How Open Balkan may turn out to be a bad idea
The author is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Sarajevo
At the end of July 2021, the leaders of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia met in Skopje to inaugurate a new initiative for the region called “Open Balkan”. The aim is to foster regional cooperation in this part of Europe and to create a common market allowing the free movement of capital, products, services and labour. 
As part of this initiative, the three states signed five new agreements in December last year.  The founding leaders of the Open Balkan see in this regional cooperation a complement, and not an alternative, to European integration.  Yet three other Balkan states – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro – have been hesitant to join this project. The main reason is that there are concerns about the true intention of Open Balkan.
Why are some skeptical about the initiative?
While some analysts hailed the initiative as beneficial for the region, other experts like Jasmin Mujanovic explained why skepticism towards Open Balkan persists: the ambitions of the Serbian ruling elite in the region. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro fear that Open Balkan is a facade for Serbia’s regional hegemony. The idea of a “Serbian world” – championed most fiercely by Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin – looms large in any Open Balkan discussion. Many see this Serbian world as a reincarnation of the bloodshed Greater Serbia of the 1990s, and worry about Serbia’s real goals in the region.  Although President Aleksandar Vucic isn’t championing the idea, he hasn’t publicly rejected it either so far.
Russia’s role in the region
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has given considerable support to the Open Balkan. After three Balkan countries closed their airspace, which prevented his visit to Belgrade, Lavrov told a press conference in Moscow: “They probably didn’t want us to express our support for the initiative of Belgrade to carry out the Open Balkan project with the aim of making healthier, stronger relations between all the countries of the region.
The foreign minister also criticized the EU and NATO for trying to “turn the Balkans into their project called Closed Balkans”. Many in the region took Lavrov’s support for an open Balkan as a sign that opponents of the initiative were right from the start.
Of the three states that did not join, Kosovo is the most openly opposed to Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s declining an invitation to join the recent Ohrid summit. Montenegro’s new Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic has indicated that his country may also join Open Balkan. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Socialists remains opposed to the move.
No regional initiative should be an alternative to the EU
While regional cooperation should, in principle, benefit everyone, previous regional initiatives have not produced significant results. With so much opposition to Open Balkan, it’s hard to know if another initiative will be effective. There is widespread awareness in the region now that full EU membership remains a distant goal. The reasons for this are many and varied, but the optimism about the EU that prevailed ten years ago is no longer there. Even the commitments of the main European leaders are taken with a grain of salt.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for example, made a two-day trip to the Balkans and promised to revive the region’s European perspective. Suppose the chancellor keeps his promise and his government pushes for EU membership in the region. If so, it could relaunch the moribund process of Balkan European integration. This would be much more beneficial for the region than support for regional initiatives.
Rather than supporting regional initiatives like Open Balkan, key European leaders should push to: i. Start of EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia; ii. The granting of candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina; iii. Visa liberalization and candidate status for Kosovo.
No regional initiative should be an alternative to EU membership. If full membership is not on the cards, the Balkan states should strive to develop and improve their bilateral relations with major world powers. This applies in particular to building strong ties with the United States and ensuring strong American engagement in the Balkans.
For Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO membership is a primary objective, and NATO membership remains the most important strategic objective, regardless of the state of the European integration process. Bosnia paid the highest price for independence of all Yugoslav successor states, followed by Kosovo. It is no coincidence that these two countries are reluctant to join Open Balkan, and their hard-won independence should not be jeopardized by joining forces with initiatives with questionable political objectives.
*The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.
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