NATO and the Balkans: The case for greater integration
KFOR airlifts humanitarian assistance to Albania
(© KFOR )
Dr Amadeo Watkins and Srdjan Gligorijevic discuss the past, present and immediate future of NATO's role in the western Balkans.
NATO's post-Cold war evolution has been strongly influenced by events in the Balkans. And although at each consecutive NATO summit meeting, the Alliance expands its areas of strategic interest and engagement, the Balkans remains a region of special concern to the Organisation.

But the view of NATO from the region itself is not so positive. Now that peace has largely been secured, questions remain. What will it take for the Alliance to win over the 'hearts and minds' of the people of the region - and more importantly, what needs to happen to increase stability in the area?

The Riga threshold

A positive consequence for the Balkans from NATO's November 2006 Riga Summit is that now all countries in the region have institutionalised relations with NATO - either through outright membership, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme or the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council.

Historically, whenever Balkan countries have had sharp differences in security, trouble has ensued. Now that all of these nations share the goal of Euro-Atlantic integration and all of them are engaged in a common forum via their relations with the Alliance, a risk-laden threshold has to a large extent been passed.

That said, the security situation in the western Balkans is still far from ideal, with no guarantee that the Kosovo 'solution' will put an end to tensions in the region. NATO is aware of this fact - its Riga Summit Declaration mentioned that "Euro-Atlantic integration, based on solidarity and democratic values, remains necessary for long-term stability" for the western Balkans.


The Alliance shares responsibility, as an active participant, for defining the post-conflict setting which has gradually evolved during the past six years or so, when all Balkan states have moved towards democratic practices in varying degrees.

NATO's earliest engagement with the region dates back to the Oslo Ministerial meeting in June 1992, in the early stages of the Bosnian war. At the Ministerial, NATO foreign ministers expressed their willingness to support, on a case-by-case basis, some peacekeeping tasks under the responsibility of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the precursor to the OSCE), by contributing assets and expertise.

Over the next few years, the evolving situation in the Balkans required the Alliance to broaden its political and military activities. On 28 February 1994, Alliance aircraft shot down four warplanes that violated the No-Fly Zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was the first time that NATO forces ever engaged in combat.

Euro-Atlantic integration, based on solidarity and democratic values, remains necessary for long-term stability
After the conclusion of the peace agreement for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the autumn of 1995, NATO was tasked by UN Security Council Resolution 1031 to field an Implementation Force (IFOR) numbering some 60 000 troops, thus taking over responsibility for peace and stability in the country. IFOR was the first peacekeeping operation ever undertaken by NATO.

14. NATO action was also undertaken to enforce peace in Kosovo in 1999 and again to disarm ethnic Albanian groups and collect their weapons in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* in 2001. Today, the Kosovo Force (KFOR) remains the largest NATO operational deployment in the Euro-Atlantic region.

Changing course

And so the Alliance remains present in the region today. In addition to KFOR, NATO maintains local headquarters in Sarajevo, Skopje and Tirana. Since December 2006, the Alliance has set up a liaison office in Belgrade, tasked with facilitating Serbian cooperation with NATO under the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. These presences are a positive factor not only in terms of enhancing security, but also in helping to move the region closer to the Euro-Atlantic community.

NATO's relationship with the western Balkans has evolved over the past decade. Today the Alliance can be seen to be bringing the parties together, as the individual countries in the region are all striving to greater or lesser degrees to get closer to the Euro-Atlantic club, and to move away from the turbulence of the past.

While the physical presence of Alliance forces in some parts of the region remains crucially important, over the past few years NATO has increasingly become engaged in defence reforms. The Alliance is developing a new area of competence in line with its new strategic orientation.

NATO assists and supports reform initiatives through a variety of mechanisms. For example, Albania, Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* all participate in NATO's Membership Action Plan (MAP) as 'advanced' regional candidates. Prior to joining PfP, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina benefited from Tailored Cooperation Programmes. These programmes are now being adjusted following the Riga Summit. The next step will be for these countries to develop Individual Partnership Programmes (IPPs).

Considering the above, NATO's standards should serve as the ultimate benchmark for evaluating defence and associated reforms in the region. However, this goal has on occasion been undermined at a practical level by interference from bilateral relationships which did not necessarily dovetail with a particular country achieving its strategic reform objectives. In our view, the lack of coordination and transparency among NATO Allies has been and continues to be the single most important impediment to a more effective engagement and has at times played a negative role in the course of defence reform in the region.

Hesitation and micro-management

Has the Euro-Atlantic community's initial hesitation to engage in the Balkans, which was so evident in the early stages of the Yugoslav wars, finally been eliminated?

