The search for regional cooperation in the Balkans dates back to the 1990s. The Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), which was signed on 21 December 1992 and includes non-European Union (EU) member countries, is one of the first agreements signed to develop commercial relations in the Balkans, is still active.iCurrently, it is seen that Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are members of CEFTA.
Despite the ongoing instability process today, it is seen that the Balkan countries are in an effort to increase regional cooperation. The most concrete example of this is that Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia’s actions for the Open Balkan Initiative to deepen regional cooperation in line with the EU legislation.
This initiative, which is also described as the “mini -Schengen” of the Balkans, is based on the meeting of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Former North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in Novi Sad, Serbia in October 2019. Within the scope of the regional initiative, which was announced to the public in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, on July 29, 2021,ii it is planned to establish a common customs system between member states as of January 1, 2023.iii
This initiative is interpreted by some regional experts as a move against the EU by forming a “mini-Schengen” among these three countries that are in the EU membership process.iv However, critical figures in the country’s administrations stated that the initiative called “mini -Schengen” is not an alternative to the EU. For example, North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski of the time stated that the integration of the Western Balkans to the EU is the best option for the democratic transformation of society and that the initiative does not constitute an alternative to the EU.v
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlovic also said that “mini -Schengen” does not replace the EU membership.vi But one of the actors of the initiative, former North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev stated that the Balkans can no longer wait for the EU and that the negotiations have failed: vii
“Even if our EU membership processes fail, we will not give up on Europeanizing the region. Brussels may slow down the process; but we must not stop and wait. The Balkans is nothing but Europe. It will continue to fulfill its obligations towards the EU in the three countries.”
What is the Purpose of the Open Balkan Initiative?
The Open Balkan Initiative was established with the aim of establishing a common regional market and facilitating the free movement of goods and services between Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia, which aim for EU membership. This initiative aims that while reducing bureaucratic processes in import, export, and circulation of goods; facilitating free access to the labor market.
In this context, it is envisaged that facilitating arrangements will be made for the work permits of the citizens of the three countries in the relevant countries.viii With the agreement signed by the leaders of the countries involved in the initiative on January 3, 2022, customs procedures in the fields of veterinary medicine, phytosanitary and food safety were reduced, and in this context, it was decided that product analyzes would be carried out only in the country of origin of the product, and that physical control and laboratory tests would not be applied at other borders.
The agreement is based on the recognition of the results of laboratory analyzes carried out by accredited methods between the three countries with a trade volume of 420 million dollars.ix It is anticipated that the annual contribution of this move, which will be valid only for the countries included in the “Open Balkan Initiative”, will contribute 3.2 billion dollars (2.71 billion euros) to the region.x In addition, although the Open Balkan Initiative is a trade-oriented platform, with the entry into force of the signed agreement on January 1, 2023, it is expected that the borders between the three countries will be lifted and thus passport-free circulation will be implemented.
What are the Perceptions of the Neighboring Countries to the Initiative?
Although there are efforts to develop regional cooperation in the Balkans, there are also states that oppose this with the threat of Serbia. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo are potential candidates for the Open Balkan Initiative formed by Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia. However, these three countries are not willing to participate in the initiative because they see Serbia as a major security threat due to the historical and current problems in the region. However, the fact that Serbia still sees Kosovo as its territory brings along a political impasse for the country’s participation in the initiative.
The leaders of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, which are the actors of the initiative, stated that the Open Balkan Initiative, which envisages intensifying cooperation in accordance with EU legislation, will facilitate the EU membership process. Other regional countriesBosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo, on the other hand, refused to participate in the initiative at the first stage, on the grounds that it constitutes an alternative to the Berlin Process on the way to EU membership.xi The person who gave the strongest reaction to the Open Balkan Initiative was Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti.xii
Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, on the other hand, criticized Prime Minister of Kosovo Kurti, who refused to participate in the initiative, and argued that the only way for Serbia to recognize Kosovo is through this regional cooperation initiative.xv In addition, the demonstrations were held in Albania, one of the important actors of the initiative, against the “Open Balkan Initiative”. A protest was held at the call of Former Prime Minister Sali Berişa against Serbian President Vucic, who attended the meeting held in Tirana on 21 December 2021, and many citizens from Kosovo also participated in the demonstrations.xvi
The Serbian Orthodox Church Problem between Montenegro, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2006, prompted the Podgorica administration to approach cautiously towards the Open Balkan Initiative.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the other hand, does not take kindly to this triple alliance because it is afraid to risk its hopes for EU membership, but Serbia is considered to be the main factor here. It is undeniable that Sarajevo will avoid being in the same alliance with the Belgrade administration, especially in the face of the recent actions of the Serbian separatists. However, it should not go unnoticed that Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina have made a change in their attitude towards joining the Open Balkan Initiative compared to Kosovo. For the first time, Prime Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina Zoran Tegetlija and Prime Minister of Montenegro Dritan Abazovic attended the Open Balkan Initiative Summit held in Ohri, North Macedonia on 7-8 June 2022. Therefore, at the summit in Ohrid, there was an expectation that Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina would be included in the initiative.
The participation of leaders from Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina at the summit held in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, two months after the summit in Ohri, is read as a signal that the two countries will be included in the alliance. As a matter of fact, the messages given by leaders in last two summits they attended increase the expectations in this direction. Therefore, Kosovo was the only country that refused to participate in the Open Balkan Initiative with the last summit held.
