The open Balkans, the “half-way” initiative Tirana-Belgrade-Skopje showed ambitions to expand geographically beyond the Region. Prime Minister Edi Rama, who in several cases has taken the role of a negotiator in a “seduction” process, has also invited Turkey, Greece, Italy, Hungary, and other countries. Experts, however, express reservations about this ‘soft’ approach, mainly towards Turkey, and warn that these decisions may prove counterproductive for most of the countries in the region that are unable to compete, due to the situation of their national economies.

Marjo Brakaj

“Open Balkan” is still far from its original mission, that of bringing together the six countries of the Western Balkans in terms of the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital. Nevertheless, without this mission being fulfilled, the Tirana-Belgrade-Skopje initiative is showing ambition to attract other countries beyond the Region.

Prime Minister Edi Rama, in several cases, has taken the role of a “negotiator” in a process of “seduction” that he started with Turkey, the country which he announced as a “Strategic Partner” when he came to power in 2013.

In every speech, you say let us help the Balkans to be with us and not have third party interventions, but when it came for vaccines, Serbia turned to China and Russia, we ran towards Turkey. If it wasn’t for Erdogan, we would have more fatalities, and this is the reality. I hope that Europe learns its lessons “, repeated Prime Minister Rama from the Bled summit in Slovenia on August 28.

Rama expanded his spectrum of invitations to Belgrade, Serbia at the beginning of September, where he announced his open “invitation” to other countries, such as Greece, Italy, or Hungary.

We also invited the foreign ministers of Greece and Italy, who, having elegantly apologized, could not be here today. For us, it is important that other countries like Italy or Hungary join this initiative. A colleague from the EU, a prime minister, asked me why we didn’t invite them. I’m glad the day has come for more and more countries already belonging to a space we so much desire, wanting so much to be invited.” affirmed Prime Minister Rama.

Albania in relation to the Open Balkans and its strategic partners

Before answering the question, “How ‘attractive’ can the Open Balkans be”, let’s understand Albania’s economic position in relation to Greece, Italy, Turkey, and Hungary.

Traditionally, our neighbors, Greece and Italy, have been Albania’s main partners in terms of trade exchanges (exports and imports).

Mainly in the last decade, Turkey has also joined this list. Foreign trade with these countries has grown from year to year, accounting for almost 50 percent of the total goods exchanged.

 The situation in the field of foreign investments is somewhat different. Foreign partners who invest in Albania are coming more and more often from countries that have not previously been noted for strong economic relations with our country. Traditionally, our neighbors, Italy and Greece, have been the main investors in our country, thanks to the geographical proximity and the opportunities created by our backward economy.

For years now, another trend has been noticed, that of the capital coming from the East. Since the beginning of 2018, the main source of money invested in the country belonged to countries such as Bulgaria, Turkey, and recently Hungary, which with their recent acquisitions in the banking and telecommunications markets, is expected to turn into one of the leading foreign investors.

This geographical shift has been made possible thanks also to the strategy followed by Greek companies, withdrawing from the Western Balkans region. In just 3 years, the stock of foreign investments from Greece has decreased by almost 1 billion euros.

An indicator that also stands out, unlike other countries in the region, is the low presence of investments from Germany and the United States of America. However, expectations for the latter are high, with the coming of companies like Bechtel or the giant Exxon Mobil.

Can the Open Balkans be a “magnetic field of attraction”?

Along with the geography of foreign investments, we move to a different level, that of the perspective of expanding the Open Balkans.

It must be said that there are still three countries of the Western Balkans that are not yet part of the Open Balkans, so it seems a bit hasty to discuss inviting other countries outside the Balkans. On the other hand, it should be seen how compatible this structure will be with the standards set already by the European Union. The CRM was created in a process that was entirely under the review and monitoring of the EU itself, while the Open Balkans lacks such a monitoring structure that sets and ensures certain standards. ” – says Nirvana Deliu, who has good knowledge of integration issues.

Meanwhile, for researcher Deliu, the expansion of the open Balkans towards Ankara seems more realistic to researcher Deliu.

Turkey has shown that it has a special interest in the countries of the Western Balkans and is involved in the region through its geo-strategic investments, financial support, and what is known as soft power through cultural exchange, education, and art. Turkey is involved and intends to continue its influence in the Region, and the Open Balkans can serve as one more window to intensify its economic relations with the countries of the Western Balkans, and moreover with those countries with which Turkey does not have so close relations.” – argues Deliu.

The economic affairs researcher, Selim Blliku, also sees Turkey’s embrace of the “Open Balkan” as possible.

In recent years, Turkey has undertaken several investments in the Western Balkans, mainly in the cultural sphere, but not only, including investments in infrastructure, energy, telecommunications, and the banking sector. All these efforts by Turkey express clearly its interest in strengthening its ties with the Balkans and, consequently, its influence as well, and not just its economic influence, but its diplomatic, political, and cultural as well. – argues Blliku

It is law of the jungle, “the big fish eats the small fish”

What everyone agrees with is that whatever initiative or project for co-operation is seen by everyone as a way to make the most of it. And when interests prevail over principles, expectations cannot be high.

The Open Balkans is not the first regional initiative that has been undertaken. Several previous ones have failed. Of the three countries that currently started this cooperation, Serbia has commercial and economic dominance (about twice the economy of Albania and North Macedonia taken together), which would make it the main beneficiary of the removal of barriers because it could produce goods and services of higher value for export in the region. The interest of other countries, especially European ones, along with trade facilities and economic benefits, also means a “surrender” of domestic markets that may lose competitiveness against more consolidated economies and markets,” argues researcher Blliku.

Another economic expert, Zef Preçi, expresses similar opinions.

“From this point of view, the initiative of the Open Balkans, a priori, is expected to bring benefits to the strongest economies, but it also directly or indirectly transforms the economies of other countries into markets for the goods this economy produces. I mean opening up without any conditions, under political pressure, and treating regional cooperation in a propagandistic manner, may prove counterproductive for most of the countries in the region that are unable to compete due to the backwardness of their national economies. Therefore, it could also lead to the weakening of the ability of the Albanian economy to compete.” – says Preçi.

And in order to be part of the competition, Preçi advises the promotion of local production.

It is time for the Albanian government to focus its human and financial energies on increasing local production, promoting competition in the markets, supporting the “economy of scale”, gradually removing the obstacles or barriers for the economy to open up further in the region and beyond. Otherwise, the result remains negative, even in the medium and long term.” – he says.

“Faktoje” tried to get a comment from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Greece, Italy, Turkey, and Hungary, the four states mentioned by Prime Minister Rama as the most likely to join the “Open Balkans”.

Request for comment addressed to Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Hungary

“Faktoje” did not receive any replies until the publication of this article, but December, when the next “Open Balkans” meeting is expected to take place, will show more about the willingness of other countries to join the Regional initiative, Tirana- Belgrade-Skopje.