With the Covid-19 pandemic, issues such as environmental problems and global climate change have become the agenda of international politics and a social awareness has been created on this issue. It is forecasted that environmental problems will be one of the most important issues of international relations in the near future, as the negative effects of production relations on nature become more evident with population growth and migration.
The mentioned problems are, by their nature, transnational issues that no country can tackle alone. That’s why, regional and global alliances have an important responsibility in solving environmental problems. Air pollution in the Western Balkans is a problem that affects daily life for the countries of the region, and its solution cannot be delayed.
It can be stated that it is essential for these countries, whose history is full of ethnic and religious conflicts, to act together against air pollution. Whence, the Open Balkan Initiative, which was established under the leadership of the governments of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania and of which Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are observer members, is an important opportunity for the countries of the region to act jointly against this problem.
“The Open Balkan” Initiative as a Regional Alliance
The concept of alliance as a product of cooperation between states is very important in terms of understanding the functioning and dynamics of international politics. Although the countries of the Western Balkans are not members of the European Union (EU), a significant portion of these countries remain outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance (NATO). Accordingly, the countries of the region have not found much space in studies of the alliance concept. However, the leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania held a meeting in Novi Sad, Serbia in October 2019. The “Open Balkan” Initiative, the foundations of which were laid with this meeting, shows that a regional platform has been formed where the countries of the region will be mentioned more often with the concept of alliance. As a result of the negotiations, the member states declared their goal of creating a common customs system.
The concept of alliance generally means that states join together and act in concert to fight a common threat. According to this approach, alliances are accepted as a phenomenon that occurs between nation-states. Actors within the alliance take collective action against a common threat identification.
The size of each threat is the most important factor that strengthens the bond between the elements that make up the alliance. When the threat disappears, the desire of the actors forming the alliance to act independently prevails. States sacrifice some of their freedom to act independently when they enter into alliances. It is possible that they share their sovereign rights in cases where the goal to be achieved by the alliance is urgent or important.
The Open Balkan Initiative is a very important alliance initiative for the stability of the Western Balkans, where many ethnic and religious fault lines are very fragile. The Open Balkan Initiative, whose economic motivation predominates, holds important potential for sociological and economic integration.
As a matter of fact, especially with the Russia-Ukraine War, the need for the Open Balkan Initiative by the countries of the region increased. Accordingly, working groups were established to address the deepening food and energy crisis at the summit held in Ohrid, North Macedonia on 7-8 June 2022 and many cooperation agreements were signed. Although this regional alliance formed by the Western Balkans has made significant progress, it has not been able to define a clear common threat to themselves.
Air Pollution as a Common Threat
One of the main causes of the food and energy crisis, which is strongly felt in the Western Balkans, is the air pollution that threatens the countries of the region. Although “the Open Balkan” initiative has established working groups on food and energy, it has not been able to develop a concrete strategy for air pollution and climate. However, it should be noted that it has become essential for the countries of the region to take joint action to solve the problem of air pollution. Therefore, the Open Balkan initiative can be a suitable platform for the countries of the region to jointly develop rational options against air pollution. Because of the nature of the alliances, the countries that make up the Open Balkan Initiative can develop a roadmap by agreeing on common ground on air pollution as they have on other issues. Thus, the countries forming the alliance are able to move away from internal conflicts, even if only partially, and move forward together in finding common solutions to common problems. For this reason, steps can be taken to relieve the countries of the region in many commissions, especially the energy crisis, inflation and food problems.
Although the Western Balkan countries are not particularly disadvantaged in terms of air pollution, this problem has reached a level that affects daily life in the countries of the region. The capitals of the Western Balkan countries compete with the Far Asian countries, which are much more populated than they are in terms of air pollution. For instance, Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, are among the 25 capitals with the highest air pollution levels since 2019. Hence, it is seen that planes cannot land at the International Sarajevo Airport due to the air pollution that has been felt in Sarajevo recently. In the statement of the Ministry of Social Economy, Infrastructure, Construction and Environment of Sarajevo Canton, citizens were warned not to stay outdoors unless it was mandator. During the measurements in November 2022, it was found that the capital of Serbia, Belgrade, is the third most polluted city in the world. Also, a state of emergency was also declared in Skopje, the capital of northern Macedonia, another member of the Open Balkan Initiative, because of air pollution. In measurements conducted by the Swiss-based air quality measurement company IQ Air, Skopje drew attention as the third most polluted city in the world.
At this point, it should be noted that the ethnic and geopolitical fragility in the Western Balkans became even more evident after the Russian-Ukrainian war. This situation not only made it more difficult to solve the problems of the Western Balkan countries, but also exacerbated the problems faced by the countries of the region after the Covid 19 pandemic and put the governments in a difficult position. When this situation is combined with the uncertainty surrounding the EU accession process of the Western Balkan countries, the importance of cooperation between the countries of the region becomes even greater.
The problems facing the countries of the Western Balkans, especially on issues such as migration and climate, are problems that can only be overcome through regional alliances. This is why the countries of the region need the Open Balkan Initiative more each passing day. Therefore, it is essential for the countries of the region that the Open Balkan initiative takes more initiative and creates a collective action plan for the member states in the coming period on air pollution that threatens the countries of the region.
Moreover, air pollution could also become one of the most important topics of discussion in the elections in the Balkan countries. While the number of people who lost their lives due to air pollution in the Western Balkans increased rapidly, this may lead to mass protests and political instability. In the meantime, the current government’s’ handling of the problem through the Open Balkan Initiative will make a serious contribution to the stability and prosperity of the countries in the region. The efforts of the Western Balkan countries to find common solutions to common problems will also serve as leverage for the democratization of existing political structures. Increased cooperation among Balkan countries will make an important contribution to the stability of the region by reducing the vulnerability of countries in the region to conflict issues. The solution-oriented steps of the Open Balkan Initiative on air pollution can also be an important reference point for the full membership of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, which have observer status.
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