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The Importance of Open Balkan Initiative for Serbia

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Russia’s aggressive policies in Ukraine once again turned its eyes to the Balkan geography, where two world wars broke out.  This geography, which is not a member of the European Union (EU) and continues to exist as the only area for the expansion of the union, is stuck under the influence of Russia and the West today. Particularly Serbia, countries with slow progress in EU membership processes such as North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina started to need each other more when both regional and global developments are considered. At this point, the first agreement of the Open Balkan Initiative, which included North Macedonia and Albania, which was initiated under the leadership of Serbia in the fight against the global economic contraction and food shortage experienced especially after the epidemic process, entered into force on January 3, 2022. With the agreement, customs procedures were minimized in areas such as food safety, phytosanitary and veterinary medicine. Thus, product analyzes will now be carried out only in the country of origin of the product and physical control and laboratory tests will not be applied at other borders.

The Open Balkan Initiative, which was founded in 2019, aims to increase cooperation and create a common regional market between the three countries with a trade volume of 420 million dollars. Beginning from January 1, 2023, it is planned to establish a common customs system between member states.[1] According to the estimates made by the World Bank, the annual contribution of the said initiative to the region will be 3.2 billion dollars.[2] The leaders of the three states argue that the Open Balkan Initiative is not an alternative to the EU, but on the contrary, it is an important preparatory stage to eliminate some of the problems that may occur after full membership to the union.[3]

US’s Attitude

Serbia which stuck between Russia and the West after the Ukraine Crisis, has to follow a very thin balance policy in order to get out of the current chaotic environment with less damage. The Open Balkan Initiative is a result of this necessity. A short time ago, Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic and United States (US) Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill held a 3-hour meeting where they discussed Serbia’s role in the region and its relations with Kosovo. In a statement made after the meeting, US Ambassador Hill stated that they support the Open Balkan Initiative and are ready to help it develop rapidly.[4]

In parallel with these developments, Serbian European Integration Minister Jadranka Joksimovic signed two amendments providing Serbia with a US grant of 19.5 million dollars, together with US Ambassador Christopher Hill and US Agency for International Development (USAID) Serbian Deputy Head of Mission Danny Robertson. The amendments are aimed at improving the functioning of public administration and increasing the competitiveness of the market economy. Joksimovic stated that the grants are part of the 105 million dollars aid package planned for Serbia by the end of the year. US Ambassador Hill emphasized that the purpose of this cooperation is to strengthen Serbia’s institutional infrastructure, as well as to contribute to good relations with its neighbors.[5]

In addition to its support for the initiative, the US also expresses opinions about the future of the initiative. Washington’s Envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, attended the meeting on the Open Balkan Initiative held in the Serbian Parliament via video conference, and that regional initiatives should be equally open to all countries and emphasized the need for the initiative to cover six Balkan countries (Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, North Macedonia).[6] The motivation of the countries in the Open Balkan Initiative on this issue coincides with the approach of the US. The Presidents of Serbia and North Macedonia, who came together at the World Economic Forum held in Davos, expressed their satisfaction with the Open Balkan Initiative and the development of bilateral relations.[7] In the same forum, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic invited Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic to the “Open Balkan Summit” that will take place in Ohrid, North Macedonia on 7-8 June, and Abazovic also stated that he would attend the summit.[8] This situation indicates that the initiative will expand its sphere of influence in the Balkans in the coming period.

Russia and China Factor

Russia’s return to the Balkans after 1989 and China’s Belt-Road Project increase the importance of Serbia for the two countries. In particular, the question of whether the Ukraine Crisis will reflect on the Balkans has brought Belgrade to an important position in terms of Beijing and Moscow. The energy crisis, which swept the whole world after the Ukraine Crisis, left Serbia, which imports almost all of its natural gas from Russia, in a difficult situation against this country. It has been stated that Serbia will purchase Russian gas at a price of 270 dollars per thousand cubic meters until June 1, and then a new ten-year agreement will be signed with Russia on natural gas supply.[9] Two days before this date, Vucic announced that he would soon make a 3-year natural gas purchase agreement with Russia. Serbian President Vucic stated that they will pay Russia between 310 and 408 dollars for one thousand cubic meters of natural gas if the agreement comes into effect.[10]

Serbia is dependent on Russia in terms of defense expenditures. Spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mariya Zakharova stated that the security of Serbia depends on Russia’s readiness to respond to threats against this country. Serbian defense budget, which was around 700 million dollars in 2018, reached 1.5 billion dollars by 2021.[11] In addition, trying to balance his foreign policy between the West and Russia, Vucic emphasized the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but did not support the sanctions against Russia.[12]

China, on the other hand, currently has an investment (indebtment) volume of 7 billion dollars in Serbia. Beijing considers the country in question as its “gateway to Europe”. Serbia currently owes China more than 3 billion euros, and it is estimated that this debt will increase severalfold with new project plans spread over the coming years. Some experts claim that there are more than 20 projects agreed with China and their value exceeds 15 billion euros.[13] Before the elections which was held last April, the Serbian Government faced criticism from the opposition for distributing 100 euros of state aid to young people aged 16-29.  While it was pointed out that the amount of the aid amounted to 1.4 billion Euros, Danica Popovic, a faculty member at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Belgrade, claimed that there was a deficit in the Serbian budget and that the country would have to borrow money due to the aid distributed to the youth. Emphasizing the possibility of the said source coming from China, Popovic underlined the lack of a transparent understanding of the conditions under which this money will come.[14] There is a possibility that Serbia will face China’s debt trap in the upcoming period.

