Russian ‘nyet’ to NATO extension east

Author: Hajrudin Somun
(The former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey and a lecturer of the history of diplomacy at Philip Noel-Baker International University in Sarajevo.)

The Balkans are, in these spring times, crowded with so many high-level visits, failed conferences, empty promises and controversies about further regions’ accession to the European Union and NATO that it would be better to wait for better circumstances regarding the first part, considered by the complex term Euro-Atlantic, and focus on the second one.

It is not to say that the NATO accession process is going more smoothly and that it is less politically motivated and dependent, but it has wider geopolitical scope, broader impact on the Alliance’s relations with Russia, clearer actual position and greater urgency.

First, contrary to the EU approach limited for the time being to the Balkans, the NATO enlargement strategy could be regarded as a comprehensive political and security development on the broader area ranging, let us say, from Bosnia to Crimea. That region, encompassing the Black Sea, had been for a few centuries the scene of political and military struggle for dominance between Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Europe. The year 1878 was pivotal and a turning point in that regard: by defeating the Turks, the Russians established control over the northern Black Sea coasts, but were pushed back — more or less together with the Ottomans — from the Balkans by the European great powers’ decisions at the Vienna Congress.

And what is the situation we are witnessing more than 130 years later? After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, there are similar developments on the same geopolitical outlines, with the only difference being that we call them rivalry more often than a struggle for dominance.

After a pause caused by the 1990s Balkan wars, Western powers have launched diplomatic offensives to regain the European positions lost by the emergence of communism. A joint strategy was adopted to expedite the integration of countries created by the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia to the Euro-Atlantic alliances. The Partnership for Peace (PfP) was created as a transitional form for testing the capabilities of a further approach to NATO. Neither did they hesitate to use the alliance’s military means, namely in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999, to stop the Serbian military efforts to transform most of the former Yugoslavia’s lands into a Greater Serbia. In the Balkans, Bulgaria and Romania were accepted in to NATO and the European Union, regardless of the level of European standards achieved in judicial reforms and the fight against organized crime and corruption, a prerequisite imposed on other regional countries not having such high security and military importance.

Western alliance approaches Ukraine and Georgia
Similar efforts, however, failed when the Western alliance approached the Russian borders and tried to draw Ukraine and Georgia closer to NATO membership. The former American administration, pushed by President Bush’s bulldozer policy, caused great damage to the US and European modern diplomacy by that premature move, checking the advance of those two countries towards Euro-Atlantic integration for a few more years, if not decades.

In the meantime, Russia re-emerged as the global power in the new multi-polar world, using its energy resources rather than conventional arms and nuclear weapons. Its undisputable leader Vladimir Putin, being president or prime minister, has shown his muscles particularly towards neighboring countries seeking to bring NATO to Russian borders. With Ukraine he used the price and supply of gas, a vital resource, to initiate an economic crisis and popular dissatisfaction with the pro-Western government of that country. The final result was that the pro-Russian candidate Victor Yanukovych won the recent elections. Georgia was punished for its NATO plea two years before in a much harsher way. Tensions between the two countries that already existed led to the August 2008 South Ossetian war.

That war and the Russian recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhasia that was justified by the earlier unilateral declaration of Kosovo’s independence, strongly supported by the US and majority of the UN member-states, has increased rivalry over the disputed region. As stressed by Today’s Zaman a few days ago, the Russians are intent on continuing with their “backyard” politics, seeking “to have complete control of any integration in the Caucasus.” A good example in that regard is Moscow’s dealings with Armenia and Azerbaijan that have expressed their ambitions to join the Euro-Atlantic integrations, but that have the grave dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh as well. When Russians tell Armenians to normalize their relations with Turkey, they are also saying to Azerbaijanis at the same time: “See how your [Turkish] brothers are selling you out.”

