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 the leaders of the Open Balkan regional initiative in Belgrade, 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 “Open Balkan 2022: A Crisis Response Tool – Winter 2022/23.”
From 1 September to 2 September 2022, a summit of the Open Balkan initiative, which is a joint project of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania based on the idea of free flow of people, goods, capital and services, was organized in Belgrade. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and North Macedonia Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski participated at the summit of the leaders of the Open Balkan regional initiative. The political leaders primarily came together to consider the future and look for optimal solutions for the complex situation in which the Western Balkans region is currently embroiled.
Economic prosperity is inconceivable without development of good neighborly relations, regional cooperation and elimination of internal tensions. Majority of trade in goods takes place in the region, which is a strong impetus to improvement of bilateral and regional relations. There can be no leadership and prosperity in region that is insecure and mistrustful. The initiative is compatible with EU principles. Mutual assistance and exchange of experiences among the countries with respect to accession talks with the EU is of exceptional importance. Open Balkan is a peace project, just like the Coal and Steel Community, a predecessor to the EU.
Although the remaining countries of the Western Balkans have still not joined the Project, Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazović and Chair of the BiH Council of Ministers Zoran Tegeltija also attended the Summit. Furthermore, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó and Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also attended the summit. Once again, there were no Kosovo representatives. The invitation to attend was extended also to the ministers of foreign affairs of Greece and Italy, who will probably attend the next summit, which is to take place in Tirana.
Open Balkan creates a new business environment and atmosphere in individual states and the region as a whole, as well as new opportunities for cooperation. Free flow of people, goods, capital and services will also generate new economic results and contribute to normalization of relations. The removal of barriers gained on its importance after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis, which caused an energy and food crisis. A chronic shortage of labor force and its fluctuation are also becoming increasingly relevant. An ID card for a common labor market and a single work and residence permit for all Open Balkan member countries will be finalized soon. The work on a single vignette for use of highways will also be finalized soon. Integrated border crossings have already reduced the wait at border crossing and generated savings for transport operators. The economy of scale and the synergy effects directly lead to an increase in trade in goods. Projections of future economic development for these countries would be inconceivable without the Open Balkan project. In the future, the effects of Open Balkan will lead to a significant increase of the GDP for an additional 20 to 30%. Relations between the countries participating in the initiative are at the historical maximum.
Establishment of a green corridor for transport of food items at border crossings has resulted in an increase in trade in this sector by around 20%, while opening of special lanes has reduced the wait at border crossings from several hours to some 10-20 minutes.
The agreement on mechanisms for ensuring unimpeded supply with basic provisions within Open Balkan envisages that if one of the three countries adopts a decision on ban on export of specific goods, the ban will not apply to other initiative member countries.
An idea by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama resulted in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation in the field of film and audiovisual activities, as a continuation of the earlier signed Memorandum on cultural cooperation from 2021, which will provide for establishment of a joint Open Balkan co-production fund for film professionals. There is also an opportunity to establish an Open Balkan league in different sports.
Open Balkan is increasingly becoming a region of opportunities and development in which member country discuss issues and broker agreements that are oriented to the future. Primary topics are focused on the economy. While there is a shortage of labor force in the construction and hospitality industry, there is also a demand for seasonal workers in the agriculture sector. The past cannot be changed, but it is necessary to properly face it and work on ensuring a better future, a future with as little uncertainties as possible. So far, Open Balkan countries have signed several bilateral and trilateral agreements aimed at facilitating mutual trade, energy security, accelerated access to labor markets, provision of assistance in case of natural disasters, simplified phytosanitary and veterinary procedures, development of tourism, mutual recognition of diplomas and academic titles, development of cooperation in the area of culture, sport, ecology, civil protection...
The achieved results are not completely visible, particularly in the area of economy and economic cooperation among countries participating in the Open Balkan initiative. Faster flow of people, goods, capital and services, accelerated growth of all economic indicators, better and more comprehensive political cooperation, accelerated solution of all mutual problems and disputes through the process of dialogue and brokering of agreements, etc. are proof that Western Balkan countries have something to offer to the EU. They are also proof that Western Balkan countries want, can, know-how and are able to cooperate with the EU, that they have to formally and legally be a part of the community of European peoples, and that for centuries already they have been a part of Europe, regardless of the fact that the current policies and bureaucracies dispute that and impede them. Open Balkan is a regional initiative and a regional project. It is no compensation for membership in the EU, or a kind of a waiting room for membership in the EU.
