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Imagine that you lead a small Balkan country that ardently aspires to join Western institutions. But your country also has long-standing cultural and economic ties to Russia, akin to those that have riven Ukraine in recent months. Then, the West imposes sanctions on Moscow and you are pushed to choose: Are you with the West, or against it?
If your country is Serbia, the largest state in the former Yugoslavia, you claim neutrality, refusing to join the sanctions regime crafted by Brussels and Washington, despite the fact that you have a pending application for membership in the European Union. On the other hand, if you are the leader of tiny Montenegro, you stand with the West and agree to impose the sanctions in the face of withering criticism from Moscow.
Yet following this courageous display of solidarity, Montenegro has received very little appreciation from the NATO alliance, the organization that continues to play a vital stabilizing role in the Balkans despite, for the most part, deploying few troops. For the recently independent and still vulnerable countries in the region, NATO membership delivers both external and internal security, severely curtailing the potential for interethnic strife while anchoring new members in Western democratic values. Although it had been conducting membership talks with Montenegro for five years, NATO has decided to once again postpone the country’s admission. In a baffling display of short-sightedness, key European capitals are willing to expose not only Montenegro but also neighboring Bosnia and Macedonia to Russia’s opportunism, risking potential regional instability.
In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, Washington should do everything it can to advance these three countries toward Western institutions. Through its actions in Georgia and Ukraine, Moscow has made clear its determination to cripple, by direct means if necessary, any country in its neighborhood that dares to move toward a formalized relationship with NATO and the EU. To expand its political influence in the Balkans, Russia can exploit political links, intelligence penetration, financial means, and, most crucially, its energy relationships. Moscow largely controls Serbia’s oil industry and has its sights on neighboring Croatia’s state energy company, which could give it command over the flow of natural gas from the Adriatic Sea into Central Europe. The need to stave off a potential Moscow beachhead on the Adriatic is one reason that Slovenia and Croatia vigorously advocate for Montenegro’s admission to NATO.
Concerns about the Kremlin’s intentions in the Adriatic are not hypothetical. In late 2013, Moscow pressed Montenegro for establishing a new strategic relationship, including opening a Russian naval base in the port of Bar. The plucky Montenegrin government rejected the bid -- but now faces the Kremlin’s wrath outside NATO’s protective umbrella. And should Moscow want to pressure the country, it has an array of tools to deploy. The Kremlin can manipulate its disgruntled Serbian minority, reviving their grievances against the government that broke away from Serbia eight years ago. Moreover, Montenegrin officials expect tourism from Russia to plunge in direct retaliation for its staunch pro-Western stance.
Russia’s gambits are by no means limited to Montenegro. In recent years, Moscow has already upped its role in Bosnia’s restless Serb Republic. Likewise, unease is growing in Macedonia, another state NATO continues to leave on the doorstep of membership. If discontent mounts in this weak, ethnically divided state, it could easily bleed over to neighboring Kosovo -- a country with a significant presence of NATO forces, including U.S. troops. In short, Russia is well placed to exploit the region’s ethno-national divisions and the vulnerability of states excluded from NATO and the EU. Further indecisiveness and the absence of stronger U.S. leadership will only embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin to pursue his options in the Balkans.
A STABILIZING AMBIT
Instead of deferring to the hesitant position on the Balkans favored by European nations -- such as Germany, which has shown little appetite for bringing Montenegro into the fold -- Washington needs to spur the continent to action, pressing the case for serious engagement on both broad geopolitics and regional stability. Weary European capitals, including Berlin, lament the persistently high levels of corruption in Montenegro (as well as among its neighbors) and cite flagging support among its citizens for joining the alliance. But in this last aspect, Montenegro’s experience does not substantially differ from that of many surrounding states, where public opinion toward the EU and NATO had likewise been mixed until a concrete offer to join materialized. For example, support for NATO membership in Croatia soared once the public saw that the alliance genuinely wanted to include Zagreb and was not merely dangling potential membership as a means to extract concessions.
As for the struggle against corruption, the proven way to make headway against this epidemic is to enact the reforms needed to enter NATO and the EU. Giving a red light to Montenegro’s NATO entry will only weaken its commitment to further reform. Even worse, a dejected and disappointed Montenegro could find itself more open to Russia’s dubious financial enticements.
In addition to these fears, a strong case can be made for Montenegro's NATO membership this year based on its work in fulfilling the requite criteria. The country has made great strides in reforming its security and intelligence sectors and has qualified for EU candidate status. It has repaired its relationship with all neighbors -- never an easy task in the querulous Balkans. Podgorica has also contributed troops to the NATO operation in Afghanistan and offered to boost its assistance to the alliance in Adriatic coastal patrols, intelligence sharing, and anti-smuggling efforts. And despite the significant reforms that its government has yet to complete, Montenegro certainly matches, if not exceeds, several other recent NATO members in overall progress. Granting Montenegro NATO membership is a low-cost investment in regional stability that carries little risk.
