11 March 2020

NATO and EU in the Western Balkans: same agendas, different results

Ştefan Oprea

"I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbours, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities"(Iosif Broz Tito). Taken as a whole, Western Balkans’ area is one of the few regions in the world which can claim such a big cultural, religious and demographic diversity. Marked by ethnical violence and, then, by the international intervention, with all the important progresses obtained in the confrontation with nationalist and reactionary forces, the Western Balkans area remains as fragile as volatile. An unexampled approach of reality, defined by depressed economies, with a high unemployment level, political regimes led by leaders who would rather give up Europe than the power, and a huge exodus of people in the region, shows a serious feeling of hopelessness and pessimism.

Image source: ProfiMedia

Its nationalist governance and with most of the population being obsessed with borders and territories, which tend to define success through their national pride and less through economic growth, without even mentioning the old and new actors who are trying to consolidate their presence in the region, are challenging EU’s capacity to think and act as a determinant geopolitical player. 

Analyzing the whole picture on Western Balkans’ security situation, even if there are talks on the Yugoslavian era inheritance and its violent implosion, the emergent security and region’s challenges recommend NATO and EU to commit more and encourage region’s countries to continue their reforms with concrete and feasible objectives. The Euro-Atlantic integration will bring benefits both for the region and the Euro-Atlantic area.

 The stability period the region enjoyed recently, after the Yugoslavian wars from the 1990’s, but also benefiting from the 2000’s era, wherein NATO and EU have increased their presence in the region, providing peace maintenance and the construction of new states, has favoured the idea that region’s democratic reform has became irreversible.

Nothing falser. Last years’ developments have showed that such idea was excessively optimistic. Furthermore, as NATO has focused more on Afghanistan, the fight against extremist groups, challenges in the South and the deterrence of an increasingly aggressive Russia, the Western Balkans’ region entered a deadlock in terms of the attention it got from the Alliance.

Back to the current regional dynamic, despite foreseen improvements, reality shows us that there is a significant complaint among the population on the economic situation, the unemployment and migration of qualified labour force. To these, we add: the memory of wars’ disasters, increased nationalism and territorial disputes based on ethnical and religious divisions, all being the main factors blocking region’s development. In this political-economic climate, internal tensions can re-emerge and can, at any moment, be manipulated.

The general distrust climate among the Western Balkans countries has created a space wherein states tend to avoid cooperation. From this point of view, the Euro-Atlantic integration is a serious problem for EU’s enlargement strategy, but also for the NATO integration. Even if most of these territorial disputes seem manageable on short or medium term, disputes between Serbia and Kosovo seem hardly surmountable.

Without being limited to region’s internal issues, we must talk about the impact of the changing security environment and the role of foreign actors in keeping, and even worsening, the complex situation from the Western Balkans. After investing, in the last years, in five Balkan states – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, China has became a better alternative to EU’s loans, because the first ones are not normally tied to reform conditions.

Another important actor in the Balkan area is Russia, which, unlike China, through its historical connections with the Western Balkans, uses any opportunity, including corruption and bribe, sometimes even the Russian Orthodox Church, but also the energetic policy as geopolitical fuel, to promote its interests and undermine the Western influence in the whole region.

Western Balkans’ geostrategic positioning is another of this analysis’s elements. Turned into a transit area, after the Cold War, the Balkans have become an area for illegal products commerce from Asia and Africa to Western Europe and, recently, a hall for refugees that go in the same direction. From this point of view, the proliferation of organized crime and traffic in the Western Balkans is and will be a challenge not only for the regional security, but also broadly.

And if the picture was not enough complete, we must note that the region has a significantly big Muslim population, this being also the reason why the fundamentalist imams coming from abroad pushed religious extremism to larger extents, during and after Yugoslavian wars. Lacking of capacities and expertise to combat such phenomenon, the new states faced some terrorist actions but, after ISIS’s emergence, aspects took a double turn on the Western Balkans. On one hand, the increase of the internal terrorist danger, through the growth of migrants’ number from the conflict area and, on the other hand, through the increase of citizens desire, with or without fighting experience, though most of them having records, to go to Iraq and Syria to join Daesh. Their return raises serious issues, from legal effects of their actions in Syria to rehabilitation and integration in the local civil society.

