From: Bledar Qalliu
Albania and Kosovo Disagree on ‘Mini-Schengen’ Despite Common Foreign Policy Agreement Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (left), Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (center), and North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev met to discuss a plan to set up a free trade zone. (RFERL)

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama stated Kosovo excluded itself from participating in the second meeting of the so-called “Balkans mini-Schengen” initiative, spearheaded by President Alexander Vučić of Serbia, while Kosovo leaders refused participating in an initiative with unclear benefits and for integration with two countries that do not recognize its independence.

The latest regional initiative following Albania and North Macedonia’s failure to start EU accession talks, has created frictions between leaders in Kosovo and the Albanian government, despite an agreement on a “Strategic Partnership” signed in 2014, which among other things expects both countries to coordinate their foreign policy.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia hosted the second meeting in Ohrid during the weekend, one month after the first one held in Novi Sad, Serbia. Kosovo has so far declined to participate in the initiative, while Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Montenegro have not decided yet, despite sending representatives to the second meeting.

President Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo declined the invitation. He stated that his country could not be part of such initiative as long as Serbia and BiH do not recognize its statehood. Thaçi wrote that Kosovo’s vision is focused on NATO and EU membership.

Rama, Vučić and Zaev signed a 9-point joint statement this weekend, which focused on explaining that achieving objectives of the so-called ‘Balkans mini-Schengen’ – freer flow of goods, people, services and capital – will be a step toward the EU integration of the region. The last point of the statement included a concrete objective: signing an agreement by 2020 that would allow people to travel with their IDs.

The people of the Western Balkans countries already travel without a visa, apart from Kosovo, whose citizens need a permit or a visa to Serbia and BiH.

President Thaçi was not the only leader from Kosovo to refuse joining the initiative under the current circumstances. Head of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) Isa Mustafa, the second largest party in the forthcoming parliament, wrote that the project is reminiscent of a new Yugoslavia.

Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (Self-determination Movement), the largest party in the last elections, whose leader Albin Kurti is expected to become Kosovo’s prime minister, is yet to react to the last weekend’s meeting in Ohrid.

When Vučić, Rama and Zeaev launched the project in Serbia last month, Kurti said that “Albania should see Serbia through Kosovo’s eyes” and that his country should not be excluded from the initiative. He later met with Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama in Tirana, and stated that they needed “to see the project on paper” before deciding whether it’s worth participating in it.

Albania’s opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha claimed this was an attempt of “a corrupt autocrat” [PM Rama] to cover his “failure in the European integration” with “anti-European propaganda”.

Rama praised the initiative and rejected criticism against his government. He said that the project was going to create neither a Yugoslavia nor a Greater Albania, and that it should be called ‘Western Balkans Schengen’.

“This is not a mini-Schengen. Who brought the word ‘mini’ in? Considering that I am 194 cm tall, I never felt mini. It’s Western Balkans Schengen,” he argued.

The third meeting under this initiative will be held in Durres, Albania, on December 21.

The Albanian government has failed so far to explain in clear terms to the public the potential benefits from this project. Some critics claim that Serbia would be the largest beneficiary, due to its relatively stronger economy. Moreover, it’s not clear what this project might mean for the Russian influence in the region. Only few weeks ago, Serbia signed a trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union led by Russia.

During the joint press conference with other regional leaders in Ohrid, Rama said he was going to finalize the initiative despite criticism in Albania and Kosovo.

“There is no reason for Kosovo’s self-exclusion. Nothing good will come to Kosovo from self-exclusion without any reason, at a time when the conflict over the tariff is blazing,” the prime minister added.

Kosovo imposed a 100 percent tariff on goods imported from Serbia and BiH, after Serbia’s continuous lobbing to block its membership in international organizations, as well as lobbing with countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo.

Today, just one day after the second meeting on the ‘mini-Schengen area’, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić announced another success of the Serbian diplomacy – Ghana’s alleged withdrawal of Kosovo recognition.

Albania and Kosovo have signed a ‘Strategic Partnership’ agreement in 2014, which requires both countries “to coordinate the common political and diplomatic actions for the active engagement of the Republic of Kosovo in all regional processes and initiatives […]” and for “further consolidating the international position of the Republic of Kosovo by increasing the number of recognitions and membership in regional, European and global organizations […]”

The latest frictions between leaders in both countries show that there has been no coordination between the two sides regarding what the Albanian government considers to be an important initiative for regional and European integration of all Western Balkan countries.