From: Alice Taylor
EU Commissioner Varhelyi to Attend Open Balkan Meeting Amid Claims of Russian Backing

The announcement that European Commissioner for enlargement Oliver Varhelyi will attend day two of the Open Balkan initiative just a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to support it has caused outrage amongst politicians and analysts in Albania.

The Open Balkan initiative sees multiple agreements that facilitate the free movement of people and goods and various trade initiatives throughout the participating countries. Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia are currently members, while Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro refused to participate because it would impact EU integration. Montenegro and Bosnia, however, are taking part as an observer this time around.

The three participants are expected to sign four agreements on tax evasion, diploma recognition, as well as cultural and tourist cooperation.

With day one taking place on Tuesday in Ohrid, North Macedonia, between the leader of the four countries, day two will see the arrival of Commissioner Varhelyi.

“I welcome the renewed impetus by leaders in the Western Balkans to advance on regional integration. The war Russia has waged in Europe is a wake-up call on the need to speed up the EU accession process, a geostrategic investment in the stability and security of the whole of Europe,”  he said in a statement announcing the news.

But the news of his arrival has sparked intense debate on a local level following comments from Lavrov after he was forced to cancel his trip to Serbia after Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Montenegro refused to let his plane fly over their airspace.

“NATO and EU want to turn the Balkans into a project of their own called ‘closed Balkans’,” Lavrov said Monday (6 June) evening about the Open Balkan cross-border economic project supported by Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia, also hinting at Russian support for the project.

The Presidency of Kosovo was swift to react, stating that it is now proven the project, headed by Serbia, a close ally that has refused to enforce sanctions against Moscow, is aimed at Russian hegemony in the Balkans.

“Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov openly confirms the connection between Russia’s hegemonic intentions in Ukraine and Serbia’s hegemonic intentions towards Kosovo. Moreover, Lavrov sees the Open Balkans initiative as an instrument to promote regional hegemony by Russia and Serbia and to disrupt EU and NATO integration,” wrote a Presidency spokesperson on Twitter on Tuesday.

Andi Bushati, a journalist and analyst from Albania, added that “The Russian Foreign Minister acknowledged that this is an initiative of Vucic and supported by Moscow in opposition to Brussels, which loves these countries with a closed Balkans, according to Russia. We have received confirmation that the Open Balkans is a Serbian interest that interests Russia. “Russia says it is better for the Balkans to be controlled by us through Serbia than by Paris and Berlin.”

Opposition Democratic Party MP Tritan Shehu said that only the Berlin Process should be followed, not Open Balkan, which he described as Serbian President Aleksander Vucic’s initiative with Russian direction.

“So Brussels should accept, stimulate, and support only European projects, not Russian-Serbian ones,” he added.