In-depth | Politics

What is (or was) Open Balkan?

By - 31.01.2024

From Mini Schengen to Southeast Europe’s largest Wine Fair.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama spent five years promoting the regional economic integration initiative ultimately known as Open Balkan. That is why it was such a surprise when he abruptly said that Open Balkan had “fulfilled the mission for which it was born,” in a July 1, 2023 interview with Albanian Euronews. This was the end of Open Balkan, Rama implied, before stating that the focus should now be on the EU-led Berlin Process for the European integration of Western Balkan countries.

At the time, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Rama’s partner in promoting Open Balkan, seemed to take the news hard. “I do not believe Rama said this,” Vučić said, “I hope I can see him soon.” When offered the opportunity to clarify months later, Rama commented that “Open Balkan has fulfilled the mission of making everyone in the region, but also everyone outside the region, aware of the strategic and vital importance of regional cooperation.”

Open Balkan’s main champions seem to disagree about whether the initiative still exists, but it was not ever entirely clear to observers whether Open Balkan ever actually existed in a tangible sense. K2.0 takes a look at what Open Balkan is, or was, or was supposed to be.

What are the basics?

The idea of locally-driven regional integration in the Balkans dates back to the 1990s, when then-Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano proposed a Mini Schengen area, or common regional economic zone. Rama began resurfacing the idea in 2018, and in 2019 he announced plans to form a new version of Mini Schengen alongside Vučić and then-North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. 

In 2021, the initiative was renamed Open Balkan, and promised to increase economic cooperation by opening borders and trade between participating countries. All members of what the EU calls the Western Balkan Six (WB6) were invited to join. North Macedonia joined Serbia and Albania at the outset, but Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) either vacillated on the invitation or expressly declined. 

Supporters of Open Balkan argued that the initiative would promote development without detracting from existing EU-led regional cooperation initiatives. Discontent to passively wait for the EU to prioritize opening accession paths for the WB6, some countries began to seriously consider creating their own regional common market and other locally-driven initiatives. This drive by local actors, rather than external forces, distinguished Open Balkan from other regional initiatives.

This drive by local actors rather than external forces distinguished Open Balkan from other regional initiatives.

Open Balkan had detractors from the beginning. Critics asked whether it offered anything beyond the already existing initiatives for regional cooperation most notably the German-led Berlin Process, a cooperation mechanism for EU enlargement involving the WB6, participating EU member states and the U.K. and worried that it would distract from EU integration efforts. Other concerns were that Open Balkan could give Serbia, by far the largest economy of the WB6, outsized economic benefits.

Open Balkan’s potential impact on the citizens of each country is, as are most things to do with the initiative, unclear. The most significant of the signed agreements that would affect people in their daily lives, concern free access to the labor market and mutual recognition of diplomas. Ahead of the 2022 Western Balkan Summit in Berlin, Majlinda Bregu, secretary general of the Regional Cooperation Council, noted “Students now have to pay 300 euros to 500 euros just to recognize [diplomas]. With this agreement, that cost will be zero.” The Regional Cooperation Council is a regionally led and EU funded cooperation framework in southeastern Europe. 

The Balkan region also suffers from significant congestion at border crossings, exacerbated by changing transport routes for commercial drivers due to the war in Ukraine. “Drivers working in the Balkan and Black Sea region are facing long waiting times at borders — anywhere from 1-2 days up to 40-50 days depending on the season and border crossing point,” said Umberto de Pretto, the secretary general of the International Road Transport Union. At a broader level, a pooling of resources and increased regional interconnectivity could bring increased job opportunities and other tangible benefits to citizens of Open Balkan members.

While there has been little progress on an institutional level toward the vision Open Balkan set out, the initiative has resulted in one tangible outcome, an annual wine fair called Wine Vision. Wine Vision claims to be “the largest and most impactful wine fair in Southeast Europe,” and took place in Belgrade in 2022 and 2023. The 2024 edition of Wine Vision is scheduled for November.   