Although progress in the region has been recognized, it is necessary to further invest in construction and upgrade of infrastructure, particularly at border crossings, as well as in the implementation of the signed agreements, so that the effects of the initiative could be fully experienced.
After the establishment of green corridors, marked with “Open Balkan” signs at border crossings, and changes in the regime of control of goods originating from one of the three Open Balkan countries, the procedures at the borders have been significantly simplified and become more effective. The agreement on protection and assistance in case of an emergency is also important.
Mutual assistance will be provided in all challenges and disturbances that could emerge on the market of agriculture products (wheat, flour, corn and other products).
The work on construction of a gas interconnection and establishment of cooperation in construction of green energy sources have also intensified.
Analyses have shown that had the Open Balkan been established prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, individual countries and the region as a whole would have been able to respond more adequately and successfully to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as to the energy and food crisis, caused by the Russian invasion on Ukraine. A partial response to the pandemic or the energy and food crisis yields partial results. A completely new and positive atmosphere and ambience is being created in the region. The achieved results expressed through concrete figures deny the allegations that Open Balkan is about creating a “great Serbia” or “great Albania”, or that it is a George Soros-backed project. Open Balkan member countries also organized an international fair “Wine Vision”, which brought together exhibitors from 26 countries and was one of the major events in the world in the respective sector. While Belgrade has been the epicenter of events in the Balkans, other Open Balkan cities and towns, such as Skopje, Tirana, Kumanovo, Durrës, Sarajevo, Podgorica and Pristina also have an opportunity to become epicenters of events. Long-term plans include construction of a gas pipeline between Serbia and Macedonia, as well as joint solar power plans and gas supply through the liquefied natural gas terminal in Albania.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina the Open Balkan project has not received the attention or support it deserves. The business community needs a single economic space and economic freedoms, which already exist in the EU. It is pretty certain that BiH will join the process, because it does not bring anything bad to anyone. Who in BiH blocks integration into Open Balkan? Milorad Dodik (SNSD) publicly advocates membership in Open Balkan. However, in the capacity of the Chair of the BiH Presidency he requested from the Chair of the BiH Council of Ministers Zoran Tegeltija (SNSD) and BiH Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations Staša Košarac (SNSD) to draft an information for the BiH Presidency, but the information has never been sent to the BiH Presidency and thus could not have been included in the agenda to be considered and discussed. Such activities were a result of the talks between members of the BiH Presidency and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell in Brussels. At the time, members of the BiH Presidency Šefik Džaferović (SDA) and Željko Komšić (DF) promised to consider the initiative. However, it is in Dodik's interest that BiH does not join the Open Balkan, because it would result in significant decrease in specific revenues and particularly the revenues of the Indirect Taxation Authority, which he controls and directs. Once again we had a situation in BiH in which those who are verbally in FAVOR of something are not necessarily truly in FAVOR of that something and that those who are AGAINST something are not necessarily truly AGAINST that something. The situation regarding participation of BiH in the Open Balkan initiative is just one of such situations.
Analysts believe that Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than any other country, functions on the principles of Open Balkan and it is therefore a pity that it noes not institutionally use the benefits that the Open Balkan offers.
Promotion of information about so-called hegemonic projects, i.e. “great Serbia”, “great Albania”, “great Croatia”, “great Bulgaria” or “great Hungary” project, deters the region from necessary cooperation in all areas and development of the much needed spirit of cooperation and unity in the region.
The European Union has shown ineffectiveness in the case of the dialogue between official Belgrade and Pristina on normalization of relations, in which the EU is the mediator. Although the so-called Brussels agreement on the dialogue was signed in 2013, the dialogue was halted for months and then experienced a complete fiasco. It was led in a rather intransparent and passive manner by the EU.
The Open Balkan initiative is inclusive and should speed up the integration of the region. The initiative should no longer seek a justification for its existence, nor should it be explained. Open Balkan speaks volumes about itself. Those with a vision for the future, who are willing to see and hear, will recognize and understand the initiative. The aim is to have Open Balkan member countries get maximum benefits from the initiative, which is why other countries are invited to join. Kosovo is the most isolated area in Europe and it has disastrous economic indicators. Although Kosovo often emphasized that it is the most direct ally of the US, it has still not joined the Open Balkan initiative, which is strongly supported by the US. Membership in Open Balkan could facilitate Kosovo’s goal to obtain a visa liberalization regime.
