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China, red lines, and open Balkans

The joint initiative of the three countries of the Western Balkans is increasingly mentioning Beijing as its chance. On the other hand, the West, as well as some neighbors, do not look favorably on this tendency.

“That every bottle of wine we produce goes to China”, these were the words of the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, on April 2nd at the wine fair in Italy as part of the joint performance of wineries from the countries of the Open Balkans regional initiative.

The Open Balkans was established in 2019 by Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia under the name Mini Schengen with the aim of establishing the free flow of people, goods, services and capital. In 2021, the initiative changed its name to Open Balkans.

At the event on April 2nd, the President of Serbia announced that Serbia will sign the Free Trade Agreement with China by the end of the year.

Because of the cooperation with China, Serbia found itself under the scrutiny of the European Union (EU), whose membership it aspires to, while warnings from the United States (U.S.) came to official Belgrade because of the cooperation between Serbia and China in the field of defense.

Unanswered questions

Stefan Vladisavljev from the non-governmental organization Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (BFPE) said that the Open Balkans initiative could lead to the creation of a common market that could export goods to China.

The Ministry of Trade and the Serbian Chamber of Commerce did not respond to Radio Free Europe‘s questions about the impact of the announced Agreement with China on the Open Balkans, nor for which products can be expected to abolish customs duties after Serbia and China sign the Free Trade Agreement with Beijing.

What do the announcements at the Open Balkan meeting mean?

Stefan Vladisavljev believes that the Open Balkans is still not sufficiently “systematized and institutionalized” for the states to be able to organize a joint appearance on the Chinese market.

“But the potential impact of such an agreement (with China) exists,” he explained.

What does Serbia get from the Free Trade Agreement with China?

Officials in Serbia believe that the Serbian economy gains a lot by concluding an agreement with China.

“With this contract, the sky is the limit for the Serbian economy,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic wrote on Twitter in February 2022.

Stefan Vladisavljev believes that Serbia, according to the officials’ previous statements, sees its chance in the export of agricultural goods. However, these products are not among the top five exported by Serbia in 2022.

Vladisavljev says that these data cause concern that the entire Free Trade Agreement with China is being signed to facilitate the export of goods resulting from the work of the Chinese company Zidjin, which exploits copper, gold and other ores in eastern Serbia, Slobodna Evropa reports.

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