Kosovo and Bosnia call for NATO membership as war rages in Ukraine | NATO News
As Russia’s influence grows in the Western Balkans and war rages in Ukraine, leaders in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina say NATO membership will help preserve regional security .
Since February 24, when President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine citing Russia’s opposition to Ukraine’s potential NATO membership as a major concern, fears have simmered that the crisis could spread to the Western Balkans.
Russia’s alleged moves in the Western Balkans have been documented over the years and include attempts to facilitate coups in Montenegro and North Macedonia before they joined NATO in 2017 and 2020, respectively.
For Bosnia and Kosovo, which experienced massacres by Serbian forces in the 1990s under the administration of then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the two countries have made it a strategic goal to join the alliance. US-led transatlantic military.
The two men remain the last non-NATO members in the region, with the exception of Serbia, which regards NATO as its “enemy”.
In 1999, NATO waged a 78-day war against Serbia with the stated aim of preventing genocide in Kosovo against ethnic Albanians.
Bosnia is currently participating in the Membership Action Plan (MAP), considered “the last step before obtaining [NATO] accession,” according to Bosnian Defense Minister Sifet Podzic.
But as with Kyiv, Moscow protested Sarajevo’s NATO bid, despite the 2,400 km (1,500 miles) distance between them.
The Russian embassy in Sarajevo warned last year that Russia “should react to this hostile act” if Bosnia made any moves towards membership.
Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia, Igor Kalabukhov, reiterated that message last month in an interview on Bosnian television, citing the example of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Yes [Bosnia] chooses to be a member of anything, that is its internal affair. But there is something else, our reaction,” he said. “We showed what we expected from the example of Ukraine. If there are threats, we will react.
For Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani, Kalabukhov’s warning shows “that Russia has a destructive interest in our region”.
“They have an interest above all in attacking Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to a certain extent also [NATO member] Montenegro,” Osmani told Al Jazeera.
Serbia, seen as a proxy for Russia, can act with Moscow while feeling “embellished by what is currently happening on the European continent”, she said.
“Russia’s influence in Serbia is not diminishing, it has actually increased over the years.”
Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kosovo requested accelerated NATO membership and demanded a permanent US military base on its territory.
Osmani has since asked US President Joe Biden to use Washington’s influence to help the country join.
But four NATO members – Spain, Slovakia, Greece and Romania – have yet to recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008, complicating its candidacy.
Osmani said Kosovo first aims to join mechanisms such as the Partnership for Peace, a NATO program that encourages cooperation with non-member countries.
“We are already talking to [NATO] members to make sure everyone understands how indispensable membership is becoming, especially in light of events in Ukraine,” Osmani said, emphasizing political dialogue.
Podzic hopes that when the war in Ukraine ends, geopolitical relations will change and the importance of regional security will increase, which could lead to Bosnia’s accelerated NATO membership.
“But if we wait to meet all the criteria, unfortunately it will take some time. [to gain membership], because we are not investing in security agencies, in military capabilities. We will need a long time to modernize our army, to buy modern weapons,” Podzic said.
Bosnia has stopped investing in its security since around 2010 due to a lack of internal cohesion and obstacles resulting from the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which was created for the sole purpose of stopping the war. , did he declare.
Either way, Russia “will not decide this,” Podzic said. “[Bosnians] will decide our path in the military alliance.
Meanwhile, neighboring Serbia’s defense budget nearly doubled last year compared to 2018 to around $1.5 billion.
Serbia, long seen by Brussels as a favorite for European Union membership, is the only country in Europe, with the exception of Belarus, that has not issued economic sanctions against Russia.
Instead, the government and the opposition showed solidarity with Putin.
As EU countries canceled flights to Russia, Air Serbia doubled its flights between Belgrade and Moscow last month, only to reverse the decision a day later following a backlash.
Moscow and Belgrade have regularly shown close ties.
On February 19, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, a populist who won a landslide election victory this month, said on state television Tanjug that he would meet with senior Russian security official Nikolai Patrushev in Belgrade to discuss Moscow’s claims that “mercenaries” from Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia were being sent to fight on the Ukrainian side.
Officials in Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia have dismissed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s claims.
But later that month, with new sanctions in place and European countries banning Russian planes from its airspace, Patrushev was reportedly unable to land in Belgrade.
Osmani said the claim of pro-Ukrainian mercenaries is “another part of their propaganda”.
“Regardless of the facts, some in the EU continue to push for an active policy of appeasement towards Vucic, which in my view is a serious mistake,” Osmani said.
“We are still waiting, people of Kosovo, to hear clear messages from the international community to Serbia that they cannot sit on two chairs at the same time, especially when these two chairs are very far from each other. the other. Unfortunately, we have not yet heard this clear language.
She added that instead of encouraging countries that are fully aligned with the EU and NATO and their values, leaders such as Vucic and Bosnian Serb secessionist leader Milorad Dodik, “who are in fact doing everything the exact opposite of EU values”, are encouraged. .