The answer is no. While the Alliance is ready to engage in terms of offering guidance and advice, it is still hesitant to use its political weight to accelerate reforms. The best way to achieve the kind of reform that NATO members would like to see in the Balkans, both in terms of quality and time, is to introduce an even more intensified dialogue with the regional actors. Such dialogue would of course need to be tailored to the unique situation of each country in accordance with the "regatta principle" (i.e. that each country should progress at its own pace, and according to its ability to take on the obligations of closer association). The process would of course be delicate, but not impossible if correctly applied.

Although this effort must ultimately be domestically led, NATO should undertake to positively encourage public opinion in the region as soon as possible
The question of micro-management is also relevant in this context, especially with regard to NATO's future activities, as well as lessons already learned from the region. Full-scale micro-management by the Alliance is not desirable because it diminishes local ownership of the objective. Nor is there capacity for that level of intimate involvement within the current NATO framework.

Nevertheless, a more vigorous and compelling methodology could be taken by the Alliance. A stronger, more engaged approach by NATO would likely help regional actors to achieve political consensus more easily, as well as mitigate some of the difficulties caused by their lack of resources. The Alliance's Defence Reform Group initiative in Serbia was certainly a move forward and should be reinforced.

Challenges ahead

Building the trust that is fundamental to success, both vertically between NATO and the regional capitals, and horizontally among the countries of the western Balkans themselves, has not been easy. The Partnership for Peace programme uses a variety of channels to advance reforms and build confidence. While many of these channels are related to defence, there is also a broader scope of initiatives, stretching across the spectrum of governmental and non-governmental activity.

There are still challenges ahead, many of which stem from either lack of appropriate capacity within the region, or more significantly, from the lack of political maturity on the domestic front. Euro-Atlantic integration is an important objective for many actors in the western Balkans, and we believe that it is one which can be used as a tool to help address several of the region's more difficult security and stability challenges. So mechanisms must be found to ensure continued active support to the western Balkans' still-weak institutions, especially in the south - all while reinforcing the message with the region's political elites.

NATO has been engaged in the Balkans for well over a decade now. Perceptions of the Alliance are not overly positive in some countries. NATO membership is still a relatively low priority for many people on the street - and amongst some elites - in the region. The single biggest reason for this is the lack of adequate information about the Alliance. Although this effort must ultimately be domestically led, NATO should undertake to positively encourage public opinion in the region as soon as possible.

Regional cooperation

There is no doubt that NATO has helped to drive regional cooperation. And although limited in quality and quantity, some positive results are slowly emerging. For example, Croatia, following the Slovenian model, is gradually beginning to engage the region, in particular in sharing its experience with its neighbours. But there is still much room for improvement across the region and more concrete measures, especially in increasing local ownership, are clearly needed.

It must be made clear to all the actors in the western Balkans that regional cooperation, particularly in the context of addressing negative legacies and improving economic development, is vital to the region as a whole, as well as to the countries individually. Further, limited local budgets for defence reform, especially for interoperability, increase the need for innovative models of regional cooperation to benefit all. This should act as the ultimate benchmark for the countries concerned.

A stronger, more engaged approach by the Alliance would likely help regional actors to achieve political consensus more easily
In addition, the Alliance's PfP initiative should place more emphasis on the regional aspect, particularly in 'soft' areas such as education and training. This would be a good way to boost practical regional cooperation, get the former conflicting sides to start working together and build trust. To date, focus on these aspects has been somewhat limited, and much of the concentration has been on increasing interoperability with NATO forces.

International organisations

One of the focal points of NATO's transformation is its cooperation with international organisations. The long-lasting crisis in the Balkans in which the Alliance was intensively involved set a new precedent for subsequent NATO relations with major international organisations such as the United Nations and the OSCE, a fact that was highlighted in the Comprehensive Political Guidance endorsed at NATO's Riga Summit.

Perhaps the most viable cooperation, as a strategic partnership, is the one between NATO and the European Union (EU). This partnership was not only conceived in the Balkans, but the region represents a testing ground for future NATO-EU cooperation. Both NATO and the EU will have an important role to play in post-settlement Kosovo. The cooperation between NATO and any future EU civilian mission in Kosovo will be an interesting test.

The period from 2007 to 2008 will be crucial for the western Balkans, but also for NATO, mainly because of the issue of Kosovo's future status and the related regional implications.

The Alliance has achieved much in the region, most importantly in providing a stable and secure environment for long-term development. Lower down the scale, the Alliance has initiated programmes such as the trust fund on demobilisation and regional training. However, as suggested above, NATO's work should not stop there. The region is a post-conflict transition zone by many parameters, and needs continued assistance, particularly as the Alliance contemplates further enlargement. The switch to local ownership must be carefully managed, possibly in line with the Stability Pact's Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) initiative.

Understanding NATO's role in the Balkans requires acceptance of the fact that the countries in the region are fundamentally different. At the same time, while the regatta principle is without doubt the only effective way forward, the regional framework must not be disregarded. Tensions remain between these two principles at the practical level - especially among the key players in the region - and NATO's active engagement remains an important balancing factor.