The present edition of Harvard International Review (Fall 2001) runs my piece
on NATO expansion and the SEE states. It argues for Croatia's membership,
BiH's neutrality aka Costa Rica, and Yugoslavia's semi-neutrality.
Harvard International Review
Fall 2001, Pages 26-30.
Perspectives: Vitomir Miles Raguz
Balkans in NATO: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Yugoslavia
The next round of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion is due
in Fall 2002 at the Prague Summit of the NATO members' heads of state. Not
surprisingly, the debate over candidates is already in full swing. However,
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 (BiH), and
Yugoslavia-were not invited to Vilnius. At the time, they had not met the
internal stability requirements to participate. Consequently, they 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 thus they deserve a closer look either as candidates for NATO
membership or as countries where NATO can play an enhanced stabilizing role.
Croatia was recently included in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, the
antechamber for eventual NATO candidacy. This is a significant boost for the
region's basic security. The advancement of Western security policy in the
region should not stop there, however. Croatia should move on to the next
stage, not only because it deserves to, but also for the benefit of regional
Only two European states now remain without a formal relationship to NATO:
BiH and Yugoslavia. BiH presents both a challenge and an opportunity to NATO.
With more than 20,000 NATO troops in the country, the Western alliance should
seriously consider how it can use those troops and its substantial influence
to permanently stabilize BiH, thereby obtaining a long-desired exit for
itself. Given the recent political developments in Belgrade, a similar
opportunity for advancing Western interests may lie in Yugoslavia as well,
for the first time in a decade.
Croatia's recent inclusion in the PfP program is long overdue. Since we often
speak of NATO membership as a reward, the delay here is curious, as perhaps
no new state deserves this honor more than Croatia. Since the breakup of the
Warsaw Pact, Croatia has done more to benefit Western interests than any
other new democracy. The smooth transformation of Zagreb politics from
one-party monolith to multi-party government was indeed a welcome harbinger
for democratization in the region, but Croatia's positive role in the region
predates the January 2000 elections.
To begin, Croatia saved BiH. In the summer of 1995 its military operations,
named Operation Storm, ended a carnage Europe had not seen since World War
II-a humanitarian catastrophe for which the West could not muster an
appropriate response. The Western capitals often unfairly take credit for
this turnaround; in fact, the peace in BiH came only once the Croatian Army
(HV) had established a new balance of power in the region by its summer
operations. Everything that followed, from the first exercise of NATO air
power to the Dayton-Paris peace agreement, was a filling-in of a diplomatic
"All along, the United States and its allies have been looking for a
force-other than themselves-that could check Serbian and Bosnian Serb
adventurism and produce a military balance on which realistic settlement
could be built. Maybe such a force is now emerging: Croatia," wrote The
Washington Post three days before Operation Storm commenced. At the end of
the operation the Post added, "The Croatians argue they are not the problem
but the solution; they claim to have created a new regional 'balance' on
which 'proper' peace talks with the Serbs can begin. This line has been
enthusiastically adopted by the American government, which is under pressure
to show that the quiet political support it extended to Croatia had a
legitimate purpose of promoting a negotiation in Bosnia."
Richard Holbrooke, the main US diplomatic broker in Dayton, makes a rather
unflattering reference to the HV in his peace negotiations diary as "junkyard
dogs," typical to his style, but he adds that Zagreb had Washington's unsaid
support in its endeavors in BiH out of desperation, as the only alternative
to the risk-averse West.
One military analyst at the time noted that the turnaround in Bosnia was 80
percent the doing of the HV, 15 percent of the Bosnian Croat militia (the
HVO), and 5 percent of the Bosnian Muslim militia (the ABiH). Interestingly,
Britain's leading commentator, Martin Wollacott, later concluded in The
Washington Times that the Croatian military victories in 1995 changed the
fortunes for BiH, while the Western diplomatic initiative that followed only
protected the Serbs.
