Western leaders recognize the importance of a NATO membership for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and advocate for the country’s integration into Euro-Atlantic partnerships and institutions. This was confirmed in December 2018, when the foreign ministers of the NATO member countries approved the first BiH Annual National Program that enabled the offer for an action plan for NATO membership. However, leaders and citizens of BiH have yet to reach such a consensus.
In 2010, the three members of the BiH Presidency unanimously decided to move closer towards NATO membership via their participation in the Membership Action Plan. Since that time, internal dissent and other challenges have prolonged what was hoped to be a smooth process towards admission. NATO membership will have a profound impact on the policies, security, politics, economy and foreign relations of BiH, though the various actors involved are hardly able to agree on whether or not this impact will be positive.
Ideologically, NATO member states are committed to liberal democracy and associated values, such as universal human rights. The original idea for the NATO alliance was to collectively defend Western democracies against the Soviet Union and the tenets of Communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO’s primary focus shifted to the protection of universal human rights. This has led to the implementation of several humanitarian interventions, often in the form of military campaigns, in states that commit human rights violations. One such intervention, Operation Deliberate Force, was launched immediately following the July 1995 Srebrenica Massacre. The NATO-led operation sustained an air strike campaign to undermine the Army of Republika Srpska’s ability to attack remaining “safe areas”.
As a result of Operation Deliberate Force, Bosnian Serbs, who now constitute the majority in the Republika Srpska (RS) entity, have developed an unfavorable opinion of NATO and, thus, resist any efforts to join the alliance. According to a study carried out in the RS, only 18% of Bosnian Serbs are in favor of NATO membership, compared to 71% of non-Serbs living in the same entity.
Former President of the RS and current Serb member of Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, stated in 2016: “The people will decide whether they want this place to be integrated into NATO with Serbia outside and whether they want a border on the Drina. Whatever will be their decision will be mine as well.”
This statement emphasizes that the decision to join NATO should not be left to BiH’s political elite. However, the recent statement by Dodik testifies differently: “NATO is not an option and that’s what we can expect. Republika Srpska said that NATO is not in our national or state interest. Perhaps we used to think or had to think that this is possible, but now we think that it is neither fair nor possible that the people bombarded by NATO can become members of such organization.”
Some experts believe there will be no change in attitude within the RS until neighboring Serbia decides to join NATO. According to polls, the number of Serbs in favor of NATO membership is 13% , a figure further complicated by the entity’s de-facto relationship with non-member Russia. Russia, a historical ally of the Serbian people and a fellow Christian Orthodox nation, is critical of NATO’s expansion in Southeast Europe and views it as a threat to their geopolitical interests. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has stated: “With regards to the expansion of NATO [in the Balkans], I see it as a mistake, even a provocation […] This is, in a way, an irresponsible policy that undermines the determination to build a system of equal and shared security in Europe, equal for everyone regardless of whether a country is a member of this or that bloc.”
In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there seems to be a more optimistic outlook its NATO membership prospects as was expressed by Šafik Džaferović, Bosniak member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bakir Izetbegović, former member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Izetbegović feels that, “membership in NATO is firmly established in our law on defense and was confirmed by unanimous decision by the BiH Presidency in 2008. Despite all the political, institutional, economic, and budget challenges we face, we achieved steady progress in fulfilling standards necessary for membership in NATO…improving the overall capabilities of our defense system.
Western countries are not without their own opinions of Bosnia’s NATO status. During visits to the country, Western leaders have often referred to the changes that must take place for it can obtain membership. For instance, Ambassador Jonathan Moore, former Head of the OSCE Mission to BiH, stated that the road to NATO membership will be difficult because of the non-implementation of reforms and skepticism from within Republika Srpska. A more optimistic view was expressed by former US Ambassador to Bosnia, Maureen Cormack, who stated that Bosnia’s success in becoming a member of NATO would signal a secure economy to foreign investors, thus opening the door for much needed foreign investment.
In 2010, NATO foreign ministers invited Bosnia to join the Membership Action Plan (MAP), an initiative that offers advice, assistance and practical support tailored to any state wishing to join NATO. Countries that are part of the MAP must submit annual reports covering political, economic, defense, resource, security and legal aspects of their preparation for possible membership. While the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina unanimously decided to join the MAP, one obstruction is the country’s immovable defense properties, which must be registered as state property for use by the state’s defense ministry.
Regardless of the public sentiment, it remains true that BiH has already supplied personnel for international NATO military operations. In 2009, three years after the Armed Forces of BiH was unified, BiH deployed a number of officers to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
These are just some of the factors Bosnia must consider in order to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic system. Will Bosnian politicians vote for and implement the necessary reforms? What will be the response of Bosnia’s Serbs, especially given Dodik’s statements that NATO membership is out of question? The prospect of attracting foreign investors and capital might not be enough to convince the Bosnian Serbs to join if it means upsetting their Russian allies. But, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot move forward without approval from the RS and the Bosnian Serbs, which constitute nearly half the country’s population. Forcing these groups into an international military alliance, which many of them view as a de facto terror organization, could further fragment, destabilize and poison interethnic relations. For now, Bosnia will continue to tread water until domestic challenges and thorny foreign relation issues are resolved.
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