Go to Nato homepage
Go to Nato Review homepage
      current issue: winter 2003 previous issues  |  language
Go to Nato homepage
 Book review
 Next issue
Go to Nato Review homepage Contact Editor/Subscription Print friendly version

Send this article to a friend

NATO's Balkan Odyssey

In gratitude: NATO's decision to intervene in Kosovo
was controversial but today it is clear that it was
courageous, principled and far-sighted

Robert Serry analyses the evolution of NATO's presence and activities in the former Yugoslavia since the Kosovo campaign and considers future prospects.

It is sometimes remarkable how rapidly even the most acrimonious relationship can change for the better. Less than half a decade ago NATO waged an air campaign against Yugoslavia for the best part of three months to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Today, Serbia and Montenegro, the successor state to Yugoslavia, aspires to join the Alliance's Partnership for Peace programme and has even volunteered soldiers to serve alongside their NATO peers in the Alliance-led peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan.

The turnaround in relations between NATO and Serbia and Montenegro is probably the most spectacular security-related development to have taken place in the former Yugoslavia since the 1999 Kosovo campaign. But progress has been encouraging almost everywhere in the intervening period. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is also a candidate for the Partnership for Peace (PfP); Albania, Croatia, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* aspire to Alliance membership and are already contributing personnel to NATO operations beyond the Euro-Atlantic area; and it will probably be possible to reduce the number of troops in the NATO-led operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo to around 25,000 next year — little over a third of the figure deployed in 1999.

To be sure, the challenges that remain should not be under-estimated. Serbia and Montenegro's international rehabilitation may only become irreversible when it has met all the requirements for PfP membership and is admitted into the programme. The future political status of Kosovo has not been resolved and a robust international security presence remains necessary. The peace process in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not yet self-sustaining and some form of international security presence will have to remain there as well. In addition, the violence that threatened the stability and integrity of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* in 2001 may return unless the peace process is managed intelligently and tactfully. And stagnant economies undermine even the most determined international peace-building efforts and have been contributing to a revival in the fortunes of some of the nationalist political parties responsible for conflict in the first place.

Serbia and Montenegro

Nevertheless, relations between NATO and Serbia and Montenegro have improved to such an extent that Lord Robertson was able to visit Belgrade at the end of November 2003 on his farewell tour of the former Yugoslavia. This milestone event — the first visit to Serbia and Montenegro by a serving NATO Secretary General since the 1999 campaign — immediately followed the first high-level, military-to-military talks between the Alliance and Belgrade. These took place in Naples, Italy, and involved Admiral Gregory G. Johnson, Commander in Chief, Allied Forces Southern Europe, on the NATO side and Defence Minister Boris Tadic and Chief of Staff Branko Krga on the Serbian and Montenegrin side.

The reform process in Serbia and Montenegro still faces important internal challenges, which should not be overlooked. Parliamentary elections have been brought forward to the end of December and may have an impact on the country's international outlook. Whatever the outcome, it is very much hoped that the next government in Belgrade will stay on the path of reform.

To Serbia and Montenegro's credit, the country has made considerable progress in the field of defence reform in the recent past. Belgrade is already participating in a tailor-made Security Cooperation Programme with NATO, consisting largely of Alliance-sponsored workshops designed to inform Serbs and Montenegrins about Euro-Atlantic security structures and the Partnership for Peace. And it has been cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, most notably in the surrender of former President Slobodan Milosevic. But several requirements must still be met.

Belgrade has to deliver the most notorious indicted war criminals that it is harbouring — in particular Ratko Mladic — to the ICTY. And it must drop its lawsuit against seven Allied countries and their leaders at the International Court of Justice, which is also in The Hague. These two issues are non-negotiable. If Belgrade meets these conditions, Serbia and Montenegro can expect to join the Partnership for Peace at next June's Istanbul Summit, though the Allies will continue to monitor the political situation there closely as well as Belgrade's attitude towards and involvement in Kosovo.

The incentive to meet NATO's requirements is the potential assistance that Belgrade can look to in the Partnership for Peace. NATO is already assisting neighbouring countries in security-sector reform with, among other initiatives, programmes aimed at retraining military personnel to help them adjust to civilian life and at converting former military bases to civilian uses. Similar programmes would clearly help smooth military downsizing in Serbia and Montenegro. Moreover, by becoming a member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Belgrade would have taken the first step on the ladder of Euro-Atlantic integration and acquired a voice in a NATO forum. The benefits to NATO and the international community of Serbian and Montenegrin membership of the Partnership for Peace are also considerable, as it would be difficult to rebuild long-term security and stability in the region without Belgrade as a constructive partner.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

The turnaround in relations between NATO and Belgrade is probably the most spectacular security-related development to have taken place in the former Yugoslavia since the Kosovo campaign

Bosnia and Herzegovina can also expect to join the Partnership for Peace at the Istanbul Summit, if it maintains the reform momentum of recent months. Moreover, given sustained improvements in the overall security situation, it should be possible to reduce the number of troops deployed in the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) there to between 7,000 and 8,000 by next June compared with a current level of about 12,000 and an initial deployment of 60,000 troops in December 1995.

Bosnia and Herzegovina's security architecture at the end of hostilities in 1995 — which consisted of three rival armed forces — was not conducive to long-term stability, security and prosperity. In the intervening years, therefore, NATO and other international organisations have worked together with the various Bosnian authorities to reform the country's defence structures.

This year, the reform process bore fruit following sustained work by a special defence committee set up by High Representative Paddy Ashdown and chaired by Jim Locker, a former US deputy assistant secretary for defence. Bosnia and Herzegovina's three-person Collective Presidency formally endorsed the programme proposed in the so-called Locker Report, which includes creation of a single state-level Defence Ministry, in September. The Bosnian Parliament ratified it in December.

