Dragan Stojsin has toiled for more than a decade with his eyes fixed firmly beyond the borders that arose after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The middle-aged patriarch of a family-run business in Ilandza, a village in Serbia's Vojvodina region about 70 kilometers from Belgrade, he began to export agricultural products, mostly cereals, to Albania in 2007.
"If you ask me how it was when we started, I can't say it was great," Stojsin says of attitudes at the time, with memories fresh in many minds of the ethnically fueled conflicts that convulsed the Balkans and shocked the world.
"There was -- I won't say 'resistance' -- but astonishment among my neighbors and business partners in Serbia. They asked me, 'Why are you going to Albania? You'll lose your head.'"
His import-export business, including harvests from 80 hectares of his own farmland, has since expanded into Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia.
It could be a model for others in the region -- the kind of entrepreneurship that has helped Serbia reverse its economic fortunes from a precipitous decline in 2009 and consistently maintain a trade surplus with the rest of the Western Balkans.
"We're entrepreneurs -- there's no nationalism among us and we're not interested in politics," Stojsin says. "But politics can contribute to make trade faster, easier, simpler, and cheaper."
But too often these days, Stojsin says, businesses like his are stalled at borders snarled by increased traffic and oodles of red tape.
"I remember in 2007, when there were three or four vehicles at the border -- that meant it was crowded. And now, I think it's never under 50 vehicles," Stojsin tells RFE/RL. "Two months ago, I was in Albania and saw that there were over 100 trucks at the border crossing."
The 'Dysfunction' Label
It is hardly what leaders envisaged when the countries that came to be dubbed the Western Balkans Six (WB6) -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia -- signed onto a newly transformed Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) in 2006 to eliminate duties and other obstacles to mutual trade.
But they also didn't expect that 13 years later they would all remain firmly outside the European Union, with an increasingly vocal France leading staunch resistance to EU enlargement in the Balkans or anywhere else.
The EU rebuff has prompted fractious debate in Brussels and palpable disappointment in the Balkans.
"I think the countries in the region have cottoned on to the fact that they still appear dysfunctional to...the European Union," says James Ker-Lindsay, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSEE).
The response from Belgrade, Skopje, and Tirana has been a political pivot toward greater regional cooperation that could expand to ease the daily lives of 18 million people throughout the Western Balkans.
In early October in Novi Sad, Serbia, leaders from Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia signed onto an initiative that's been dubbed "mini-Schengen" -- after the EU's passport- and duty-free zone.
They invited Bosnia, Kosovo, and Montenegro to join, and held a follow-up meeting last month in the resort of Ohrid in North Macedonia.
Their plan is no political union in the mold of the former Yugoslavia, as some critics would have it, but a push to let people and businesses function more seamlessly across existing borders.
It focuses on boosting cooperation, recognizing standards, and taking other "soft measures" to eliminate nontariff barriers to the so-called "four freedoms" -- of goods, services, people, and capital -- among signatory states.
Such aims are part of a "connectivity agenda" that's also high on the European Commission's list of priorities for aspiring members in the Balkans.
All three say EU membership remains their main goal.
Ker-Lindsay welcomes the initiative as a chance to "show a degree of responsibility and that it's a safer bet for the European Union" once that bloc is ready to follow through on expansion promises.
"There's this sense that what we've seen for too long is all the countries vying to get into the European Union and not taking a lot of notice of each other -- or certainly not taking a lot of notice of each other in a potentially positive way," Ker-Lindsay says.
Backers say it could unclog border checkpoints by keeping them open longer and allowing citizens to travel on IDs rather than passports, recognizing work permits and professional qualifications, and eliminating multiple visa requirements for foreign visitors to the region, among other moves.
A Rising Tide...
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has proclaimed the Ohrid initiative part of an effort toward a "Balkans without borders."
But Majda Ruge, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), bristles at perceptions of a "mini-Schengen."
"Reference to the initiative as the 'mini-Schengen' is misleading," she says. "At the core of the initiative is not a creation of a Schengen-like zone in [the Western Balkans], which would eliminate border controls. Rather, it is to facilitate faster and more efficient cross-border flow of goods, services, people, and capital, making border crossings less cumbersome and time-consuming."
In addition to their trade and integration obligations under CEFTA, the WB6 are already signatories to a Regional Economic Area, the Transport Community Treaty, and are part of the 5-year-old Berlin Process to maintain momentum for eventual EU membership.
"The economic aspect of the initiative is central here and, in effect, would amount to the implementation of the existing agreements on economic integration and free trade, most notably CEFTA," Ruge says.
The WB6 economies showed growth of between 2.7 and 4.9 percent in 2018, according to the World Bank.
Ruge welcomes further macroeconomic benefits from closer cooperation and a more harmonized regulatory framework within the region, so long as they include "rule-of-law reforms."
The Western Balkans is already seeing what fDi Markets recently called its "highest greenfield [or foreign direct investment into new facilities] inflows in a decade" and the second-highest total in nearly two decades.
