[Theme in Focus] Regional Strategies for and with the Western Balkans. WBC-RTI.info Newsletter January, 2016

Strategizing on RTI in the Balkans

Which strategy is being followed in research and innovation in the Western Balkan countries? Are there too many strategies and how well interconnected are they? Are they truly been followed or just pieces of paper?

"The essence of strategy is that you must set limits on what you're trying to accomplish." (Michael Porter)

Of course, most importantly are the national strategies which are continuously updated and created by national governments and with allocated budgets e.g. for the development of national funding programmes and key research infrastructures. Most recently, Serbia published its 2016-2020 strategy, more information is available here
But there are several macro-regional strategies and European ones concerning research, technology and innovation (RTI), which are influencing, reinforcing and guiding the national ones. Thus, the Western Balkans are sometimes addressed by regional strategies and programmes: e.g. the Instrument for Pre-Accession which includes a multi-country perspective (more information: here); support by several EU Member States dedicated to the Western Balkans is often tailored to regional cooperation (taking this platform WBC-RTI.INFO as a result of the Austrian approach to regional support just as one example). We aim to put a focus in this article on the regional strategic approaches supporting Research and Innovation, e.g. the ones driven by the Regional Cooperation Council. Thus, we aim to learn and inform in which regional strategies our and your research and innovation activities are embedded in. 

With a clear geographical focus, the SEE2020 strategy (adopted 2013) includes a pillar of “Smart Growth” involving the sector of RTI. 


SEE countries need to invest more and better in research and innovation, prioritizing investments and contributing to a ‘smart specialization’ of the region (a keyword that we shall return to a little later). SEE2020 addresses the increase investment in human capital to improve research excellence and productivity and in upgrading research infrastructures. Other areas are the facilitation of science-industry collaboration, technology and knowledge transfer transfer activities, IPR management, the promotion of business innovation and innovative start-ups, technology and science parks and incubators, improving business environments and targeted mentoring.

It aims also at strengthening the governance of national RTI policies by capacity building and support to management and reward structures as well as reforms and evaluation cultures. The strategy is implemented and monitored under the guidance of the RCC.

The approach on Research and Innovation in the SEE 2020 strategy is based on the Regional Research and Development Strategy for Innovation in the Western Balkans, developed on regional level with support from the World Bank, the Regional Cooperation Council and the European Commission. The strategy aims to implement activities such as the establishment of a regional platform on research and innovation, i.e the Western Balkans Innovation Center - WISE. The strategy, which was endorsed by the ministers of science from the region, in Zagreb, on 25 October 2013, promotes regional collaboration and implementation of the following concrete actions:

  • to establish a Research Excellence Fund to strengthen research capabilities and promote research excellence by providing stable, transparent and merit-based support for research
  • to promote Networks of Excellence to strengthen excellence on a particular research topic 
  • to introduce a Technology Transfer Programme to stimulate industry-science collaboration, encourage marketable research results and value-creation
  • to create an early stage start-up programme using both non-financial and financial instruments to support a viable long-term market for innovation finance

“Just because someone said yes to you doesn’t mean something is going to happen.” (Jeroen de Flander)

The agreement on establishing “WISE” was signed by the Ministers in charge of science in Split in September 2015 where also the seat of the Secretariat will be. The process of regional strategy development has started several years ago (the author remembers discussions about the development of such a regional strategy in 2008 in Paris) and the expectations have been (and still are) very high, yet the delays are significant. Nevertheless, with the political support of the RCC, several regional programmes aimed at the implementation of the Western Balkans R&D Strategy have been developed, of which parts might be implemented together or by other international stakeholders (such as DG Joint Research Center).

In an interview with WBC-RTI.INFO, the RCC also confirmed the support to WISE as a facility to implement the strategy. A meeting of the Steering Platform on Research for the Western Balkan countries is also planned in 2016 at the RCC/Sarajevo, bringing together stakeholders from the Balkans and the EU exchanging views and experiences on  RTDI. RCC is also developing a new approach in implementing the SEE2020 strategy through three flagships: skills and mobility; competitiveness; and connectivity: in the area of research and innovation: mobility of researchers, PhD candidates and academics will be an area of focus in the current period. The RCC also attributes high importance to the macro-regional strategies "Danube Region" and "Adriatic Ionian" where Western Balkans economies are at the intersection. With better coordination this presents an excellent opportunity to strengthen and reinforce some of the SEE2020 objectives in particular in the area of R&D and Innovation.

Based on the macro-regional approach of the European Commission, which started with the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (adopted in 2009), specific regions aim to tackle environmental, economic or security related issues collectively.

We need even stronger ownership by the regions themselves, delivering clearer decision-making and greater visibility. (Johannes Hahn)

The EU Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Strategy (EUSAIR) involves 4 EU Member States (Greece, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia) and the 4 non-EU and Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia) and was launched in 2014. It set up four strategic pillars, with research and innovation foci respectively included as a cross-cutting aspect, e.g. related to “Blue Growth” (pillar 1), but also to connect the region in transport/energy, support environmental quality, and sustainable tourism.