Macedonia is a harder case to crack. But with so much at stake, it is high time for a revived international effort at breaking the stalemate that keeps it out of NATO and the EU. For the past eight years, the country has had a standing offer to join the organizations once it resolves its dispute with Greece over its name. (Athens insists that Macedonia’s name is an affront to its own history and claims that the name implies territorial claims on Greece.) Because NATO and the EU operate on the principle of consensus, Athens has been able to veto Macedonia’s advances toward membership, even though Macedonia qualifies for accession in every other aspect.
Until recently, the Greek position has merely been an irritant to the West. Now Russia's aggressive challenge to the post-Cold War order has turned it into a mounting security concern. Resolving the disagreement is purely a matter of political will rather than law. In 2011, the International Court of Justice backed Macedonia's claim that Athens violated its formal commitment to Skopje not to block its membership in international organizations. A number of countries -- including the United States, many fellow NATO members, and even Russia -- recognize Macedonia by its constitutional name. What is more, the country does not even insist on joining NATO by its moniker. It has repeatedly made clear that it is willing to enter under the demeaning and outdated reference “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”
For the past six years, European countries and the United States have left the problem in the care of a UN mediator. But breaking the deadlock will require more than watching from the sidelines. Berlin, London, Paris, and Washington must formulate a set of penalties to be applied to Athens and Skopje, should either reject the UN mediator's final proposal to resolve the dispute. Without a negative inducement, the standoff between Greece and Macedonia will only deteriorate. Indeed, it already has, with the Macedonian government taking recent provocative steps on cultural issues seemingly designed to annoy the Greeks.
Despite the blustering nationalism of Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia’s prime minister, the small and weak country is relatively easy to pressure. It is harder, but not impossible, to strong-arm Greece. One option is to put Athens on notice that NATO allies could turn to the UN General Assembly to back the recognition of Macedonia's constitutional name. The European Union could also announce its intention to open a high-level dialogue with Skopje -- an important procedural step that Greece cannot block. And Washington could propose revisiting the consensus rules within NATO in cases where one country’s veto is undermining a neighbor’s domestic stability and threatening broader regional security. With this kind of political backing, the UN mediator could get the parties' attention and finally bring this long-overdue dispute to a close, allowing increasingly shaky Macedonia to proceed toward the stabilizing ambit of NATO and the EU.
HIGH TIME FOR LEADERSHIP
In contrast to the external pressures dogging Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina's long-standing problems are almost wholly internal -- and deeply aggravated by the recent catastrophic flooding. The disaster cost dozens of lives and inflicted severe damage on an already weak economy. The impact of the deluge was compounded by the political incompetence of a longstanding dysfunctional administration.
In an ironic but fortunate twist, Bosnia has been in such poor institutional shape for so long that there are plenty of thoughful reform proposals to draw on. These ideas range from revising the country's constitution to reforming the unwieldy Bosniak-Croat Federation to tasking international organizations with privatizing Bosnia’s moribund state-owned enterprises that are captive to political parties. To help matters, Bosnian civil society has finally awakened to the need to confront its corrupt, entrenched leaders, providing another source of public pressure.
But change will not come to Bosnia without a concerted push from the United States. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed to host Balkan leaders in a parley next month. Now is the time for Washington to select from among the many suggested reforms and spur Berlin to present concrete options to Bosnian party leaders. The United States and Germany must also engage Bosnia’s civil society in the reform effort both prior to and after the national elections in October. Another specific, feasible goal is to press Milorad Dodik, the divisive leader of Bosnia’s autonomous Serb Republic, on the lone issue -- allocation of the country’s defense property -- that currently blocks Bosnia from obtaining its NATO membership action plan.
The need to counterbalance the disruptive influence of Dodik -- whose recurrent threats to secede from Bosnia stoke tensions within the loosely unified country -- is particularly urgent. At the height of the crisis in Crimea in March, Russia courted him with an award for advancing “the unity of Orthodox nations” and a credit line of about 95 million dollars. His coffers replenished, Dodik is in a strong position ahead of this fall’s national elections. His return to office could doom Bosnia's prospects for NATO membership for the foreseeable future, making high-level engagement on Bosnia's NATO prospects urgent.
Since the crisis in Ukraine erupted in February, Russia has at times confounded the West and exposed its weaknesses. Yet at the same time, Moscow’s recent adventurism can reinvigorate the transatlantic alliance. Intensified cooperation in the Balkans between the United States and its European partners -- as well as the inclusion of all remaining Balkan states within NATO -- will help to stabilize a still-uncertain region while containing Russia’s geopolitical appetite.