Decontamination of Serbian-Albanian relations

Both Nikola Pašić and Essad Pasha had the idea to connect Serbs and Albanians, with the strongest and most efficient connection at that time – the railway. Back in 1914, part of their secret agreement, signed in Niš, was the construction of a railway from Serbia to Durres. However, the war, general international turmoil and political tricks have made this project not happen, but a good idea can wait as long as it takes to become a reality. Even for 107 years.

The vacuum in which there was no strategic step forward in the relations between Serbs and Albanians lasted that long. That is how long the period in which the two largest Balkan nations, each on their side, record only the dead, displaced and arrested when it comes to the flow of people, and houses destroyed and burned property when it comes to the flow of capital. We will not deliberately mention the remaining two fundamental freedoms of the common European market – the flow of goods and services, not only because they are insignificant between Serbs and Albanians, but also because they have been equally tragic for the past 107 years.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama recently mentioned four European freedoms in the context of Serbs and Albanians, but without mentioning the dead and arrested, demolition and burning. He set them up as an alternative to ethnic divisions and tight borders, concepts that have prevailed so far in the relationship between the two nations: “Give everyone the opportunity to be free to move, trade, to have the opportunity to move capital, services and, in my opinion, this is mainly about removing borders”.

In one of the most open interviews for the “Serbian market” so far (Euronews Serbia), the Albanian Prime Minister fiercely advocated and wholeheartedly defended the mini-Schengen project, which he launched with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. In October, it will be two years since the three of them opened, in Novi Sad, the story about the mini-Schengen, i.e., the zone of open borders for four European freedoms, a small imitation of the European integrative model of the common market.

But even before the mini-Schengen initiative, Serbia and Albania tried to regulate their relations in a new way, because they estimated that there might still be an alternative to the hundred-year-old conflict. The beginning of a large growth of interstate trade coincides with the first large meeting of businessmen from Serbia and Albania in Niš in 2016 (Vučić and Rama were patrons). From then until today, it has grown by as much as 70 percent, and in the meantime, about a thousand Serbian companies have established business with partners from Albania. Citizens of both countries can cross the border without a passport, i.e., only with an ID card. Last, pandemic year, five to six times more Serbian tourists spent their summers in Albania than in previous years.

Absolute numbers are still small, trade and investment are not large, the number of tourists is still low, but growth trends are stunning. They show that we have a great opening of Serbia and Albania towards each other. Barriers are falling and soon it will depend only on Serbia and Albania, on their business interests whether and to what extent they will use the opportunities offered to them. Just like between any other two countries that want to cooperate and have open borders.

However, will this tried and tested recipe for mutual progress be effective enough against deep-rooted prejudices, myths, but also unresolved political issues? It is possible that economic opening will collapse under the force of the Kosovo issue, for example, or the animosities that have accumulated throughout history. But it’s worth a try.

Serbia and Albania will certainly not bring their positions on Kosovo closer in the near future. Not even when (not if) Belgrade and Pristina conclude a compromise agreement that has been worked on for a decade. But is it a barrier that should keep economic cooperation, the flow of people, goods and capital on hold? Growth trends that are breaking through the ceiling have shown that there is no reason for such a wait. There is no reason to wait for the construction of the highway from Niš to Durres, unless those “reasons” are in the sphere of entrenched myths that Albanians will benefit from Serbia and that Serbs should not have anything to do with them.

The opening project is led by two pragmatic leaders, a Serb and an Albanian, based on a precise calculation that coincided. Both want to integrate their countries into Europe, and that is going quite slowly. What can we do in the meantime so that it is not a mere wait, with occasional kicks to the rib, because that is what Serbs and Albanians have been doing to each other for a very long time? The answer is in opening up, wherever possible, wherever there is a tangible reason for it, and wherever it benefits both.

Both Vučić and Rama have the support of their citizens for such an opening. They have been meeting, talking, cooperating, choosing words when they talk about each other for years, and no one punishes them for that, on the contrary. Vučić has more support in Serbia than he had before the first meeting with Rama, and the Albanian won the elections again in April, although he has been working together with Vučić for years. In many ways, the Serbian president is a closer partner to Edi Rama than Albin Kurti, although according to history, tradition, national feeling, it should be different.

In Rama’s Tirana, they were stunned by Kurti’s adventure when he not only came to vote in the Albanian capital, but also ran his Self-Determination Party for the Albanian Parliament in the April elections. This 19th century national expansionism has no point of contact with the pro-European Albania of the 21st century built by Edi Rama. And he is building it together with Aleksandar Vučić, not in conflict with him. The reverse is also true.

The strong leadership of Vučić and Rama, the coincidence of their visions and strategies for the Balkans, and especially for the unraveling of extremely complicated and contaminated relations between Serbs and Albanians, is an important historical chance, which does not happen often and would be a tragedy if missed. Even today, Serbs and Turks would be preoccupied with myths, oppression, bandits and impalements, if Alexander I and Kemal Pasha Ataturk had not been on the same frequency at one historical moment. They cut through unbreakable historical knots and opened a completely new path for the two great Balkan states. Belgrade and Tirana have a chance to repeat this good historical situation, and their leaders are already working on it. Perhaps the completion of the last of the 384-kilometer-long highway between Niš and Durres would be a satisfaction to Pašić and a Serbian friend, the Albanian Essad Pasha, for their never realized project “Adriatic Railway” on the same route. But it is better for it to remain without historical pathos and to serve the purpose for which it was made – fast, safe and undisturbed movement of people and goods between two close countries. That is how, at least, the leaders of Serbia and Albania in the 21st century see it, and that is why it has a chance for success.