BALKAN CHRONICLES: Nato’s Balkan blind spot

BALKAN CHRONICLES: Nato’s Balkan blind spot
Whilst Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia were all represented at the Nato summit in Warsaw, Serbia and Kosovo were notable by their absence.
By Alex Young in Belgrade July 15, 2016

In the post-Cold War period, it was the Balkans that revitalised Nato’s sense of purpose, its airpower proving decisive in both the Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo conflicts. Almost two decades on, however, concerns about vulnerabilities on the alliance’s eastern front are creating a blind spot at the heart of its southern wing.

Whilst the Baltics warmly embrace new alliance troop commitments, Nato advocates in the former Yugoslavia are feeling increasingly neglected and compromised. With Russia peddling its own soft power, leveraged through the promise of hard assets, so the Nato question is driving a deeper wedge into the domestic politics of the Balkan countries outside the alliance.

Whilst Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia were all represented at the Nato summit in Warsaw (the first time it has been held in a Central European country), Serbia and Kosovo were notable by their absence.

As the region’s most important country, Serbia’s orientation is the subject of considerable intrigue. Public sentiment remains largely opposed to membership (primarily due to memories of the 1999 Kosovo conflict), but the Serbian government has been dragging the country’s armed forces into closer alignment with Nato (through an Individual Partnership Action Plan, involvement in joint exercises, procurement and standardisation).

Yet Serbia’s foreign policy is far from aligned with the West (it continues to refuse to join the sanctions regime against Russia), and renewed Russian influence within the new government is expected to stall the recent positive developments on the military cooperation front.

Serbia’s former province, Kosovo (which unilaterally declared independence in 2008), continues to be highly dependent on Nato for security guarantees. The long-anticipated transformation of the Kosovo Security Force into a fully-fledged army forces is a victim of the stalling of normalization between Belgrade and Pristina and internal opposition from Serb factions. This same dynamic will ultimately frustrate Kosovo’s ambition of Nato membership, despite the country’s relentless enthusiasm, and leave it on the fringes of the transatlantic security community.       

Montenegro has been invited to become the 29th member of the alliance, with advocates stressing that it will bring the entire Adriatic coast (aside from a 20km stretch of Bosnia-Herzegovina) into the Nato fold.

But Montenegro’s foreign policy orientation - pro-EU and Nato - has become a divisive factor in domestic politics. Thousands of anti-Nato protesters have taken to the streets of the capital Podgorica - some suspect thanks to a Russian hand - seeking a referendum. The Democratic Front (DF) fundamentally opposes membership, and has vowed to revoke the country’s recognition of Kosovo and sanctions against Russia if elected. Parliamentary elections have been called for October 16th.

Despite being offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2010, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s own progress remains stalled by a host of issues. The failure to resolve the registration of immovable defence property at the state as opposed to entity-level (only 23 out of 63 properties have been registered) means that the MAP has never been activated.

Though seemingly banal (much of this property is increasingly worthless, whilst Bosnia’s armed forces were long-since united), this encapsulates the fundamental dispute between those advocating a more powerful centre versus stronger entities. If Bosnia cannot overcome such a simple condition, then the prospect of fulfilling other stipulated reforms is dim. In this vacuum, Milorad Dodik, the much-derided president of Republika Srpska (one of the country’s two entities), has promised to call a referendum on Nato membership should the question ever tangibly arise.   

The region’s most unstable country - the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM) - is hamstrung by the ongoing name dispute with neighbouring Greece. The International Court of Justice’s 2011 ruling that Greece’s blocking of Macedonia’s Nato bid breached a 1995 bilateral agreement between the two has done absolutely nothing to unlock the process. Macedonia’s president, Gjorge Ivanov, boycotted the Warsaw summit in protest. The ongoing political crisis - noted in the post Warsaw summit communique as having “taken the country further away from Nato values” - shows few signs of abating. 

Though Nato helped stabilise the Balkans militarily after the wars of the nineties, it risks contributing to broader instability through indecisiveness and unfulfilled promises. The question of Nato membership is becoming increasingly divisive in each country of the former Yugoslavia.

Russia is increasingly advocating for the Balkans to remain militarily neutral, with its ruling party, United Russia, signing a declaration to this effect with parties from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Russia is not seeking to offer a viable alternative (save for military hardware and support for emergency situations), but is advocating a policy of supposed neutrality. 

Whilst Putin’s Russia is being used to drive Nato unity elsewhere in Europe, the same lingering threat to the Balkans remains perilously ignored. Nato integration has long been associated, rightly or wrongly, with the region’s European perspective. As the latter stalls, so the former will become increasingly contentious in a region still vulnerable to external influences. Having once reignited Nato’s sense of purpose, the Balkans now risks exposing its fundamental divisions and lack of commitment.