Open Balkan , a chance for unification or rhetoric for political gain?

*The article was made in collaboration between Zoomer and Community Reporters Albania. The article is available on English, BHS, Albanian, and Macedonian language.

Albania and Serbia have a difficult historical baggage. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, the conflict in Kosovo, and the self-declared independence that followed, have created strong fluctuations in tensions between the two peoples who claim to be the hearths of the largest Balkan ethnic groups.

Signs of normalization are also observed between Serbia and Kosovo. The signals are mostly the result of dialogue promoted by the European Union. The claim is that the normalization of relations between the two countries will go beyond symbolic handshakes, but until the implementation of bilateral agreements.

Political relations and social exchanges between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs are still with the weight of the tension of the 90s, but between the rest of the Albanians in Albania and the Serbs, the relations seem to be a little warmer.

Tirana and Belgrade are the two initiating centers of the „Open Balkan“ initiative. Through this new initiative which aims to include the countries of the Western Balkans aims to improve the free movement of goods and citizens and break the barriers of communication between the two countries.

So far, only Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia are part of this initiative, with Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro refusing to join.

Фото: Председништво Србије / Димитрије Голл

What is the Open Balkan initiative, what do the member states benefit from?

On October 10, 2019, Edi Rama, Aleksandar Vučić and Zoran Zoev met for the first time in Novi Sad, Serbia, to give life to the initiative that was initially called „Balkan Mini-Shengen“. Only Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia agreed to join, leaving out other countries such as Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.

„Open Balkan“ is a cooperation initiative between the three countries of the region, Albania, Northern Macedonia and Serbia, which aims to implement as soon as possible in the Western Balkans region, the four EU freedoms; the movement of people, goods, services and capital. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to enable the countries of the region to open their borders to facilitate the lives of citizens and the business community. In the framework of regional cooperation and in accordance with the Joint Regional Market Plan of the Berlin Process, the initiative has not been opposed by the US and the EU.

To meet the set goals, „Open Balkan“ has developed its work through sessions where agreements have been signed between the three member states.

At the first meeting, it was agreed that citizens travel with a valid ID card by 2021, be able to work anywhere in the region and have their diplomas recognized throughout the region. It was also agreed to increase co-operation against organized crime and for countries to help each other respond to natural disasters.

On November 10, 2019, the focus of the meeting was to facilitate the movement of goods and citizens. The pandemic interrupted the meetings because during 2020. the parties could not meet physically, so they chose to hold meetings online. In the first physical meeting after the easing of measures by covid-19, in July 2021 in Skopje, the new name of the initiative was presented. From the „Balkan Mini-Shengen“ the tripartite initiative would be called „Open Balkans“.

In this meeting, the 3 leaders signed several agreements which provide that during 2023 the citizens and the movement of goods will become free and without obstacles between Albania, Serbia and Northern Macedonia. The other agreement based on the green agenda relates to protection and rescue from natural disasters in the Western Balkans. In this meeting it was agreed on free movement in the labor market between countries by providing work permits for citizens who want to work in these countries. In December 2021, Albania hosted the countries of the Western Balkans, but the countries involved in the initiative remained the same 3, as Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro repeatedly refused to join the initiative.

The countries of the Open Balkan Initiative have signed a total of 9 agreements related to the mobilization of the three countries in terms of coping with natural disasters; to facilitate the import and export of goods; easy access to the labor market and obtaining residence permits; for the electronic identification of citizens of the Western Balkans; for cooperation in the field of veterinary medicine, food safety and animal feed and phytosanitary in the Western Balkans; for cooperation in the field of accreditation in the Western Balkans.

Vučić stated during the meeting that the countries involved will respect the agreements, rescue units and civil emergencies will co-operate to escape the tragedies that will hit Albania, Northern Macedonia and Serbia. However, the critical situation with the fires that Albania faced in the summer of 2021 showed that the agreements were not functional and their colleagues from Kosovo came to the aid of the Albanian firefighters.

Open Balkans – many unanswered questions

The election campaign is underway in Serbia, and local, parliamentary and presidential elections have been called for April the 3rd . The “Open Balkan” initiative is often present in the media discourse in Serbia, but there are still no concrete answers to many questions,

According to the Agreement on Connecting Electronic Identification schemes of the Western Balkans, the “Open Balkan” Identification Number is the only number that citizens of all three countries can obtain on e-government portals or electronic identification portals. The precondition for that is that the citizen has an electronic identity issued within the „registered electronic identification scheme in his country“.

