Prime Minister Edi Rama defended the Open Balkan regional cooperation initiative he has launched together with his Serbian and Macedonian counterparts, claiming it is “the result of the Berlin Process.”
He linked Kosovo’s membership to this initiative to the alleged need for Albanians to show the world that they are “dedicated to peace.”
On Thursday, Rama gave a speech to parliament to present his government’s program for the next four years, and he once again criticized Kosovo’s government for refusing to join.
Six Western Balkan countries participate in the Berlin Process, and Kosovo is not the only one who has been reticent about the Open Balkan initiative. Bosnia and Montenegro have also been reluctant to join.
This means that to date, only its founders are part of Open Balkan. The Albanian, Serbian, and Macedonian leaders have held seven summits on what they first called “Mini Schengen”, before renaming it in July. Their frequent meetings have yielded few results; they have just enabled Serbs and Albanians to travel to both countries using only an ID.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who launched the Berlin Process, did not mention the Open Balkan initiative during her first visit to Tirana, although Rama talked about it at length during the joint press conference, while also attacking the Kosovo government.
On the contrary, Merkel urged the Western Balkan Six to sign the four agreements reached under the Berlin Process’s Common Regional Market, a more robust initiative that also includes Open Balkan’s objectives.
In light of Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro’s refusal to join, as well as Merkel’s lack of open endorsement, Rama’s claim that Open Balkan is a result of the Berlin Process seems far-fetched.
Rama and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti concur that despite their disagreement over this initiative, they should continue to collaborate closely on all matters. However, it remains unclear on what exactly they disagree regarding Open Balkan and, more importantly, why?
Speaking of those who oppose the initiative, Rama said on Thursday that “they are stuck in 19th century folklore and nationalism.”
However, the Kosovo government’s claims against Open Balkan are that it is redundant, it brings nothing new to the existing initiatives (such as the Common Regional Market under the Berlin Process), it is outside the European Union’s oversight, it offers no vision for EU-Western Balkans relations, and it was launched without consulting the countries it aimed to include. Rama has not answered these claims.
Kosovo’s leader Albin Kurti has demanded that Serbia acknowledge the crimes committed in Kosovo—crimes committed 20 years ago, and not in the 19th century, when nationalism was on the rise in the region.
Rama and Kurti surely agree that the implementation of the so-called four European freedoms—of people, goods, services and capital— would benefit everyone in the region. What they don’t agree on, and what Rama avoids answering, is why this should be achieved under an initiative that has been controversial since the beginning, partly because of the reasons stated above, but also because of the strained relations between the Kosovo leadership and Rama, whom they accused of supporting land swaps between Kosovo and Serbia.
Rama reiterated in parliament on Thursday that Open Balkan is not “Serbia’s game”, “no Russian or Chinese conspiracy to revive Yugoslavia”, it’s not “diversion from [EU] integration.”
The prime minister’s assurances about these relatively marginal claims in the public discourse contradict Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic’s objective for an initiative that would create a new Yugoslavia for Serbia.
Rama was categorical in the right of Albania and Kosovo to take sovereign decisions on this and other matters, but at the same time accused Kosovo of having been influenced by politicians in Tirana, possibly hinting at the opposition, whose “faults in domestic and foreign politics follow one another.”
He claimed that Albania “is looked at with respect by all and as a point of reference in the Balkans” as a result of his government’s foreign policy, but this may change.
Rama stressed that despite Serbia’s need to apologize for the crimes committed in Kosovo, the Albanians are “destined to lose if they do not present themselves as a people dedicated to peace” or if “they isolate themselves.”
Linking membership to Open Balkan with Albanians’ dedication to peace may prove to be even more controversial than the launching of the initiative itself, both in Kosovo and Albania.