Albanian Prime Minister Invites Italy, Greece, and Hungary to Open Balkan

At the signing ceremony of the Open Balkan initiative, Prime Minister Edi Rama said it is not attempting to revive Yugoslavia and that Italy, Greece, and Hungary should join the initiative. 

Open Balkan is an agreement between Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia to facilitate the free movement of people, business, and services throughout the respective countries. Each country’s leader signed a total of six agreements in Albania on Tuesday.

“At the next summit we want to have Italy, Greece, and Hungary because we want our people to have completely free trade and fewer obstacles when they arrive in the EU. So we will contact EU countries and make the Open Balkan process with them,” said Rama.

Rama also refuted claims the leaders were aiming for a new Yugoslavia.

“There is a tendency from those who do not want this initiative to succeed. When they say that is to go back to our past or create Yugoslavia…The Open Balkan has nothing to do with Yugoslavia,” he said. 

North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev took his speech at the ceremony as an opportunity to swipe at the stalling of EU enlargement for the Western Balkans

“When the EU fails, we have a duty to Europeanize the region,” he said, adding that “today is my last day in office.”

Zaev pledged to step down as prime minister following his party’s defeat in local elections but has postponed the decision to a still unspecified date. His comment about Tuesday being his “last day in office” was not clarified further during the event.

The signing ceremony came a day after protests in Tirana, called by ex-prime minister, former president, and persona non grata in the US Sali Berisha. Opposing the initiative, a group of protestors burned the Serbian flag.

Commenting on the incident, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that desecration of the symbols of any country was inadmissible but noted that the state of Albania had responded “promptly, seriously and responsibly.”

In a statement to state public broadcaster RTS, Vucic said it was important to look to the future and view things rationally, adding it was understandable Albanians were angry because their national flags had been burnt in Serbia when Rama visited.

During the meeting between leaders, all three called for the engagement of other countries in the region, namely Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. To date, they have refused due to fears it could impact their EU accession and Serbia’s refusal to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence.

Commenting on the initiative, a professor at the University of Graz, Florian Bieber, said that the idea of regional cooperation is not bad, but it is problematic that not all Western Balkan countries are engaged.

“The idea of regional cooperation is not bad, any form of cooperation is welcome, but there are problems as not all are engaged and without the engagement of the entire Western Balkans, cooperation is problematic,” Bieber told TV N1 on Monday (20 December).

Another issue, according to Bieber is that the signatories have not clarified who will dominate and why there is a new framework when cooperation frameworks are already in place. He raised doubts that their motives were regional cooperation and good neighborly relations.

“We see through their actions that they have been raising tension in the region, and in that context I cannot believe that they advocate good cooperation. And their intentions are more in the form of propaganda aimed at selling it to the West – we are good, we are partners and thereby divert the attention away from crucial problems, which include the absence of democracy and the rule of law,” Bieber specified.

He went on to say that certain EU countries had blocked accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, while Serbia’s EU integration progress had been slow due to internal politics of the incumbent government.

Speaking about an upcoming virtual conference of three leaders, to be also attended by EU Neighborhood and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, Bieber noted that Varhelyi did not enjoy EU’s full support as “it is clear that he has been mainly conducting the policy of (Hungarian Prime Minister) Viktor Orban on the Western Balkans, which is not identical to that of the EU.”

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