While putting aside temporarily the membership issue, NATO is not giving up the intention to move nearer to the Western sphere all that area of the Caucasus and Central Asia that has once again become an important route towards China and South Asia. It keeps its doors open by the PfP programs and other forms of cooperation, such as GUAM (the regional cooperation with Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova).
Yes, we almost neglected it, but Moldova is also on that line being drawn around the Black Sea-board. Leaving the Caucasus in a form of status quo, we are sailing again towards the Balkans, where the topic of NATO enlargement is still a hot spot.

The subject of the EU and NATO accession processes was removed by the integration of Bulgaria and Romania from the east, and Hungary and Slovenia from north, to the peninsula’s central part that is commonly called the Western Balkans. I avoid using that term — aren’t there enough other Balkan divisions! Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo are meant by that vague expression. All of them are on the waiting list for the EU. Croatia is closest, and Kosovo probably most distant on that route. Regarding NATO, Croatia and Albania have already been there since 2009. From the alliance’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and the commander of NATO joint forces, Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, who last week toured the region, it could be understood that for Montenegro only procedural problems are left and for Macedonia, the name dispute with Greece remains to be solved.

The black Balkan hole
Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina have been left in that black Balkan hole, each possessing a specific position, but common interdependence as well. Still waiting to be accepted by the UN and being regarded by Serbia as part of its territory, Kosovo is far from being considered for NATO membership, although having on its soil more NATO troops than some member states and a huge US military base, Camp Bondsteel. Bosnia and Herzegovina, also under an international protectorate, was expecting desperately to be granted the Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO last autumn and is still waiting to see if it will get it at the alliance’s next ministerial meeting to be held in Tallinn, on April 22. It hopes a stronger NATO covering might prevent the country’s further destabilization by the Bosnian Serb nationalist and secessionist rulers of its entity Republika Srpska. The EU and NATO authorities, however, are using the NATO MAP card to push the Bosnian politicians to adopt constitutional reforms before the elections that will be held in the fall. They recognize that the Bosnian Serb leadership is the key obstacle to such reforms, but they are not ready to impose them using the mandate given by the UN and EU, or to organize a new international conference on Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Contrary to all other Balkan countries, Serbia plus half of Bosnia and Herzegovina (its entity Republika Srpska) regards the NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999 as “NATO aggression” and its member-states as “NATO villains.” The Serb public has never been informed of Serbia’s atrocities against Kosovo Albanians and its aggression against Bosnia. In fact, Serbia wants the West to accept it in the EU, but not in NATO. And it is a Moscow slogan that Serbia falls under, “To the EU yes, possibly, but to NATO, not at all, nyet!”

NATO expansion was even clarified as a national threat in the new Russian military doctrine, announced in February by President Dmitri Medvedev. But the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said there was still space to cooperate with the West in other fields, such as missile defense and curbing strategic nuclear and conventional arms arsenals. Those matters are already being discussed prior to the Washington superpowers summit to be held in April.

That “nyet” could have a stronger impact if directed at countries closer to the Russian borders. The Balkans, however, offers proof of a stronger rivalry between NATO and Russia. It evokes times of bipolar struggle for interests in the region. Besides the significant NATO presence in Kosovo, Russia is also concerned by Romania’s approval of the deployment of US interceptor missiles on its territory as part of a missile shield to protect Europe. From the other side, Russia uses Serbia’s anti-American sentiments to keep it more distant from the Euro-Atlantic alliances. In addition to significant energy deals and a pledge of a $1.5 billion loan, Russia will build by 2012 in the Serbian town of Nis a humanitarian center for emergencies with potential military use. The investor in that center that might easily be transformed into a standard military base is the Russian ministry for emergency situations that, besides being the wing of the country’s military intelligence, has its own paramilitary force as well. Perhaps a recent comment by The Economist regarding Serbian President Boris Tadic’s refusal to attend any conference if Kosovo’s leaders are invited could be put in that framework. It said that “staying away would have only enhanced Serbia’s international image as a recalcitrant regional bully that refuses to accept the reality of Kosovo’s independence.”