Open Balkan initiative risks aggravating political problems in the region | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW
The Open Balkan initiative was launched three years ago by the leaders of Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia to facilitate the free movement of people, goods, services and capital in the region. To date, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina have refused to join, arguing that the initiative is not necessary because regional economic cooperation is already part of the EU integration agenda and initiatives such as the Berlin process. This process was set up in 2014 as a platform for high-level cooperation between the six Western Balkan countries, EU Member States and institutions, international financial institutions, as well as civil society and regional businesses.
DW: Mr. Joseph, you have spent many years working in the Western Balkan countries. What do you think of the Open Balkan initiative?
Edward P. Joseph: The dangers of Open Balkan are not well understood, although they are clear to many in the Balkans themselves.
I served for more than a dozen years – including the war years – in all the conflict-ridden Balkan countries. Like many in the region, I see dynamics through this prism, in particular the assertion of Greater Serbia nationalism, which is now being promoted by President Aleksandar Vucic and his delegates under the banner of the “Serbian world”. “.
The Open Balkan initiative is not just a distraction from the region’s fundamental problems – which are political – it actually risks aggravating these political problems.
We can sum up the problems with Open Balkan as follows: “dubious theory, naive construction, dangerous implications”.
Let’s start with the implicit theory underlying Open Balkan: “Trading is synonymous with trust”. (This is my description). Unfortunately, this theory clashes head-on with reality. Look at the furious Russian aggression against Ukraine. Until February 24, Russia and Ukraine had huge trade, with a combined value of nearly $10 billion in exports and imports. Right now, China is conducting aggressive military exercises against Taiwan – a country that exports $273 billion worth of goods to China, including critical semiconductors. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, responsible for a third of its trade.
According to the Open Balkan theory, all these countries should be at peace. Instead, they are either at war or on the way to war. Open Balkan supporters should be asked to explain themselves.
Leaders of five Western Balkan countries at the Balkan Open Summit in Ohrid, North Macedonia, June 2022
Instead of ‘trade equals trust’, I offer a significantly different conclusion, namely that the impact of trade depends on the character of the regime, whether democratic or autocratic/authoritarian. If western-oriented democracies trade, then yes, there are political advantages.
But if autocracies – especially ones like Russia, China and, yes, Serbia under Aleksandar Vucic that have territorial and political ambitions and destabilize their neighbors – drive the trade, then you have growing distrust, not trust.
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic said in a recent interview that the Open Balkan initiative will end with the disappearance of Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. What is your response to this statement?
I find it significant for one major reason: it affirms the reality that Open Balkan supporters ignore – the strong opposition. It doesn’t matter what you think of Djukanovic, or Albin Kurti, or Bosnian or Croat leaders who have similar concerns.
What matters is that there is strong opposition to an initiative that supporters say is “just about creating jobs and growing the economy.” Open Balkan supporters must ask themselves, “Why is there this opposition to our supposedly benign initiative? Why would anyone object?
To ask the question is to answer it: if there is so much opposition, then the initiative cannot be completely benign. There must be legitimate concerns. Proponents need to listen to the objections of skeptics in the region, instead of simply pushing them to accept this initiative.
The leaders of the countries that have joined this initiative are convinced that it will benefit their countries and their citizens. Which country will benefit the most financially and politically?
Serbia will always benefit more than the others. This is another of the fundamental errors of Open Balkan. Proponents talk about it as if all the economies in the region have the same size and character. They are not at all the same.
Serbia’s economy is about 14 times larger than that of Montenegro, for example. Serbia’s economy is about twice that of Albania and North Macedonia combined. Serbia will always benefit more from open barriers (the four freedoms) than its neighbours; Serbia will be able to produce higher value goods for export, becoming even more dominant.
This economic power translates into political power. Look at Germany in the European Union. Remember that Germany’s neighbors like France were very worried about German economic power even after World War II. France and other European countries did not want Germany to have access to coal and other resources.
France did not agree to some sort of “Open Europe” with Germany until France was assured that the trade relationship would be under a global umbrella. This structure became the basis of the European Union we know today.
Germany consolidated its democracy, which we know and respect today. War between France and Germany is now unthinkable.
But violence, even war, is not unthinkable between Serbia, or Serbian-backed proxies, or others in the Balkans. Giving even more power to an autocratic state like Serbia under Vucic is irresponsible. It would be different if Serbia were a committed democracy, embracing the Western order.
What makes sense is following the model of economic cooperation under a broader umbrella – in this case, an umbrella that emphasizes mutual respect, inclusion, EU values and has a state of monitoring global like Germany.
From your point of view, does Open Balkan undermine the “Berlin Process” initiative?
Of course it is. Open Balkan is a competing initiative in a region that already has several entities and initiatives, including the “Berlin Process”, CEFTA and the Regional Cooperation Council to help coordinate and promote concrete action.
What do you think the future holds for Open Balkan?
It depends on the wisdom of the leaders of the region, the United States and the EU. If they understand that the region’s challenges – even the economic problems – are political in nature, they will not support a regime that compounds the political problems.
Joseph says Serbian Aleksandar Vucic shouldn’t benefit from expanded influence
In analyzing Bosnia’s economic situation, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) points to political problems — the stalemate created by the Dayton Accords.
Indeed, Bosnia and Herzegovina benefits from the “four freedoms” promoted by Open Balkan. For more than two decades there has been the free movement of people, goods, services and capital.
The same “magical claims” on Open Balkan were made about trade in Bosnia and Herzegovina: “As soon as they can trade, they will focus on making money and forget about all these divisions”.
Instead, as the EBRD notes, there is a serious economic obstruction due to the convoluted Dayton Accord, which is based on the ethno-territorial division of the country and complicated political rights. This requires a serious political strategy, not only for Bosnia and Herzegovina, but for the region.
Is Russian influence in the Balkans a serious threat in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Russian influence, Chinese influence and Hungarian influence are all serious threats. All the influences of anti-democratic regimes are negative factors in the Balkans.
It is about recognizing where the vulnerability comes from: only one country in the region, Serbia, rejects the Western order for the region. This is why the regime led by Vucic is affiliated with Hungary, China and Russia.
Edward P. Joseph is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington. He has worked in the Balkans as a field practitioner specializing in conflict management and was until 2012 Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.
Publishers: Aingeal Flanagan, Rüdiger Rossig