Most of the Western Balkan countries are also addressed by the EU Strategy for the Danube Region (EUSDR), which was adopted in 2011 and is thus further developed in the set up of the governance and implementation structures. The EUSDR also identifies a series of measures aimed at increasing the connection among the Danube Region, protecting the environment and increasing prosperity. In particular the priority areas “Knowledge Society” (PA7) and “Competitiveness” (PA8) are relevant to support research and innovation activities. They are also co-coordinated by Serbia and Croatia respectively, but some areas of the Western Balkans are not addressed by the strategy at all (FYR of Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo) and others are officially involved but not equally active (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro). 

Information about the EUSDR with a specific focus on RTI is available from the dedicated website of the FP7 project Danube-INCO.NET focusing on the geographical coverage of the EU Strategy for the Danube Region: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany – in particular Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria as EU Member States from the "upstream region" and Bulgaria, Romania from "downstream", the enlargement countries Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia as well as Moldova and Ukraine (in particular oblast Odessa, Uschhorod, Ivano-Frankiwsk and Czernowitz) as neighbourhood countries.

From the review of the macro-regional strategies, the importance of clear ownership and well-structured and proportionate governance and political support on all levels (EU, national, regional, local) are to be highlighted as important to succeed. A clear link to programming and funding through the “Danube Transnational Programme” has for instance improved the implementation of the EUSDR. Through involvement in some of the processes, the author wants to point out that there is a lot of energy and resources invested in the coordination of coordinators, while the implementation of concrete activities is sometimes hampered by unclear governance structures and lack of sustainable participation, e.g. in the steering or working groups.

“Today, science cannot advance in only one discipline, one country or one university. Science must be freed from borders of any kind.” (Carlos Moedas)

The Western Balkan countries, as enlargement countries, are preparing for the EU acquis on Research and Innovation (chapter 25) and are deeply influenced also by European initiatives driven by the Europe 2020 strategy such as the Innovation Union, the European Research Area and Horizon 2020 to which all WBCs (except Kosovo) are associated. Enlargement countries thus need to prepare for complying with the ERA Roadmap and open innovation policies. Through increased participation of the Western Balkan countries in the policy making and implementing fora related to the European Research Area, more effective national research systems, transnational cooperation and competition (cross-border cooperation and infrastructure), major societal challgenes, an open labour market for researchers, knowledge circulation in the context of open science and open innovation, as well as international cooperation with “third” countries should be improved strategically and in cooperation with other European actors.

“A strategy, even a great one, does not implement itself.” (Jeroen de Flander)

In particular the partnerships in the national RTI systems as well as across countries, with the respective companies and civil societies are very difficult to achieve. A process which has successfully been implemented by the EU Member States as ex-ante conditionality for the Structural Funds is the development of "Smart Specialisation Strategies" (S3), a process which is participatory and supported by trans-national policy learning and exchange (see the S3 Platform by the JRC for more information). This approach is intended to be spread throughout the enlargement and neighbourhood countries. In the Western Balkan countries there is certainly a need to follow approaches of regional cooperation, as the economies are small and so are the RTI systems, research is often carried out across borders and the resources that are available are limited. This points again at the importance of coordinated systems following jointly developed strategic objectives. Yet, we should always question the relevance and importance of the strategies and not just follow externally proposed strategic objectives that have a price tag attached to them (even if they also have incentives attached at the same time).
It is usually easier to say ‘yes, this very important’ than to reject a strategy and its general objectives that might even come with the expectation that an external stakeholder such as the European Union will foot the bill (e.g. through the IPA II programme).

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” (Winston Churchill)

Thus, measuring the progress of strategy implementation and defining indicators that are related to the main strategic aims are of high importance. Quantitative indicators for RTI systems are limited and thus often numbers of publications and patents are included in strategic targets. Yet, the focus on these indicators might set wrong incentives and more qualitative targets could be important. It seems still important to support an evaluation culture in the region and to refine strategies and objectives based on results achieved rather than elections, political cycles and parties in power.

After discussions and interviews with several stakeholders involved in the different processes mentioned above, the conclusion is still that coordination is difficult and needs to be addressed at many levels. Central offices with pro-active personalities who ideally cover the process to steer the development and implementation of several strategies and sound inter-institutional coordination in each of the countries are necessary. Granting schemes as implementation mechanisms are often missing.

A list of related articles can be found here.


Document type
  • Newsletter


Publication Year


Geographical focus
  • Western Balkans
Scientifc field / Thematic focus
  • Cross-thematic/Interdisciplinary

Entry created by Elke Dall on March 1, 2016
Modified on December 30, 2016