The Balkans: Open or Closed?

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The statements made by Prime Minister Edi Rama regarding the Open Balkans have caused confusion, as they started with enthusiasm but ultimately led to the collapse of the initiative. Recently, Rama announced that the focus should be on the Berlin Process and stated that the Open Balkans had fulfilled its mission. However, he also denies having ended the initiative. Without a clear work plan or official documents from the Open Balkans, it is debatable whether the mission has been accomplished, given Rama’s contradictory statements. The undeniable fact is that the Open Balkans failed to unite the six countries in the region, as required by the EU and the US.

Jona Plumbi

On July 1, Prime Minister Edi Rama referred to the Open Balkans in the past tense during a television interview, stating that the initiative had achieved its mission.

In October, Albania will host the Berlin Summit in the Balkans, in Tirana. Naturally, the focus now is on the Berlin Process. The Open Balkans was an initiative born out of the need to advance the Berlin Process, and it has fulfilled its purpose. Now, we need to fully engage with the Berlin Process.” – Edi Rama, 1 July 2023

The media reported the closure of the Open Balkans, and television studios organized panels to discuss the reasons behind this sudden ending.

Rama’s statements surprised many, but for different reasons.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić refused to believe that Rama made such a statement Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski believes that the Open Balkans mission was not accomplished, while the new Minister of Interior, Taulant Balla was unaware of any statement made by the Prime Minister declaring the completion of the Open Balkans initiative.

Others believed in the closure of the Open Balkans and openly discussed it for the first time. Socialist MP Pandeli Majko immediately expressed his dissatisfaction with this initiative after Prime Minister Rama’s statement.

I did not welcome the initiative at all. I was prepared for Kosovo’s reaction. The only reason I refrained from opposing it is that, even though I could have, as I am not afraid, I believed that within the framework of the Open Balkans, Kosovo could negotiate matters that would bypass bilateral talks under the auspices of Brussels. I do not think Rama saw this initiative as a means to gain votes! The essence of the Open Balkans is economic, not political.” – said Majko.

In fact, the support or lack thereof for the Open Balkans initiative was one of the questions of the national consultation, a survey conducted by the Rama government in 2022 for the first and only time, with the results indicating that 60% of respondents supported the initiative.

In an attempt to clarify the Albanian Prime Minister’s position during his tour in the Balkans, Rama was asked about the closure of the Open Balkans at a joint conference with the Montenegrin Prime Minister. In his response, Rama referred to the Open Balkans as an initiative in which he had “the privilege to be a part of.”.

“The Open Balkans is not my private company that I opened and closed. It is a joint initiative involving several countries in which I had the privilege to participate. I simply expressed my opinion that the Open Balkans has fulfilled its mission, but I never imagined that well-established or organized processes would have to come to a complete halt, and I reiterate, it is not my company.” – Edi Rama, 7 July 2023.

The reality is that Prime Minister Rama has changed his stance on the purpose and mission of the Open Balkans. This is evident from his statements seven months earlier, where he predicted the conclusion of the Berlin Process before the end of the Open Balkans initiative.

“The Berlin Process is the locomotive that has pulled the wagons. Eventually, we will be left with the Open Balkans, as the Berlin Process is not everlasting. And I do not believe that others should lead us by the hand throughout our lives.” – Edi Rama, November 2022

Furthermore, Rama argued that the war in Ukraine made the Open Balkans initiative even more necessary.

“The war in Ukraine makes the Open Balkans even more necessary than before the start of this war. When the war in Ukraine began, the wheat contracts were affected. Among the wheat importers in Albania from Serbia, […] they were not blocked as they would have been if we were not part of the Open Balkans. Isn’t this significant? And how would we feed the people if there was a bread shortage?” – Edi Rama, June 2022.

Another fact about the Open Balkans is that the support it received from the European Union and the United States was contingent on the participation of all six countries in the region.

“We welcome the leaders’ commitment to regional cooperation, a fundamental element of the European perspective for the Western Balkans and an integral part of the Stabilization and Association Process. We understand the desire to move forward. At the same time, a process that involves the entire Western Balkans region is crucial.” – Ana Pisonero, spokesperson for the European Commission.

Three countries initiated this endeavour and must maintain an open dialogue, engaging closely with the remaining three sceptical partners, while carefully considering the reasons for their reservations. Without the collective participation of all six countries, this initiative cannot hope to succeed.” GABRIEL ESCOBAR, US ENVOY FOR WESTERN BALKANS.

However, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina perceived Open Balkan as a redundant repetition of the Berlin process and thus declined to partake, despite the Albanian Prime Minister’s persistent argument that Open Balkans facilitates the region’s integration into the EU.

Ilir Kalemaj, a professor of international relations at the University of Tirana, has identified a fundamental contradiction in this initiative from its inception.

Open Balkan was either proposed by Vučić and backed by Rama to aid the reconciliation of the Western Balkans, an assertion attributed to the Serbian stance. Alternatively, the initiative was suggested by Rama and supported by Belgrade and Skopje to invigorate the stalled Berlin process, as claimed by Tirana’s stance.

In recent statements made by Prime Minister Rama, Kalemaj observes yet another inconsistency.

“ Now, Rama declares that Open Balkan is being discontinued due to the existence of 77 other regional initiatives, and the Berlin Process has been reinitiated, with Albania positioned as the regional leader. However, Albania is merely hosting the upcoming Berlin Process summit. On the other hand, Vučić insists that the initiative continues. This demonstrates that Serbia is ‘in the driver’s seat,’ as Rama swiftly withdrew his support following Vučić’s remarks, asserting that Open Balkan is not his undertaking”. – Ilir Kalemaj told Faktoje.

The lack of a concrete work plan, calendar, or strategy for Open Balkan further complicates the understanding of this initiative, as Kalemaj points out that it lacks crucial elements that the Berlin Process possesses to advance the region’s European integration.