Balkans under the NATO umbrella

Balkans under the NATO umbrella
Hajrudin Somun*

The North Atlantic Treaty Organi-zation will have enough reasons to celebrate its 60th anniversary on April 4, 2009.

If nothing else, it succeeded in burying the Warsaw Pact, the rival giant security bloc that was the main raison d’être behind NATO’s existence during the Cold War period. The venue of the NATO summit, shared between Strasbourg in France and Kehl in Germany, has an additional significance for the Western security mechanism: Returning to its military command after 43 years, France rejoins the alliance as a full member. Even French linguistic gourmands will enjoy looking at the summit’s official poster — NATO is the same in the French if one reads it backward.

Looking at it from the angle of the Balkans, the anniversary of NATO is being met with mixed and even antagonistic feelings. Two countries, Albania and Croatia, will be received into the alliance’s membership, while the third candidate in line, disappointed Macedonia, was left at the door due to the still unresolved name dispute with Greece. However, another one year anniversary connected to NATO was „celebrated“ last week in a totally different manner. Kosovar leaders, 10 years after NATO’s military campaign against the former Yugoslavia, „opened a new chapter in Kosovo’s history, the chapter of freedom and democracy.“ For Serbian leaders, however, Kosovo’s declaration of independence last year represents only a „continuation of the pressure and aggression that NATO carried out in 1999.“ In spite of the deep animosity toward NATO being expressed in Belgrade these days, Serbia hopes it will become a member, together with or even earlier than the other regional countries waiting in line — Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What a mess of confusion the alliance’s enlargement policy is when compared to the first wave of NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe!

Generally, it is the consequence of an undefined condition of national and international relations that the Balkans have experienced over the last century and that granted to political vocabularies a new term — „balkanization.“ It is not the aim of this short review to delve further into history, but the role of today’s NATO in Southeast Europe could be clearer if we recall the state in which the region was left following World War II. The famous 1945 Yalta Conference of the anti-Hitler alliance did not pay considerable attention to the situation in Southeast Europe. It also did not formalize an agreement between Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin on the post-war division of the Balkan Peninsula into areas of British and Russian influence. Churchill, describing in his memoirs the meeting with the Soviet leader in Moscow in October 1944, stressed that he proposed that Stalin „have 90 percent predominance in Romania, for us to have 90 percent of the say in Greece, and go 50-50 about Yugoslavia.“ He noted the suggestion on a piece of paper and pushed it over the table. Stalin put a large check mark on it and returned it to Churchill. Churchill’s remark, „it was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down,“ is an example of the permanent ambition of great powers to decide easily on the destiny of „small peoples.“

However controversial the Churchill-Stalin agreement was — as it was at the same time „written and unwritten“ and later denied by the Russians — it worked for a while, but leaving Yugoslavia undefined helped the Western world lose it. Although it is not disputed that Yugoslavia was ruled by communists, its lifelong president, Josip Tito, wisely used the „50-50“ formula to keep his country at a distance from the confrontational Western and Eastern blocs; he became one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The newly established Western military association, NATO, appeared in such a vague field of the emerging Cold War. Creating a southern belt around Soviet Russia to limit its access to the Mediterranean Sea, it circumvented the southeastern European strip of communist countries by  including Greece and Turkey in the alliance. Turkey, in that way, became more Western, European and Balkan than it had been since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 1950s, NATO made one more attempt to strengthen its southern wing and bring Yugoslavia closer to the West. It initiated a political and military association between Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia as a dam against the Soviet expansion in the region. Yugoslavia joined the 1953 Balkan Pact because it was considered important to obtain the support of the West at a time when there was still danger of a Russian invasion due to Tito’s historic „No!“ to Stalin.

The pact was soon weakened by unexpected events — Stalin died a few days after it was signed and antagonism increased between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus. It was, anyhow, an unrealistic move between two strongly established political poles of the world. People wonder today if there was such a thing as the Balkan Pact. Through the fog of memories from my school days, I remember a strange image from a rainy autumn day in Ljubljana, then north of Yugoslavia: Turkish President Celal Bayar waved from a motorcade full of high-level foreign officials that passed under narrow linen bands tied between trees, on which had the typical handwritten communist propaganda, „Long live the alliance between Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia!“ The foreign dignitary waving to the surprised passers-by was none other than the president of Turkey, Bayar!

That failed initiative was followed by an almost four-decade-long period of bipolar rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, without significant changes in Europe. However, it was in Europe’s southeastern corner that old frozen conflicts and animosities from World War II were expected to erupt again. In the meantime, China gained influence through its alliance with Albania, a strange body on the European continent — just as communist Cuba came between the two Americas — and was woven into the complicated Balkan patchwork.

The waiting did not pass in vain. At the beginning of the 1990s, when other European communist regimes started — suddenly but peacefully — to collapse and the Warsaw Pact fell like a house of cards, Yugoslavia began to burn from the inside, ignited by the old dream of its biggest ethnic group to create a Greater Serbia. Being surprised by and busy with the historical changes taking place in Russia and Eastern Europe, NATO did not react properly to Southeast Europe. The leading powers of the Western alliance — the US, Great Britain, France and Germany — were not able to agree upon a united approach toward the conflicts in Yugoslavia. As for NATO’s military command, the reasons for its hesitation and inappropriate approach could also be found in its apprehension to engage the Yugoslav army. Keeping it out of the control of either of the two blocs, Tito succeeded in building up one of strongest and best-equipped European armies, which, in the meantime, has been transformed into the main tool for Serbian ambitions.

Thus, regional nationalistic leaders were encouraged, through political disunity and military restraint within the Euro-Atlantic alliance, to continue conflicts and ethnic cleansing. Bosnia and Herzegovina, being denied the right to defend itself by the imposition of the arms embargo, especially was left at the mercy of fierce aggression and destruction. Only in the midst of the Bosnian war did NATO carry out its first military action, shooting down four Serbian aircraft and deploying peacekeeping forces. After the Srebrenica massacre in mid-1995, NATO undertook a bombing campaign against the Army of the Republika Srpska, helping to bring war to an end. It was also instrumental in defining the role and mandate of the Alliance outside of its borders, which led to the more decisive 1999 military intervention against Yugoslavia in the Kosovo war. Based on their experience in the Kosovo engagement, NATO adopted the Alliance’s Strategic Concept that emphasized „conflict prevention and crisis management“ with or without the UN’s approval of military intervention.

However distinct the role of NATO might be in the Balkans, there are still many undefined issues in the region that can make its future stability uncertain. Let us mention only one minor issue: the argument over Macedonia’s name between that country and Greece. There are other questions that need special review and attention. For example, what about the interdependence between the integration of the region with NATO and the European Union? And if democracy and reform processes were common criteria and values needed for the integration — more than geopolitical interests — why has Romania, for example, been integrated before Croatia? In the end, has Russia finally relinquished the Balkans to the west?

In any case, once the four remaining regional countries get a place under the NATO umbrella, I would like to imagine what Churchill — if he were resurrected from the last century — would say about his „50-50“ formula.

*Hajrudin Somun is the former Bosnia and Herzegovina ambassador to Turkey.

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