This issue represents, as stated, „an addition to the already existing electronic identity of the citizen, which gives him the opportunity to exercise his rights within the Open Balkans initiative.“ At the beginning of March, the mayor of Belgrade, prof. dr. Zoran Radojčić met with the Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, in Tirana, after which, according to regional media, he stated that the issuance of these documents will begin in April 2022.

However, electronic identification is a prerequisite to ensure equal access to the labor market. According to the statement of the Minister of Finance of the Republic of Serbia, Siniša Mali, from January 1st, 2022, single work permits will be accepted for all three countries. Apparently, this will not be possible without electronic identification.

According to the analysis of the Agreement on Conditions for Free Access to the Labor Market, citizens of Serbia, Albania and Northern Macedonia „have the right to move, reside and work freely“ in the territories of these three countries and equal access to the labor market. In order to exercise the right to free access to the labor market, a citizen of another country should register his/her data in accordance with the regulations, no later than 90 days from entering the country.

After receiving the “Open Balkans” identification number, and being notified electronically that the registration procedure has been completed, the citizens then acquire the right to the free access to the labor market, as well as the opportunity to stay in another country for two years, with the possibility of re-registration. According to the agreement, the three member states of the „Open Balkan“ initiative will recognize the registered electronic identification schemes and connect their national eGovernment.

According to this Agreement, it was agreed to form a joint commission with the task to organize, coordinate and control activities related to the implementation of the agreement on conditions for free access to the labor market in the Western Balkans, which has the obligation to be formed within 30 days.

Apart from the information from the text of the agreement, the public isn’t aware of the details of the implementation of this initiative. It remains unclear who is in charge of implementing the initiative and whether a budget has been set for its implementation, as well as whether the commission provided for in the agreement was formed and who are the people of which it’s consisted, and whether the e-governments of the three member states are connected and when will they start issuing identification numbers and single work permits.

The topic of the “Open Balkan” initiative wasn’t the subject of analysis by economic journalists in Serbia, and the professors at the Faculty of Economics in Belgrade that ZOOMER contacted don’t have enough information on this topic. They all sent us to one address only – state institutions.

Given that the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, was directly involved in all the processes related to the initiative and that there was no official information on which institution will be in charge of implementing the project – ZOOMER tried to answer the those questions as well as additional clarifications – how the procedures for obtaining work permits will be simplified and what benefits young people in these three countries will have. ZOOMER tried to get clarifications from the advisor of the President, Suzana Vasiljevic. By the time this text was concluded, no response had been received.

Фото: Председништво Србије / Димитрије Голл

Perceptions and opinions that Albanians have about Serbians

There is not much knowledge about the perceptions that the two peoples of the two countries have. But a study conducted in 2015 by the Albanian Istutute for International Studies shows the attitudes of 1,200 Albanians nationwide, 46 percent of whom think relations between the two countries are normal and 36 percent think a bad or very bad relationship between Albania and Serbia. Only 16 percent of respondents opposite think this relationship is good or very good.

According to the study, many Albanians expect relations with Serbia to improve in the future, while a third of them think there will be no change. 50 percent of Albanians believe that states are ready to build friendly relations while 30 percent do not agree with this opinion. Only 5 percent of Albanian citizens consider Serbia a threat to Albania. More than 60 percent of citizens think that no country poses a threat to Albania.

Alba Çela, experts of this study, emphasizes that measuring the pulse of public opinion and the general level of support for the improvement (or lack of improvement) of relations, will help decision-makers and policy-makers in drafting policies. Effective external, cooperation projects and agreements in the field of economy and economic and cultural cooperation. Another aim is for the results to be used as a reference tool by other entities such as civil society and cultural actors to find new ways in which opportunities for interaction can be expanded.

Cela shows that the same study has been conducted in Serbia and it is noticed that the respective citizens want more cultural cooperation between the two countries.

Among young people, citizens who want cultural cooperation, it seems that there is a kind of desire to have more warmth between the two countries, so to have a more normal relationship. This has remained for me as the main impression from that survey. Of course, many things have changed and this relationship is also influenced by the events that take place in the region, not only by the behavior of the two countries only towards each other, so it is time to repeat it and to have other questions that would address and current initiatives. „I think that in both countries there are enough groups of citizens who would like to leave behind the past or the conflict and have a better relationship „, the expert for CRA shares.

