of the international community, as there are no substantiated analyses or national stances on why Open Balkan would be about “creating the Serb world.”
The IFIMES international institute has already underlined on several occasions that it is important that Open Balkan countries adequately face the recent past, abolish arrest warrants and lists, primarily the ones from Serbia, for suspected war crimes and other crimes against humanity, as well as allow for implementation of trails in the states in which the crime had been committed. It is of general interest for all that the states that dispute the Open Balkan initiate officially define their stances and explain why they find the idea of Open Balkan unacceptable, as the only way to overcome differences and suspicions is through talks and negotiations. If Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro have official arguments for which they do not want to be a part of the Open Balkan initiative, then that would be the best way and path to improve the neighborly and interstate relations and further develop them in mutual understanding and trust. Without trust the Open Balkan idea will be doomed to failure. Actually, for all the countries that believe the Open Balkan is a kind of a conspiracy, this idea would be an opportunity to present arguments and expose any supremacy-aspirations or, as they assert, plans of creation of “Serb world.”
All the results that have been achieved, particularly in the area of economy and economic cooperation among Open Balkan member countries- faster flow of people, goods, capital and services, growth of all economic indicators, better and more comprehensive political cooperation, prompt resolution of all internal problems and disputes through the process of dialogue and brokering of agreements- are a testimony that Western Balkan countries have something to offer to the EU, as well as that they want, can and know how to cooperate with the EU, that they have to, both formally and legally, be a part of the community of European peoples and that they are and have been for centuries a part of Europe, irrespective of the fact that the current policy and bureaucracy dispute that and impede them. Open Balkan is a regional initiative, a regional project, but is not a substitute for membership in the EU, nor is it a “substitute” or “consolation prize” to candidate countries for membership in the EU, and least of all a kind of a “hallway” or a “waiting room.”
The Open Balkan is primarily another, very strong and quality proof of maturity of Western Balkan countries for full-fledged membership in the EU, which they have been promised for decades already and every little given additional conditions for it. The Open Balkan is also a unique chance and a plethora of opportunities for additional development and progress of all the concerned countries in all areas of social, public, economic, cultural and even political life in this region, which has always been and is a part of Europe. While it is a Balkan model, in its essence it is far more a European model and way of building a common future – a European future, regardless of all the obstacles on the way to achieving it.
The European leaders have went back on their promise and undermined their credibility, as well as the credibility of the EU. The Schuman’s vision of united Europe is brought under question. In this respect, it could be even said that specific European leaders are acting against the idea of Robert Schuman, who masterminded the project of today's EU. The credibility of some European leaders is further tainted by their involvement in crime and corruption. In fact, some of them even act as proponents of negative and illegal occurrences and are involved in numerous affairs.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazović and the Chair of the BiH Council of Ministers Zoran Tegeltija also attended the recently held summit of leaders of Open Balkan countries in Ohrid. Prime Minister Abazović understands the importance of the Open Balkan initiative, which enjoys strong support of the US. The latest calculations show that Montenegro could disproportionately benefit the most from the Open Balkan project. This is a new fact that should be seriously taken into account in the context of the post-Covid recovery and the crisis caused by the Russian invasion on Ukraine. Therefore, the interest demonstrated by Prime Minister Abazović in the Open Balkan project comes as no surprise. However, the problem is that in Montenegro the politico-mafia structures, symbolized by the helm of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) headed by Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović, want to try to dispute the initiative in every possible way, because the Open Balkan project would reduce space for crimes and accumulation of revenues from illegal activities.
By joining the Open Balkan project Kosovo would come out of a decades-long isolation, as it is the most isolated area in Europe. After all, this would be a step in the direction of getting visa liberalization for Kosovo citizens.
Analysts believe that the visit by Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazović to Serbia is a turning point in the new relations between the official Belgrade and Podgorica. The visit created a window for overcoming of many issues and all stakeholders must give their contribution to that process. The Western Balkans have to be treated differently, while the overall relations have to be relaxed in a way that the Western Balkans region is no longer perceived as a problematic region but a region of opportunities and development, a region in which agreements are made, a region that wants to move forward and a region in which primary topics are focused on economy and the future. The past cannot be changed, but the future can and it can be better and less uncertain. The region can be made additionally secure. The upcoming winter will constitute a major challenge for all and the preparations to overcome it will largely depend on regional cooperation and solidarity, which does not mean that countries in the region have given up on their European path and membership in the EU.
Robert Golob and his Freedom Movement won by a landslide at the recent parliamentary elections in Slovenia. While his predecessor Janez Janša (SDS) pursued a policy that was linked to “non-papers”, which had triggered an avalanche of negative responses and trends, even threats and risks of escalation of conflict in the region, particularly because of the security challenges that emerged after the Russian invasion on Ukraine, Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob offers a new political concept and approach to the Western Balkans. His approach is partly already visible through his engagement in the European Council where he advocated that after years of delay the EU should award candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Prime Minister Golob could bring a new incentive to the European engagement on the Balkans with the intent to revive and accelerate the EU enlargement process on the Western Balkans and define the final timelines for full-fledged integration of the Western Balkans countries into the EU.