In the end, despite endless headlines about the initiative following various diplomatic summits over the last half decade, things have never got much beyond intentions.

What about the Berlin Process?  

The Berlin Process is a German-led mechanism for WB6 states’ EU integration. WB6 states committed to the Berlin Process at a 2014 conference in Berlin. The process’ objective is encouraging cooperation among EU candidates and potential candidate states in the Western Balkans. It aims to enhance regional cooperation within those countries by focusing specifically on infrastructure and economic advancement.

The Berlin Process has held yearly summits since its founding. In the 2020 Sofia Summit, the EU reiterated its commitment to the Economic and Investment Plan, eliciting positive responses from all WB6 states. 

According to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, these “investments need to be underpinned by the fundamental reforms required on the European path.” Much like Open Balkan, the plan calls for increased connectivity and the establishment of a Common Regional Market, a step towards integrating the region more closely with the EU Single Market before accession and the gradual adoption of the EU acquis. 

One theoretical accomplishment of the Berlin Process was an October 2022 agreement on free movement allowing visa-free travel between Kosovo and BiH. Holders of Bosnian or Kosovar passports have had to obtain visas to visit the other country due to Bosnian Serb non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence. However, nearly eight months after the agreement for visa-free travel between Kosovo and BiH was signed as part of the Berlin Process, it has still not been implemented as it was blocked by President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik.

Three agreements were announced as components of the Berlin Process during the 2022 Western Balkan Summit. These covered the free movement of citizens and products and the mutual recognition of university diplomas and qualifications, which were ratified by Montenegro and Kosovo in April 2023. This agreement also called for the mutual recognition of university degrees and qualifications (as did the Open Balkan agreement on mutual recognition of qualifications from June 2022 signed by the three member countries). According to German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, the Berlin Process agreement will further move the WB6 toward a regional common market, allowing citizens to move and work freely. 

And those other regional cooperation initiatives?

There have been numerous EU-supervised institutions and initiatives aimed at facilitating WB6 accession to the EU. These include the Western Balkans Investment Fund, Brdo-Brijuni Process and the Regional Youth Cooperation Office, to name a few. The Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) is a trade agreement co-funded by the EU designed to boost trade by eliminating barriers and promoting investment. CEFTA’s current members are the WB6 states and Moldova. Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia all used to be members. These countries’ memberships ended when they became EU members. CEFTA aims to align regulatory frameworks with international and EU standards and has economically linked all WB6 states since 2007. 

The Brdo-Brijuni Process was established in 2013 by the then-presidents of Slovenia and Croatia. Like the Berlin Process, the Brdo-Brijuni Process is aimed at expanding the EU in the Western Balkans. It differs from the Berlin Process, however, in that it is a regional grouping led by EU members Croatia and Slovenia rather than being an EU-wide effort. 

The September 2023 Brdo-Brijuni Process leaders’ meeting in Skopje focused on “Accelerating the European Union accession process, combatting the effects of climate change and their mitigation, and keeping young people in the Western Balkans.” Though the Brdo-Brijuni Process predates the Berlin Process, it is not a competitor to the Berlin Process and all involved parties are also included in the Berlin Process. 

The European Commission recently approved a Growth Plan for the Western Balkans designed to benefit the region pre-accession by stimulating economic growth. The plan includes a proposed 6 billion euro “Reform and Growth Facility” for the Western Balkans from 2024 to 2027. Payments from this fund will be contingent on the fulfillment of agreed reforms. 

Is Open Balkan any different

Open Balkan’s main distinguishing characteristic is that unlike other regional integration and cooperation initiatives, it has been driven by local actors. Vučić hailed Open Balkan as “our initiative, an initiative of the people from the Balkans, those who understand that they need to connect and solve problems on their own.” Rama has echoed this position, emphasizing that he sees Open Balkan as complementary to the Berlin Process.

