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'Open Balkan' could worsen political problems in region

Elona Elezi
August 18, 2022

Balkans analyst Edward P. Joseph tells DW that the Open Balkan initiative, which is supported by Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia, has "dangerous implications" for the region.

Edward P. Joseph
Edward P. Joseph, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, says that the Open Balkan initiative undermines the Berlin Process and will empower Serbia, Russia's closest ally in the Balkans, both politically and economicallyImage: privat

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-Herzegovina have refused to join, arguing that the initiative is unnecessary 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 countries of the Western Balkans, EU member states and institutions, international financial institutions, and regional civil society and businesses.


DW: Mr. Joseph, you have spent many years working in the countries of the Western Balkans. What is your view 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 over a dozen years — including throughout the war years — in all conflict-afflicted countries in the Balkans. Like many in the region, I see dynamics through that prism, particularly the assertion of Greater Serbia nationalism, which is today being advanced by President Aleksandar Vucic and his delegates under the banner of "Serb World."

The Open Balkan initiative is not just a distraction from the core problems in the region — which are political — it actually risks making those political problems worse.

We can summarize the problems with Open Balkan as follows: "dubious theory, naive construct, dangerous implications."

Let's start with the implicit theory underlying Open Balkan: "Trade equals trust." (This is my description). Unfortunately, this theory crashes head-first into reality. Just look at the raging Russian aggression against Ukraine. Until February 24, Russia and Ukraine had enormous trade, nearly $10 billion worth in combined value of exports-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 number one trading partner, responsible for one-third of its trade.

According to the Open Balkan theory, all of these countries should be at peace. Instead, they are either at war, or in the steps towards war. Open Balkan proponents should be asked to explain this.

From left: Zoran Tegeltija, chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Aleksandar Vucic, president of Serbia, Dimitar Kovacevski, prime minister of North Macedonia, Edi Rama, prime minister of Albania and Dreitan Abazovic, prime minister of Montenegro
Leaders of five West Balkan countries at the Open Balkan summit in Ohrid, North Macedonia, June 2022 Image: Ladislav King/Government of North Macedonia

Instead of "trade equals trust," I offer a significantly different conclusion, namely that the impact of trade depends upon the character of the regime, whether it is democratic or autocratic/authoritarian. If Western-oriented democracies trade, then, yes, there are political benefits.

But if autocracies — particularly those like Russia, China and, yes, Serbia under Aleksandar Vucic that have territorial and political ambitions and destabilize their neighbors — are leading the trade, then you have growing mistrust, not trust.

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic said in a recent interview that the Open Balkan initiative would end with the disappearance of Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. What is your response to that statement?

I find it significant for one major reason: It affirms the reality that proponents of Open Balkan ignore — the strong opposition. It doesn't matter what your opinion of Djukanovic is, or Albin Kurti, or Bosniak or Croat leaders who have similar concerns.

What matters is that there is strongly held opposition to an initiative that backers claim is "only about creating jobs and growing the economy." Proponents of Open Balkan need to ask themselves: "Why is there this opposition to our supposedly benign initiative? Why would anyone oppose this?"

Map showing the countries of the Western Balkans and their EU accession status

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 just 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 citizens. Which country will benefit the most both financially and politically?

Serbia will always benefit more than the others. This is another of the core mistakes of Open Balkan. Proponents speak of it as if all the economies of the region are the same size and same character. They are not at all the same.

Serbia's economy is about 14 times the size of Montenegro's, for example. Serbia's economy is about double the size of Albania's and North Macedonia's combined. Serbia will always benefit more from open barriers (the four freedoms) than its neighbors; Serbia will be able to produce higher-value goods for export, growing 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 get access to coal and other resources.

Balkan states: Frozen on the EU waiting list?

France did not agree to a kind of "Open Europe" with Germany until France was assured that the trading relationship would be under an overarching umbrella. That structure became the basis for 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 an autocratic state like Serbia under Vucic even more power is irresponsible. It would be different if Serbia were a committed democracy, embracing the Western order.

What makes sense is to follow the model of economic cooperation under a wider umbrella — in this case, an umbrella that insists on mutual respect, inclusion, EU values and has an overarching supervisory state like Germany.

From your perspective, does Open Balkan undermine the "Berlin Process" initiative?

Of course it does. 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 steps.

What do you think the future holds for Open Balkan?

That depends on the wisdom of leaders in the region, the US and the EU. If they grasp that the challenges in the region — even the economic problems — are political in nature, they will not support a regime that aggravates the political problems.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, June 23, 2022
Joseph says Serbia's Aleksandar Vucic should not be granted expanded influenceImage: Olivier Matthys/AP/picture alliance

In analyzing Bosnia's economic situation, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) points to political problems — the gridlock created by the Dayton Agreement.

In fact, Bosnia-Herzegovina enjoys the "four freedoms" promoted by Open Balkan. For more than two decades, there has been freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital.

The same "magical claims" about Open Balkan were made about trade within Bosnia-Herzegovina: "As soon as they can trade, they will concentrate on making money and forget all these divisions."

Instead, as the EBRD notes, there is grave economic obstruction due to the convoluted Dayton Agreement, which relies on ethno-territorial division of the country and complicated political rights. This requires serious political strategy, not just for Bosnia-Herzegovina, but for the region.

Is Russia's 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 influence of anti-democratic regimes are negative factors in the Balkans.

The point is to recognize where the vulnerability comes from: Only one country in the region, Serbia, rejects the Western order for the region. That is why the regime led by Vucic affiliates with Hungary, China and Russia.

Edward P. Joseph is a professor at John 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.

Editors: Aingeal Flanagan, Rüdiger Rossig

Elona Elezi Author DW Albanian