Croatia's positive role that year has been overshadowed by the often
confusing and unpopular policies of its past government, led by Franjo
Tudjman. However, the recent political changes in Zagreb allow for a
reconsideration of Croatia's role without having to refer to its previous
leaders' style of governing and understanding of democracy.
Croatia's positive role has also been overshadowed by two recent decisions in
the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY): Blaskic
and Kordic, in which Croatia was found to have been involved as an aggressor
in BiH in 1993. These decisions, however, are unlikely to stand the test of
time, and should be reversed. The ICTY judges disregarded the case law on
this issue, which required "command and control" of a country's forces in
foreign territory. The decision also included a spurious argument that, while
Croatia's own forces were neither present nor involved in fighting in central
Bosnia, its forces stationed further south in Herzegovina-forces that were
securing the isolated Croatian cities of Dubrovnik and Split-relieved the
Bosnian Croat militia from fighting the Bosnian Serb militia, thus allowing
these forces to engage the Bosnian Muslim militia in central Bosnia.
In fact, the ICTY does not even have the mandate to decide on the question of
international conflict, which is the domain of the International Court of
Justice. The decisions in the two cases say more about ICTY than about the
conflict in BiH. The ICTY appears to be more focused on creating new
international criminal law, often far different from present international
and any domestic law, rather than on dispensing justice and promoting truth
and reconciliation in BiH.
This type of convoluted but policy-driven common wisdom about Croatia is not
new. For instance, the view that Croats joined the Axis en masse in World War
II, while the Serbs were the sole members of the Allied Partisan movement in
the former Yugoslavia, was promoted for five decades. The objective was to
discredit and discourage Croat self-determination, which threatened the
stability of the favored communist regime of Tito and its unitary Yugoslavia.
However, a reconstructed history of World War II shows that the Croats, and
not the Serbs, initiated and provided the top leaders and disproportionate
number of soldiers to the anti-fascist movement.
The politicized description of Croatia's role in BiH in 1993 will not endure
as long. It should take historians much less time to deconstruct the present
fallacy than it took them to disprove the one from World War II. In addition,
the International Court of Justice may play a role should Zagreb seek a
ruling there. Similarly, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in BiH-which
is about to emerge-will bring forth new evidence removed from emotions and
the logic of war.
The truth is that Croatia was indeed involved in BiH, though not out of
altruism or expansion. Like most states that act across borders, it was
pursuing its own security interests. For Croatia this meant limiting the
costly refugee outflow from BiH, and, most importantly, protecting its
sliver-like Dalmatian coast. Zagreb's control of the coast ran on average
less than 10 miles inland, stretching 250 miles from Dubrovnik to Zadar.
These and other key population and economic centers were undefendable other
than from neighboring Herzegovina.
Zagreb thus supported and financed the Croat-majority entity in BiH, called
Herceg-Bosna, as an indispensable buffer zone. At the outset this zone was
the only form of resistance to Belgrade's gains in BiH. Many point out
correctly that if there had been no Herceg-Bosna in 1992, there would be no
BiH today. Zagreb allocated about 10 percent of its military budgetfor the
needs of Herceg-Bosna. Moreover, it allowed its ports, airports, and roads to
be used for the benefit of the ABiH. Zagreb even served as a broker, with
the blessings of Washington, in the arming of Sarajevo by the regime in
No less important, Croatia minimized the migration effects on the stability
of Europe by keeping one quarter of all BiH refugees in Croatia, while at the
same time housing an equal number of its own displaced persons. It spent in
excess of US$1 billion dollars for the care of refugees alone. Only Germany
and perhaps Sweden spent more.