But persistent barriers to cross-border sourcing of parts and labor, as well as financial transfers, could still be turning off potential investors.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said in Ohrid that "we expect to drastically enhance the possibility for direct foreign investments."
Even without the other three Western Balkan states, Ruge says, the initiative already encompasses more than 12 million people and could thus be "more likely to attract higher foreign investment than individual states would do on their own."
She also notes that it puts average residents and legitimate businesses on more equal footing with the twin banes of the region since guns fell silent two decades ago: organized crime and corruption.
"Generally, facilitation of legal cross-border travel and movement of goods across the region would be much welcomed, since at the moment the only 'sector' with the absolute freedom of movement is the informal one, dominated by organized crime networks for smuggling of goods, people, weapons and, in all likelihood, returning foreign fighters," Ruge says.
Commitments on security cooperation within the Ohrid initiative could help patch holes brought on by the current lack of extradition agreements between Kosovo and neighbors Bosnia and Serbia, for instance.
Whatever the prospective benefits of more robust, hassle-free travel, work, and shipping among Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia, there are still obstacles to full-scale cooperation that would better unite the Western Balkans.
Perhaps chief among them are the persistent political and diplomatic fissures over the status of Kosovo and its 1.8 million citizens that have derailed international cooperation before.
Neither Belgrade nor Sarajevo recognizes Pristina's declaration of sovereignty from Serbia in 2008 despite a decade of Western prodding. This intransigent position hampers diplomacy and complicates cross-border travel.
Kosovo lies at the geographical heart of the WB6, however, and shares borders with Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Albania.
LSEE's Ker-Lindsay warns of "a danger we're getting just too hung up on Kosovo in this at the moment" and notes that the predecessor to the current 28-member European Union began with just six founding members.
But he acknowledges that to be effective in the long run -- and to display the kind of connectivity that is the "watchword" of the Berlin Process -- the Ohrid initiative eventually needs to include all six countries.
"This idea will only reach its full potential if all the countries in the region are involved in it," Ker-Lindsay says. "But let's not forget that we have something here which, not [to exclude] North Macedonia, but simply [having] Serbia and Albania talking reasonably rationally with each other about how they can improve their economic cooperation is a fantastic thing."
But he says it would be "politically costly" to see new barriers between a nonparticipating Kosovo and participants Albania and North Macedonia.
Pristina slapped a 100 percent duty last year on all goods from Serbia or Bosnia over the recognition dispute -- international calls for restraint notwithstanding -- and EU-moderated talks on normalizing Serbian-Kosovar relations are still on hold.
Kosovar President Hashim Thaci has dismissed participation in the new initiative as "meaningless without recognition [of Kosovo's statehood]."
Albania, a close ally of the ethnic Albanian-majority Kosovo that along with North Macedonia recently saw the door to EU accession talks slammed in its face, appears prepared to throw itself into the Ohrid initiative in the meantime.
At the meeting in Novi Sad, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama acknowledged "open issues that exist in the heart of the region" and said signatories could still "agree to disagree on some issues."
Incoming Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti downplayed the initiative by suggesting that Tirana should instead have started with a deal with Pristina, and left Belgrade at the back of the line.
"We are seeing differences of opinion [between] what someone Albanian in Pristina views is the situation versus what somebody Albanian in Tirana views the situation," Ker-Lindsay says, calling it "perhaps one of the more interesting elements of this dynamic."
Meanwhile, officials in Montenegro -- the smallest of the WB6 and arguably the furthest along in its EU accession efforts -- have signaled a reluctance to join any regional "mini-Schengen" as being redundant with CEFTA.
"The initiators" are trying to resolve a dilemma they have created for themselves, Montenegrin Economy Minister Dragica Sekulic said.
"These are countries that, because of the various trade barriers they have placed on each other, may need a new initiative to promise again that they will do what we have long done," she added.
A painful reminder of the benefits of deeper cooperation shuddered through the region on November 26, when an earthquake killed at least 50 Albanians and leveled buildings in two communities near Tirana.
Albania's second city of Durres, which is scheduled to host the next summit to discuss the "mini-Schengen" initiative on December 21, accounted for around half of the death toll.
Thousands of people were left homeless from the temblor, including in the capital, and aftershocks hampered rescue efforts.
"All the borders we've erected here crumble under the raw power of nature and climate," tweeted analyst and commentator Jasmin Mujanovic, who writes frequently about democracy and trends in the Balkans. "The only chance we have in the long run is to stick together."
Rama called it "a dramatic moment where we should preserve calm [and] stay alongside each other to cope with this shock."
Officials from Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, and other nearby states responded with offers to assist in search-and-rescue efforts, care for the injured, or house displaced families.
Less than a week later -- after giving up on the search for survivors by Albanian, Serbian, Montenegrin, and Macedonian teams working in tandem with their French, Italian, and Swiss counterparts -- Rama repeated his plea for international help.
"It is simply humanly impossible to do this alone," he said.