The reasons for not joining the Open Balkan initiative, which have been heard in the last year and a half since it existed, fit into the profile due to which the head of diplomacy of the former Soviet Union, Andrei Gromyko, was nicknamed Mr Nyet. The style of this diplomatic dinosaur from the Cold War period received a surprising reincarnation half a century later in the small Balkan countries, on the edge of the European Union, at the moment when the idea of stronger interconnection appeared before them.
Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo do not show that they are giving up their “nyet” towards the Open Balkan project even after the tripartite summit of the leaders of Serbia, Albania and Northern Macedonia in Skopje. Apart from the fact that in Skopje the working title Mini-Schengen was changed to a permanent Open Balkan, which is less important for this initiative, decisions were made that put it at a higher speed and provide a binding framework for their implementation. The leaders of the three initiators of the Open Balkan, Aleksandar Vučić, Edi Rama and Zoran Zaev, once again invited the remaining EU aspirants from the Western Balkans to join them, but as before, they do not make it a question of Being or not being. The project they started is still open to others, but its success will not depend on its scale.
One of the very frequent remarks about Open Balkan referred to the fact that not all six countries of the Western Balkans joined it, that it’s not a whole and that the seed of future failure is hidden in that. A survey conducted in Kosovo at the end of last year even concluded that the initiative of Serbia, Albania and Northern Macedonia “failed” even then, because it did not receive the political support of all Western Balkan countries. But the founding states and their leaders give no reason for such expectations of binding “assemblage”, as Serbian nationalists would say. On the contrary, they treat it as a desirable, but by no means as a mandatory mission of this project.
Edi Rama simply “does not understand” why, for example, Montenegro and B&H do not join the initiative, but he does not make it a problem for the project. Even “colder” is the reaction of Aleksandar Vučić, who is “sorry” that some in the Balkans are “stuck in the 90s and closed borders”, but adds – “it is their choice, and our choice is cooperation, openness and progress. Everyone has the right to choose their future”.
Expectations that only the initiative for the Balkans in which everyone participates deserves attention, comes from the fact that all previous ones were designed in a “laboratory” outside the Balkans and applied in the field, with the main precondition that participation must be mandatory and complete – that is, all six Balkan states (in previous years even more) or nothing. Some researchers have counted that as many as 80 regional integration initiatives have emerged in the Balkans and Southeast Europe since 1999, and that they were all designed elsewhere, and that the Balkan countries were only their “consumers”. Until the Open Balkan.
Asking from Vučić, Rama and Zaev initiative to gather all or no one, is directly at odds with another group of excuses for not participating in the Open Balkan, and that is some kind of fear of the reconstruction of the former Yugoslavia. Very often, from the same or close centres of resistance to this initiative, both are heard – if not everyone, then nothing, and if everyone is there, then it is the new Yugoslavia. In Skopje, Edi Rama mocked these irrationalities about the renewal of the former Yugoslavia, saying that people who think so “live in a parallel world.”
Less irrational, but equally unconvincing, are those attitudes against the Open Balkan, which compare it to several other current regional initiatives and see it as a diversion from ongoing processes. This primarily refers to the CEFTA association and the Regional Economic Area project, which originated from the Berlin Process. As a free trade zone in Central Europe, CEFTA has eventually been reduced to the same six members of the Western Balkans, plus Moldova, but this economic zone has long lacked the credibility it should have because it is shaken by small trade wars and economic blockades, which it does not have the strength to solve. The most difficult was in the case of Kosovo’s decision to stop the import of goods from Serbia and B&H, which was resolved after a year and a half with the brutal political pressure of the USA on Pristina. During that time, the EU, and especially its most influential member, Germany, looked favourably on and even encouraged the government in Pristina not to give in.
As an offshoot of the Berlin Process, another of the Balkan initiatives created in the EU, the Regional Economic Area has similar goals as the Open Balkan, but its problem is built into its foundation and it is impossible to eliminate. The Berlin Process was conceived by Germany, more precisely by its outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, not as an essential effort to strengthen intra-Balkan ties, but as a shock absorber for growing European phobias of enlargement and as a consolation prize for Balkan candidates for EU membership whose accession is constantly delayed. The summit of this process in May in Berlin showed that there is no energy in it for essential connection within the Balkans and that its mission is at the very end, which will formally coincide with the departure of Angela Merkel after the September elections in Germany.
They found an excuse in the Berlin process in Podgorica and Sarajevo, believing that it is better for the Balkan six to remain committed to the goals of this project, than to initiate new ones. The new head of Montenegrin diplomacy, Đorđe Radulović, said that the German project was a “better alternative” than the Open Balkan because it was fully supported by the EU, and that the tripartite Balkan initiative “is simply not needed by Montenegro”. There is a similar position in B&H, so the head of diplomacy there, Bisera Turković, welcomes the Open Balkan, but only if it is not in conflict with the project of the Regional Economic Area, within the Berlin Process, which she gives priority to. In addition, she repeats that analyses of interests and benefits for B&H from the Open Balkan project are being done in Sarajevo, and this has been going on for a full year.
In general, wherever there is a reservation for the Open Balkan project, it is based on the fear of the fact that this product does not have the stamp Made in the EU, but Made in the Balkan. For decades, the Balkan political parties and their bureaucracy have been taught to be exclusively consumers, and not producers of integration models. And that is why the initiative of Vučić, Rama and Zaev has a shocking effect on the ossified Balkan state administrations, because they are breaking the previous direct connection with the EU, in the sense that most often resembled the relationship between colonies and metropolises: Ideas and projects are not your job, it is up to you to implement them. The “trouble” with the Open Balkan is that its goals are one hundred percent consistent with the criteria for EU membership, and it cannot be denied the essential European dimension.
Finally, the resistance that the initiators of the Open Balkan have in their own backyards is not negligible, and that is especially true for Serbia and Albania. For some nationalists (Serbs), this is a Greater Albania project, and for others (Albanians and Kosovo), understandably – a Greater Serbia initiative. These large groups simply cannot “digest” the rapprochement of the two countries through the economy, because that fundamentally destroys their ethno-nationalist trenches in which they have been for centuries. The joint photos of Vučić and Rama are not a sight they like to see, and it is even harder for them to accept that there is nothing “greater” in this new integration, except for the Greater Balkan civilizational step towards the EU, which is a strategic goal for both.