Four years later, during the Kosovo crisis, Croatia opened its airspace to
the NATO alliance no questions asked. It could have demanded a substantial
consideration, given its strategic importance for overflights and the
hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tourism and shipping revenues due to
the air raids. One London investment bank estimated the loss at US$1.5
billion, a sum equal to seven percent of the country's GDP. The Western
alliance spent hefty amounts to stabilize the other countries in the region
for hard-currency losses due to NATO intervention. However, Croatia came
Croatia is BiH's principal security partner. Two-thirds of BiH'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 BiH's lifelines to the outside world. Bringing NATO to its
borders will enhance BiH's attractiveness to investors and stabilize its
trade routes. This is true for both of BiH's entities, the Federation and
the Republika Srpska. The latter's capital, Banja Luka, is only a two-hour
drive from Zagreb, a substantial European trade and communication center that
BiH still lacks. From this perspective, the long-term security of BiH 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 and Herzegovina
While Croatia is now on the road to membership, BiH remains handicapped even
for PfP association, primarily because it has more than one army: the Serb
army and the Muslim-Croat army. The latter is segregated below the battalion
level. For NATO to accept a country with multiple armies would be a precedent
that it is not ready to accept. Recently NATO has encouraged the three sides
in BiH to form a unified army. The Serb side is not ready to accept this
solution, seeing it as a fundamental revision of the Dayton peace agreement.
The recent political rebellion of the Croat community and the withdrawal of
the Croat component from the Muslim-Croat army, only adds to the complexity
of the BiH problem.
The Croat walkout, which was prompted by election-law changes rather than
military matters, 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 it has proven to be destabilizing in
the short term. Moreover, the history of BiH tells us that centralization
also fails in the long term. Contrary to popular wisdom, decentralization is
a much more viable and stabilizing policy for BiH, a position that was argued
convincingly by BiH's former defense minister, Miroslav Prce, in the Winter
2001 issue of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.
Just as Croats turned away from Sarajevo because of new election laws, the
Serbs would also just as quickly turn away from state institutions if any
attempt to centralize the BiH armed forces materialized. The Bosnian Serb
opposition to this model compels us to look for other solutions.
The formation of three territorial guards with common command authority,
combined with the demobilization of heavy weapons, may eventually become
acceptable for all three sides. With this solution, a NATO umbrella and
sub-regional non-aggression treaties between BiH and its two neighbors,
Yugoslavia and Croatia, may be necessary to maintain stability. This should
be the first phase of a substantial decrease in military spending in the
Other solutions are also on the table, including proposals to demobilize BiH
altogether; to restructure the country's security needs along the Costa Rican
model; or to reduce the two existing armies into two small professional
armies. The last option is either a unified army, which is unacceptable to
the Serbs, or two armies, which is unacceptable to NATO and the Croats.
Many also point out that complete demilitarization is more likely in BiH than
a unified army. Complete demilitarization would certainly be most beneficial
to BiH taxpayers. They are already overburdened with post-war reconstruction
costs, and the experience of the recent war certainly calls into question
whether spending for arms has any purpose at all.
More importantly, ordinary BiH citizens, unlike the governing elites, dismiss
outright the thought of a unified army. They argue that if it came to war
with either Yugoslavia and Croatia, local Serbs and Croats would abandon ship
either to fight alongside one of the two, or sit idly by until their own
homesteads became endangered. As pointed out in 1999 by Jacques Klein, the UN
special envoy for BiH to the Council of Europe, too many BiH citizens still
have a problem identifying or associating with BiH. This reality is simply
not conducive to crafting ambitious national-defense programs.
As an alternative to a unified or divided army, BiH may be able to adopt the
example set by Costa Rica. The Costa Rica model would require complete
demobilization, a NATO umbrella, and non-aggression agreements with
neighbors. It would be coupled with an expanded police force, border police,
and state disaster-relief corps. This solution has worked for Costa Rica for
50 years, and it may offer the best prospects for BiH.
NATO would be wise to consider how it can use its enormous resources and
moral force to move BiH to follow Costa Rica's direction. It is difficult to
see how BiH can pursue any other model, given the extraordinary amount of
resources it currently wastes on military spending. BiH now spends 40 percent
of its budget for defense, compared to Europe's average of around two
percent. Clearly, there is no room to maneuver here, nor will the
opportunities for international subsidies continue for much longer.
