30 May 2019

Western Balkans’ defence and security- between internal “stabilocracy” and “resilience” imposed by NATO and EU

Stelian Teodorescu

Balcanii de Vest constituie una din regiunile lumii unde poate fi găsită una dintre cele mai diverse şi mai bogate structuri culturale, religioase şi etnice. În acest sens, Josip Broz Tito, fostul preşedinte al fostei Iugoslavii, afirma, la vremea respectivă, că ”este liderul unei ţări care are două alfabete, trei limbi, patru religii, cinci naţionalităţi, şase republici, înconjurată de şapte vecini şi în care trăiesc opt minorităţi etnice”.

Image source: Mediafax

Western Balkans is one of world’s regions to have the most complex cultural, religious and ethnic structures. Hereof, Yugoslavia’s former president, Josip Broz Tito, was saying, when ruling, that he is “the leader of a country to have two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, is surrounded by seven neighbors and wherein are living eight ethnic minorities”. Western Balkans was, and continues to be, Europe’s region that has many historical complaints and ethnic, religious and cultural disputes and, implicitly, has all the chance to raise conflicts and violent actions.

As a result, in such context, the geostrategic positioning of the Western Balkans, between the East and West of Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as the geopolitical importance of the region, contributed to its transformation, after the end of the Cold War, into a special interest which occupies an uppermost place on the EU and NATO agenda in terms of economic stability, defense and security.

Synergistic development intensification for Europe’s common security and defence

In April 2016, the European Parliament has asked EU and the member states, through the report on “EU in a changing global environment. A more connected, contested and complex world”, to increase the synergistic defence capacities with NATO, in order to be ready to face the large civil military and hybrid risks and threats spectrum, but also to use all Lisbon Treaty’s dispositions on common security and defence policy.

The foreign actions priorities, as foreseen within EU’s global strategy, are: organization’s security, state and society’s resilience, crises and conflicts’ integrated approach and, not least, regional cooperation and global governance for the 21th century.

Starting from the global foreign and security policy, EU officials revealed the implementation plan to increase Europe’s security and defence policy ambition level, by identifying three main tasks: response to crises and foreign conflicts, partners’ capacities’ consolidation, EU and its citizens’ protection through foreign actions.

Hence, Western Balkans’ integration became one of EU and NATO’s policies’ priorities. Currently, the common task for all member states is the quick standardization of Belgrade-Pristina relation and the solution for ethnic, religious and cultural problems that Sarajevo is still experiencing. Why? Because Serbia wants the so-called “unaligned defence and security policy”, excluding the idea of a NATO integration in the near future, hence, remaining vulnerable to other actors’ influences. Belgrade signed a strategic partnership agreement and defence cooperation treaty with Russia and has total support from Moscow in terms of military hardware and know-how. It also enjoys China and other Gulf states’ investments in transport strategic infrastructure.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complicated political structure blocks the NATO accession. We are not talking only about this state’s inability to find a common denominator over the accession reforms, but also about the firm opposition on the NATO accession coming from the Serbian entity leadership of the Bosnian state’s body, Republic of Sprska.  

Reaching the EU and NATO objectives is definitely something the Western Balkans need. There are many arguments to that end, the most important being the inability to consolidate the statehood structures, the more and more intense disavowal of their legitimacy in some entities (Albania, Serbia or Kosovo), Western Balkans’ fragile stability, but also the autocratic manifestations coming from leaders that are disputing democratic values, like common law, governance’s responsibility and freedom of press.

Within the EU and NATO reunions, the cooperation with Western Balkans partners is always an important debated topic. It is reiterated this cooperation’s importance in approaching the common security and defence challenges, drawing the attention on how entities in the region have come a long way, in the past 20 years, in trying to become, on their own, security providers, through contributing at implementing the common security and defence policies regionally, as well as globally.

Hence, there are many things threatening to blow the Western Balkans in a permanent geopolitical purgatory, maintaining instability in some areas, and a weak stability in others: the inability to manage Russia’s destabilizing influence, China’s influence and interests’ increase for investments in the region, a high ethnic and religious extremism and other social vulnerabilities.

This is the reason why EU and NATO cannot ignore Western Balkans’ situation, but seek to apply complex and comprehensive strategies, aiming at quickly integrating this region.