At a policy level, the Open Balkan principal tenet is the free movement of people, goods, capital and services. Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia have signed numerous other agreements and memorandums as part of Open Balkan focusing on integrating electronic identification of citizens across borders, disaster preparedness and food security. However, the region is still waiting to see tangible results from these agreements.   

Echoing the stalled 2022 Berlin Process agreement on free movement, there were plans to provide citizens of participating countries with an “Open Balkan ID number.” This would allow citizens of participating countries to work in an Open Balkan country without the need for a work permit. On January 22 of this year in Skopje, representatives from North Macedonia, Serbia, and Albania signed protocols enabling unrestricted entry to their respective labor markets. These protocols are the last of the legal steps required, and citizens are expected to get free access to the labor markets of these three countries by March 1, 2024. 

Nevertheless, citizens would still have to apply for the Open Balkan ID number and would have to be approved on a case-by-case basis by the host country, making the whole thing sound not too different from the process of acquiring a work visa. 

Other proposals included a common agency for foreign investments, a regional film fund, youth exchanges, a regional theater festival, joint tourism promotion and a reduction of administrative fees on borders.

Who was pushing for Open Balkan? 

Rama and Vučić have been Open Balkan’s biggest promoters, and successive North Macedonian leaders have also publicly supported Open Balkan’s mission.

When explaining his support for the initiative, then-Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev stated that Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia will “not be held hostage by the failures of the European Union in terms of our integration process.” Such words highlight the frustration felt by many Macedonians at the numerous obstacles in their country’s EU accession process and underscore the appeal of a regionally-led initiative. 

Zaev’s successor, Dimitar Kovačevski maintained support for Open Balkan, stressing that Open Balkan does not conflict with the Berlin Process. “The Open Balkan and the Berlin Process are regional initiatives that bring us closer together and are an incentive to keep a sharp focus on maintaining the stability and security of the region, as well as on the common strategic goal — European integration,” Kovačevski commented.

Support for the initiative in BiH has been mixed and has generally fallen on ethnic lines. Bosnian Serb politicians such as Zoran Tegeltija, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, have supported the initiative, while Bosniak and Bosnian Croat leaders have been more skeptical. 

Tegeltija attended the 2021 forum for regional economic cooperation in Skopje with Vučić and Rama. Moreover, Željka Cvijanović, the current Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has said that joining Open Balkan will get BiH “out from the economic mire.” 

Former Montenegrin Prime Minister Driton Abazović and President Jakov Milatović supported Open Balkan and entertained the idea of joining the initiative, citing facilitating relations with Serbia and its popular support from the Montenegrin public. 

Outside the Balkans, Open Balkan garnered both criticism and support. Many, including EU officials, see regional cooperation as essential to the region’s development and stability. However, Open Balkan’s unclear end goal and the personal style of foreign policy on which it seems to rest leave some observers uneasy.

A recent endorsement of the initiative came from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Former head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Kosovar Assembly Haki Abazi commented that “Lavrov concretely supports Open Balkan while openly destroying Ukraine,” questioning the implications of Russian support and potential involvement. 

EU and U.S. officials have offered limited support for Open Balkan, mainly due to their desire to see all WB6 countries involved rather than just Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia. In theory, regional cooperation among all WB6 countries could aid EU accession, improve political ties and assist reconciliation across the whole region. Likewise, increased cooperation could attract foreign investment and directly benefit those living in the region.

In theory, regional cooperation among all WB6 countries could aid EU accession, improve political ties and assist reconciliation across the whole region.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has described Open Balkan as “an inclusive process that is inviting everyone in to deepen the ties, improving the cooperation between different economies and [having] a really deep integration of the economies.” Despite the overlap of Open Balkan goals and processes with EU-led initiatives, von der Leyen considers the initiative within the Berlin Process, so long as it is committed to the goal of regional market integration. 

There has been tentative support from Germany, which has highlighted the initiative’s similarities to the Berlin Process and stressed that all six Western Balkan countries should join. This view tracks with Rama’s declaration that Open Balkan is a “child of the Berlin Process.” Gabriel Escobar, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state charged with overseeing policy toward Western Balkan states, has said that the initiative has U.S. support but only if all six Western Balkan states join. 