The High Representative has drawn up a series of benchmarks to measure implementation of the programme. These consist of legislative measures, including the passing of various constitutional amendments; personnel measures, such as the appointment of a state-level Defence Minister and two deputies; institutional measures, including the establishment of a Parliamentary Security Committee; and restructuring and budgetary measures, including establishing a budget system at both state and entity levels, preparing the 2004 budget and reducing the size of the armed forces.

If Bosnia and Herzegovina can demonstrate that it is implementing the reform programme by meeting the benchmarks and that it is cooperating to the best of its ability with the ICTY, PfP membership should be assured.

While no formal decision has yet been made, the improvements in Bosnia and Herzegovina's security environment which make troop reductions possible also potentially pave the way for the European Union to deploy a follow-on mission, in addition to the police-monitoring mission it is already running. This eventuality, which is currently being discussed and could be realised by the end of 2004, would not involve a complete NATO withdrawal. Rather the Alliance would continue to provide a security back-up for any EU-led operation and would, in all likelihood, set up both a NATO military headquarters and a civilian representation in Sarajevo to help oversee further military reforms. In effect, the nature of NATO's engagement with Bosnia and Herzegovina will be changing. In the months and years ahead, the operational aspect will become less important, while political engagement, particularly through the Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, will become more important.

Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia*

The model for EU-NATO cooperation is that established in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* where the European Union took over responsibility for the NATO-led mission in April 2003. The hand-over of command followed agreement of the so-called "Berlin-Plus" package of measures, setting out the terms under which the European Union is able to borrow NATO assets. And the ultimate commander of a future EU-led Bosnian operation would be the most senior EU officer at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) who is also the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (DSACEUR).

The effective partnership between the European Union, NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United States in crisis management in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* provided one of the most remarkable success stories of international involvement in the Balkans. NATO's role was crucial in brokering the cease-fire and securing an amnesty in 2001, disarming the National Liberation Army (NLA) in Operation Essential Harvest and contributing to the return of security in former crisis areas in Operation Task Force Amber Fox. And NATO's intensive political dialogue with the former NLA leadership contributed to the rapid transformation of the former guerrilla movement into a political party.

After landmark elections in September 2002, a new moderate government was formed led by Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski and the former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti. All this happened within a year of the end of hostilities. However, even here there is no room for complacency. The new government has already experienced difficulties in implementing the Ohrid Agreement, the framework accord establishing a stabilisation process, and the economy continues to stagnate. Though the government has made important strides towards addressing security concerns from the 2001 conflict — notably by increasing the numbers of ethnic Albanians in the police — minor security incidents continue to occur, especially in areas bordering Kosovo.

For this reason, the international community will have to remain engaged in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* In this way, NATO is maintaining a military headquarters in Skopje to assist the process of security-sector reform and liaise with KFOR on border security issues. Meanwhile, the EU military mission to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* Operation Concordia, ended in December and is being replaced by a police-monitoring and advisory mission.


The security situation in Kosovo is stable but fragile. Moreover, the political situation remains tense and, following a decision by the Contact Group in October 2003, discussion of the province's final status is not likely to begin before the middle of 2005 at the earliest. As a result, it will not be possible to reduce the Kosovo Force (KFOR) to the same extent as SFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nevertheless, the numbers are scheduled to come down to some 17,500 by the end of 2003 from a current level of 19,500 and an initial deployment of 50,000 in June 1999.

Since Kosovo's status remains unresolved, the NATO mandate in the province is greater than in any other operation. In this way, the Alliance has, for example, responsibility for supporting border security efforts and has developed expertise and become increasingly involved in post-conflict management. Together with the European Union, the OSCE and the Stability Pact, NATO helped organise a conference on border security in Ohrid in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* last May, in which all countries in the region participated. In this way, the Alliance is helping put in place a regional framework for cross-border security cooperation.

For the past two years, as NATO has reduced the number of troops deployed in its various Balkan operations, it has effectively viewed the entire region as a single joint operations area. In this way, Allied Forces Southern Europe in Naples has directed all the Alliance's Balkan operations and prepared a single reserve force which could be deployed in any theatre in the event of unrest. This force, which exercises regularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, would be able to assist EU-led and NATO-led forces, if such support were needed. Other key assets, such as satellite and intelligence support, and heavy airlift are also shared between the two missions, which have been connected logistically by an air corridor, agreed with Belgrade in December 2002. NATO is also discussing with Belgrade the possibility of using landlines of communication through its territory.

The Alliance's decision to intervene in Kosovo and to use force to halt an ethnic-cleansing campaign was controversial at the time. But just under half a decade on and despite ongoing difficulties, it is clear that that decision was courageous, principled and far-sighted. Prospects for the entire region are better than they have been probably since the outbreak of fighting in the former Yugoslavia in June 1991. Ordinary people of all ethnicities can aspire to a better future. And the chances of further large-scale hostilities are remote. As a result, NATO is able to focus on security-sector reform and continue reducing its presence, which is the clearest sign that progress is being made.

However, the job is not yet finished and experience shows that post-conflict management may be a long and arduous process. While respective roles and responsibilities may change, the European Union, NATO and other international actors must continue their effective partnership for as long as it takes to make reconstruction and stabilisation in the region self-sustaining and irreversible. The experience that the Alliance has acquired in the Balkans is also extremely relevant as NATO moves beyond the Euro-Atlantic. As the Alliance takes on new challenges in Afghanistan, possibly in Iraq and elsewhere, it should take heart from its achievements in the Balkans and the way it has succeeded in building security and changing attitudes in a remarkably short time.

Robert Serry is deputy assistant secretary general for crisis management in NATO's Operations Division and chairman of the Balkans Task Force.


* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.