Conclusion

The new Cold War, which emerged as a result of the Ukraine Crisis, increased the importance of Serbia in the region. However, this situation also brings some difficulties for Serbia. In this case, the Open Balkan Initiative could be an important factor for Serbia to overcome these difficulties. For Serbia, faced with Russia’s increasing military demands and China’s debt trap, the said initiative serves as an important foreign policy alternative, both regionally and globally. Due to the current conjuncture in the Balkans, there are several reasons for the US to support this initiative. At this point, Serbia’s economic dependence on China is increasing day by day, and for this reason, it is a possible scenario that the US will encourage trade between the countries of the region in order to balance the situation. This situation shows that the US wants to keep Serbia in its hands in terms of its interests in the region. Another reason for the US to support the said initiative is its strategic alliance with Albania, which it has maintained for many years.

After the Ukraine Crisis, the US placed troops on Albanian territory and increased its presence in the region. It is highly likely that Albania will attach importance to its involvement in this initiative in order to reduce the negative reflections of the global economic crisis, which has made its impact felt all over the world. Albania is in a very important position for the region due to being a port city. In addition, both Albania and Serbia are highly dependent on Russia in terms of natural gas. In such a case, a project that will partially support the economies of these countries will reduce the dependence of these countries on Russia. This is very important for the US. Serbia, on the other hand, can make good use of the potential of the Open Balkan Initiative and create a balancing factor in foreign policy against Russia and China. There are also many problems among the members of the initiative in question. The development of economic relations between these countries will also facilitate the solution of these problems. The decision of the Serbian Orthodox Church to recognize the North Macedonian Orthodox Church in the past days gives an idea about the policies that the existing countries will follow in the coming period.

[1] “First Agreement of 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: 28.05.2022).

[2] “Will the Balkans Schengen work? ‘If Europe is not taking us…”, Haber Global, https://haberglobal.com.tr/dunya/balkan-schengen-i-tutar-mi-avrupa-bizi-almiyorsa-131144, (Date of Accession: 28.05.2022).

[3] Sinan Baykent, “The Balkans: Cooperation or the shadow of neo-Yugoslavia?”, Fikir Turu, https://fikirturu.com/jeo-strateji/balkanlar-isbirligi-mi-neo-yugoslavyanin-golgesi-mi/, (Access Date: 28.05.2022).

[4] “Serbia Claims United States Supports Open Balkan”, Exit News, https://exit.al/en/2022/05/23/serbia-claims-united-states-supports-open-balkan/, (Date of Accession: 28.05.2022).

[5] “US to Provide Grants Worth 19.5 Million Dollars to Serbia”, Tanjug, http://www.tanjug.rs/full view_en.aspx?izb=734210, (Date of Accession:  28.05.2022).

[6] “Open Balkan Won’t Work If It Doesn’t Cover All Countries”, Kosova Haber, https://www.kosovahaber.net/?page=2,9,69193, (Date of Accession: 28.05.2022).

[7] “Vucic, Pendarovski discuss Open Balkan”, Tanjug, http://www.tanjug.rs/full-view_en.aspx?izb=734928, (Date of Accession: 28.05.2022).

[8] “Open Balkan Surprise from Abazovic”, Balkan News, https://www.balkannews.com.tr/karadag/abazovicten-acik-balkan-surprizi-h3247.html, (Date of Accession: 28.05.2022).

[9] “Bajatovic: New gas deal with Russia to be signed after June 1”, Tanjug, http://www.tanjug.rs/full-view_en.aspx?izb=720113, (Date of Accession: 28.05.2022).

[10] “Serbia and Russia Agreed on Natural Gas”, NTV, https://www.ntv.com.tr/dunya/sirbistan-ve-rusya-dogalgaz-konusunda-anlasti,7bMwB6swiU-hN23LK6mMgw, (Date of Accession: 08.06.2022)

[11] “Zaharova: Serbia’s Defense Depends on Russia”, Balkan News, https://www.balkannews.com.tr/gundem/zaharova-sirbistan-in-savunmasi-rusya-ya-bagli-h2052.html, (Date of Accession: 28.05.2022).

[12] Sasa Dragojlo, “Serbia Under Pressure to Join Sanctions Against Russia, Says Vucic”, Balkan Insight, https://balkaninsight.com/2022/02/22/serbia-under-pressure-to-join-sanctions-against-russia-says vucic/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter, (Date of Accession: 28.05.2022).

[13] “Serbia Will Sign Free Trade Agreement with China”, Balkan News, https://www.balkannews.com.tr/ekonomi/sirbistan-cin-ile-serbest-ticaret-anlasmasi-imzalayacak-h2333.html, (Date of Accession: 28.05.2022).

[14] “Vote Purchase Accusation against Serbian President Vucic”, Balkan News, https://www.balkannews.com.tr/sirbistan/sirbistan-cumhurbaskani-vucice-oy-satin-alma-suclamasi-h2301.html, (Date of Accession: 28.05.2022).

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.