ALB-Ret. Gen. Piro AHMETAJ
I. A reminder of the consequences of a barbaric war in Milosevic’s Serbia (1991-1999)
As is well known, the USSR disbanded almost peacefully on the eve of 1990, as did the Warsaw Pact (February 1991).
For 40 years, the Yugoslav Federation had benefited from Tito’s approach “neither east nor west.”. The 90s found it with a more moderate regime concerning property, human rights, religion, and economic status. A stark difference from the exhausted People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, for instance.
Despite optimistic expectations, the first pluralist elections in 1990 were won by Milosevic’s extremists. In mid-1991, Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia declared their independence. In the autumn of 1991, the Serbian army demolished Vukovar, even bombing the ancient city of Dubrovnik like barbarians!
The ethnic and religious conflict in Bosnia was the bloodiest. Independence was recognized internationally in April 1992, but the army of the notorious General Karadzic did not recognize the independence and kept Sarajevo under siege for 44 months. During the genocide in Srebrenica (July 11-22, 1995), 8,000 Muslim men, women, and children were barbarically killed. This massacre punished Milosevic & Karadzic as war criminals but also brought shame to weakness of the UN (Blue Helmets), the EU, etc.
The Dayton Accords (December 14, 1995) ended the four-year war. Bosnia and Herzegovina was recognized as a state of three peoples and two entities, B&H and Republika Srpska. But the skeptical strategists of the time stressed that “this was not a 100% just peace, but it was certainly fairer than the continuation of the war!”
Our Kosovo remained the last battlefield of the Milosevic massacre (1998 – June 11, 1999), with over 15,000 killed, 5,000 missing, and 850,000 Albanians forcibly expelled from their lands.
In summary, after 20 years of brutal war occurring in front of the eyes of Europe. Citizens of Bosnia, Kosovo, Croatia, Slovenia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, have paid greatly for peace: “about 300 thousand citizens lost their lives and more than 5 million people, left their homes, properties and fled in fear for their lives.”
After the war, there was more at stake than a “honeymoon decade”, where countries (with bloody histories …) entered a race for the fastest NATO and EU memberships. Thanks to US support: “Croatia, Slovenia, are members of NATO and the EU. [Additionally], Albania, Montenegro, NM are members of NATO “, which including Serbia “have been waiting at the door for years not only for the standards [of membership] but also for the bureaucratic details of EU membership! ” Meanwhile Kosovo and B&H continue with “desperate efforts towards NATO and the EU”.
However, I believe that we had dreamed little of these achievements, but the questions about the return of bloody conflicts in the region after less than two decades of peace!
Forget but not forgive remains as a “message-EPITAPH” not only for the martyred Kosovo and B&H, Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, and Albania which paid dearly for Milosevic’s madness but also for the USA, NATO, which contributed so much to achieve peace in a region gripped by hatred and bloody wars.
II. Strategic assessments on the risk of a New Balkan War:
I have followed and shared with colleagues in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Rome, Bucharest, Sofia, Pristina, Podgorica, Sarajevo, Skopje, Belgrade, and of course in Tirana, assessments on the risk of a “New Balkan War”, where we see rising some of the strategic questions:
Why do they spend more than €1 billion a year on defense (equal to about 7 years’ expenditure in Albania & 10 in the Republic of Kosovo, respectively)?; So why arm yourself (mainly from Russia) with Tanks, Mig-29, Mi-35 combat helicopter, Pantsir-S missile (& FK-3), etc.? In other words, who is endangered, and who is threatening Serbia?!
Is it equivalent that Belgrade raids a police detachment enforcing the reciprocity of license plates, with military troops, on the border with Kosovo? Belgrade accuses the Pristina government of threatening the “existence of the Serb minority”. Akin to the claims made by Russia in 2014 and beyond on Ukraine’s sovereignty!
Is it diplomatically correct for the Russian Ambassador to inspect the Serbian army on the borders of a sovereign state/Kosovo!? Is Moscow trying to manipulate and incite Belgrade for its geopolitical goals (?) While Serbia remains “in debt” to Kosovo’s blockade in the UN and its economic, energy, gas pipelines, etc. dependence?
Does this serve as a show of power from Russia to NATO and the US that “it will defend its key ally in the event of a regional war”, as well as test their determination “not to hand over Kosovo’s northern municipalities under the control of Belgrade” (?), while Kosovo is not part of the collective defense (Article 5)?
Well-known Balkan strategist Janusz Bugajski sees Serbia as Russia’s hostage in the Balkans, adding that “to increase the geopolitical weight in Southeast Europe, Moscow can use the Serbs to start a new war with its neighbors.” He further adds: “Gambling with Kosovo can be part of a wider offensive to protect Serbs” in B&H, Montenegro, NM, Croatia, etc., which according to Minister Vulin ” have the right to reunite in a single state”!?
Following Milorad Dodik’s threats to oust Republika Srpska from National Institutions (Armed Forces/Army, Taxes, Medicines Agency), the UN envoy to Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, sounded the alarm: “Bosnian Serbs are threatening to form their army, which would lead to a New Armed Conflict” as well as: “to avoid another bloodshed like the one between 92-95, the internationals, must increase the peacekeeping forces!”
Also, the Croatian Ambassador in Tirana, Zlatko Kramaric, does not spare criticism for the internationals (EU), who according to him support or react in a delayed manner: “they could not escape the syndrome of concessions to “small dictators”, who, if not stopped in time, could cause a catastrophe on a global scale.”
