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Western Balkan Leaders Discuss 'Little Schengen' Project

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (left), Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (center), and North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev met on December 10 to discuss details of a plan to set up a free trade zone. (file photo)

OHRID, North Macedonia -- The leaders of Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have committed to working together to lift barriers on the movement of goods and people between the three Balkan countries.

"We have launched an initiative or action plan that creates a truly different Balkans than we know: the Balkans of the 21st Century," North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said on November 10 after meeting with his Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

Rama, Zaev, and Vucic met in the town of Ohrid, North Macedonia, to discuss details of a plan to set up a free trade zone that Zaev said will help boost economic growth and foreign investment.

The three leaders launched the initiative -- dubbed "little Schengen," after the European Union's border-free zone -- in the Serbian city of Novi Sad on October 10.

The Ohrid summit was also attended by Bosnian Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic and Montenegro’s Economy Minister Dragica Sekulic, whose countries are willing to join the zone.

Kosovo did not send a representative to the meeting.

The country's path toward EU and NATO membership cannot be replaced by "any regional initiative," Kosovar President Hashim Thaci said in a message on Facebook.

He also wrote that the "little Schengen" initiative "makes no sense as long as Serbia and Bosnia do not recognize Kosovo independence."

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian-majority proclaimed independence in 2008, but Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina do not recognized it.

Relations between countries in the Balkan region remain tense following the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The Ohrid summit comes weeks after the European Union on October 15 failed to give the go-ahead to begin membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in another blow to the Balkan nations' hopes of a speedy accession process.