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Deepening relations

Gabriele Cascone and Joaquin Molina examine the coming year's prospects for the Western Balkans from a NATO perspective.

Keeping the peace: The presence of a NATO-led force in Kosovo is perceived by all actors as the single most critical factor in ensuring a safe and secure environment (© KFOR)

Although the security situation in the Western Balkans has greatly improved since the end of the wars of Yugoslavia's dissolution and media attention has shifted to other conflict areas, the Alliance remains deeply engaged. Indeed, NATO's commitment to the Western Balkans is, if anything, growing as the Alliance seeks to integrate all countries of the region into Euro-Atlantic structures, thereby extending the zone of stability and security in Europe.

Today, NATO continues to lead what remains - in terms of troops - the largest peace-support operation in the world in Kosovo. The Alliance is also working closely with both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro to prepare these countries for membership of NATO's Partnership-for-Peace (PfP) programme. And NATO is building ever closer relations with Albania, Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* the three members of the Membership Action Plan (MAP), the Alliance's tailored programme preparing aspirants for eventual NATO membership.

The contrast between today's situation in the Western Balkans and that of just over a decade ago when in summer 1995 NATO intervened militarily in Bosnia and Herzegovina could hardly be greater. Whereas war or the threat of war hung over the entire region, today a return to major hostilities is unthinkable and all countries and entities have a genuine prospect of eventual, if not imminent, Euro-Atlantic integration. Moreover, much of the progress that has been made in the intervening period may directly be attributed to the secure environment that NATO has provided.

Challenges, nevertheless, remain and 2006 will be critical for the region. It is the year in which Kosovo's final status is to be decided, with all the related tension and potential unrest that this decision will likely involve both in Kosovo and in neighbouring countries. It is also the year in which the nature of the relationship between Montenegro and Serbia should be resolved following Montenegro's independence referendum. And it is the year in which Bosnians elect leaders to chart their country's future course as the powers of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina are reduced with the winding down of the Office of the High Representative.

Kosovo

Negotiations aimed at resolving Kosovo's final status began in November last year under the auspices of UN Special Envoy and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. NATO is supporting President Ahtisaari's efforts - as well as those of the Contact Group - to move the negotiation process forward and produce a settlement that will strengthen both the security and the stability of the Balkans.

In recent months, NATO has repeatedly called on all sides to approach the final-status talks in a constructive manner. In addition, the Alliance remains engaged in discussions of the so-called Expanded Contact Group that includes representatives of France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the European Commission, the European Council, the EU Presidency and NATO. This includes the ministerial-level meeting that took place in London on 31 January in which NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer himself participated.

The eventual settlement, expected before the end of the year, will have to respect the ten principles established by the Contact Group immediately after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan´s decision - endorsed by the UN Security Council - to open future-status negotiations. These include compatibility with international standards of human rights; democratic values and European standards, including a Euro-Atlantic dimension; multi-ethnicity; mechanisms to ensure the participation of all communities in government; safeguards for the protection of Kosovo's cultural and religious heritage; measures to strengthen regional security and stability; measures to ensure Kosovo's security; mechanisms to improve Kosovo's ability to enforce the rule of law and fight organised crime; measures to promote Kosovo's economic development; and an ongoing international civil and military presence.

In addition, the settlement should ensure that Kosovo does not return to the situation before NATO's intervention in March 1999; that there are no changes to Kosovo's current borders, that is the province should not be partitioned nor joined to any other country; and that the territorial integrity and stability of neighbours are respected. Progress still needs to be made on implementing the standards for Kosovo that were agreed by UNMIK and the Kosovo government in 2003. And any solution that is unilateral or results from the use of force is unacceptable.

The presence of a NATO-led force in Kosovo is still perceived by all actors as the single most critical factor in ensuring a safe and secure environment and, by extension, stability in the wider region. To this end, NATO will retain a robust military presence in Kosovo throughout the future-status talks and in the post-settlement period. In the wake of the rioting that rocked Kosovo in March 2004, the Alliance has been reconfiguring its forces on the ground, currently numbering some 17 000, to make them more effective. As a result, KFOR has been transformed during the past six months. In place of the previous four Multinational Brigades, there are now five Multinational Task Forces.

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. The relationship between Belgrade and NATO has improved greatly since the Alliance's 1999 Kosovo air campaign and especially since the ouster of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic a year later. Moreover, Serbia and Montenegro formally applied for membership in NATO's PfP programme in June 2002 and hopes to be invited to join at the Alliance's Riga Summit in November. However, major obstacles still have to be overcome.

