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Macedonia warns NATO that Balkans might burn again

April 7, 2012
by Hajrudin Somun, Today’s Zaman, 20.03.2012
There are already many statements, predictions, comments and expectations regarding the forthcoming NATO summit in Chicago, on May 20.

That demonstrates the alliance’s importance for global security and peace. Due to much more pressing issues, very few are connecting the summit to developments in the Balkans. I would dare to say that only one of the five Balkan countries remaining outside of the Atlantic Alliance, Macedonia, might be viewed as an urgent issue. For the last few weeks, Macedonia has seen inter-ethnic violence between the country’s majority Macedonians and minority Albanians. If the major powers of the NATO alliance do not step in, it’s likely the fighting will increase. NATO has had almost uninterrupted involvement in regional conflicts since the beginning of the 1990s. The last engagement’s effects are still being felt on the border between Serbia and Kosovo.

Before any direct interference takes place, there is a simple, initial step that might ease tensions in Macedonia — invite its government to the Chicago summit, thereby basically giving the country full membership. If this had been done four years ago at the Bucharest summit, there could have been four years of direct NATO involvement with Macedonia’s internal political and security structures. This in turn would have had an impact on the overall state of the country and region. Testifying on the Balkans and the 2012 NATO summit at the US Senate’s Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ivan Vejvoda from the German Marshall Fund of the US said that accepting Macedonia into NATO after the Bucharest summit would have been a decision of great relevance for Europe, the Balkan region and, of course, for Macedonia itself: a further reinforcement of stability, peace and security in the region.

This would also be the cheapest step. According to NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen, the backdrop of the Chicago summit will be the global economic crisis. Rasmussen has stated, “There is no contradiction between being concerned about the economy and being concerned about security,” explaining that the two are linked and “sound fiscal policies are also sound security policies. Both require that we get the most out of every euro, pound and dollar that we spend on defense and security.”

Repercussions of the naming dispute

The naming dispute between Greece and Macedonia, wherein Greece has persisted for two decades in not recognizing the name Republic of Macedonia, still presents a large obstacle and blocked an invitation to the 2008 Bucharest summit. In the meantime, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that Greece had violated its interim accord with the government in Skopje by blocking its NATO membership bid. Additionally, Macedonia’s constitutional name, Republic of Macedonia, has been recognized by 133 UN member states. That name is used in bilateral relations by all of the UN Security Council members, except France, and most NATO member nations, Albania being another exception. In the UN and other international organizations, there remains another official name, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” — for those who think this is a typo, it is not: A condition for the country’s UN admittance in 1993 specified the definite article should start with a lower-case “t”!

It is widely acknowledged that the current Macedonian government excessively uses the shared ancient heritage of the Macedonians and Greeks for nationalistic purposes. The most evident manifestation was the erection of a huge monument to Alexander the Great in Skopje last summer. The Macedonian parliament had modified the country’s constitution, in 1995, to state that Macedonia has no territorial claims toward any of its neighbors, but there are nationalist groups that still unfold old maps in which the Greek province with the same name was included in the so-called “Greater Macedonia.” However, Macedonia is too busy with its internal problems and even militarily too weak to present any threat to any of its neighboring countries. To the contrary, most of them do not recognize not only its name, but its nationality, language and even the Orthodox Church. Thus, there is no excuse for Greece’s continued blocking of Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the European Union. The ongoing ethnic violence, if continued, might have an impact on the whole region’s stability, including Greece. Testifying at the aforementioned US Senate commission, Daniel Server, one of the leading experts on the Balkans, stressed: “The [Chicago] NATO summit should issue an invitation for membership to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or to Macedonia by whatever name Skopje and Athens may agree on. The US should make it clear to Greece that repeating the mistake of Bucharest is not acceptable, as the ICJ has already said.”

In addition to Macedonia, which has fulfilled all the standards for full NATO membership other than its name change, there are four remaining regional countries — Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia — that are not full members. I have put them in order according to their likelihood for full NATO accession. Of course, the circumstances may change at any moment. Montenegro, currently in the second cycle of the Membership Action Plan (MAP), still has to increase its effort against corruption and organized crime. It is expecting an encouraging response from Chicago, as does Bosnia. Bosnia’s political leaders, including Bosnian Serbs, finally resolved a few days ago the issue on immovable defense property, a condition for acceptance of a country’s Annual National Program under MAP. Besides, one of the latest pieces of pre-summit NATO news came from Washington, D.C.: Republican Senator Richard Lugar has introduced a bill that “declares for the first time in US legislation that all four nations currently seeking accession to NATO (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia and Montenegro) are to be considered NATO ‘aspirants’.” He urged President Barack Obama to provide a clear roadmap for the accession of those countries to the alliance at the Chicago summit.

Kosovan and Serbian attitutes toward NATO

The draft of that extraordinary bill doesn’t mention Kosovo and Serbia. Both countries, for different reasons, have diverse attitudes toward NATO. Kosovo is a less complicated case than Serbia. NATO has played a crucial role in preparing the groundwork for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. It has one of the largest US-led military bases in Kosovo’s territory. Kosovo houses 5,500 NATO troops and is still far from having its own security forces. Almost all Kosovars, with the exception of Kosovo’s Serbian minority, would eagerly like to march under the NATO banner, but they have a long road ahead of them to achieve that goal. On top of this, Kosovo is still waiting to be admitted to the United Nations. Kosovo is, in fact, at the core of all of Serbia’s internal and external problems in the last two decades, including those related to NATO.

On March 24, Belgrade will mark the 13th year since the “NATO aggression against Serbia” that was, according to Serbian nationalist circles, “carried out in blatant violation of international law’s basic principles and without approval of the UN.” In the same manner, they continue, such a precedent has been used “whenever it suited the interests of the US and NATO: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya…” The recent endorsement of Serbia as a candidate for EU membership was celebrated in Belgrade. However, nobody has connected it with a possible accession to NATO as well because Serbia has, by an earlier parliamentary resolution on “state neutrality,” suspended its pursuit of NATO membership, becoming the first country that that isn’t seeking NATO membership before EU accession. So far, it has chosen bilateral military relations with the US and a number of NATO member states. Depending on future political developments, especially if the pro-European forces win the May elections, Serbia may change its attitude. The strong opposition of Serbian nationalistic parties and public opinion to Euro-Atlantic integration is encouraged in Moscow, which in Belgrade sees one of its last anti-NATO enlargement fortifications. The sooner NATO accepts Serbia’s neighbors under its umbrella, the faster Serbia’s fortified walls will erode.

The first to receive full membership should be Macedonia. Some might say that I am exaggerating its current ethnic clashes between Macedonian and Albanian radicals. It should be remembered that in 2001, radical groups started a war in that country. The war was stopped, but not prevented in advance, by NATO. One ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If it had been done in Bosnia, for example, perhaps there wouldn’t have been the war there. Macedonia is, due to its permanent internal ethnic mistrust and hostilities, more vulnerable than Bosnia and Kosovo. Thus, in order not to experience a new Bosnia and Kosovo there, an invitation sent to Skopje for the Chicago summit can prevent such a development. In that regard, the Greek hurdle looks really trivial as compared to the dark clouds that may give rise to Macedonian tensions. They say a wooden bridge over the Vardar River was burned. That happens very rarely in peacetime.

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

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