As a result, Kosovo seems to be reluctant in the face of calls to join the Open Balkan Initiative; Albanian Prime Minister Rama has declared that the initiative will continue even if Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo do not agree to be included.xvii However, it is noteworthy that Open Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and the actors of the initiative, Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, which have problems due to various conflicts among the countries in the region, are the six Balkan countries in CEFTA.xviii However, some experts state that the reason why CEFTA is still active is because this trade agreement was signed to help countries join the EU.xix But it should not be forgotten that; As long as the Western Balkan countries’ problems with each other continue, the EU membership is not easy at all.
i “What is CEFTA? Central European Free Trade Agreement”, History Hub, https://tr.history-hub.com/cefta-nedir-orta-avrupa-serbest-trade-anlasmasi, (Date of Accession: 08.04.2022).
ii “The ‘Open Balkan’ Initiative from the Western Balkan Countries”, TRT Haber, https://www.trthaber.com/haber/dunya/bati-balkan-ulkelenen-acik-balkan-girisimi-598469.html, (Date of Accession: 08.04. 2022).
iii “As EU Membership Stalls, Balkan Countries Make Controversial Move to Create Their Own Mini-Schengen”, Euro News, https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2021/08/31/as-eu-membership-stalls-balkan-countries-make-controversial-move-to-create-their-own-mini- (Date of Accession: 08.04.2022).
iv “Belgrade’s ‘Serbian World’ Fantasies Jeopardise Balkan Cooperation”, Balkan Insight, https://balkaninsight.com/2021/09/02/belgrades-serbian-world-fantasies-jeopardise-balkan-cooperation/, (Date of Accession: 08.04.2022).
v “President of North Macedonia: Mini Schengen is Not an Alternative to the EU”, Anadolu Agency, https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/dunya/kuzey-makedonya-cumhurbaskani-mini-schengen-abye-bir-alternatif- not/1652997, (Date of Accession: 08.04.2022).
vi “Three Countries Agree Mini Schengen in the Balkans”, Euroactiv, https://www.euractiv.com/section/enlargement/news/three-countries-agree-mini-schengen-in-the-balkans/, (Date of Accession: 08.04.2022).
vii “Open Balkan” All Signed Agreements Will Enter into Force Immediately”, Balkan Post, https://www.balkanpostasi.net/acik-balkan-imzalanan-tum-anlasmalar-hemen-yururluge-girecek/, (Date of Accession: 08.04.2022)
viii “The Balkans: Cooperation or the Shadow of neo -Yugoslavia?”, Idea Tour, https://fikirturu.com/jeo-strateji/balkanlar-isbirligi-mi-neo-yugoslavyanin-golgesi-mi/, (Date of Accession: 08.04.2022)
ix “The First Agreement of the ‘Open Balkan’ Initiative Entered into Force”, TRT Haber, https://www.trthaber.com/haber/dunya/acik-balkan-girisiminin-ilk-anlasmasi-yururluge-girdi-641713.html, (Date of Accession: 08.04.2022).
x “As EU membership stalls, Balkan countries make controversial move to create their own mini-Schengen”, a.g.e.,(Date of Accession: 08.04.2022).
xi “Vucic, Rama and Dimitrov Agree on Implementation Mechanism for Open Balkans Initiative”, Euroactiv, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/vucic-rama-and-dimitrov-agree-on-implementation-mechanism-for-open-balkans-initiative/ (Date of Accession: 09.04.2022).
xii “Can the Open Balkans project succeed without half of the region?”, Emerging Europe, https://emerging-europe.com/news/can-the-open-balkans-project-succeed-without-half-of-the-region/, (Date of Accession: 09.04.2022).
xiii “Prime Minister Kurti: “Open Balkans” is Vuicic’s Tendency to Open the Balkans to Russia and China, As Well As to Oligarchs and War Criminals”, The Prime Minister Office of Kosovo, https://kryeministri.rks-gov.net/en/prime-minister-kurti-open-balkans-is-vuicics-tendency-to-open-the-balkans-to-russia-and-china-as-well-as-to-oligarchs-and-war-criminals/, (Date of Accession: 09.04.2022).
xiv “For it to be an Open Balkan, Serbia Will Need to Change First, Said Kurti”, Euro News , https://euronews.al/en/kosovo/2021/11/07/for-it-to-be-a-free-and-open-balkan-serbia-will-need-to-change-first-said-kurti/, (Date of Accession: 09.04.2022).
xv “Rama Criticism of Kosovo Government Boycotting “Open Balkan” Initiative”, Balkan News, https://www.balkannews.com.tr/arnavutluk/rama-dan-acik-balkan-girisimini-boykot-eden-kosova-h782 .html, (Date of Accession: 09.04.2022).
xvi “Protest Against “Open Balkan” Initiative in Albania”, Haberler.com, https://www.haberler.com/guncel/arnavutluk-ta-acik-balkan-girisimine-karsi-14612471-haberi/ (Date of Accession: 09.04.2022).
xvii “Rama for Euronews Albania: Open Balkan Will Continue even if others Refuse to Join”, Euro News , https://euronews.al/en/albania/2021/12/21/rama-for-euronews-albania-open-balkan-will-continue-even-if-others-refuse-to- join/, (Date of Accession: 08.04.2022).
xviii “Mini-Schengen: What Does This Accord Mean for the EU?”, ETIAS, https://www.etiasvisa.com/etias-news/mini-schengen-balkans, (Date of Accession: 08.04.2022).
xix “Can the Open Balkans Project Succeed without Half of the Region?”, ibid.