The EU is constantly setting new membership conditions and criteria to the Western Balkan countries. Awarding the candidate status by the EU to Ukraine and Moldova, has rendered the whole system of conditioning by the EU senseless. Analysts believe that the official Brussels has not drawn any lessons from the recent history and does not fully understand the mindset of the Balkan peoples, which have problems accepting any kind of conditioning but always welcome an honest friendly relation, including critical ones. Although the rule of law and functional institutions are the foundation of the EU and its legal organization, EU has never developed true and partner relations with Western Balkan citizens but primarily with corrupted politico-mafia structures, which act against the institutions. The risk of abolition of the visa free regime for the Western Balkan countries if being frequently mentioned. However, the practice has shown that there were no real risks and threats in that respect. Hence, a justified question is whether 18 million citizens of the Western Balkans could jeopardize the EU and its 450 million citizens, if the Western Balkans countries would become full-fledged members of the EU. Many current EU member states could not fully meet the current membership conditions set to the Western Balkans countries. In a way, did not the EU “turn a blind eye” when it coopted Bulgaria, Rumania and even Croatia as it members. Another testimony of the inconsistency of the EU is the fact that in 2004 9.5 countries were coopted as full-fledged members of the EU, as only one half of Cyprus was integrated into the EU. The decision to integrate Finland and Sweden “overnight” into NATO shows that everything is possible when there is the political will. The same applies to enlargement of the EU.
The prevailing opinion in the EU is that Serbia is the engine of normalization of the Western Balkans, as well as the engine of European integration of the Western Balkans countries. The process of integration of Serbia into the EU has been particularly intensified over the past several years. However, for more than two years already Serbia has not opened a new chapter in the negotiations, which brings into question the intents and plans of the EU regarding its enlargement.
Analysts believe that Serbia has the strongest and most developed personnel and logistic infrastructure with which in a relatively short period of time it can respond to the challenges of the negotiation process and justify the attribute of being the engine of European integration in the Western Balkans. Fears of Serbia as the biggest country in the region are unjustified, because there are also no founded fears of Germany as the largest and most powerful EU member country.
Finalization of the dialogue between the official Belgrade and Pristina with the signing of a comprehensive mandatory agreement on normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is of key importance for the future of the region as it would provide for a lasting peace and stability in the Western Balkans. The recently brokered agreement on energy, which was mediated by the EU, instills hope that the dialogue will be continued. The latest unilateral moves by Pristina, specifically restriction of freedom of movement, do not constitute a contribution to normalization of relations. Implementation of the Brussels Agreement (establishment of Community of Serb Municipalities (ZSO) is inevitable, just like the signing of a fundamental agreement on regulation of relations between the state of Montenegro and the Serb Orthodox Church (SPC), which is the predominant religious community in the country.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is faced with lack of understanding on the part of some realms in the EU, who render his position in Serbia even more difficult. It is common knowledge that Orthodox and Muslim peoples in the Western Balkans have unbreakable spiritual connections with the East, just as the Catholic population has with the West, specifically Vatican. Spiritual relations with the East are virtual, while affiliation with Europe is daily and real.
Analysts believe that through its specific actions the EU is “pushing” Serbia into the arms of Russia and China, just as it did with Belarus two years ago. Instead of extending a hand to Belarus and bringing it closer to the EU, through its specific injudicious and rather detrimental moves it pushed the country into the grip of Russia and Vladimir Putin. Judging by everything, even if Serbia would introduce sanctions against Russia in line with the prevailing trend within the EU, nothing would happen or change with respect to its European path.
The importance of cooperation and solidarity is most evident in case of natural disasters (fires, earthquakes, floods, etc.). However, the latest challenges that individual countries and region as a whole have face were the Covid-19 pandemic and the energy and food crisis, which resulted from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Cooperation is important also because of the relations between the Western Balkans and the EU. A voice of one country towards the EU does not mean much. However, when all six Western Balkan countries act and speak with one voice towards the EU, that generates a new quality and weight. The Open Balkan initiative is not an alternative to membership in the U but a path for the country to faster prepare itself for membership in the EU and seize all the untapped opportunities of synergy and cooperation. The economy of scope without administrative barriers is an important moment for regional cooperation. The Open Balkan is an embryo of new economic clusters, which are already being created in the region and constitute a competitive advantage for the countries and the region.
It is necessary to more concretely align Open Balkan with other initiatives, so that they do not overlap. This would facilitate achievement of a high level of integration. It is important to ensure economic development and creation of competitive advantages, as well as invest efforts in creation of higher predictability in the region, work on development of institutions that should reduce black-marketing, smuggling and evasion of taxes and duties. It is necessary to create an economy that will assist investors who want to work in line with the legal framework and legally. Chambers of commerce have displayed enthusiasm with respect to the Open Balkan, which is primarily an economic project focused on creation of new opportunities.
Energy-wise, Western Balkans is more vulnerable than other regions. It is particularly vulnerable in the context of the upcoming winter. The Western Balkan countries do not have the luxury to turn their back to each other. If they want to have energy products, electric energy and food, they need to focus on intensive and quality cooperation, because the Open Balkan belongs to the people, not Vučić, Rama, Kovačevski, Abazović …. The Open Balkan is yet another mechanism that should facilitate crisis response.
Analysts believe that if the peoples of the Balkans cooperate and focus on the future the future will belong to them. The credibility of the EU is at test in the Western Balkans and the EU is probably at its last chance to save the Western Balkan countries from the “grip” of Russia, China and Turkey. The level and intensity of cooperation in the region will be most evident through the level of success of preparation for surviving the upcoming winter of 2022/23, which will be the biggest challenge for all in the last several decades. In this respect, the bigger role of the US will be of crucial importance, particularly in the context of prevention of possible new conflicts that could emerge as a consequence of a deteriorated security situation and the changed security architecture in Europe caused by the Russian invasion on Ukraine.
Ljubljana/Brussels/Washington, 6 July 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.
 Golob- Slovenian word for pigeon or dove.