Possible Effects of the Energy Crisis on the Open Balkan Initiative

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The power vacuum in the Balkans due to the disintegration of Yugoslavia caused many ethnic and religious tensions and an unstable structure emerged in this environment. In this environment, many regional and global actors, especially Russia and the European Union (EU) countries, have attempted to be effective in the region. With the outbreak of the Ukraine Crisis, the Western Balkans Geography has become an area where global powers compete. It can be said that a dynamic agenda awaits the countries of the region, which deeply feel the Energy Crisis and the accompanying economic problems.

It is expected that there will be an increase in the interventions of regional and global actors due to the uncertainties in the EU processes of the countries in the region and their energy dependence on Russia. It is also possible that these interventions will deepen the problems in the region. Moreover, these interventions may bring to light the tradition of the Cold War that has prevailed over the countries of the region for years. At this point, it is a matter of curiosity how the Open Balkan Initiative, which prioritizes the social and economic integration of the regional states, will be affected.

Open Balkan Initiative

Located in the Western Balkans and continuing the EU membership process; the leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania laid the foundation of the initiative as a result of the meeting they held in Novi Sad, Serbia in October 2019. As a result of the negotiations, the countries of the region made significant progress and with the declaration announced to the public in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, on July 29, 2021, they stated that they plan to establish a common customs system between the member states as of January 1, 2023. With this plan, the leaders, in a way, shaped the basic mission of the initiative in question.[1]

The Open Balkan Initiative aims to activate the labor market by reducing bureaucratic procedures among the Western Balkan countries aiming for EU membership. It is aimed that this economic integration will lead to a sociological integration over time and that passport-free circulation between the party countries will be implemented. With the epidemic process and the Ukraine War that followed, the interest of the countries in the region, which needs more regional cooperation, in the Open Balkan Initiative is increasing.

As a result of this interest, Prime Minister of Montenegro Dritan Abazovic and Prime Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina Zoran Tegetlija attended the Open Balkan Initiative Summit held in Ohrid, North Macedonia on 7-8 June 2022, for the first time as observers. As a result of this participation, the expectations for those countries to be included in the initiative have increased. At the summit, working groups were formed to address the deepening food and energy crisis due to the Ukraine War, and many cooperation agreements were signed.[2]

Reflection of the Energy Crisis on Open Balkan Member States

Open Balkan Initiative member countries are dependent on Russia in terms of energy, especially natural gas. At the forefront of these countries is Serbia, which is the leading actor in the initiative. Minister of Energy of Serbia Zorana Mihajlovic told Reuters that they allocated 3 billion euros for electricity, natural gas, and fuel oil imports between October and March to meet the increasing energy needs. This figure corresponds to approximately 4.5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).[3]

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, on the other hand, stated that the Belgrade Administration continues to pay for the gas transit and called on Bulgaria not to stop the flow of Russian natural gas from the TurkStream. As it will be remembered, the Sofia administration declared that it would not renew the contracts with Moscow after the Ukraine Crisis.[4] Serbia, which is increasingly dependent on Russia for energy, signed a new 3-year gas agreement at a time when many countries stopped natural gas imports from Russia.[5]

Albania, is another important stakeholder of the Open Balkan Initiative, unlike Serbia; takes steps to transition to renewable energy by reducing its dependence on Russia and follows a path in line with the spirit of the Western alliance. In this context, the Albanian Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy announced that they are preparing to decide to exempt machinery and other equipment imported for green energy production from value-added tax.[6]

Not content with this, Tirana has initiated the first phase of its solar subsidy scheme to reduce energy costs for low-income families. This project is planned to expand the use of solar panels in water heating. On the other hand, the energy consumed for heating water accounts for 20% of household energy use.[7] The Ministry also announced that six of the 17 companies that want to establish a wind power plant have entered the second phase.[8]

The strategy followed by Albania on energy has brought the country closer to the West. For this reason, upon the call of the Albanian Energy Corporation KESH, “United States (US)-Italian consortium Excelerate Energy-Renco” announced that it would lease a thermal power plant with a capacity of up to 130 MW in the country. In Albania, which has declared an energy emergency, studies are continuing to make power plants functional.[9] Albania’s attitude towards energy will also set an example for Kosovo and North Macedonia.

The position of North Macedonia, which is in the third step of the Open Balkan Initiative, is more fragile than the other two countries. The Skopje administration, which is dependent on Russia for natural gas, is one of the leading actors that Moscow will face in the region in terms of its attitude. Aware of this, the Government of North Macedonia seeks cooperation with Greece. At the meeting of the leaders of the two countries in Athens, a consensus was reached on continuing cooperation in the field of energy and initiating joint investments. Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Dimitar Kovačevski, stated that negotiations are being held on the construction of a natural gas interconnection in the Evzoni region of Greece, and announced that Mytilineos, of Greek origin, will establish a 200 MW natural gas plant in the capital city of Skopje. Thus, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis gave the message that he could contribute to the energy supply of North Macedonia by using the infrastructure developed by his country.[10]

Against the policies implemented by North Macedonia, Russia’s move was not delayed. Because the Russian-backed opposition to North Macedonia, citing transparency concerns, prevented some laws related to the Open Balkan Initiative from being passed by the parliament. The opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, in the committees of the Assembly of North Macedonia agreements on free access to the labor market, cooperation in the field of veterinary and safety, as well as communications and electronic identification were canceled.[11]

Kosovo Issue

The countries of the Open Balkan Initiative, consisting of Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina attended its last meeting with observer status, are facing the Kosovo Question. It is wondered how far the initiative can go without solving the Kosovo Question and how much integration can be achieved. The issue in question is a useful instrument for various states, especially Russia, who want to make a move against the Open Balkan Initiative.

Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti blamed the Belgrade administration, stating that the Serb-dominated regions in the north of the country became more aggressive after Russia invaded Ukraine.[12] Emphasizing that there is a risk of a hot conflict with Serbia in the upcoming period, Kurti drew attention to the close relationship of the Belgrade administration with Moscow.[13] In addition to Kurti, Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama pointed out that Putin wanted to destabilize the Balkans and pointed to the possibility of making a move on Kosovo.[14]

Kosovo, one of the countries most affected by the energy crisis, has banned cryptocurrency mining in this context. The people most affected by this situation are the Serbs living in the north of the country. Therefore, if the energy crisis deepens, Kosovo will become more open to Russian intervention. In addition, on October 6, 2022, the Kosovo customs point was opened in Albanian Port.[15] This move does not coincide with the Open Balkan Initiative, which aims to create a common customs union and market. Therefore, if the energy crisis deepens, there is a possibility that the differences within the Open Balkan Initiative will become more evident in Kosovo.

To summarize, the states established after the collapse of Yugoslavia came together within the framework of the Open Balkan Initiative. The stakeholders of the Open Balkan Initiative have a rather problematic historical background, as the said disintegration is quite painful. For this reason, third countries are needed to ensure integration and solve the problems between partner countries.

While it is known that the US openly supports this initiative, the energy crisis brings Serbia and Russia closer, creating a serious dilemma. Therefore, the strategy that Serbia will develop in the energy crisis may bring along the necessity of choosing between the US and Russia in its foreign policy. Serbia’s choice will also have some consequences within the Open Balkan Initiative.

A similar situation applies to Serbia’s relations with the EU. Member states that want to follow a common energy policy against Russia want to include the Western Balkan countries in this policy. But the attitude of Belgrade is eagerly awaited. The fact that Serbia, a member of the Open Balkan Initiative, stands by Russia in the energy crisis by storing natural gas, while another important stakeholder of the initiative, Albania, receives serious grants from the US on renewable energy constitutes a situation contrary to the starting point of the Open Balkan Initiative. After all, the most important motivation of the Open Balkan Initiative is to create a common market and customs union. It is a matter of curiosity how the member states of the initiative will achieve this goal without establishing a common energy policy.

[1] “As EU Membership Stalls, Balkan Countries Make Controversial Move to Create Their Own Mini-Schengen”, Euro News, (Date of Accession: 08.10.2022).

[2] “Ključne Poruke Sa Samita ‘Otvoreni Balkan”, Al Jazeera Balkans,, (Date of Accession: 08.10.2022).

[3] “Serbia Readies 3 Bln Euros For Energy Imports In Winter”, Reuters,, (Date of Accession: 10.10.2022).

[4] “Serbia Urges EU State not to Block Russian Gas Transit”, Russia Today,, (Date of Accession: 10.10.2022)

[5] “Serbia’s President Says Agrees to New 3-Year Gas Deal with Russia”, S&P Global,, (Date of Accession: 10.10.2022).

[6] “Albania to Cancel VAT For Solar Wind Power Equipment”, Balkan Green Energy News,, (Date of Accession: 10.10.2022).

[7] “Albania Launches First Phase of Solar Subsidy Scheme”, Euractive,, (Date of Accession: 10.10.2022).

[8] “New Wind Power Project Progresses to Next Stage in Albania”, Exit News,, (Date of Accession: 10.10.2022).

[9] “Albanian Power Plant to Be Run by US-Italian Consortium” Exit News,, (Date of Accession: 10.10.2022).

[10] “Greece and North Macedonia to Cooperate on Fossil Fuel Supply”, Balkan Green Energy News,, (Date of Accession: 10.10.2022).

[11] “North Macedonia Opposition Blocks Adoption of Open Balkan Laws”, Euractive,, (Date of Accession: 10.10.2022).

[12] “Albin Kurti: Parallel Structures in the North More Aggressive After The Russian Invasion of Ukrain”, Euronews,, (Date of Accession: 11.10.2022).

[13] “Conflict with Serbia is a Possibility”, Novinite,, (Date of Accession: 11.10.2022).

[14] “Putin Would Be Happy If There Was a Conflict In The Balkans”, Euronews,, (Date of Accession: 11.10.2022).

[15] “Kosovo Customs Point Opens In Albanian Port”, Euractive,, (Date of Accession: 11.10.2022).

Dr. Çağdaş DUMAN
Dr. Çağdaş DUMAN
Lisans ve Doktora eğitimlerini Ege Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler, yüksek lisans eğitimini ise yine aynı üniversitede Türk Tarihi bölümünde tamamlayan Dr. Çağdaş Duman, Doktora eğitiminin bir bölümünde Otto-Friedrich Bamberg Üniversitesi'nde akademik çalışmalar yürütmüştür. Duman'ın doktora derecesini almış olduğu "Politik Şokların Şiddet İçeren Aktörler Üzerindeki Dönüştürücü Etkisi: Lübnan Hizbullah'ı Örneği (2005 - 2020) " başlıklı tezi, Karadeniz Teknik Üniversitesi tarafından alanında yılın doktora tezi ödülüne layık görülmüştür. Akademik hayatı süresince pek çok ulusal ve uluslararası çalışmalara iştirak eden Duman, Ortadoğu ve Balkanlar üzerine çalışmalarına devam etmektedir.