Tipping point in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo: EU and NATO must finish the job

Despite progress, trouble looms in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. Better engagement now by NATO and the EU can prevent backsliding.

Remember Bosnia? Kosovo? In the 1990s, we learned a new phrase – ethnic cleansing – and we embarked on the first of what have now been many interventions in regional crises. Yet 15 years after the Serbian massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, we have still not finished the job of making the Balkans peaceful and safe for all.

This was the subject of a recent hearing held by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, Jim DeMint, and George Voinovich in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It’s also a subject likely to be discussed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at this week’s NATO meeting in Estonia.

To be sure, the region has seen some success. Slovenia and Croatia are vibrant democracies, increasingly prosperous, and members of NATO. Slovenia is also a member of the European Union, and Croatia is well on its way. Albania is a member of NATO. And Montenegro is making rapid progress.

But trouble looms. With nationalists pulling at the fabric of Bosnia, with Serbia and a handful of EU members refusing to recognize an independent Kosovo, with Serbia still not having found its place in the European family, with NATO and the EU fatigued on further enlargement, with crime and corruption rampant, the region risks sliding back into instability and worse.

This can be prevented – at far lower cost than it took to stop ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, or what it would cost to intervene again. Compared with Afghanistan, we have advantages in the Balkans: no active fighting; a literate population and skilled workforce; an advanced economy; and a surrounding region made up of EU and NATO members.

What’s more, we know what is needed for success: using the attractive power of NATO and the EU to drive through tough but needed reforms.

The challenge in the Balkans is the same challenge Europe has faced for centuries – overcoming history. It is no easy task. It takes strong incentives and disincentives for nations to let go of irredentism, the memories of territories lost, and the grievances of past warfare, and instead to invest in the future.

But as we saw in the 1990s, the real, near-term prospect of NATO and EU membership provides just that kind of incentive structure. It strengthens the hand of reformers in convincing publics that short-term pain and rejecting nationalist agendas will deliver greater benefits, and that the contrast – wallowing in these agendas – will separate a nation from a growing, integrated European family.

Clearly, countries must meet the conditions of membership. They must do the hard work of reform. But the EU and NATO can be passive or active. A passive stance gives little incentive and empowers those with revanchist agendas. But an activist stance, where we stress our willingness to admit new members and work with candidate countries on specific reforms, empowers those who are prepared to implement the fastest and farthest reaching change.

Now is a time to give new energy to finishing the job in the Balkans – to bringing that region fully into the European mainstream before it slides backward. Several steps can be taken:

First, the EU and NATO must reiterate, emphatically and credibly, that they are prepared to admit as members every country in the Balkans that meets the conditions of membership.

Second, to generate this renewed political commitment, Washington will need to engage actively not only with the EU and NATO as institutions, but also with key member states.

Third, the EU and NATO should aggressively use the tools already at their disposal to incentivize necessary reforms – for example, visa-free travel, EU association agreements, and NATO’s Membership Action Plan.

Fourth, in Bosnia, we should maintain a robust international presence and commitment, including a strong, international “high representative” and an EU force, until Bosnia sustainably implements far-reaching reform.

Fifth, we should maintain a robust commitment in Kosovo – both through the nearly 10,000 soldiers that make up the NATO-led Kosovo Force and through the European Union Rule of Law Mission – while pushing for recognition by all EU states and improved governance within (and throughout all) of Kosovo.

Sixth, we need to give a renewed impetus to resolving the Macedonia name issue. Because Greece’s own identity is linked to ancient Macedonia, it strongly objects to its northern neighbor going by the name “Republic of Macedonia.” The Macedonians could begin with modest confidence-building measures – Does the airport really have to be named after Alexander the Great? – followed by compromises by both sides.

Seventh, NATO and the EU should reward Montenegro’s reform successes by accelerating its path toward membership in both institutions – not least because this can spur greater momentum in the region.

Eighth, the US and EU should carry out a robust bilateral engagement with Serbia, building its sense of belonging within the transatlantic community.

And ninth, we should work aggressively with Albania to strengthen democratic institutions, transparency, and anticorruption, in part by leveraging the prospect of EU membership.

Resolving these lingering issues is difficult, but doable. And far better to invest the energy and effort now, when the region is calm, than to risk greater instability in the future. Remember: The worst human-rights atrocities in Europe since the Holocaust happened in the Balkans just 15 years ago.

Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, is senior fellow and managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He’s also a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council of the United States.

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