18 Aug 2022

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Open Balkans

The Open Balkans initiative aims to encourage and facilitate cooperation among the Balkans countries. The initiative was conceived across the Balkans, where the different cities symbolize the various stages in the development of the Open Balkans initiative.  In this article, we present the chronology of building ties between the countries by virtually visiting six key locations. (Note: If you decide to visit these towns, we advise you to create your itinerary on Google Maps,  not by this article :D).

The first location associated with the birth of the Open Balkans project (as we know it today) is Novi Sad, and therefore will be the first destination on our route.

Novi Sad – where it all began

The idea of ​​association and cooperation  was born before this, but it took a more tangible form in October 2019, when the highest representatives of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania signed a declaration of intent to kick off a project that will ensure four basic freedoms: the movement of people, goods, services and capital.  This marks the official start of the initiative, informally dubbed Mini Schengen.

Ohrid – an invitation to other countries to join

At the joint conference held in November 2019, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania emphasized the need to facilitate existing procedures and implement measures that will accelerate the flow of people and capital but also invited other countries of the Western Balkans to join the initiative.

Durrës – an announcement of cooperation in crises

The leaders of the member countries of the initiative met in December 2019 and continued discussions on further cooperation.  This time, an additional topic was mutual  assistance in situations of natural disasters.

Belgrade – the (virtual) host

In November 2020, the leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania met in a video conference.  At this meeting, the topic was cooperation in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.  At this meeting, Serbia and Albania also agreed on the free movement of citizens between the countries with personal ID cards only.

Skopje – from Mini Schengen to Open Balkans

At the end of July 2021, Mini Schengen was formally named Open Balkans. In Skopje, the member states of the initiative signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Trade Facilitations, a Memorandum of Understanding on Work Permits, and a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Disasters, reflecting their commitment to take further steps aimed at closer cooperation of customs authorities, equal conditions for access to the labor market, and cooperation in case of natural disasters.  Also, member states agreed to fully open the borders starting January 1, 2023.

Tirana – easier and faster border crossing

The summit in Tirana held on December 21, 2021 resulted in the signing of a new set of agreements, which include Agreements on mutual recognition of certificates of authorized business entities for safety and security between Serbia and Albania and Albania and North Macedonia, Agreement connecting electronic identification schemes for citizensAgreement on the conditions for free access to the labor market in the Western Balkans, but also the Agreement on cooperation in the veterinary, phytosanitary and food and feed safety in the Western Balkans, which should further improve the control system and facilitate and speed up the flow of goods.  During 2021, almost 220,000 freight vehicles crossed Serbian-North Macedonian border Preševo, and the overall exchange of food products increased by about 15% compared to the period before the initiative.

Ohrid – focus on education and tourism

At the Summit in Ohrid held in June this year, four more agreements were signed – Agreement on mutual recognition of academic qualifications, Agreement on understanding and cooperation in the field of tourism in the Western Balkans, Agreement on cooperation in the field of culture and Agreement on cooperation of tax administrations in the Western Balkans.  Facilitated recognition of academic qualifications means that the entire process of recognition of diplomas will take no more than 20 working days, which further implies a much faster path to seeking employment in another member state.  There are elevated expectations for the effects of expanding cooperation in tourism and hospitality, as in 2019 the gross added value of this sector was 6% in Serbia, 6.6% in North Macedonia and 20.5% in Albania, and that around 60,000 companies are active in this sector, supporting 200,000 jobs.

Challenges and expectations

The implementation of the agreement will, as expected, be a challenge for the administrative and other authorities of the member states, which must react quickly to the new tasks ahead.  Furthermore, the latest Open Balkans summits signaled that additional members may join the initiative, so this guide may take us to Mostar, Banja Luka, or Podgorica and Cetinje.

The full effects of this initiative are yet to be seen, bearing in mind that the Open Balkans agenda has already seen more than 10 agreements signed in less than one year.  The fact that Serbia’s exports to other member countries of the initiative amounted to more than one billion euros in 2021 is a clear sign of a likely upswing in trade between the Open Balkans countries compared to the period before the initiative.  And sometimes it is not all about numbers. Agreements lead to new markets, new investments and jobs, but also partnerships in good times and in times of crisis.


Authors: Nemanja Sladaković, Suzana Dončić