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Great, But Not (Yet) Working

North Macedonians have embraced the concept of regional reunification, primarily centred around economic aspects, but there has yet to be any substantial progress when it comes to easing transport, eliminating trade barriers and enabling the free movement of people

North Macedonians, as irredeemable Yugoslavs, welcomed the idea of the region’s reunification (albeit only on an economic basis) with open arms. Although the majority of the population and representatives of the business elite hardly differentiate between the Berlin Process and the Open Balkan initiative, both ideas have received full support from literally all possible factors. For the first time, everyone – elites and ordinary workers, left and right, ethnic Macedonians and Albanians – has united around an external political idea, such that it has received support even from the youngest, who immediately highlighted Belgrade’s raft venues and Albania’s sand beaches as gems of a Balkans without borders. Only a few fringe extremists prevent a hundred percent consensus around this idea.

And really, at least initially, it all seems logical, particularly from an economic perspective. It has been proven throughout many years of struggle and strife that our economy and our products aren’t as compatible and competitive anywhere else as they are in the Balkan region. If the most important elements ensuring the success of a product, apart from quality, are the costs of transporting and marketing (recognisability) that product, then where could there possibly be cheaper transport and greater recognition of Macedonian products than here in the Balkans? And this was genuinely recognised by everyone, and led to the Open Balkan zone really finding open doors in North Macedonia, at least as far as the people and business leaders are concerned.

Neither Albania nor Bosnia-Herzegovina, and certainly not Montenegro, figure among North Macedonia’s top 20 export-import partners, and yet the region’s reunification matters very much

However, the work that was launched by politicians was also undermined by them, so despite a plethora of announcements nothing has to date been accomplished in practice, with the exception of some slight acceleration and easing of procedures at border crossings, as well as the huge assistance we received from Serbia during the Covid crisis.

In order to illustrate just how much the Western Balkan region means to the economy of North Macedonia, it is best to highlight the bare numbers. Over the first eight months of the year, the Republic of North Macedonia exported goods worth 726 million dollars to these five countries, representing growth of 7% compared to the same period of 2022. At the same time, products with a total value of 709 million dollars were imported from the same group of countries, which represents a reduction of 6.5% compared to last year, which is a positive for North Macedonia as it means that there is now a surplus in economic cooperation with the Western Balkans. Importantly, the exchange between North Macedonia and the Western Balkans as a whole can be expected to reach a value of close to 1.7 billion dollars, which equates to almost a quarter of the ten billion dollars in trade exchange that North Macedonia should achieve with the 27 EU member states by year’s end.

The problem is that, of this total amount, as much as 757 million dollars (more than half) belongs to the economic exchange with Serbia, which is our fifth largest trading partner statistically, though it is de facto the largest, because cooperation with the first four countries is almost exclusively conducted through foreign investments.

Statistically, Kosovo* also figures separately among our country’s ten largest trading partners, with exchanges worth over 350 million dollars in the first eight months of the year alone, which is a problem in itself, given that Serbia (including Kosovo*) accounts for almost 75% of our trade exchange with all the countries of the Western Balkans.

Of the country’s total trade exchange, more than half is generated through the economic exchange with Serbia, which is our fifth largest trading partner statistically, though it is de facto the largest

Neither Albania nor Bosnia-Herzegovina, and certainly not Montenegro, figure among North Macedonia’s top 20 export-import partners. As a journalist who’s been addressing this topic actively for almost fifteen years and has interviewed and talked to hundreds of businessmen from the entire region about this topic, I can responsibly convey their view that a practicable strategy for regional unification has neither existed nor exists. Businesspeople are simply left to their own devices if a strategy is not tangibly present beyond the several protocols of understanding jointly signed at several summits of Western Balkan leaders.

It is true that waiting times for haulage vehicles have reduced from weeks to days over the years, but the queues and the borders themselves (which it was promised would be gone) remain in place. There is still no visible progress on the abolition of work permits between the countries of the Western Balkans – a step that was expected to be applied across the board and to at least partially alleviate the need to import labour from the Middle East.

Additionally, and shamefully, North Macedonia has not had a railway connection with neighbouring Albania for almost two hundred years, or ever, since the construction of the first railway, while trains traversing the country along Corridor X in the direction of Serbia are limited to 20 km per hour due to railway safety concerns. There are no regular aviation routes connecting the country with Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Worst of all, the Moravian Vardar valley and the Danube-Morava-Vardar canal system – representing our country’s only geostrategic advantage – serves as a joke between politicians when it is mentioned once every 20 years.

And this best testifies to the real, and not declarative, attitude of politicians towards regional economic cooperation.

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