Who is against Open Balkan and why?

Broadly, Open Balkan has faced significant criticism from skeptics concerned about its potential to exacerbate existing tensions and undermine EU efforts toward fostering regional cooperation. Such criticism came from political leaders in the WB6 states that did not join Open Balkan (BiH, Kosovo and Montenegro) and from writers and officials from multilateral institutions. 

The initiative met significant opposition in Kosovo. Critics such as Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti are not opposed to regional cooperation and the creation of a common market, but are skeptical of a regionally-driven initiative not under EU supervision. EU integration is also not seen in exclusively economic terms; common values and an understanding of the past are key components. 

Indeed, Kurti has said that “the common market must be accompanied by dealing with the past, with the democratization of our countries and with the rule of law,” referring to Serbia’s failure to deal with the past and address challenges to its democracy. This implicitly contrasts Open Balkan’s supposed focus on economics with the EU’s more holistic and (at least nominally) values-oriented approach.

This implicitly contrasts Open Balkan’s supposed focus on economics with the EU’s more holistic and (at least nominally) values-oriented approach.

Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani has even questioned the motive behind Albania’s involvement in an initiative with such direct involvement by Vučić, wondering “why Albania would accept such an initiative where Kosovo will not be treated as a sovereign state and where an important role is played by Vučić, the leader of a state that on a daily basis tries to destabilize Kosovo and violate its sovereignty.”

While Kosovo’s current Vetëvendosje-led government strongly opposes Open Balkan, some political opponents have argued that there is no downside to taking part. Former Kosovar minister of foreign affairs Enver Hoxhaj commented that “Kosovo’s statesmanship isn’t calculated in Ohrid. Kosovo’s statesmanship and sovereignty is calculated in Brussels, in Berlin, in Washington, and above everything in the UN.” 

While Bosnian Serb leaders support the Open Balkan project, politicians from the other dominant ethnic groups in BiH have been dismissive, mainly on economic grounds. 

Croat member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina Željko Komšić said “Open Balkan is zero euros, and the Berlin Process is 30 billion euros.” This statement suggests that Komšić sees Open Balkan as not involving any financial component or benefit, as opposed to the significant financial investment and potential benefits associated with the Berlin Process and direct EU involvement. 

Writing for Balkan Insight, journalist Samir Kajosević noted that “Bosnia and Montenegro have said they see no particular benefits from it, as easing travel and trade are already covered by the wider CEFTA trade agreement between countries in South-East Europe.” 

Current Montenegrin Prime Minister Milojko Spajić has said that “we are not ready for Open Balkan at this moment,” and that Montenegro’s focus should be on European integration, lending credence to the critique that Open Balkan is fundamentally apart from the European integration process, despite what its supporters might claim. 

Miroslav Lajčák, the EU Special Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue, described the initiative as “unhealthy competition” with the EU integration process. This echoes the sentiment that the Western Balkan countries feel let down by the EU and have turned instead to a purely regional initiative. 

Kosovo and BiH — with the exception of the Bosnian Serb leadership -– stand firmly opposed, fearing the implications of an increase in Serbia’s regional influence, their precarious hopes of EU accession and the unclear political objectives of those spearheading the initiative. 

Worries about Open Balkan’s lack of transparency and potential to exacerbate regional tensions also exist. Moreover, some fear the institutionalization of a Belgrade-dominated economic or political area, a concern stemming from the historical shadow of Yugoslavia (comparisons to which have been refuted by Open Balkan’s backers). 

In light of Lavrov’s endorsement, there are also fears about the possibility of outside influences such as Russia, China and others seeing geopolitical opportunities in a region where the hopeful vision offered by the EU may have lost some of its prior appeal. Kurti has also expressed this sentiment, commenting that Open Balkan is more like a “Balkans open to influences from the East.”