Western Balkans’ resilience increase, zero priority on EU and NATO’s security and defence agenda

NATO and EU had a key role in supporting the post-conflict development and the political, economic, military and social transitions and reforms across the Western Balkans and continue to do so in easing the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of region’s entities. Meanwhile the latter objective was reached by some of them, others continue to be excluded, having more or less distant perspectives.

NATO’s opened door policy, which led to Slovenia’s accession within the Alliance, in 2004, followed by Albania and Croatia, in 2009, Montenegro, in 2017, and North Macedonia, by the end of 2019, has increased region’s stability. However, European and Euro-Atlantic policies must face a changing geostrategic and geopolitical environment, as well as those “complicated candidates” entities, on hold entities that have created the proper environment for geostrategic players as Russia, Turkey, Gulf states or China to (re)emerge.  

Moreover, Western Balkans’ evolutions have highlighted EU and NATO wannable candidates’ need to create strategic policies, which led to the conclusion that it is less likely, for the decade to come, to have a total integration of the region and, implicitly, resilience’s increase to a level that could block the creation of any supplementary maneuver space for others to impose their influence in the Western Balkans.

Given these circumstances, we should not forget that Western Balkans have a significant muslin population: 28% of North Macedonia, more than 50% of Albania and 95% of Kosovo’s population follow the Islam religion. Considering that religious fundamentalism has spread quickly also because of the Salafi fundamentalists imams’ influx, who came in the Western Balkans, experts are saying that their objective would be to attack and undermine Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims’ religious and ethnic identity, because they are practicing Islam’s moderated interpretation, specific to the area, and replace it with one to have strong extremist valences and a great influence over the masses.

Lacking of proper capacities to approach and combat reaching such objective, the region continues to represent the perfect environment for “cells” aiming at organizing and executing terrorist attacks in Europe and other NATO member states, as proved lately.

Therefore, compromising the strategic and NATO accession plans will continue to be regions’ vulnerability, however, other regional players’ opportunity to consolidate their position in the Western Balkans. In this regard, we can see as an argument the role played by Russia in the BIH Peace Implementation Council. Furthermore, meanwhile Turkey’s increasing influence in the country is more and more visible and has clear political effects, there are also concerns about states in the Gulf’s contribution to Salafism’s prevalence at EU and NATO borders.

In order to effectively manage the regional problems, in the past two years, EU and NATO, as region’s essential partners that are sharing common strategic values and interests, have developed a close cooperation, focused on concrete results, this cooperation starting from cyber-defence and hybrid threats approach to maritime security and partners’ capacities consolidation.

One of the first steps is the identification of the weak point, the evaluation of Western Balkans’ entities capacities and, not least, quantification and consolidation of region’s resilience[1] against future and current threats and challenges on defence and security.

The EU activity on defence and security, in general, and Western Balkans one, in particular, relies on two pillars:

  • combating terrorism and organized crime;
  • consolidating defence and states’ resistance against different socks;

Given these circumstances, the main challenge is connecting EU’s internal and foreign security policy dimensions so that it could be mutually consolidated and allow the union to foresee and adopt pro-active operational and political response actions for different types of pressures it may be subjected to.

The combat capacity against hybrid threats relies on these threats’ common counter framework, EU’s efforts main objective being the reinforcement of critical infrastructures’ protection, energy sources’ diversification and defence capacities’ consolidation. A priority is the effective operational cooperation and a safe communication between member states and countries outside EU, mostly those in the neighborhood, like Western Balkans’ region.

Consolidating Western Balkans’ region resilience, through the identification of violent conflicts’ possible prevention solutions, aims at improving the action strategies and plans, a better understanding of factors that raise ethnic, religious or other types of conflicts and, at the same time, the identification of the internal capacities of such societies resulted after war and which have many weak points and vulnerabilities that could be used by different extremist or terrorist groups.

Such approach involves, also, the enlargement of the considered responses and paying more attention to societies’ social policies and resilience, generated by national reform programs, but also by EU and NATO partnerships, on stability’s consolidation policies and, implicitly, on defence and security field.

Within such a process, EU approaches each states’ internal policies’ complex challenges, going from social, economic and environment policies to energy procurement security. Also, there were developed many important research investigations to ensure strong arguments for such an approach and there were developed a series of analytical tools to support the implementation of adopted policies.

