Staying the course

Robert Serry and Christopher Bennett analyse the future of NATO’s engagement in the Balkans after the end of SFOR.

When the NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR) comes to an end and the European Union takes responsibility for providing day-to-day security in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an important phase of the Alliance’s engagement in the Balkans will be over. SFOR’s termination should not, however, be viewed as the beginning of a NATO withdrawal from the region, but of a process aimed at embedding the entire region into Euro-Atlantic structures.

Almost exactly nine years since NATO deployed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina in what was the Alliance’s first peacekeeping operation, it has been possible to bring the mission to successful conclusion because of the improvement in the security situation in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and the wider region. But in recognition of ongoing security threats, NATO will retain a presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and remains committed to building long-term stability throughout the region.

In the years since NATO’s intervention, the prospects of the Balkans and its peoples have changed almost beyond recognition. Whereas war or the threat of war hung over the entire region, today the likelihood of a return to large-scale hostilities is almost unthinkable. Whereas the Balkans appeared politically to be headed in a very different direction to the rest of the European continent, today Euro-Atlantic integration is a realistic goal for all countries and entities – in large part as a result of the security presence that the Alliance has provided.

Today, both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro – target of a sustained NATO air campaign only just over five years ago – are candidates for the Alliance’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. Albania, Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* aspire to NATO membership and are already contributing personnel to NATO operations beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. And neighbouring countries – Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia – have become NATO members, thereby extending Europe’s zone of stability in and around the region. Indeed, even before the hand-over in Bosnia and Herzegovina it had been possible to reduce the number of NATO-led troops in the Balkans to around 25,000 – little more than a third of the number deployed in 1999 – some 7,000 of whom were in SFOR.

To be sure, challenges remain that should not be underestimated. Individuals indicted for war crimes from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro remain at liberty and undermine their countries’ prospects of further Euro-Atlantic integration. Serbia and Montenegro’s international rehabilitation may only become irreversible when it has met all the requirements for PfP membership, including surrendering the most notorious war-crimes suspects on its territory, and is admitted into the programme. The future political status of Kosovo has not been resolved and a robust international security presence remains necessary to pre-empt outbreaks of violence in the run-up to status talks. Moreover, stagnant economies undermine even the most determined international peace-building efforts.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Even after the European Union deploys its force, EUFOR, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO will retain its own military headquarters in the country. As the European Union takes on the main peace-stabilisation role under the Dayton Peace Agreement, NATO will focus on defence reform, preparing Bosnia and Herzegovina for PfP membership and eventually for Alliance membership. The NATO headquarters, which will be headed by a one-star US general with a staff of around 150, will also work on counter-terrorism, apprehending war-crimes suspects and intelligence-gathering. In addition, the United States will retain a residual presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina in Tuzla with some 200 troops. The US presence will serve as a forward base and training centre for other operations.

Cooperation between the European Union and NATO in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be in accordance with a package of arrangements known as “Berlin Plus”. The term is a reference to the fact that the 1996 meeting at which NATO foreign ministers agreed to create a European Security and Defence Identity and make Alliance assets available for this purpose took place in Berlin. In practice, the arrangements seek to avoid unnecessary duplication of capabilities between the two organisations and to ensure that they work together hand in glove.

The strategic commander of the EU mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, who is also the most senior EU officer and is based at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium. The chain of command will run from an EU cell at SHAPE through another EU cell at Allied Joint Force Command Naples, which is at present responsible for both SFOR and the Kosovo Force (KFOR), to ensure that the missions operate seamlessly together. Contingency plans exist for NATO to provide over-the-horizon forces if required.

EUFOR will derive its mandate from a new UN Security Council resolution and will have an initial strength of 7,000, that is equal in size to SFOR. This compares with an initial NATO-led force, the Implementation Force or IFOR, of 60,000 more heavily armed and equipped troops that deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina 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. As a result, NATO and other international organisations have worked together with the various Bosnian authorities in the framework of a Defence Reform Commission to reform the country’s defence structures. This approach bore fruit in 2003 with the creation of a single state-level Defence Ministry, and subsequently a Joint Staff and an Operational Command. (For a discussion of defence reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, see Reforming Bosnia and Herzegovina’s defence institutions by James R. Locher III and Michael Donley and an interview with Bosnian Defence Minister Nikola Radovanović.)

NATO is now taking a leadership role within the Defence Reform Commission and will work together with Bosnian authorities to maintain the pace of reform in the coming years. In addition to implementing the defence-reform programme, Bosnia and Herzegovina must demonstrate that it is cooperating to the best of its ability with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, including helping apprehend Radovan Karadzic, before it is able to join the Partnership for Peace. The lack of ICTY cooperation in Republika Srpska is currently holding up Bosnian membership of the Partnership for Peace.

Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia*

The model for EU-NATO cooperation in Bosnia and Herzegovina was established in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* There, NATO handed responsibility for its peacekeeping mission to the European Union in April 2003 but retained a 180-strong military headquarters in the country. The NATO headquarters remains there to this day assisting the Skopje authorities with defence reform and preparations for eventual Alliance membership, as well as providing support to other NATO-led missions in the Balkans.

The Alliance originally deployed a military force in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* in August 2001 to oversee the voluntary disarmament of ethnic Albanian rebels, calling themselves the National Liberation Army, who had taken control of large swathes of territory in the east of the country. This step was a key pre-condition for a peace process to get under way as set out in the Ohrid Agreement, the framework document laying out the way forward for the country. A NATO crisis-management team had earlier helped negotiate a cease-fire with the rebels and persuaded them to support peace talks. NATO also played a leading role in brokering and then overseeing implementation of an amnesty, which in turn facilitated the transformation of the former National Liberation Army into a new political party. That party joined the government after landmark elections in September 2002.

