Regional leaders gather for Open Balkan summit, with Kosovo absence and Russian meddling looming over meeting

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times June 8, 2022 10:43

Regional leaders gather for Open Balkan summit, with Kosovo absence and Russian meddling looming over meeting

Story Highlights

  • Kosovo refuses invitation over Serbia dominance
  • Russian meddling feared over Serbia ties
  • Fears of Serbian domination are valid, expert says

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TIRANA, June 8, 2022 - A two-day meeting of the Open Balkans initiative is being held in Ohrid with the leaders of Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia joined as observers by the prime minister of Montenegro and the chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

The signing of four cooperation agreements for the fight against tax evasion, recognition of higher education diplomas, cultural cooperation and cooperation in the field of tourism is expected on Wednesday.

The initiative, according to its organizers, aims to establish freedom of movement of people, goods, capital and services in the region. But it faces criticism -- especially in Kosovo -- over Serbia's domination of the initiative and its ties to Russia and China.

Kosovo refuses invitation over Serbia dominance

Kosovo refuses to join the initiative because of Serbia's approach, which does not recognize its independence. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, rejected the invitation of Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski to attend the meeting. He wrote in a letter that Kosovo is committed to the Berlin Process, which was approved by the six Western Balkan countries at the Sofia summit in 2020 and supported by the European Union. 

Prime Minister Kurti further stressed that "Kosovo and North Macedonia must work together to prevent Serbia from promoting its Russian and Chinese interests in the region, and that it consistently denies Kosovo's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and blocks the possibilities of equality for the citizens of Kosovo.”

Russian meddling feared over Serbia ties

Serbia, which represents the largest country and market in the initiative, maintains strong ties with Russia and China. It is the only country in the Balkan region that has so far refused to join sanctions against Moscow over its aggression in Ukraine. A day earlier, Serbia's three neighbors, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Bulgaria, forced the cancellation of a Russian foreign minister's visit to Belgrade, barring his plane from passing through their airspace.

The Russian foreign minister blamed the West for canceling the visit, stressing that no one would be able to destroy Russia's relations with Serbia.

"They probably did not want us to express support for Belgrade's initiative to carry out the Open Balkans project in the interest of healthier and stronger relations among all countries in the region," the Russian minister said on Monday.

American analyst Janusz Bugajski said the Kremlin sees the Open Balkan initiative as a useful tool for dividing Europe. "Pro-Western governments should abandon the scheme and not pursue the Moscow-Belgrade agenda," he wrote on social media.

The initiative, originally known as the "Balkan Mini-Schengen," changed its name to  "Open Balkan" in July last year. Some analysts estimate that Serbia will benefit most from this initiative, "because there will be access to the sea" (through Albanian ports) and being several times economically stronger will expand its products in the markets of neighboring countries, while local producers and traders from Albania and North Macedonia will face price competition and consequently additional challenges in their work.

Controversy over Montenegro attendance

So far, controversy over membership has been ripe. Faced with anger at home, Montenegro Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic specified to the media that the country had not joined the initiative, but he was attending as an observer.

The initiative has also received some lukewarm support by the EU and the United States in the past. In Ohrid, for example, the conference is expected to be attended by the European Commissioner for Enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, while the U.S. envoy to the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, will address it via video message.

Fears of Serbian domination are valid, expert says 

But increasingly the Western powers are being urged to withdraw their support.

Fears of Serbia’s domination of the region are valid, according to Edward P. Joseph, one of the leading American experts on the region and a professor at John Hopkins, who adds Serbia cannot be counted on as a Western ally.

“Open Balkan is an open invitation for [Serb President Aleksandar] Vucic to exploit Serbia's economic size for political advantage – free from political constraints or values of the European Union. Open Balkan [equals] ‘Serb World’ via the marketplace for Serbia’s smaller neighbors,” Joseph wrote on Twitter.

Open Balkan has met resistance since its inception, but has been propelled forward by Vucic and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama as a way to increase cooperation. Rama has repeatedly asked Kosovo to join, amid anger and dismay from Prishtina, where they see the initiative as outside the EU integration process and undermining the country’s sovereignty. Albania’s opposition has also been vehemently against the Open Balkan initiative since its inception.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times June 8, 2022 10:43