To be coherent with the opinions that mainly young people have about the relationship between the two countries and the perceptions they have about Serbs, the CRA conducted an online survey in which 127 young people aged 18-31 participated.

The results of this survey show that 53.5 percent of Albanian youth think that the relationship between the two peoples is tense. 34.6 percent think that there is a feeling of hatred between them and only 11.8 percent of young people think that they have a good relationship .

The dominance of the result for the existence of tense relations between the two peoples and the feeling of hatred for each other, is caused by the lack of cultural communication between these two countries and the mythicization or misunderstanding of historical factors that the media often uses for audiences.

Kiara Manja is a journalism student who currently has many Serbian friends and have very good social relations, but on her first visit to Serbia, she encountered an unpleasant situation with a Serbian student who had almost the same idea as her to write an article. This was enough to cause tension in this relationship until they communicated and clarified their idea.

„She is already my close friend, so we must communicate with each other without prejudice which prevents us from understanding each other. By communicating and getting to know each other, we understand that they are vain prejudices, and that they should not be at any moment, because we, the young people, are at least able to make a difference“, she shares her experience based on prejudices without deciding never contact with Serbian citizens.

Even the use of nationalist symbols and the influence of the media on issues belonging to the two countries has a great impact on the perceptions of citizens.

There was a case when we wanted to take pictures in Belgrade and there were some from Albania, from Bosnia and Serbia and I wanted to make the flag. A boy from Bosnia grabbed my hands and told me not to do it. He took it very seriously because he thought it could be a provocation“, says Entenela Ndërvataj, a young journalist, for an episode during a training in Serbia.

On the other hand, although online survey data show that only 11.8 percent of young people think that there are good relations between Albanians and Serbs, there are opinions which do not support this result.

Pavlo Jakova, a member of the Serbian national minority in the Committee of National Minorities, points out that members of the Serb minority, geographically dispersed in Fier and Shkodra, enjoy very good relations with Albanians, both of the Orthodox and Muslim faiths. Although they are Albanian citizens, but at the same time members of the Serbian minority, this fact influences Albanian citizens to interact with each other. As the president of the association „Morac Morava“ which protects the rights of the Serbo-Montenegrin minority shows that there are young people who help them learn the Serbian language and those belonging to the Serb minority continue their higher studies in Serbia supported by scholarships .

„We have been learning here for 2 years, but due to the pandemic we have interrupted the Serbian language course and realized it through Serbia and the Metropolitanate of Montenegro. They have helped us financially and some of the childrens have received important elements of the Serbian language in Shkodra. Also, when we had the opportunity, we sent 30 students to Belgrade with scholarships where some of them succeeded in achieving their diplomas where they went for Medicine, Engineering, Architecture, etc. „, said Pavlo Jakova, member of the Serbian national minority in Albania .

Other data from an online survey conducted by the CRA show that 30 percent of young people answered that they have Serb friends versus 70 percent who have no contact with Serb youth.

Although 30 percent have contacts between them, this fact shows that communication between young people, increased cooperation between them thanks to the activity of civil society organizations can affect the improvement of relations and change negative perceptions for each party.

Also the data on the question whether they want to know the Serbian culture and language show that about 60 percent of young people answered that they have no interest while about 40 percent would like to learn more about them. It is interesting that the Serbian state has schools that use the Albanian language and are attended by Albanians and Serbs, while in Albania there is no such thing. This fact alone is enough to rethink the negative perception that exists about the Serbian state and the Serbs themselves. The interest in learning the Serbian language and culture for Albanians is at the individual level or mainly related to working with young people or in civil society organizations. Special is the case of the journalist Bledar Kuka, who learned the Serbian language self-taught through television broadcasting on the Former Yugoslav Channel, which was attractive to young people of that time.

„Such countries that are ethnocentric, that have no communication for historical reasons, with others, with neighbors as Albania has been for a very long time, create a kind of nationalism and a kind of difference and negative perception of neighbors,“ thinks Kuka who preferred not to influence himself from nationalist perceptions and to improve the Serbian language over time.

Perceptions and opinions that Serbians have about Albanians

The announced “Open Balkan” initiative certainly increases opportunities for young people from this three countries, but is it something that young people want? According to available data, there is still big social distance between Serbs and Albanians.

