December 27, 2001
NATO in the Balkans: Time for a Rethink?
By Vitomir Miles Raguz.
The next round of North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion is due next
fall at the Prague summit of the NATO members' heads of state. Not
surprisingly, the debate over candidates is already in full swing. Yet almost
all of the debate has focused on the so-called Vilnius Nine -- Albania,
Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and
Slovenia -- named after the Lithuanian capital where their leaders met last
year to begin lobbying their cases.
Three European states -- Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Yugoslavia --
were not invited to Vilnius. At the time, they had not met the internal
stability requirements to participate and so are generally overlooked in the
present discussions. Since then, however, all three have voted into office
new Western-leaning governments, some for the first time, and Croatia was
recently included in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, the antechamber
for eventual NATO candidacy. This is a significant boost for the region's
basic security. Yet the advance of Western security policy in the region
should not stop there. With a bit of deft handling, NATO now has the
opportunity to reshape the region for decades to come. Let's take this
* Croatia. Since we often speak of NATO membership as a reward, the delay
in bringing Croatia into the Partnership for Peace was curious, as perhaps no
new state better deserved membership.
For starters, Croatia saved Bosnia. In the summer of 1995 its military
operations ended a humanitarian catastrophe for which the West could not
muster an appropriate response. Four years later, during the Kosovo crisis,
Croatia opened its airspace to the NATO alliance, no questions asked, though
it could have demanded political favors in return. And the smooth
transformation of Zagreb politics in January 2000 from one-party monolith to
multiparty government turned out to be a harbinger for further
democratization in the region.
Yet Croatia's positive role has been overshadowed by long held prejudices.
There's the (mistaken) view that Croats joined the Axis en masse in World War
II while the Serbs were the sole members of the Allied partisan movement.
More recently, two decisions in the International Criminal Tribunal for the
former Yugoslavia -- Blaskic and Kordic -- found Croatia to have been
involved as an aggressor in Bosnia in 1993, although the court's reasoning
left much to be desired.
For all that, Croatia's stabilizing role in the region cannot be ignored.
Croatia is Bosnia's principal security partner. Two-thirds of Bosnia's border
is with Croatia. It is the primary transit country for international forces
and supplies to this landlocked country, and Croatia's many ports and roads
along the Adriatic are Bosnia's lifelines to the outside world. Bringing NATO
to its borders will enhance Bosnia's attractiveness to investors and
stabilize its trade routes. From this perspective, the long-term security of
Bosnia and the region would be best served if NATO leaders took the next
logical step and included Croatia among the next round of new members.
* Bosnia. Bosnia remains handicapped even for the Partnership for Peace,
primarily because it has two armies: one Serb, the other Muslim-Croat. Since
NATO cannot accept a country with multiple armies, it has encouraged the
three sides in Bosnia to form a unified force. But the Serb side is not ready
to accept this, and the withdrawal of the Croat component from the
Muslim-Croat army further complicates the situation.
The Croat walkout points to the problems caused by back-door revisions of
Dayton that are intended to centralize the state. The Western powers now
favor such a policy in general, although the history of Bosnia tells us that
centralization is likely to fail. Ordinary Bosnian citizens, unlike the
governing elites, dismiss outright the thought of a unified army, arguing
that if it came to war, local Serbs and Croats would abandon ship either to
fight alongside one of the two, or sit idly by until their own homesteads
A better alternative would be to restructure the country's security needs
along Costa Rican lines: that is, near-total demilitarization, with a beefed
up police and border force and nonagression agreements with neighbors. This
would certainly benefit Bosnian taxpayers, already overburdened by military
expenditures that take up 40% of the budget.
NATO would be wise to consider how it can use its resources and moral force
to move Bosnia in this direction. It's unlikely that Bosnia will ever join
NATO, since the Serb side has not expressed interests beyond the Partnership
for Peace. But NATO can provide Bosnia with a future, thus enhancing the
region's stability without having to remain stationed in the region for
* Yugoslavia. After facing the might of NATO over Kosovo, it seems
improbable that Yugoslavia would want to join the Western alliance at all.
The new president, Vojislav Kostunica, has never addressed this issue
directly, except to suggest that he would want to sue NATO for damages and
war crimes before considering a partnership. On the military side, the
Belgrade elite will most likely prefer to keep an open-door policy to Moscow
for historical and religious reasons.
However, a group of Yugoslav army officers, led by wartime general Momcilo
Perisic, have called not only for Yugoslavia's membership in the Partnership
for Peace, but also for early NATO membership. This may be a window of
opportunity for the West, if it is willing to offer carrots and exercise
One of the carrots would be the upgrade of the ICTY. Belgrade is not very
happy with the ICTY's work so far, but neither is anyone else in the region.
This regional discontent may make it easier for the Western powers to reform
the ICTY to the pre-1995 standards of international law. Another carrot would
be early EU candidacy, something that Belgrade dearly desires.
* * *
With the expansion of the European Union and NATO to Eastern Europe as far as
the Baltics and the Black Sea, the new Balkan states will no longer play the
strategic role for the Western powers that the former Yugoslavia enjoyed
during the Cold War. And yet the risk that they may fall prey to regressive
political and economic forces is real. With 20,000 troops in Bosnia alone,
NATO now has the opportunity to play an important leadership role in making
sure that doesn't happen. It should seize it.
-- From The Wall Street Journal Europe
Mr. Raguz was ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the European Union and
NATO from 1998 to 2000. This article is adapted from the Harvard
Copyright © 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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