Therefore, with an unexampled complexity, NATO and EU played an important role in supporting the post-conflict development and the economic transition, as well as in easing Western Balkans’ Euro-Atlantic integration. The latter was reached by some countries, but the others stayed outside one or both organizations.

After the 1995, respectively 1999, intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO stayed a Stabilization Force, and Alliance’s presence and commitment on the region led to Slovenia, Albania, Montenegro and, soon, North Macedonia’s accession.

In order to justify analysis’s title, we must mention that NATO’s activities in the former Yugoslavia have triggered and initiated the cooperation between the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. After conducting the peace implementation through operations, starting with 1992, both NATO and EU have supported the peace consolidation and post-conflict maintenance activities in the region. Starting with March 2003, EU officially started its first activity under CSDP aegis (The Common Security and Defence Policy), launching the EUFOR Concordia mission in FYROM, then EUFOR Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina (after the end of the SFOR mission of NATO).

The continuous cooperation between these two organizations proved to be essential both for the regional and the Euro-Atlantic stability.

Then, in the Western Balkans, EU started to develop its capacities in the post-crisis stabilization force, developing both civilian and military operations, meanwhile NATO remained the final security guarantor in case of hostilities’ escalation.

Today, after North Macedonia’s imminent accession in the Alliance, NATO consolidates its position in the Western Balkans as security provider and cooperation facilitator between states. Mixing the military mission and the political processes, NATO proves to be more than a simple security organization for the region, increasing its two essential roles, despite ultranationalist attacks and Russian propaganda. Montenegro’s accession, together with Albania and Croatia, turns NATO into Adriatic Sea’s protector.  With North Macedonia’s accession, together with Greece, Bulgaria and Romania it closes the south and east border. From this strategic perspective, the area closes in a stability arch of NATO.

Inside, there are still two states, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Kosovo province, in different cooperation phases with NATO:

-Serbia follows a military neutrality policy, is a NATO partner state and is actively participating to the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, without aiming at becoming a NATO member;

- Bosnia and Herzegovina, although having Membership Action Plan for the NATO accession (MAP), stays divided between its Alliance ambitions and the Croatian-Bosnian and Serbian entities;

- Kosovo is still at the beginning of its own army development and statehood, although it still has the only NATO mission in the region (KFOR).

Even if EU was and remains involved in keeping Bosnia’s territorial integrity, the organization is also the main commercial partner of the Balkans, and the population in the area continues its exodus towards the West and not towards other places. In terms of the European Union, reality shows that EU’s role and influence in region’s democratization progress and the accession process to EU are, unfortunately, insufficient to satisfy citizens’ expectations and beyond.

In February 2018, EU was launching the “A credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU enlargement with the Western Balkans”, proving its commitment to bring a new integration impulse and show that EU’s enlargement policy is a major investment in the peace, security, prosperity and stability of Europe.

This strategy’s success was, however, limited by reforms led by Europe in the Western Balkans, by which these states should have followed EU’s accession requirements. From the moment EU was reaffirming that the accession promise is not a miracle and 2025 can be just a perspective in achieving this desideratum, things got complicated.

Despite the fact that the strategy, statements and plans created optimism and hopes, today’s reality shows that European governments could not take this challenge seriously. On the contrary, they have highlighted divisions and indecision in adopting the long term policies on Western Balkans. Therefore, the four aspiring countries (Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia) and Kosovo province remained only candidate states.

The continuous processes to region’s integration in EU, the accession strategy for Western Balkans, the capital infusion in economic and infrastructure projects etc. were not enough for enlargement.

Although Europe has a long recommendations roadmap, which are useful and realistic, EU has actually ignored its own advices, and the civil society in the region is still too fragile for a real long-term involvement. All of these, as well as the establishment of an unrealistic term for Serbia and Montenegro’s accession have taken away the supplementary motivation the audience needed now. If we also think that region’s message for the EU leaders to keep their promises on opening the negotiations accession with North Macedonia and Albania did not get a good answer, well, the atmosphere is not that conclusive.

Instead of a conclusion, we could state that NATO and EU have similar agendas in the Western Balkans, their efforts are important, yet the results are totally different. NATO has mostly achieved its strategic objectives. The European Union, although the enlargement process is probably the most positive evolution of the Western Balkans and the most positive engine for reforms, still does not have an answer to whether the enlargement still represents, or not, one of its strategic objectives to have concrete effects like projects, investments and immediate employment opportunities.

Translated by Andreea Soare