The return of a bloody war and rusty minds may satisfy extremists, organized crime, the oligarchs in power, and the army of the corrupt, but it is a knife in the back to the measures of mutual trust and the Euro-Atlantic integration agenda of the countries of the region.
To this alarm on the ground, not only Belgrade but also Moscow officials, responded nervously: “The wick of the Balkan barrel are the Albanian ultranationalists?!”
On the other hand, with the EU considered by strategists as “lacking a wheel”, in tandem with the US focus on China and “predictable” relations with Russia, the Kremlin may “geopolitically benefit” the option of military confrontation in the region.
But on this “new eve of war”, the “visit of hope” (I shall call it) of Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar (November 8-10) took place, initially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he expressed: “US determination to protect the Dayton Agreement and prevent the collapse of institutions.” After the official talks, including with Mr. Dodik, he stated that: “the possibility is open to withdrawing the decisions taken and reiterated that the USA remains committed to not allowing a new war in the region”. While after the visit to Montenegro, and almost a month later North Macedonia and Albania he received assurances from the local authorities for: “continuing to accomplishing of NATO obligations and the EU integration agenda!”
III. Can the ghosts of war recycling be avoided and how can lasting peace be built for the Balkans as well ?
Writer Misha Glenny in his book THE BALKANS (1804-2012) investigates the roots of bloodshed, occupation, and nationalism for the south-eastern tip of Europe. Among other things, he reveals that: “the countries we think of as relentless enemies, over the centuries have created impossible alliances”, and exposes the often-catastrophic relationship between the Balkans and Europe, raising critical questions!
With the status of an expert with experience in weighing the risks and opportunities of regional security and NATO matters, I would strongly advise regional state actors to exercise the “Open Balkans, Berlin Process, CEFTA, or with any other designation” agreement with a package of Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBM), through which member countries must commit that:
1. They have no official goals (Aims), do not plan offensive operations (Ways), and do not develop military skills & capabilities (Means) that threaten cross-border countries; to respect the Dayton Agreement concerning Bosnia and Herzegovina and beyond.
2. They implement the NATO standard for defense spending (not more than 2%) and discontinue armaments programs (Aircraft, Missiles, Combat Helicopters, Tanks, etc.) that disrupt military power balances (in the air, land, and sea) between the 6 signatory countries.
3. Will not establish installations nor conduct military activities, respectively in 20 km air distance and 5 km land distance, from the official borders of the signatory countries.
4. They exchange information between national intelligence agencies regarding arms trafficking, ADM, organized crime, radical groups, terrorists, etc.!
5. Will not allow their territories (air, land & sea) to serve as arms crossings for potential adversaries of NATO/EU countries (Russia, China).
6. Will be structures, capacities, and a memorandum of cooperation for joint responses in cases of civil, natural emergencies, medical epidemics, etc.
7. The agreement will be subject in advance to a comprehensive discussion with prominent representatives, citizens, and interest groups so that its approval can be achieved with the widest possible consensus among political parties.
8. The agreement, including this package with the preconditions of mutual trust, remains open for discussion and approval by the parliaments of the 6 Balkan countries, (Albania, Bosnia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo & Serbia), but based on the principle of self-determination, can be signed even between countries that have no claims or agree to the above preconditions.
11. Agreements focused on economic interests (free movement of citizens, goods, markets, services, and investments) must have as a prerequisite the package of Mutual Trust Measures according to the above points.
12. They establish a Board of Experts, to formulate the Draft-Agreement and the implementation matrix with obligations from the institutions of the signatory countries.
13. They establish a Joint Committee (Regional Steering Committee) to monitor and inform in real time the authorities of the member countries on the fulfillment of the obligations by the respective institutions according to the final matrix that will accompany the agreement.
14. The member countries of the South-Easter Region (Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Albania, NM, Bulgaria, Romania), to submit to NATO, a strategic risk assessment and to formally request the preparation of the operational plan (Contingency Plan) with joint response scenarios if any of the countries or geopolitical status quo in the region is threatened.
15. Any agreement, including this package of preconditions of mutual trust, will (must) be consulted with the USA and NATO before approval, which remains critical to peace, stability, the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration agenda, and have geopolitical interests and responsibilities in the Region and the Mediterranean.
In addition, with the humility of an expert, with more than modest experience and contributions in matters of national security, in the region, in NATO, etc., I would publicly and fraternally advise political actors and institutional actors in Tirana and Pristina, due to vital national interests, that they: “avoid political abuse, populist-electoral façades, personalization and irrational grudges between them.” Moreover: “to kneel before the bloody history as well as state responsibilities by preparing a Strategic Partnership Platform between the Republic of Albania and the Republic of Kosovo. In other words, the implementation of the project: “Two States One Nation” and the “Smart Project” on sovereignty and protection of national interests, confirming that this “delayed approach” does not threaten any country, but will contribute as a rational balance for the long-term peace of the region.
Finally, evil when forgotten is repeated even more painfully; the screaming cry “People stay Vigilant”; Peace, security, and democracy are not eternal gifts “, remain global lessons as well as alarm bells to stay awake and work/fight every day.
Considering these lessons and not only, I believe even stronger than NOT the ghosts of the recycling of WAR and centuries-old bloodshed but PEACE, the agenda of Euro-Atlantic integration & prosperity, remains the only mission of the Balkan fellow citizens.
General ® Piro AHMETAJ,
Seignior Expert on National, Regional & NATO Matters,
Vice President of the Atlantic Council, & Former:
Military Adviser to the President;
Deputy Chief of Staff of AAF &
National Representative to SHAPE/NATO.