Why NATO continues to divide the Balkans

Why NATO continues to divide the Balkans

Because of a single maverick senator, Montenegro’s bid to become the newest member of NATO has once again been stalled, forcing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to step in and urge ratification. Last week, Republican Senator Rand Paul was accused by his colleague, John McCain, of “working for Vladimir Putin” after he blocked the passage of the accession protocol. “It’s a minority position, yeah,” Paul acknowledged, although that’s a bit of an understatement. Given the FBI’s stunning revelation that it was investigating whether the Trump team colluded with Russia to influence the US elections, most lawmakers are eagerly looking for ways to rebuke the Kremlin. And one of the easiest ways to do this would be to signal Washington’s continuing commitment to NATO and further expand the alliance’s ranks.

But with a NATO-skeptic like Trump as president and with rebellious lawmakers like Paul holding up what might previously have been a rubber-stamped accession protocol, the future of NATO is under debate more than ever. This isn’t just the case within the alliance, but also in the Balkans, especially in the countries of the former Yugoslavia – seen more than ever as a key battleground between Western and Russian interests. Public opinion of NATO in these countries depends on a number of factors, from the history of the Yugoslav wars to perceptions of ruling politicians – many of whom, as in Montenegro and Bosnia, have held power since the 1990s. While dissatisfaction with political elites in the Balkans might seem irrelevant to those outside the region, it’s also tightly correlated with hostility to NATO. Western officials should inspect these kinds of internal weaknesses more closely, instead of hoping them to become resolved after joining NATO. After all, these vulnerabilities can be a key sign of whether the country will help fortify the alliance – or only drag it down.

Croatia, for instance, joined the Partnership for Peace in 2000 and acceded to NATO in 2009. The public has historically expressed positive opinions of NATO compared with other Balkan states, which isn’t surprising, since they directly benefited from the alliance’s interventions during the Yugoslav wars. And while Croatia continues to suffer from some political challenges, from frequent dissolutions of parliament to ministerial conflicts of interest, its woes are nothing compared to some of its neighbors. It’s no surprise that researchers have found that Croatians’ relatively high satisfaction with national government is correlated with greater support for NATO membership.

The story isn’t so rosy in Bosnia or Montenegro. Bosnia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace in 2000 and was later invited to join the Membership Action Plan. But the accession process has remained stalled for several reasons. First, the state has yet to fulfill certain membership requirements, ranging from relatively easy, such as the registration of certain defense properties, to much more difficult, like the enactment of real democratic reforms. Second, Bosnia’s weak, cumbersome structure of governance, divided into two federal states with a rotating presidency, has also been a major obstacle to a real consensus on membership.

However, the biggest roadblock has been the vast rift among the public about the prospect of membership. Croats and Bosnians are generally favorable, but the Serbs have remained understandably resistant, owing the alliance’s strikes on their forces in the ’90s. Despite these divisions, Western diplomats have continued to act Pollyannaish about Bosnia’s potential membership in the alliance. Last June, for instance, the ambassadors of the US, the UK, and NATO issued a joint statement urging Bosnian leaders to continue on the track towards membership, saying that it would be a “great way” to enact “positive change.” They emphasized that entering the alliance would bring not only increased security, but also “rule-of-law reforms that will help improve the lives of ordinary citizens.”

Perhaps these Western leaders should take a look at the state of affairs in Montenegro before they urge yet another divided, dysfunctional Balkan state to join. In Montenegro, as in Bosnia, the public is highly divided about the prospect of membership. According to a December opinion poll, only 39.5% of citizens favor joining NATO and 39.7% are opposed. Many locals are against membership in part because of their own recent history, when NATO bombed Serbia and Montenegro as part of their interventions to stop the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia (now Kosovo). But more importantly, this hostility to membership is closely tied with Montenegrins’ resentment of their corrupt, semi-authoritarian government.

The country has been ruled for nearly 30 years by Milo Dukanovic, a former communist leader turned semi-authoritarian ruler. Dukanovic has skillfully played up his country’s supposed ambitions to join NATO and the EU in large part to cover up his own dirty track record. Over his years in office, variously as prime minister or president, he’s been accused of a range of crimes from assisting Mafia groups to cronyism to election rigging. He stepped down after the most recent round of elections in October, but he continues to pull the strings from behind the scenes. It’s no wonder that Montenegrins are tired of him, and even less enthused about the prospect of joining an alliance so praised by their perennial strongman.

With such deep societal divisions, lingering historical resentment, and political dysfunction in Bosnia and Montenegro, it begs the question: why, indeed, have Western lawmakers been pushing so hard to bring them into NATO? Instead, they should try to encourage these states to mend internal divisions and enact reforms, before hoping that membership in the alliance will somehow change them from the outside in. Without such efforts, it’s too much to expect, as Tillerson wrote in his letter to Senate leadership, that membership for Montenegro and its neighbors would support “greater integration, democratic reform, trade, security, and stability among its neighbors” at some unknown point in the future.

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