3 Balkan countries to work on averting food, energy shortage

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Anticipating a tough winter in light of the war in Ukraine, three Balkan states agreed Friday to help each other with potential food or energy shortages and have urged the European Union to include the volatile region in its support plans.

The leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania held a summit in the Serbian capital Belgrade as part of the so-called Open Balkan initiative aimed at strengthening regional economic ties and stepping up joint efforts for EU membership.

“We are facing a hard winter and anyone who says different would not be fair and would not be telling the truth,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Officials said agreements signed at the summit include a pledge not to limit food exports between the three countries and to cooperate on energy imports as electricity and other prices have soared throughout Europe.

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama called on the EU not to repeat its “shameful behavior” during the coronavirus pandemic that he said forced Balkan nations to turn to China, Russia and Turkey to quickly acquire vaccines.

“Prospects are really worrisome,” said Rama who suggested that the coming winter could be the worst since World War II. He added that the energy crisis will put a severe strain on the budgets of Balkan countries which will need additional EU support to purchase energy.

Countries in the Western Balkans include Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo which are all at different stage in the EU accession process. The region is still plagued by instability stemming from the wars in the 1990s’ and the economic hardship that followed.

EU and U.S. officials have hailed the Open Balkan initiative as a way to boost regional cooperation and free trade by easing border procedures and taxes. The leaders of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia have urged other countries in the region to join the project.

“This was the right step at the right moment,” said North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski. “We are here together to send a message of solidarity between our states and governments and readiness to jointly tackle the crisis and the tough winter that we are facing.”

Also present at the gathering were the foreign ministers of Turkey and Hungary who pledged their countries’ help to the region and urged the EU to speed up the accession agenda.

The meeting in Belgrade is the first after the EU launched accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania in July after years of waiting. While Western Balkan countries say they remain committed to the integration into the bloc, there have been fears Russia and China could step in as the process drags on.

Concerns of renewed instability have mounted recently after tensions between Serbia and Kosovo surged last month over problems with recognition of each other’s vehicle license plates and identity documents.

Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. The EU has been mediating in the dispute but Belgrade maintains close relations with Moscow and has relied on Russia and China in its bid retain claim on the former province.

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