IRI Programming Encourages Regional Reconciliation and Political Accountability as Western Balkans Integration Accelerates

  • Louis Savoia

The six Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia – have increased interconnection through new agreements facilitating free movement of people, labor, and commerce. Formats like the Berlin Process encourage reform, regional reconciliation, and a Euro-Atlantic path. Some countries have proposed the Open Balkan Initiative, formerly known as “Mini-Schengen,” but divergent opinions abound about its impact and merits. Whatever the format, the relaxation of controls and regulations could exacerbate transnational threats if national leaders are unaccountable. IRI programming in the region, including the NED Western Balkans Task Force on Threats to Democracy and USAID Western Balkans People to People program, helps foster regional reconciliation and a necessary culture of political accountability. 

As they strive for EU membership, Western Balkan countries have sought interconnection, with a few recent breakthroughs. This November, at a summit in Berlin, Germany, the six countries signed agreements to ease citizens’ movement across their borders and mutually recognize degrees of doctors, dentists, and architects. These accords are a step toward regional cooperation and a sign that Germany’s Berlin Process, initiated in 2014, still delivers. The Open Balkan Initiative hopes to facilitate free movement and trade between participants. Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have joined but the other three remain skeptical. If successful, closer regional integration can advance the region’s Euro-Atlantic path – four of these countries are already EU candidates – especially through adoption of necessary standards. It also has the potential to lessen tensions over disputes, such as that between Kosovo and Serbia. 

However, loosened controls could worsen several existing regional security threats. The EU remains concerned about the illicit drug trade, as well as criminal organizations that compete for drug markets and control of trafficking routes, as the Western Balkan market contributes to the flow of drugs into the EU. Corruption is a persistent challenge, and corrupt actors could seek to profit from cross-border endeavors. Finally, an increase in undocumented border crossings has made the Western Balkans the “most active” entry point to the EU, with over 128,400 undocumented crossings reported during the first 10 months of 2022, a roughly 168% increase from this period last year, according to Frontex. Disagreements between countries and exclusion of others from regional formats could also inhibit constructive dialogue. These cross-border problems could worsen without adequate commitment to reform and threaten to stymie countries’ Euro-Atlantic ambitions. 

Furthermore, there are signs that citizens support this trajectory. A recent IRI poll found resounding support for the Open Balkan Initiative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, and support for the EU and NATO rising in nearly every country surveyed. To maximize benefits from this regional integration, Western Balkan countries require a strong culture of accountability. National leaders will need to commit to reform, including anti-corruption measures and commitments to regional cooperation to monitor and tackle common threats.  

IRI programming in the Western Balkans helps strengthen the cross-border cooperation and democratic accountability necessary to push leaders to address these issues and pursue their citizens’ chosen pathway. Since 2016, IRI’s Western Balkans Task Force has assembled policymakers, experts, thought leaders, and journalists to address challenges including malign foreign influence, extremism, and corruption. IRI’s newly launched Western Balkans People to People program has established a Regional Youth Partnership to develop a new generation of leaders in the region, building a durable network across Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia through formal training and cultural immersion. Other programming, like the Advanced Leadership in Politics Institute, connects young leaders across political parties and ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia to encourage constructive dialogue and elevate youth in political processes to establish transparency and accountability. 

As Western Balkan countries move toward integration and Euro-Atlantic institutions, both the promise and peril are clear. IRI programming helps empower citizens, especially young people, to demand responsible and transparent governance, critical to ensure reform in this time of change. 

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