The results of the survey on social relations between ethnic ccommunities in Serbia, conducted by the Center for Ethnicity Research in 2020, shows that the greatest degree of ethnic distance exists among members of the Roma and Albanian national minorities. According to this survey, almost one-fifth of Serb respondents would not accept living in a neighborhood with a member of the Albanian minority (19.6%), and 17.2% oppose living in a common country. When it comes to marital relations, as many as 36.8% wouldn’t accept a person of Albanian nationality as a spouse, and one third of respondents are against the marital relations of their closest relatives with members of Albanian nationality. A similar attitude is shown by the Albanian national minority in Serbia – 28% wouldn’t live in the neighborhood with Serbs, and 40.8% oppose marriage to a person of Serbian nationality.

These data are similar to the data of the research conducted by the Office of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality in 2016, as well as in 2013, which also shows that the greatest social distance in Serbia is towards people of Albanian nationality and Roma. All of this shows that this is a continuous, systemic problem. According to this survey, 45% of citizens in 2016 stated that they didn’t want an Albanian as a family member, while 57% of respondents had such an attitude three years earlier.

Looking at these data, we have to ask ourselves – if we don’t want Albanians as neighbors in our country, are we ready to go, live and work in Albania?

In order for the “Open Balkan” initiative to be successful and more than a technical solution, it’s necessary to work on information and education on this topic. At the moment, the initiative is presented to the public primarily through business facilitation.

What worries me when it comes to “Open Balkan” is that it’s presented as a facilitation for doing business and for economic benefits that are put in the foreground and that’s promoted only through the fact that borders are open – what worth do borders have to us, if no one wants to cross them?” said Sofija Todorović, program director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia for ZOOMER.

Young people have the desire and interest to travel, meet different people, different cultures, and the Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia constantly proves that with its work. What is important isn’t to run away from differences – because in order to know what unites us, we must also talk about what separates us.

There is a saying – let’s talk about everything we have in common and what unites us. But when there’s a lot of things which divides us, whether it’s based on myths and nationalism or something else – those questions must be opened. Those questions are difficult and unpleasant and talks about them can last for a very long time, but that fear must be removed because young people are still afraid of visiting regional countries, and we have to talk about all that.“ Todorović concluded.

All the things that separate us are to some extent the cause of fear and barriers that aren’t easy to overcome, and are a frequent reason for misunderstanding and even discrimination. The young people we talked to are the ones that went to Albania for exchange programs. They said that for the first time they really felt fear, but they also encountered a lack of understanding of the environment.

The first time I went in 2017, honestly, I was scared. We drove through Kosovo. I struggled with prejudices within myself, with the words of people who told me „why are you going there“ and „don’t you have somewhere else to go“ or similar things“ said Jelena Mitrović for Zoomer.

She explained that she’s attracted to what others think it’s taboo. „I’m attracted by the unknown. I said to myself – when you could go on an exchange 100 km from the border with Syria at the age of 18, you can also go to Albania,“ Mitrović added. After that trip, she visited Albania countless times. „I am one of those people who are, so to speak, in love with Albania. Its mountains, sea, Tirana, Saranda, Ksamil, Elbasan. People are quite similar to us – hospitable, they want to help in every situation, although there is usually a language barrier„, Mitrović points out.

I’m attracted by the unknown. I said to myself – when you could go on an exchange 100 km from the border with Syria at the age of 18, you can also go to Albania

Jelena Mitrović

Her experience is shared by Vladimir Tasić, who was at the youth conference in Tirana. It wasn’t clear to the people around him why he was going there. The trip was long, but the hospitality of the inhabitants of Tirana surprised him.

The biggest problem is the language barrier. One day we missed the road so we had to ask the citizens for directions. Almost no one knew English, the elders mostly spoke German, which we didn’t. In the end, we were heard by a man from Serbia who passed by and showed us the way„, said Tasić, remembering his experience from Albania, from where he returned with the inevitable bottle of „Skenderbeg“ for friends.

Katarina Sremčević is a journalist and she regularly goes to Albania on business, and each time she returns with positive impressions. However, her first departure was also marked by prejudice.

I have to admit that when I left for the first time, it was with a small dose of prejudice. Not towards people – but about how will I be accepted as a Serb. However, people are beautiful, hospitable, when I told them that I was from Serbia, they would always say words in Serbian that they know“ Sremčević recalls, adding that people would be surprised by Albania because it’s not what they would expect.

