Open Balkan Initiative: A darling Of The US And EU

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Balkan countries that are not it the European Union will not join the bloc anytime soon, if at all. Sooner or later, however, they could be integrated into the Open Balkan Initiative – a Western-backed project that is seen as a substitute for the EU membership. 

“The Balkans to the Balkan peoples” was a motto related to the idea of the Balkan federation, which originated in the 19th century at a time when the Balkan peoples were beginning the struggle for national liberation from Ottoman and Habsburg rule. In the 21st century, foreign powers, rather than the Balkan peoples, seem to push the so-called Western Balkan countries to join the future supranational entity. 

Western Balkans is a term used in the European Union to refer to six countries in southeastern Europe that are covered by EU enlargement policy. Those nations are Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Kosovo. However, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as five EU members – Spain Romania, Greece, Cyprus and Slovakia – do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Thus, it is rather questionable, even from the EU perspective, if there are five or six countries in the region.

Geographically, Western Balkan countries are Croatia and Slovenia – both EU members – rather than North Macedonia and Albania, located in central and southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula. Still, for political reasons, the EU sees the region as “the Western Balkans”, and insists that the only solution to its lasting problems is a “common European future”. 

It is, however, rather questionable if there is a desire for enlargement in the EU. It is almost certain that none of the Balkan states will join the block at least until 2025. Thus, for the time being the region remains stuck in the EU’s “eternal waiting room”. Still, such a position opens up opportunities for various regional integrations. The Open Balkan Initiative is one of them. 

According to the media narrative, one autumn morning in 2019 leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania decided to advance regional cooperation by forming the so-called “mini-Schengen”, named in an ode to the Schengen Area – the European Union’s passport-free and duty-free zone. It was later renamed to the Open Balkan Initiative. The very fact that Richard Grenell, a Trump administration diplomat, openly supported the project suggests that foreign powers, rather than local leaders, played the crucial role in the creation of an economic and political zone in the Balkans. 

The Biden Administration continued backing the Open Balkan Initiative. According to Christopher Hill, the US Ambassador to Serbia, the United States supports the Open Balkan initiative “because it creates models of cooperation between the countries in the region”. Alex Soros, Deputy Chair of the Open Society Foundations, is another influential figure that supports the project. In addition, the European Commission also backs the Open Balkan Initiative. 

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Even though both the US and the EU insist that “all six countries should be included in Open Balkans”, to this day the authorities in Kosovo refuse to join the group. But given that the US Embassy in Pristina, as well as the American Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo, strongly supports Pristina’s membership in the Open Balkan Initiative, it is entirely possible that Kosovo will eventually join the group.

Meanwhile, the US and the EU are expected to continue pressuring Serbia to de facto recognize Kosovo. Pristina’s membership in the Open Balkan Initiative will mean that Belgrade will have to recognize Kosovo’s IDs and licence plates, given that one of the goals of the Initiative is to establish free movement of people and goods in the region. Thus, from the Western perspective, Open Balkan could serve as an instrument to force Serbia to recognize secession of its territory. 

From the economic perspective, Serbia – the largest economy of the so-called Western Balkan countries – could benefit from the Open Balkan Initiative. According to reports, business community in Bosnia and Herzegovina would like their country to join Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania, but the problem is that Bosnia’s leaders cannot reach a consensus over the matter. Neighboring Montenegro, for its part, seems to have changed its approach vis-à-vis the Open Balkans Initiative. In the past, the tiny Balkan nation firmly opposed its involvement, but recently the country’s Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic said that “every initiative that can lead to progress and reconciliation will have the support of the Montenegrin government”.

“I see the Open Balkan Initiative as help for jointly creating a future of economic progress, business, greater mobility of citizens, and greater cooperation in all fields”, Abazovic stressed on June 8, following the Open Balkan summit in the town of Ohrid in North Macedonia.

His North Macedonian counterpart Dimitar Kovacevski pointed out that the Open Balkan Initiative enjoys strong support from the US and European Union, which suggests that the West will likely pressure all the actors in the Balkans to join the Initiative. 

Finally, the very fact that during the Ohrid Summit flags of the Open Balkan Initiative participants and observers were “sandwiched” between the EU and the US flags symbolically showed that Brussels and Washington intend to continue playing major roles in the regional integration process.

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