The “Open Balkan” initiative is a key successful example of how to preserve stability in the Western Balkans, and the “best way” to prepare the region for EU membership, according to one of its initiators, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
Amidst growing concerns over Serbia’s armament from Russia and China, as well as its refusal to impose sanctions or condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine at home, President Vucic used the Open Balkan in support of Serbia’s commitment to peace during a meeting with the US delegation touring the Western Balkans, headed by Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried.
“Speaking about regional cooperation, President Vučić pointed out that it is of key interest for Serbia to preserve stability in the region and that in that sense the improvement of good neighborly and mutually beneficial cooperation is a fundamental and unwavering starting point of our country’s foreign policy,” a press statement from the president’s office read on Tuesday.
“The President especially pointed out the ‘Open Balkan’ initiative as an example of successful regional cooperation and the fight for common goals, emphasizing that it is the best way to prepare regional states for EU membership, but also an opportunity to reach European standards before joining,” Vucic’s office added.
Open Balkan is an initiative to create an economic and political area, made public in 2019 by Vucic and Albanian prime minister Edi Rama, and later joined by Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev when they launched it in the same year. The rest of the Western Balkan countries – Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina – have refused to join, maintaining that such regional projects should be brought within the framework of EU integration and not be its substitute.
The initiative has seen a dozen summits and other meetings, as well as a number of agreements with little practical effects to date. It has however made it possible for Albanians and Serbs to travel in respective countries using their IDs only.
On the other hand, it has overshadowed the Common Regional Market (CRM) initiative spearheaded by the European Union under the Berlin Process and agreed by all six Western Balkan countries in 2020. The CRM is a more robust initiative that includes all of the OB objectives under one of its four components. Crucially, the WB countries abolished roaming tariffs in 2021 under the CRM, which unlike the OB has a very detailed action plan agreed by all.
Vucic and Rama have been unable to receive explicit direct support for their Open Balkan by any country leader in Europe. Most recently, similar to his predecessor Angela Merkel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz avoided the mentioning of the initiative while stressing that Western Balkans countries must advance the CRM.
However, the EU has not opposed the OB. When asked, European leaders as well as American diplomats have supported all regional initiatives in general, with EU Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi and US Deputy Assistant Secretary Gabriel Escobar even mentioning the initiative by name for its potential to succeed if it is to include all six countries.
The Russian aggression against Ukraine has made the success of OB even more dim, as concerns over Serbia’s positive stance towards its ally Russia have increased in the region. This excludes Albania, whose prime minister has called on the international community to show more understanding towards Serbia’s strong ties with Russia, while praising it for allegedly keeping the Western world and Western Balkans unified.