Focusing specifically on the threat of Open Balkan bolstering Serbian economic hegemony in the region, former Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo Edward P. Joseph argued that “Open Balkan(s) threatens to cement authoritarian Serbia’s dominance in the Western Balkans, without the supranational trust-building mechanism of the Berlin Process.” 

Some report that Open Balkan has a “chronic transparency problem,” as polities in the WB6  have been excluded from debate about the initiative. Additionally, the content of both prospective and signed agreements has been hard to access. After the Open Balkan summit in June 2022, Montenegro seemed to toy with the idea of joining but ultimately declined to do so, publishing a report, which has since been removed from the web, highlighting Open Balkan’s lack of strategy and transparency.  

Zlatko Vujović of the Montenegro-based Centre for Monitoring and Research has suggested that although removing border crossings would enable free movement, it would also “remove obstacles to the unhindered smuggling of narcotics and cigarettes.”  

Considering all of the above, it is evident that Open Balkan is divisive and above all, vague. There seems to be a lack of detailed concrete steps. It is also unclear whether this initiative based on regional cooperation will, in fact, be able to inspire cooperation between all WB6 states. Political Scientist Florian Bieber, a longtime commenter on political affairs in the Balkans, echoed this sentiment, stating that “the idea of regional cooperation is not bad, but it is problematic that not all Western Balkan countries are engaged.”

What’s Next? 

The Wine Vision Festival seems to be the initiative’s most tangible outcome. The second annual edition was recently held in Belgrade, and Wine Vision provides much of Open Balkan’s online content. This year’s Wine Vision partnered with Serbian state-owned telecommunications operator Telekom Srbija and Serbian insurance company Dunav Osiguranje, prompting questions about the extent to which this venture aligns with broader Serbian economic interests. Kovačevski, Milatović and Vučić attended the festival in person, while Rama delivered remarks by video. 

In creating Open Balkan, certain regional actors hope to see the benefits of regional integration without having to solve larger issues central to EU efforts, such as mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia. While some saw Open Balkan as compatible with the Berlin Process and EU integration, others saw it as a half-baked substitution for EU-supervised mechanisms.   

While some saw Open Balkan as compatible with the Berlin Process and EU integration, others saw it as a half-baked substitution for EU-supervised mechanisms.

Beyond Wine Vision, there is little concrete information that can be gathered about Open Balkan, and it is unclear how Open Balkan differs from other initiatives that strive for the common goal of regional cooperation. The initiative came from a place of understandable frustration with the slow pace of the EU integration process and a desire from Vučić, Rama and Kovačevski to act on their own terms, outside of EU supervision. 

There is significant dissatisfaction with EU leadership and the current accession process in the region. After changing its name to end a long-standing dispute with Greece, North Macedonia’s accession negotiations stalled due to Bulgarian vetoes concerning disputed historical and linguistic issues. In Kosovo’s case, visa liberalization came into effect at the beginning of 2024, but not before extended delays despite Kosovo fulfilling the required criteria. 

However, Open Balkan’s founders did not offer a more transparent and functional approach to fulfilling any of the common aims of these initiatives. As Rama and Vučić’s public disagreement in July 2023 about whether Open Balkan still exists demonstrates, it is not clear that there is a common position about what it is among its three members.   

To date, except for the Wine Vision Festival, which has already announced its next edition, there  is little evidence of Open Balkan existing in a practical, tangible way. It seems to have been a largely symbolic initiative — a medley of meetings and a mirage of unimplemented agreements in the Berlin Process’s shadow.

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Editor’s Note (February 1, 2024): This article was modified to clarify Majlinda Bregu’s quote about mutual recognition of diplomas. The second sentence of the quote — “With this agreement, that cost will be zero” — was removed to avoid the implication that Bregu was referencing an Open Balkan agreement.

  • 01 Feb 2024 - 11:58 | D Belfield:

    A fascinating and informative article

  • 01 Feb 2024 - 05:14 | Cafo Boga:

    Bravo, great writing!