The European Union’s military mission, Operation Concordia, came to an end in December 2003 and was succeeded by an ongoing police monitoring and advisory mission. In spite of the absence of an international military presence in the country and the premature death of President Boris Trajkovski in a plane crash, the moderate coalition government in Skopje has continued faithfully to implement the Ohrid Agreement. In the security sphere, the ethnic balance within the armed forces has improved and a key phase of the country’s Strategic Defence Review, in which an assessment of the forces required to meet the country’s defence objectives, their capabilities, equipment and support were agreed, has been completed.

A referendum that took place in November on the law on decentralisation, which was a requirement of the Ohrid Agreement, failed to derail the peace process. However, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* is still not out of the woods. The economy continues to stagnate and, as in 2001, there is always the risk of importing instability from neighbouring Kosovo, the province of Serbia and Montenegro that has been under UN administration since 1999.


While conditions have improved in Kosovo in recent years, the economy has failed to take off and the province’s political climate remains tense. Indeed, the threat of an eruption of violence, as happened in March 2004 when NATO deployed additional forces and Alliance-led peacekeepers were obliged to use force to maintain order and protect beleaguered Serb communities, is very real. For this reason, NATO is maintaining a robust military presence with some 17,500 troops in KFOR. This is, nevertheless, considerably fewer troops than the initial KFOR deployment in June 1999 of some 50,000.

In the wake of the March 2004 riots, all international organisations have examined their policies towards Kosovo and several important initiatives have been taken to revitalise the political process in the province to head off further violence. While it is critical that violence is not seen to pay and the perpetrators of the March riots are being brought to justice, the issue of Kosovo’s final status, effectively on hold ever since the 1999 NATO air campaign, is likely to come onto the agenda next year.

With the approval of the Contact Group, the new Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Kosovo, Søren Jessen-Petersen, has identified several priority areas in which progress needs to be made before status talks could begin. An assessment of progress should be made in the middle of 2005 and, if positive, talks should begin soon after. (For more on Jessen-Petersen’s plans for Kosovo, see an interview with him and for a discussion of Kosovo’s future, see Kosovo: the way forward by Kai Eide.)

As long as Kosovo’s status remains unresolved, the Kosovo Force (KFOR) bears special responsibility for maintaining a stable environment with a mandate derived from UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and a Military-Technical Agreement between NATO and the Yugoslav Army. Moreover, in the run-up to and during status talks, tensions are likely to be heightened.

Since the March riots, KFOR and the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) have developed detailed contingency plans with clearly delineated responsibilities to deal with a similar outbreak of violence in the future. They have also sought to engage local communities more on security matters by bringing together KFOR, the Kosovo Police Service, the UNMIK police and the nascent Kosovo institutions in a new body called the Kosovo Security Assistance Group. To date, however, Kosovo Serbs have chosen not to participate in this body, thereby undermining its potential.

One of the great challenges in Kosovo is to persuade the province’s Serbs that it is in their interest to participate in political life. However, whereas some 90,000 voted in the first Kosovo Assembly elections in 2001, only some 2,000 did so in October this year. The vast majority of Kosovo Serbs, whether out of conviction or intimidation, heeded a boycott called by Belgrade. Indeed, the key to changing Serb attitudes in Kosovo at a time when status talks appear imminent may ultimately depend on decisions taken in Belgrade.

Serbia and Montenegro

Developments in Serbia and Montenegro continue to have wide-reaching implications both for Kosovo and for much of the rest of the region. After the ouster of former President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, Belgrade set a very different foreign policy course and has generally pursued pragmatic and constructive policies towards the Alliance, even at times of heightened tension such as during the upsurge in violence in Kosovo in March 2004.

In June 2003, Belgrade formally applied for membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. Since then, military officers and civilians have been participating in NATO orientation courses. These aim to provide participants with a basic knowledge of the Alliance as well as an introduction to crisis-management issues, peace-support operations and civil-military cooperation. Moreover, relations between NATO and Serbia and Montenegro had improved to such an extent by November 2003 that then Secretary General Lord Robertson was able to visit Belgrade on his farewell tour of the former Yugoslavia.

Serbia and Montenegro has made progress in the field of defence reform in the recent past and has cooperated with the ICTY, notably in the surrender of former President Milosevic. However, that cooperation has waned during the past year and several requirements must still be met before the country will be admitted into the Partnership for Peace. 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 eight Allied countries and their leaders at the International Court of Justice, which is also in the Hague.

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. Moreover, by becoming a member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Serbia and Montenegro would have taken the first step on the ladder of Euro-Atlantic integration and acquired a voice in a NATO forum. The benefits of Serbian and Montenegrin membership of the Partnership for Peace to NATO and the international community are also considerable, as it would be difficult to rebuild long-term security and stability in the region without Belgrade as a constructive partner.

Despite many unresolved issues in the Balkans, progress is clearly being made. While that progress is often painstakingly slow, the Balkans has certainly not proved to be the quagmire that many analysts predicted when NATO first intervened militarily in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995. Hence the decision to bring SFOR to an end. By remaining committed and staying the course, NATO is providing the essential pre-conditions for the development and growth of civil society and enabling people of all ethnicities to aspire to a better future for themselves and their families. 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.

Robert Serry is Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Crisis Management in NATO’s Operations Division and chairman of the Balkans Task Force. Christopher Bennett is editor of “NATO Review” and author of “Yugoslavia’s Bloody Collapse” (New York University Press, 1995).

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