Open Balkans Initiative: Continuity of Western Neocolonialism?
The European Union’s process of adding new member states has stalled over the past decade. Well aware that their nations will not be joining the EU anytime soon, if at all, the leaders of three Balkan nations – Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania – have launched their own process of economic integration.
On July 29, in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the Prime Ministers of North Macedonia and Albania, Zoran Zaev and Edi Rama, respectively agreed to abolish border controls between all three countries effective Jan. 1, 2023. Leaders also signed agreements to facilitate trade and movement, disaster cooperation and labor market liberalization by removing work permit requirements and streamlining procedures. The initiative was dubbed “Open Balkans”. Initially, it was called “Mini Schengen”, after the EU passport-free and duty-free zone of the same name. At the Skopje summit, the initiative was renamed “Open Balkans”.
Such measures have been welcomed by the EU and the United States, two great powers operating in the Balkans. In fact, it is believed that Richard Grenell, then US President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Balkans, initiated economic integration between Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania in October 2019.
It may be a coincidence that one day after the Skopje summit, Grenell was spotted with Serbian Finance Minister Sinisa Mali in a local night club in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. A few days later, he traveled to Albania, where he met Rama.
Although the former US diplomat is not part of the new US administration, he appears to wield influence in the Balkans. It is unclear what role he plays on behalf of the United States. During a recent visit to Albania, he reportedly said that the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo, which is the subject of a long-standing political and territorial dispute between the Serbian government and Kosovo leaders based in the city of Pristina, made a mistake in not joining the Open Balkans initiative. Besides Kosovo, Montenegro, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, also remain skeptical about this project. The EU, on the other hand, supports the German-backed Common Regional Market, which includes Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo. In other words, it seems that some American players, namely Grenell and the Atlantic Council, support the Open Balkans project, while Germany pushes the Balkan countries to integrate more deeply into the common regional market.
the @AtlanticConseil team had the honor of meeting President Vučić, Prime Minister @ediramaal and prime minister @Zoran_Zaev , today in Skopje, for the launch of #OpenBalkan pic.twitter.com/Dh4TKQPBm8
– Benjamin Haddad (@benjaminhaddad) July 29, 2021
Integration of the Balkans
It should be noted, however, that EU members Austria, which has significant economic influence in the region, supported the creation of Open Balkans, which some see as a Yugoslav-style initiative centered on Serbia, especially if Montenegro as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, where ethnic Serbs make up about 30 percent of the population. population — be part of the open Balkans. Many Serbs, on the other hand, fear that the open Balkans could turn into “Greater Albania” if Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians make up over 90% of the population, joins the initiative. In reality, this entity could unite all Serbs and Albanians living in the Balkans.
“This initiative is changing everything in the region,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said. “We will have to work a lot and I believe we will be successful. “
The initiative could already change the region. For example, the national postal services of Serbia and North Macedonia reportedly agreed to initiate the introduction of a common postage stamp and a single price for parcel services, in order to provide citizens of countries with Balkans open services at a single price. This decision was seen as a first step in the practical implementation of Open Balkans.
On the other hand, the Prime Ministers of Montenegro and Albania, Zdravko Krivokapic and Edi Rama, recently opened a joint border post between the two Balkan countries. Montenegro now has three common border posts, two with Albania and one with Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition, on July 1, the region became a “no-roaming zone”, which means that there are no roaming charges for people using their mobile phones when traveling between or within Serbia, in Albania, North Macedonia, as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo. . The European Union has supported this initiative, which suggests that Brussels and Washington aim to include the Balkan countries which are still outside the EU in a common regional entity, be it the open Balkans or the common regional market. .
Neocolonialism in the Balkans?
No part of either project, however, is made in the Balkans. Rather, these efforts are aimed at advancing the broader geopolitical strategies of foreign powers.
In the past, especially in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, people in the Balkans believed that the Balkans should be theirs. When liberated from the secular feudal system that the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had imposed, the newly formed nations took the first political steps in an effort to emancipate themselves and cease to be colonies in Europe. . To this day, however, the nations of the Balkans remain heavily dependent on the Western powers, and some claim that the EU is treating the region in a neocolonial way. Neocolonialism involves an outside power ruling a country by indirect means.
The United States has followed a similar model with the Balkan countries, regardless of which political party representative sits in the White House. Nowhere was this more evident than at the White House in September 2020, when the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo signed a “historic” economic agreement, although the document they signed looked more like a list. of American requests addressed to its client states in the Balkans. The main points of the document concerned the normalization of relations with Israel.
But some have speculated that the Serbian president did not know what he had signed, based on video footage that has viral on social networks. In this video, when Trump mentioned that the Serbian Embassy located in Tel Aviv would move to Jerusalem, Vucic began to turn the pages of the document, looked to his right, and put his hand to his head.
Images that certainly give the impression that Vucic had not realized that he had agreed to move the Serbian embassy to Jerusalem – or at least not in July, says Trump. Comedy of errors. pic.twitter.com/nhBjfja0lc
– Paul 🏴☠️ the other… (@paulcshipley) September 6, 2020
Additionally, a photo of Vucic sitting in the Oval Office also went viral as some said Vucic looked like a schoolboy summoned by Trump, further reinforcing the popular idea that Serbia is under the thumb of the United States.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s relationship with the Balkans has been similar to that of the Trump administration.
“We still don’t know what the attitude of the Biden administration is towards the Balkans,” said John Bolton, the Trump administration’s national security adviser. “Biden’s campaign has avoided answering a lot of foreign and domestic questions, and I think the Biden administration is focusing on domestic issues right now, not foreign policy, so I don’t know when we’ll have one. answer to that question. “
For now, the region’s self-determination is unlikely with an initiative like Open Balkans. The region appears to remain stuck in the waiting room to join the EU, as foreign powers fight for influence and the redistribution of wealth from the Balkan countries.
Nikola Mikovic is a Serbia-based contributor to CGTN, Global Comment, Byline Times, Informed Comment, and World Geostrategic Insights, among other publications. He is a geopolitical analyst for KJ Reports and Global Wonks.