BiH's future lies in a neutrality similar to that of Costa Rica. Moreover,
future NATO membership is only theoretical, since the Serb side has the
constitutional right of veto on this issue, and it has not expressed
interests beyond the PfP association. But NATO can provide BiH with a future,
thus enhancing the region's stability by being realistic rather than
chimerical. The latter policy will force NATO to remain stationed and active
in BiH for decades. The former will stabilize BiH using its own economic
resources, free of arms that could be used to ignite passions, and create an
early exit opportunity for NATO.
After facing the might of NATO over Kosovo, it seems improbable that
Yugoslavia would want to join the Western alliance at all. The new leader of
Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica, has never addressed this issue directly.
However, his public discourse on the subject of NATO intervention suggests
that he would want to sue NATO for damages and war crimes before considering
a partnership. Belgrade's traditional affiliation with Russia is also a
crucial factor. In short, Yugoslavia may prefer neutrality. This is
consistent with recent remarks from Kostunica's cabinet. His aides suggested
that PfP association would be acceptable, but membership would be out of
However, a group of Yugoslav army officers, led by wartime general Momcilo
Perisic, have called not only for Yugoslavia's membership in the PfP, 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 patience. However, as
Perisic is considered a war criminal in both BiH and Croatia, a more credible
partner in Belgrade will be needed.
One of the carrots that would be welcomed concerns 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
Belgrade will look for other incentives as well, in particular regarding
reconstruction assistance. Further, it will seek to gain advantages for the
Serbs in Kosovo, to continue special relations with the Serb entity in BiH,
and an early EU candidacy, which is something that Belgrade would treasure
much more than NATO membership.
On the military side, the Belgrade elite will most likely prefer to keep an
open-door policy to Moscow for historical and religious reasons. The
Tito-style strategy of "equi-distance" was very profitable for the former
Yugoslavia, and the new Yugoslavia is likely to play the same game. But
Serbia's "quasi-neutrality" (that is, its de facto economic alliance with
Brussels coupled with military cooperation with Moscow) need not raise
suspicions in the region, especially if Romania and Bulgaria are granted
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 no longer play the
strategic role for the Western powers that the former Yugoslavia enjoyed
during the Cold War. Back then, the former Yugoslavia was a territorial and
political dividing line between the East and the West, an ideological
splinter in the Warsaw Pact, and a staging ground for covert operations. This
is no longer the case.
Some argue that the new Yugoslavia will still remain a strategic point of
interest for the West, given its close relationship to Moscow. Surely
Yugoslavia can be grouped with the "Russia-sensitive" sub-group of the
Vilnius Nine, along with the Baltics, Romania, and Bulgaria. But the new
Yugoslavia's importance declines as its neighbors to the east, Romania and
Bulgaria, become members.
Croatia belongs in a sub-group with Slovenia. By admitting either
country, NATO gains an ideological surrogate whose military preparedness is
top-notch, even if their strategic importance is minimal. NATO experts say
that relative preparedness of both countries matches that of Spain when it
joined in 1982.
Croatia also comes with important advantages over Slovenia. Expanding NATO
membership to Croatia aids the stability of the fragile Balkans. At the
minimum, it secures supply lines to BiH. NATO also gets a winning
combat-experienced army into its ranks. Policy-makers will probably not
overlook the popular support for NATO membership that runs at 70 percent in
Croatia, compared to 50 percent in Slovenia. Croatia has done the yeoman's
task for the West for at least a decade. It should get the recognition that
it is due.
Finally, BiH can probably be grouped with Albania, Macedonia, and Slovakia.
All will require costly programs to rationalize or upgrade their armed forces
to Western standards; all should be pursued with equal vigor. Even if these
countries are of little global strategic value, they are important because
without NATO leadership they may fall prey to regressive political and
economic forces that are inherently destabilizing. The situation in BiH
offers a historic opportunity to transform the present international
administration into a viable state, allowing the Allies to draw down and
redirect the huge resources they have invested into BiH over the years.
Vitomir Miles Raguz was Ambassador of BiH to the E.U. and NATO from 1998-2000.
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