At the opening of the summit of Open Balkan leaders in Belgrade, the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama stated that leaders of member countries will seriously consider to invite other countries that are EU members and important for the region, such as Greece, Italy, Hungary and Turkey to join the regional initiative.
The war in Europe is an alarm to all, because it has exposed the vulnerability with respect to power supply. There is no other recipe than solidarity. Hence, Balkan countries should help each other ensure sufficient quantities of gas.
The summit reaffirmed the words voiced by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (SNS), at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when he stated that EU “was a fairytale on paper” and underlined that “there is no great international or European solidarity.”
EU constantly sets new conditions and criteria for membership to the Western Balkan countries. Analyses have shown that currently no less than 15 EU member countries would not be able to fully meet all the conditions for membership set to Western Balkan countries. The analyses stipulate the examples of how Bulgaria and Romania, and recently Croatia, had been coopted to the EU. In fact, in 2005, 9.5 countries were integrated as full-fledged members, because only a half of Cypress had become a member. Other examples provided include the French province of Corsica and the Italian province of Sicily, where the EU legislation does not function at all in line with EU standards, regulations and directives.
Ever since the US left the Western Balkan region to the care of the EU, no significant progress has been recorded. In the meantime, other states, particularly Russia, China and Turkey have strengthened their presence and influence in the region. It is necessary that the US returns to the Balkans. The trust in the EU is weakening and it is becoming an increasingly less and less reliable partner. The question to be asked is whether the EU can overcome the internal crisis without stronger support by the US.
According to analysts, Western Balkan countries have to establish strong political, economic, cultural, sport and every other form of cooperation and act together towards the EU as a group of countries with clearly defined requests and goals. It is also necessary to specify when the enlargement will occur, as the enlargement process cannot be endlessly postponed. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that regional cooperation does not mean that countries of the region have given up on their European path and membership in the EU.
It is possible to draw on the experiences of cooperation in the framework of the so-called Visegrad group of states (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia), who often take a joint stance within the framework of the EU with clearly defined requests and stances. The Visegrad Group (V4) was established with the aim to facilitate and accelerate membership of the respective countries in the EU and NATO, which they had achieved. Countries of the region should act together towards the EU and/or other foreign political initiatives. They should act with one voice, because individual approaches are insufficient and do not guarantee success.
Analysts believe that the developments in and related to Ukraine should galvanize the EU, so that it stops the policy of endless conditioning of integration of Western Balkan countries, because the current situation calls for responsible response by the EU.
The message sent from the summit is that Open Balkan countries demonstrate solidarity at the time of a crisis. Despite the challenges resulting firstly from the Covid-19 pandemic, and then the war in Ukraine, Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia need not be afraid of shortages of food and basic provisions. The three Open Balkan member countries had earlier established a crisis response group for power supply, which in the eve of winter and in the current situation of global shortage of energy sources and electric energy is brokering agreements on exchange of electric energy and natural gas. It has been agreed at the meeting of representatives of the governments, associations and business communities that all power-supply related and other burning problems that the region could face this upcoming winter will be resolved together and in a systemic way. As the winter nears, establishment of a crisis prevention working group is particularly important.
“We are aware that a difficult autumn and winter are nearing. Although everyone is in an uneasy situation, we will be able to assist each other to mitigate the problems. Everything available to Serbia will be made available to North Macedonia and Albania as well, and vice versa. The success of this project will determine how much we will be able to strengthen peace and stability in our region”, said Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.
When it comes to resolution of power-supply issues, the Western Balkans will request assistance from the EU for procurement of a part of energy sources. It has been announced that Serbian, North Macedonian and Albanian leaders will approach Brussels (the EU) in writing to request financial support for procurement of energy sources and that they would be “very satisfied” if the leaders of the three remaining countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo) would join them.
Within the framework of Open Balkan there will be no bans on trade in flour, sugar, oil and other basic provisions, as has been reaffirmed in the signed agreement.
Albanian Prime Minister called on the EU “not to pursue the same approach” in the Western Balkans this winter, that is during the crisis with energy sources, as it did during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We remember well how at the beginning of the pandemic the Western Balkans countries were forced to turn to China, Russia, Turkey... because the EU cared only about”, said Rama.
Analysts believe that Open Balkan can be a crisis response tool that can help the region face and overcome crises together. Therefore, it is important to establish institutional and functional mechanisms required for an effective response. The upcoming winter 2022/2023 will be a challenge and a test.
Ljubljana/Brussels/Washington, 5 October 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.