The big elephant in the room is Serbia and its disputes — both big and small — with neighbouring countries.
The nascent foundation of the Open Balkan initiative emerged in the 2010s, aiming to carve out a space between the Balkan countries for discussions over regional cooperation and the boosting of cross-border trade.
On October 10, 2019, an agreement was signed by Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia in the Serbian city of Novi Sad intending to facilitate social and economic activity between the Balkan countries.
The trio, however, hit a roadblock as the neighbouring Balkan states Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro outrightly rejected the proposal.
Signs of a thaw finally appeared on May 25 this year, when Dritan Abazovic, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, confirmed that he would attend the “Open Balkan Summit” scheduled to take place in Ohrid, North Macedonia, between June 7-8.
Vuk Vuksanovic, senior researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, tells TRT World that Montenegro's stance towards this initiative was conditioned by its relationship with Serbia rather than the initiative itself.
“This has always been Montenegro's rationale: claiming that this initiative would lead to some form of leadership for Belgrade. However, it was a bit unrealistic to believe that this initiative intended to foster Greater Serbia or the Serbian World when Serbia is partnering with Albania as part of this initiative,” Vuksanovic says.
For Abazovic, the recently appointed premier, Open Balkans or any regional initiative that can accelerate European integration is something the country should accept. He also said that he still hasn’t heard any valid argument about why the Open Balkan initiative is bad for Montenegro.
But why did Montenegro take so long to embrace the Open Balkan initiative?
Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s general argument is that they believe that no regional initiative can be successful without the European Union’s involvement. For them, the elephant in the room is Serbia and its disputes — both big and small — with neighbouring countries.
They also accuse Serbia of having an expansionist vision that the country seeks to pursue through economic dominance. Serbia, on the other hand, doesn't recognise Kosovo and has several pending nationalist issues with Bosnia and Montenegro.
According to Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the easing of travel and trade within the Balkan states has already been covered by CEFTA, an international trade agreement between countries in southeastern Europe, and other bilateral agreements amongst regional countries.
Therefore, Montenegro did not want to take what might seem like a detour from EU accession, nor did it want to participate in anything that seemed to be dominated by Serbia.
Montenegro is also treading with caution in light of Serbia's ambitions to become a regional powerhouse and dominate the other Balkan states. Furthermore, Montenegro believes that Serbia will reap far bigger economic benefits from the initiative than other member states since the country is the largest producer of agricultural and food products.
This Open Balkan initiative will probably not accelerate the EU membership process because the slowdown is partly related to the EU's own internal problems and lack of a comprehensive enlargement strategy. However, by supporting this initiative, EU leaders give hope to the region's countries on their path to EU membership. There have recently been many internal problems in the EU, from migration to the democracy crisis — and since the start of the war in Ukraine, the EU is reformulating itself by soliciting more support from the US and trying to reduce its energy dependence on Russia.
On the other hand, this initiative is supported by EU countries because, since the departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Berlin Process — which was set up in 2014 as a platform for high-level cooperation in many areas complementing the path to EU membership between leaders of the Western Balkans and the EU — is deadlocked due to the power change in Berlin. The initiative is supported by EU leaders because, among the conditions for EU membership is an increase in intercountry dialogue and integration. Therefore, Open Balkan mostly promotes regional integration.
Although Prime Minister Abazovic has decided to engage with the initiative, he is still reluctant to formally join the bloc. Montenegro has adopted an observer status in Open Balkan with the broader aim of improving regional cooperation.
During the summit, separate meetings are planned with guest countries. Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dritan Abazović, and the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zoran Tegeltija, will also meet during the summit.
On the other hand, the three countries’ leaders — the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Dimitar Kovačevski and the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, who are the originators of the initiative — met and will sign several agreements on cooperation in the field of education, a memorandum of understanding and cooperation between tax administrations and a memorandum of understanding in the field of tourism and culture.
What changed for Montenegro?
The countries that oppose the Open Balkan grouping are hesitant to acknowledge it due to reasons that many regional experts see as justified in both rhetoric and reality.
These reservations, however, can be softened with power-changing hands. For instance, Montenegro viewed Open Balkan with an icy glare until it was led by Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic, who was ousted from power on February 4 this year because of internal political disputes that involved both the government and parliament.
As his successor, Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic took control of the country, he warmed up to Open Balkan and agreed to participate in the summit as an observer.
Vuk Vuksanovic, senior researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, tells TRT World that Montenegro’s participation in this initiative is directly linked to Prime Minister Abazovic's interest in viewing this grouping with an open mind.
“Abazovic is trying to show a different face, to show that there is a new Montenegrin leader who has a pro-Western attitude and he is not anti-Serbia. He is showing a sign of goodwill, not just towards Belgrade but more importantly towards the domestic audiences and towards the Montenegrin Serbs,” he says.
Coalition partners of the previous Montenegrin government were at odds over several issues, including the influence of Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro's domestic affairs. The government and the Serbian Orthodox Church had disagreed about the Church’s position and rights in Montenegro.
Vuksanovic adds, “Dritan Abazovic demonstrates to Serbs in Montenegro that he is not their enemy.”