At the meeting of the three “founding fathers” in Tirana and Elbasan, the Open Balkan project showed that it has risen to a new level, and that it has moved far from the initial sketch and idea. Vučić, Zaev and Rama took care of most of this progress, but one important incentive was given to them by frustrated opponents, no matter how paradoxical it may sound.
An agreement from the previous two summits was formalized in Albania, from Skopje in July and from Belgrade in November. The leaders of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia have signed agreements that will be an introduction to concrete decisions at the national level, and will concern the adjustment of regulations of each of the three countries, so that they coincide with each other and enable what is the ultimate goal, the four freedoms of the open market – the movement of people, goods, services and capital.
The timing of concluding these agreements may be good, maybe even a little late, but we will know that in exactly one year, when the beginning of full implementation of everything that was agreed has been announced. That is, lowering the ramps between the three Balkan countries and their entry into the open market zone. Basically, the written commitment of the three leaders that their administrations will get to work and that they have a whole year ahead of them to level various regulations, gives real hope that the goal is achievable.
An important pressure to speed things up came from a November meeting in Belgrade, where political leaders spoke with heads of companies from the three countries and received 100% support for their plans with the Open Balkan. After all, those companies, their owners and employees will be, if not the main ones, then the first beneficiaries of the new intra-Balkan open border regime.
The second element that raised the Open Balkans to a new, higher level happened before the meeting in Tirana. It happened in Frankfurt, where the author’s text of Vučić, Rama and Zaev about the Open Balkan was published in one of the most influential German newspapers. It was actually their letter to the new German government and Chancellor Scholz asking for his support for this Balkan project. The text of the three Balkan leaders was published at the right time and in the right place. Chancellor Scholz was clearly asked for support for the Open Balkan at a time when he is just raising the working temperature of his cabinet, and the Balkans will undoubtedly be one of the important topics in the mandate that has just begun.
After the text in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Olaf Scholz will hardly be able to bypass the Open Balkan as a topic whenever he deals with this region more seriously, especially after the message sent to him by the three leaders that their project actually contributes to the full realization of the goals from the Berlin Process. It may not have been their idea, but by connecting the Open Balkan and its somewhat older “ancestor”, the Berlin Process, Vučić, Rama and Zaev are giving space to the new German chancellor to lobby for the Open Balkan with his political public (and European).
It must be borne in mind that the Berlin Process was the child of former Chancellor Angela Merkel. It came as a consolation prize to the Balkans at the moment when the EU officially (Jean-Claude Juncker) announced that there would be no enlargement in the mandate of the previous European Commission. The Berlin process did not bring results. Everyone who took part in it, both from the EU and the Balkans, did so out of respect for the German Chancellor, but without any enthusiasm that this story could succeed. That eventually came true.
By mentioning the Berlin Process together with the Open Balkans, the Balkan leaders want to tell Olaf Scholz that they understand if he does not have the desire to keep alive the project left to him by Angela Merkel. They also give him space to make a discontinuity with her policy. Even if he formally extinguishes it, and he has a good explanation for that, the life of the Berlin process will continue through the Open Balkans project. In the end, Scholz does not have to convince anyone in the EU that the Berlin Process is a thing of the past, everyone in Brussels has known that for a long time, although they did not want to talk about it in front of the outgoing German Chancellor.
The third very important moment of the Albanian summit of Vučić, Rama and Zaev, comes from the “enemy” side, but its effect on the project is very positive. If we believed in conspiracy theories, we could say that the demonstrations in Tirana happened as if ordered by the founders of the Open Balkan. Of course, that did not happen, but what happened was that with these protests of Sali Berisha and his supporters, the Open Balkan came out of the phase of ignoring and entered a period of open confrontation. What follows, of course, is reconciliation with the fact that the Open Balkan has won.
Who protested against the Open Balkan, tore and burned the Serbian flag in the middle of Tirana and forced the three leaders to move dinner from the capital to a nearby Elbasan (as if they were moving from Belgrade to Smederevo)? The followers of the hardened nationalist policy of the former Albanian Prime Minister Berisha demonstrated; people to whom the approach of Albania to Serbia, and even North Macedonia, looks like a national betrayal and ruin. This is a photo-robot of the opponents of the Open Balkan and they do not exist only in Albania. They exist in all countries and will be activated sooner or later.
After all, in November, when Vučić hosted Rama and the Deputy Prime Minister of North Macedonia Nikola Dimitrov, “heroes” from the extreme Serbian right (Miša Vacić) posed on social networks with the Albanian flag, removed from the flagpole, as a trophy. The next step, and it will surely come, will be some street protest in front of the building where the new round of talks between the initiators of the Open Balkan will take place. It will be the same in Skopje. Opponents, regardless of which country they are from, are of the same caliber, they are looking for a return to the old way, they are looking for digging of trenches and building walls in front of the enemy from the neighborhood they want to exterminate. As much as they hate each other, they are still loyal allies and work for the same thing, for the Balkans to remain a concept for bloody drama and the absence of any cooperation. While Berisha and his people in Tirana are shouting that the Open Balkan is restoring Serbian hegemony in the Balkans, in Serbia they are accusing Vučić of making a greater Albania. One of these two teams is terribly wrong, but it is more probable that both of them equally do not understand where they are.
While in Tirana (and Elbasan), the Open Balkan has skipped some other important steps, there is still a sad echo of European “experts” for the region, who still do not understand what is happening, but it is clear to them that this story has no future. What they said on the first day when Open Balkan was established in Novi Sad under the name “Mini Schengen”, they are still saying today. That the goal is unknown, that there are already various other regional initiatives that advocate the same things, that not all from the Balkans have joined… I do not know what the real intention is, probably some propaganda effect, answer loudly, for example, Florian Bieber and Naim Leo Besiri, when the media asks them to comment on the meeting in Tirana. They will call them again in a few months on the occasion of a new meeting of the three Balkan leaders and some new decisions, and they will not have anything new to say again, except that they do not know what is happening. The problem is that something that they were afraid of is happening, something that could leave them without their jobs, and that is the Balkans without particularly big problems, a region similar to any other in the Eastern European part of the EU. Calm, stable and enterprising.