Gajic: The Open Balkan has a future, it has been proven to function better than the Berlin Process

Mihailo Gajić
Source: Kosovo Online

Economist Mihailo Gajic assessed that, despite occasional setbacks, the Open Balkan initiative had a future because it had proven to function much better than the Berlin Process, which was backed by the bureaucracy of the European Union. He also says that it can be expected that Montenegro will join this Initiative next year.

"It is interesting that the Open Balkan is not an institution or organization like the European Union, where there is membership. Instead, it is a series of bilateral or multilateral agreements between countries that have decided on closer cooperation. So, there is no entry or exit from the Open Balkan as a binding contract; it is only a matter of whether a country will accept common agreements or not. The most significant current benefits we see are in the field of border crossing for goods and the mutual recognition of phytosanitary documents. In other words, trucks no longer have to wait for hours at the border; they pass through customs procedures more quickly. For example, the Serbian customs accept documents issued by laboratories in Albania and North Macedonia, which speeds up and reduces the costs of trade, which is particularly positive for us consumers who later buy those goods on the shelves", Gajic said for Kosovo Online.

He points out that it is equally important that the regional labor market has been operational since July.

"By registering on the website, you can enter your name and surname and get a kind of temporary ID number that is valid in all three countries, members of the Open Balkan. In other words, you don't have to seek a work permit later if you are a citizen of one of these three countries to work in them. That's what we see for now. The Open Balkan Initiative was created as a kind of response to the fact that such agreements within the Berlin Process were blocked due to poor political relations between some countries, primarily Montenegro and Kosovo if we accept it as an extra-territorial unit compared to Serbia. And then, when all six countries and entities need to agree on something, it goes much slower and harder than when only those three are ready to deepen their cooperation. That's why the Open Balkan has had more success in initiatives than the Berlin Process", Gajic believes.

According to him, there is a possibility that within a year, Montenegro will become a member of the Open Balkan, considering the political changes in that country.

"The main political elements against Montenegro's membership in the Open Balkan Initiative were still related to the project of Montenegrin statehood, which denied any possibility of cooperation with Serbia due to internal relations. However, with the change of government and narrative, there is a possibility that these political tensions will decrease, as the population of these countries has no open questions, unlike the political elites. Regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are certain shifts in communication regarding the Open Balkan. Some politicians there, such as ministers like Elmedin Konakovic, give fairly conciliatory statements about the Open Balkan, considering that its main goal is actually trade-economic integration and has little to do with politics", Gajic says.

However, he still points out that he is not sure, given the history of the 1990s, that there is a possibility of Bosnia and Herzegovina joining this initiative soon, emphasizing that this also applies to Kosovo.

"I think they will look more towards the Berlin Process as a kind of way to deepen regional cooperation and the regional market. The problem is that without resolving some key political issues that Kosovo insists on at the moment, such as de facto recognition from Serbia and their further membership in international institutions, there is no progress. I'm not sure they have any political will at the moment for any other connections in the region. For them, it's a kind of political bargaining chip for mutual agreements and gaining some concessions", Gajic says.

When asked about the future of the Open Balkan, Gajic says that it definitely has a future.

"It exists in the sense that the agreements that have been signed are being implemented in practice, considering that it is a bit slower and clumsier than envisioned on paper. If we look at it in comparison to the Berlin Process, backed by EU bureaucracy, we see that their results are almost minimal or nearly nonexistent compared to the situation with the Open Balkan. I think it is pretty clear which of these regional initiatives is producing results so far. The Open Balkan can serve as a kind of 'laboratory' to prove what works and how in this region", Gajic says.

He adds that some Western politicians criticized the Open Balkan at the beginning of its formation.

"They mentioned it exclusively in a negative context, as a kind of response to the EU by local politicians who have their personal interests in mind, not necessarily the interests of the entire region when creating such an initiative outside the EU. However, now they have much more conciliatory and optimistic statements when it comes to the Open Balkan, primarily because they have realized that behind it is not a political story, but it ends with economic cooperation, and they can actually use it as a way to see what works and what doesn't in the region, so they can push it through at the level of the Berlin Process", Gajic concludes.