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Western Balkans: Regional Collaboration and Opportunities - Erkin Sancarbaba

The Western Balkans have been characterized by crises and conflicts throughout recent history, as countries insisted on their theses and did not allow for diplomacy and compromise. Although there are still disagreements on political issues today, it is possible that collaborations and partnerships can replace these disagreements. By identifying the common problems of the countries in the region, western Balkan governments can establish solution-oriented joint initiatives, which will improve the welfare of the people in the western Balkans. Especially in a period when the effects of the global energy crisis are deeply felt and countries around the world, especially the European Union, are trying to anticipate the effects of the crisis, the joint efforts of the Western Balkan countries to establish regional energy security will ensure long-term economic and political stability in the western Balkans.

While regional cooperation is already increasing, political and economic entities such as the Open Balkan Initiative can enable governments to act in synchronization when implementing energy policies. Within the scope of the Open Balkan Initiative, it is observed that collaborations that are important for the establishment of the region's energy security are being realized.

The Open Balkan Summit held in Belgrade on September 2 was the most recent reflection of the atmosphere of cooperation in the western Balkans. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, and North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski agreed to establish a joint mechanism for sharing surplus energy resources and food.

The leaders' agreement indicates that the western Balkan countries intend to build energy security jointly. Moreover, the governments in the western Balkans are open to cooperation with neighboring governments on all issues. In particular, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has stated that the European Union's vaccine policy does not include the Balkan countries and called the EU's vaccine policy a "shameful mistake". Rama then noted that the EU's mistakes in vaccine policy should not be repeated in energy policy and called on the EU to help Balkan countries.

Although it is unknown to what extent the EU will contribute to the energy security of the Balkan countries, the call for help has not gone unanswered. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced at the Open Balkan Summit, which he attended as a guest, that Turkey will help Balkan countries to ensure their natural gas needs during winter. This statement is an indication of the strategic importance attached to the Balkans by the neighboring countries.

It is also well known that Serbia, the region's most crucial country, is looking for alternatives to Russian energy. The Serbian government plans to purchase natural gas from Azerbaijan in 2023 and talks with Iraq and Venezuela to purchase oil. The aforementioned efforts of the Serbian government disprove the common argument that Serbia is making no effort to reduce its energy dependence on Russia. Therefore, given that the region's countries have demonstrated a will to diversify their energy sources, it is necessary for all surrounding countries, including the EU countries, to support the western Balkans economically and politically.

At the Open Balkan Summit, Serbia and Albania signed a Memorandum of Cooperation to increase cooperation in energy and mining. The memorandum envisages capacity expansion of renewable energy production facilities in both countries and cooperation between the two countries in the construction process of the Vlora LNG terminal to be built in Albania. A similar memorandum between Kosovo and Albania, which has signed in June 2022, envisaged mutual cooperation in developing the Vlora LNG Terminal.

As it will be recalled, on March 12, 2021, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the US-based LNG company Excelerate Energy, the American multinational energy company ExxonMobil and the Albanian government for the development of an LNG terminal in the Port of Vlora. The project is critical for the diversification of the energy supply for Albania and the entire Balkans.

Through the LNG terminal to be developed in Albania, it will be possible to supply energy to neighboring countries. On July 14, 2022, Excelerate Energy and Bulgaria's Overgas signed a MoU to sell LNG from the Vlora LNG terminal to Bulgaria. Under the MoU, Overgas is expected to purchase 1 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas per annum for ten years through the proposed Vlora-Fier Pipeline, which is expected to connect to the Vlora Terminal and existing natural gas infrastructure in Europe's Southern Gas Corridor. It can be foreseen that similar agreements will be seen among the western Balkan countries.

Another notable area of progress is the Serbia-led new power interconnections projects, which envisage the construction of new power connections between Serbia and neighboring countries. The Trans-Balkan Corridor project aims to make Serbia an energy hub for electricity distribution to the Balkan countries and other surrounding countries. Through the 250-kilometer power connection, 400 kV lines will be able to transmit electricity from Serbia to the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. Once the Montenegro section of the power connection is completed, it will be possible to transmit electricity between Montenegro and Italy via undersea cables. With the other planned transmission project, the Serbia-Croatia interconnection line aims to build a new 400 kV electricity distribution line between the two countries.

The 170-kilometer-long Pannonian Corridor is expected to increase the electricity transmission capacity between Serbia and Hungary. On the other hand, the North CSE Corridor will double the existing interconnection between Serbia and Romania, and the Central Balkan Corridor will build a 400 kV line from Bulgaria to Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to Serbia's transmission system operator (TSO) EMS, all five projects are scheduled to be completed before 2035.

The role of the western Balkan countries in ensuring the region's energy supply security has the potential to mitigate the negative impact of the global energy crisis on the region. Increased cooperation in the Balkans can be defined as a product of the common interests of the region's people. Political disagreements should not be valid reasons to undermine regional cooperation. There is a concrete will on all parties to increase energy cooperation in the region. As joint energy investments in the western Balkans gain momentum, a stable regional energy strategy can be adopted.


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