09 May 2017

NATO’s Balkan strategy

Montenegro’s imminent entry into NATO, as its 29th member, provides both momentum and opportunity for the Alliance. The Summit in Brussels on May 25 is an important venue to specify NATO’s strategic direction in the Western Balkans to counter the threats still facing this volatile region of Europe.

NATO has pursued two mandates in the Western Balkans since the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s – enlargement and intervention. The entry of Slovenia, Albania, Croatia and now Montenegro into the Alliance demonstrates a commitment to incorporate all of South Eastern Europe in the world’s most effective security structure. Concurrently, the continuing presence of NATO forces in Kosova and the military mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina indicates that the Alliance remains ready to engage if armed conflicts were to recur.

Nonetheless, the current challenges to Balkan stability are not primarily military but political, economic and informational, particularly where flammable local disputes can be ignited through targeted foreign subversion. And this is precisely where NATO can play a key role: by identifying vulnerabilities, enhancing national security, promoting interstate military cooperation, detecting, deterring and defeating Russian subversion and Islamist terrorism and bolstering steps toward eventual NATO entry.

In this context, Montenegro can serve as an example to its neighbors for NATO’s involvement in the region. In addition to assistance in modernizing Montenegro’s armed forces and enhancing security along the Adriatic Coast, the Alliance can help establish a NATO Center of Excellence, similarly to other member states. Given Podgorica’s recent experience with Moscow, the Center’s focus could be on Countering Foreign Subversion and Coup Attempts.

Beyond Montenegro, both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia should be designated as NATO’s next members. The Alliance maintains a military headquarters in Sarajevo that assists in defense reform and counter-terrorism. In 2010, NATO launched a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Bosnia, but entry has been blocked by one key obstacle: the transfer of 63 military facilities from the entity level to the central administration. The Serb entity government has delayed completion of the process and is violating state law. Unfortunately, the EU has been a laggard in pushing Bosnia’s local governments to enforce the rule of law despite considering EU candidate status for Bosnia later this year. The legal transfer of all military facilities must be one of the conditions.

In the case of Macedonia, a clear roadmap for membership has to be applied, as the country has fulfilled its MAP requirements. Once a new bi-ethnic government is formed in Skopje the prospect of membership can contribute to reducing tension, as both Macedonians and Albanians favor NATO entry. However, this will also require a more vigorous mediation process with Greece in which Washington can play a prominent role. Although Athens continues to dispute Macedonia’s name, there is no reason for the country not to enter NATO under the designation that Greece itself uses since the bilateral Interim Accord of 1995 – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

While NATO maintains a presence in Kosova, it is time for Kosova to gain a presence in NATO. Approximately 4,500 Allied troops remain stationed in the new state in continuation of the KFOR mission established after NATO’s intervention in 1999. NATO has helped to create a professional and multi-ethnic Kosova Security Force, consisting of lightly armed units responsible for security tasks. The force will eventually be transformed into a military structure once the constitutional and organizational changes are implemented. The process can be accelerated by including Kosova in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program to develop a modern military operating alongside NATO forces. Kosova would then join 22 partner countries from outside NATO, in which PfP has been an important stepping-stone toward NATO membership for twelve other states.

The remaining country, Serbia, will prove more of a challenge for completing the NATO umbrella over the Balkan Peninsula. In addition to lingering resentment over the Allied intervention to liberate Kosova from Milosevic’s massacres in 1999, Serbia has forged close ties with Moscow. It has allowed the Kremlin to establish a base near the southern city of Niš purportedly to handle humanitarian emergencies, but also believed to serve as an intelligence gathering facility.

Despite its Russia-friendly policy, Serbia’s army participates in NATO programs since joining the PfP in 2006 and has obtained an Individual Partnership Action Plan that could become a step toward a MAP and eventual membership. If the Serbian military had a choice free of political considerations it would certainly favor joining the most modern and effective military organization rather than being linked with a second-rate Russian structure.

However, even with NATO accession the mission is not completed, as the Alliance must continue to help its members monitor and protect against foreign subversion. Indeed, NATO’s role needs to be augmented in countering Russia’s information offensives, intelligence penetration and political manipulation. The guiding principle is that Russia’s NATO-phobia cannot be allowed to sabotage the future of the Balkans as an integral part of the transatlantic world.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: U.S. Army/SPC Lorenzo Ware