A lot of Italian and Mediterranean influence can be seen in Tirana, it’s colorful and I don’t think anyone from Serbia expects such a city until they go there. People are hospitable, attentive, cheerful. Everyone, especially my generation and younger people who don’t even remember the wars and quarrels in the region, shouldn’t deny themselves such a wonderful experience due to prejudice. Although I consider myself more open to all nations, religions, groups, I also left for the first time with a slight prejudice. We need to get out of the comfort zone and investigate whether that’s really the way we think and how we’re taught„, adds Sremčević and points out that she is optimistic about this initiative.

As a journalist, I was very involved in the “Open Balkan” initiative. Although there are divided opinions in the region, I think that every initiative that implies reconciliation is good. Several concrete steps have already been taken within that initiative, such as the abolition of roaming in the region and green corridors, thanks to which trucks wait less at the borders. That gives me hope that politicians from the participating countries are still ready to put common interests above daily politics for a moment„, she concludes.

The key thing in breaking down prejudices is information. It seems that this is exactly what this initiative, at least so far, lacks. The impression we gained from the conversation is that they’re not sufficiently informed about what the “Open Balkan” initiative means. It can be concluded that the initiative didn’t reach young people, not even young people who are directly concerned, such as Albanian language students in Belgrade.

Zoomer talked to the students and these are their impressions.

Mitigation of relations through the implementation of agreements

The Open Balkans Initiative is an issue often mentioned in the media and held in high-level meetings between the 3 leaders of the countries involved. The signed agreements are expected to translate into concrete actions to improve the lives of the citizens of the Western Balkans.

„It is a key moment of our process because the agreements that will be signed will determine a very important step forward towards our goal which is to guarantee the full freedom of movement of goods and people, capital and services. At the end of February we will sign an agreement between universities for cooperation with joint programs and activities. All these are agreements which are neither more nor less than those of the European common market“, would declare the Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama in the meeting of December 21, 2021.

On the same date, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic would describe Open Balkan as follows: „If we open the borders, the most important objective is to connect our citizens, our people, those who have thought about the past more than the future… Trade will be easier“

Pavlo Jakova, a member of the Serbian minority, sees this initiative as having a positive impact on promoting regional, cultural and historical cooperation, in the economic aspect, for the development of diplomatic relations and the recognition of diplomas in the Balkan countries.

For me, „Open Balkans“ is a completely open system, a system that opens the opportunity for everyone to cooperate. In the sense, for the facilitation of economic, diplomatic relations of movements, recognition of diplomas and recognition of history, as history has extremely problems“ explains Jakova about the initiative.

Nicola Ristić, spokesperson for RYCO in Albania, considers the Open Balkan initiative a good opportunity for cultural exchange within the region, recognizing common challenges, getting to know each other and improving relations between citizens. and increase mobility thanks to the facilities that will be provided to the countries of the Western Balkans.

„All initiatives aimed at increasing mobility in the region are excellent tools to break prejudices. The Open Balkans make it easier for people to travel without hindrance. To explore each other, to learn about each other and I believe it is a good initiative not only for the youth but also for all the people living in the region. And I think without these initiatives, we can not count prosperity in the region, so to get out of this, let’s say „not so good“, we need to bring people together, we need to work together to discuss challenges „Together and also to discuss the future together, so everything that brings these people of the region together is a great opportunity to break down prejudices and stereotypes,“ said Nicola Ristić.

RYCO is an organization that aims at cooperation between young people living in the Western Balkan countries that helps foster cooperation among young people by bringing a new spirit to the region that goes beyond stereotypes created without knowing each other. This organization provides services and opportunities that young people and citizens of Albania and Serbia need to do to change negative perceptions. The approach of this organization to the countries of the region which face obstacles in good neighborliness and interaction between citizens, can be considered a good example to imagine the future between the two countries, Albania and Serbia with the facilities that are expected to occur within the region.

This organization is a good omen and an example of the foundations on which the future between two countries and between two peoples should be based.

Authors (Serbia): Nemanja Marinović, Nikolina Bonić, Marina Milosavljević, Borivoje Lazić; audio/video production Luka Palić
Authors (Albania): Brejdon Xhavara, Jeta Pera, Ardit Hoxha; Audio/video production Klajdi Jella

ZOOMER. Priča nove generacije.


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