Sunday, May 11, 2008

Balkan Fix

NATO's summit in Bucharest last week provided limited blessings for the Balkans. Although Albania and Croatia were invited into the alliance, Macedonia was shunted into the waiting room, Serbia remained on the sidelines, and Russia's persistent threats of renewed regional conflict over Kosovo went unchallenged.

Every NATO success in the Balkans seems to unearth a new problem and the Bucharest gathering was no exception. Positive decisions were reached with unanimous support for Croatia's and Albania's accession, as both countries have achieved the standards necessary for membership. In other favorable moves, Montenegro and Bosnia obtained Individual Partnership Action Plans and Intensified Dialogues to prepare them for future NATO entry.

Alliance leaders indicated a readiness to develop closer relations with Serbia after the parliamentary elections in mid-May. But with pro-Western forces divided and losing support, and the Radical Party likely to be included in the next Serbian government, Belgrade is more likely to edge closer to Russia than to NATO after the national ballot.

The most glaring summit negative was the postponed decision on Macedonia's NATO membership. The country's entry was blocked by Greece after years of stalled negotiations over the country's name and the formal usage of that name. The Macedonian appellation without a geographic or political qualifier is viewed in Athens as a direct challenge to Hellenic patrimony and identity, making it impossible for the Greek parliament to ratify Macedonia's NATO entry.

Unfortunately, the Macedonian authorities became overconfident that Washington would prevail as a mediator in the dispute with Athens and failed to adopt an acceptable compromise position. The country's invitation to NATO depends solely on an agreement with Greece – a prospect that may now prove even more elusive than before the summit.

In the wake of NATO's postponement, Macedonian politics is likely to radicalize. The fragile government, already abandoned by its Albanian coalition partners, could be forced to resign if it agrees to a new name that would entail a constitutional amendment. One can expect a flurry of accusations against Athens and a resurgence of nationalist passions. But this would only diminish Macedonia's reputation as a reliable NATO candidate.

Unless a sound strategy is devised in negotiations with Greece, with high-level U.S. involvement, the ensuing political turmoil may encourage leaders of the Albanian minority to push for territorial autonomy in a swath of territory bordering Kosova and Albania. This would capsize the Ohrid agreement painstakingly devised to ensure interethnic co-existence in a unitary state following the Albanian insurgency in the summer of 2001.

The broader regional consequences of not resolving Macedonia could also prove destabilizing. If Skopje does not promptly recognize Kosovo's statehood and fails to conclude a border agreement with Pristina, it could encourage some Albanian militants inside Macedonia to push for territorial adjustments. The militants might also conclude, in the absence of NATO membership, that Macedonia is merely a "temporary state."

Russia will also seek to benefit from Macedonian uncertainties by prodding for closer economic, political and security ties with Skopje and claiming to be a stalwart protector against pan-Albanianism and "Islamic terrorism." The objective will be to add another property on Moscow's expanding Monopoly board and construct a chain of Balkan dependencies stretching toward Central and Western Europe.

Following the summit declaration that NATO was committed to eventual membership for Ukraine and Georgia – though the alliance stopped short of offering them Membership Action Plans – Moscow issued its customary admonitions against expansion and threatened impending insecurity if Kiev and Tbilisi were invited into NATO. Less noticed but certainly more pressing was a statement from the Kremlin claiming that developments in Kosovo had yet to reach their "hottest phase," indicating that NATO and EU operations would be challenged by Serbian resistance and a push toward partition of Kosovo.

Moscow will continue to capitalize on Kosovo's limited international recognition by creating headaches for NATO and forestalling the further expansion of Western influence. Conflicts, frozen or otherwise, provide opportunities for promoting Russia's interests in a region that has still to be fully secured within Western institutions.

If nationalists form the next Serbian government, NATO should expect closer coordination between Belgrade and Moscow in provoking unrest in Kosovo. They may even precipitate the declaration of a separate Serbian administrative entity in the northern municipalities of Kosovo.

The post-Communist elites throughout Southeast Europe remain susceptible to Moscow's financial enticements and stand to benefit personally from opening up their economies to more substantial Russian penetration. Economic entrapment through an expanding Russian-controlled energy network could also entail political acquiescence to the Kremlin's pan-European objectives.

Moscow is pursuing a dual-track strategy toward the West: widening fissures inside Europe in order to expand its influence, and rolling back the American presence to prevent the permanent detachment of Eastern Europe from the Russian orbit. Seen in this broader strategic context, the Bucharest summit registered some successes in the Balkans, but more extensive and enduring commitments are needed in a still volatile and contested region.

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