Monday, December 18, 2006

NATO set to induct Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro into pre-membership program

NATO is set to induct Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia into its pre-membership program as part of a wider effort to draw all former antagonists of the Yugoslav wars into the alliance.

NATO leaders agreed to bring the three nations into the Partnership for Peace at their summit last month in Riga, Latvia. On Thursday, they will formally be accepted into the program which is considered a stepping stone to full alliance membership.

Three other PFP nations in the western Balkans — Croatia, Macedonia and Albania — are expected to join the alliance in 2008. Slovenia became a full NATO member in 2004.

Thursday's signing ceremony will bring into the NATO orbit all six countries that gained independence after the violent breakup of the former Yugoslav federation in the early 1990s. The hope is that membership in the alliance — and eventually in the European Union — will permanently defuse nationalist and religious tensions that caused a series of wars in which more than 200,000 people perished.

Paradoxically, the former Yugoslavia was an associate member of NATO during the 1950s and 60s, when it joined a defensive pact against Soviet aggression with NATO members Greece and Turkey. But Yugoslavia eventually drifted into the neutralist camp, and the treaty expired in 1974 amid growing tensions between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus.

Despite some resistance in Riga against inviting Serbia into PFP due to its failure to apprehend indicted war crimes suspects from the conflict in Bosnia, NATO leaders decided to include it due to concerns that isolating Belgrade could encourage hard-line nationalists at a time when tensions are running high over the future of Serbia's Kosovo province.

Serbia's moderate President Boris Tadic, who will be signing his country's accession to PFP on Thursday, described the program as a "first step" to Serbia's eventual membership in both NATO and the European Union.

Over the past year, the Serbian military has been working on a "Strategic Defense Review" aimed at reforming and reducing the armed forces. Plans drawn up in cooperation with the Ohio National Guard — which is advising the Serbian high command — call for an end to conscription and a cut in the standing army from 45,000 troops to 30,000.

"This will entail a transformation into a modern and more efficient army," said Branko Mlinkovic, Serbia's ambassador to NATO.

Tiny Montenegro, Europe's newest nation, also is working closely with a U.S. National Guard unit — this time from Maine — to set up an armed force based entirely on NATO standards.

Montenegro, with a population of just over 600,000 people, plans a 2,500-strong force that would include a helicopter squadron and a small coast guard element.

"Adapting the new Montenegrin military to alliance standards will be easy because the army is actually being formed in association with our NATO partners," said Bojan Sarkic, Montenegro's envoy to the alliance.

NATO leaders say Bosnia, which emerged from its 1992-95 civil war with three ethnically divided armies that fought each other, has made the most remarkable transformation so far by merging the Bosnian Serb, Croat and Bosniak forces into a single, 13,000-strong military under a joint command.

"Membership in the partnership represents recognition that Bosnia has achieved much, but it is also an impetus to fulfill all remaining obligations on the road to Euro-Atlantic integration," said Nebojsa Radmanovic, who heads Bosnia's three-man presidency.

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