President Milosevic's arrest and transfer to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague (ICTY) and his subsequent death in March 2006 might one day be viewed symbolically as marking the end of a bloody chapter in the history of both Serbia and Montenegro and the wider region. At present, however, it is not clear whether the final page has been turned. Indeed, extremists have sought to make political capital out of both President Milosevic's death and fears that Serbia is about to "lose" Kosovo, reviving, in the process, some of the intolerant rhetoric of the 1990s.

All countries and entities in the Western Balkans have a genuine prospect of eventual, if not imminent, Euro-Atlantic integration

The European Union decided in October 2005 to open talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Serbia and Montenegro, but suspended them after Belgrade failed to meet a 30 April deadline to surrender Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime commander indicted for genocide, to the ICTY. Moreover, it is the issue of cooperation with the ICTY that is blocking Serbia and Montenegro's PfP membership.

Since 2003, NATO has been assisting Serbia and Montenegro with a Tailored Cooperation Programme that includes a number of pre-PfP activities focused on defence reform. The programme also allows for participation in selected PfP events. In addition, NATO has agreed to open a Military Liaison Office in Belgrade and, together with the Defence Ministry of Serbia and Montenegro, has formed a Defence Reform Group that met for the first time in February to support further defence-reform efforts in the country.

NATO's existing programmes have contributed to improving relations between the Alliance and Serbia and Montenegro. However, the relationship cannot continue to develop unless and until Belgrade cooperates fully with the ICTY and surrenders remaining indictees, including Mladic. Moreover, following Montenegro's vote in favour of independence, a new state is likely to emerge in the region, which might also become part of the Alliance's integration efforts.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

A similar lack of cooperation with the ICTY, in particular on the part of Republika Srpska, has held up PfP membership for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite this, NATO is already working with the country to help it meet future requirements for the PfP programme and eventual NATO membership.

Although NATO handed responsibility for day-to-day security in Bosnia and Herzegovina to a 7000-strong EU Force, or EUFOR, in December 2004, the Alliance retains a physical presence in the country. NATO Headquarters Sarajevo, which has a staff of some 150, works primarily on defence reform in the framework of a Tailored Cooperation Programme, as well as on counter-terrorism, apprehending war-crimes suspects and intelligence-gathering. In this way, NATO is helping construct single armed forces out of the three rival militaries that existed at the end of hostilities in 1995.

In April this year, Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer appealed to Allies to finance a PfP Trust Fund to help Bosnia and Herzegovina demobilise soldiers and support their reintegration into civilian life. Although the scale of the programme is still being worked out, it is likely to be the largest NATO trust fund to date.

Progress in defence reform should eventually help Bosnia and Herzegovina move from being a consumer of security to a provider. Indeed, the country began contributing to international stabilisation operations last November by deploying a 36-strong team of ordnance experts in Iraq.

The outcome of elections, scheduled for 1 October, will be especially important because the nature of the international presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina is changing. The post of High Representative, which has overseen implementation of the peace process and benefited from extraordinary powers, will cease to exist some time in the first half of 2007. In its place, an EU Special Representative will seek to assist Bosnia and Herzegovina's ongoing transformation with special emphasis on the country's integration into Europe. Talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union got under way in January this year. (For more on the changes, see interview with Christian Schwarz-Schilling, Bosnia and Herzegovina's last High Representative.)

MAP trio

All three MAP countries - Albania, Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* - have been making steady progress in the field of defence reform, developing and implementing increasingly realistic programmes under NATO auspices. In the case of both Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* the Alliance has military headquarters in the countries to assist them with their defence reforms.

Although NATO membership is not on the agenda of the Riga Summit, Albania, Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* are progressively integrating themselves into NATO structures within the MAP framework. Moreover, they are all contributing troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The three countries are also increasingly working together within the US-sponsored Adriatic Charter and are contributing a 12-person combined medical team to ISAF in this framework.

In addition to aspiring to NATO membership, Albania, Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* are seeking to join the European Union at the earliest possible opportunity. Albania is about to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union. Croatia began accession talks in October last year and, following the arrest of Ante Gotovina, the highest-ranking Croat officer to be indicted by the ICTY, in December, is now able to take this relationship forward. And the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* was granted EU candidate status in December last year.

The future for Albania, Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* is clear and lies in full European and Euro-Atlantic integration. The timelines for both processes are not fixed and depend on how well each country continues to implement a wide range of reforms. However, as long as all three continue to make the kind of progress they have been making in recent years, they will be strong candidates for receiving Alliance membership invitations at NATO's 2008 Summit. In this way, they will also be blazing a trail for the rest of the region, for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro and Kosovo, whose long-term stability, security and prosperity is in large part dependent on the relationships that they can build with both the European Union and NATO.

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