One of these arguments is that for many of these challenges, response’s internal and international dimensions are strongly connected. It allows and imposes political dialogue’s development with the Western Balkans, being necessary for this dialogue to be a bidirectional one, as EU and NATO may also take advantage on region’s learned lessons to transform it into Europe’s safe and stable area.

Also, Western Balkans entities are ready to rely on EU’s technical experience to consolidate dialogue with specialized agencies and apply the bilateral sectorial initiatives. This happens through an endorsement process of a common international ground, through involving countries outside EU in resilience’s research and innovation within the “Horizon 2020” program, but also through applying the results in international cooperation programs. EU is already working on this program to develop a strong acknowledgement and information on resilience’s consolidation actions, funding the security, radical ideologies, economy, social sciences, food security, large-scale migration and some populations’ forced relocation efforts.

Also, it is noteworthy that, on 21.03.2019, the North-Atlantic Alliance was informed, within the Polish Republic’s Permanent Delegation to NATO reunion, about the Polish Presidency’s priorities[2] for the “Berlin Process” and Western Balkans’ summit planning, to take place in Poznan (4 and 5th of July 2019). The mentioned initiative relies on three main pillars:

  • cooperation and consolidation of regional policies, including the solution of bilateral disputes;
  • the improvement of economic cooperation, focusing on connectivity in energy, transport and digital fields;
  • Interpersonal relations, mostly among young people and cooperation with the civil society.

However, the question is whether the EU and NATO enlargement enthusiasm in the Western Balkans is as high as it used to be and, if the answer is negative, if it could still be re-established, given that the region goes through democratic and social-economic crises nowadays, like the ones generated by the reemergence of the geopolitical competition over the region. Indeed, they need new impulses for the enlargement process and region’s political and social-economic development, as entities in the region urgently need alternative actions and solutions, but also firm commitments to actually work.


It is quite clear now that EU and NATO’s main long and medium term topics and concerns related to Westerns Balkans security and defence will no longer be only about region’s entities’ tensions, but the region will be strongly connected to the large security challenges Europe faces today.

Its geographic position, being surrounded by EU and NATO member states, connects the region to both organizations in fields like borders’ security, forces migration, antiterrorism and other global actors’ actions and influence, like Russia and China.

Despite the fact that EU and NATO were, for years, present in the region, Western Balkans continue to create uncertainty in terms of integration, which raises the question: what projects should the European and Euro-Atlantic structures commit to, in order to increase the integration motivation and, implicitly, to increase this area’s resilience on defence and security?

In the common EU-NATO Declaration from 2016, BIH was seen as one of region’s states wherein it could start a closer cooperation on capacities’ consolidation, being the first step towards region’s security management with their own capacities.

An EU-NATO consolidated cooperation on Western Balkans’ security, defence and stability and this region’s resilience consolidation, which Europe’s security depends on, will have to rely on functional democracies, rather than on democracies featured by “stabilocracy”[3].

EU and NATO could effectively and successfully promote and support this region’s resilience consolidation by modifying the political approach on Western Balkans’ future, making the “do more” for region’s defence, security and stability objective more tenable.

[1] The term “resilience” was included in the European Program for critical infrastructure protection, starting with 2013, which lead to the elaboration of risks’ research and evaluation methodology, including outside EU space. Accordingly with EU global strategy on resilience, peace and security are indivisible in terms of durable and integrated development and global norms abidance and international systems’ rules.

[2] Poland has joined the initiative in 2018 (it took over the presidency this year), establishing for its priorities to rely on the following pillars: connectivity, civic and security dimension. Poland’s support of Western Balkans’ states ambitions is really important and it was also highlighted within the Western Balkans’ perspectives debate ”Les Balkans occidentaux: quelles perspectives?”, organized at the NATO headquarter at the International Francophonie Day.

[3] This specific term was used in the specialized environments to define the Western Balkans model from other similar and different illiberal or semi-authoritarianism democracies, noteworthy being that it was firstly used by Antoinette Primatarova and Johanna Deimel, in 2012, to describe the entities that are “offering stability on a foreign plan, but go, internally, from democracy to autocratic tendencies.