* Interviews with the Ministers of Defence have been conducted separately.

This year, Montenegro became the 29th member of NATO. On the other hand, Macedonia missed the opportunity for membership in 2008, at the Bucharest Summit when it was blocked by Greece because of the name dispute. However, NATO membership is one of the top priorities of the new Macedonian government. On Western Balkans’ security threats, cooperation among the countries of the region, as well as the benefits that NATO membership brings, the European Western Balkans spoke with the Minister of Defence of Montenegro, Predrag Bosković and Minister of Defence of Macedonia, Radmila Šekerinska.

European Western Balkans: What would be, in your opinion, the importance of a potential NATO membership of Western Balkan countries?

Predrag Bošković: Taking into account that in past the region of the Western Balkans has often been the scene of many wars, conflicts and intolerance, it is necessary to set up a stable base for the preservation of peace and security in this part of Europe, through the democratic development of the states and a constructive political dialogue. In my opinion, integration of the region does not have an acceptable alternative, and the aspirations of the states in this direction represent a clear message to the domestic and foreign public that the European and Euro-Atlantic perspective of this region is the only possible one.

Looking from the perspective of the region, NATO has gotten a credible partner in Montenegro who will be a guarantor of stability and security in the Western Balkans. Our country will, as a full-fledged member, contribute to strengthening regional cooperation and it will give strong support to the aspirations of its neighbours when it comes to NATO membership since only through the united effort the peace and stability of this region can be preserved.

The full-fledged membership of our country will additionally encourage the strengthening of bilateral defence cooperation with the existing member countries of the Alliance – Slovenia, Croatia and Albania. Although military neutral and without a desire to join NATO, Serbia, by signing the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) in 2015, opened up space for enhancing cooperation and intensifying political dialogue with members of the Alliance. For aspirant countries, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, our membership is a clear message that the NATO door is open and that full-fledged membership can be achieved through the implementation of comprehensive reforms.

Radmila Šekerinska: It is my firm belief that NATO membership is of great benefit not only for us as aspirant-countries, but for the Alliance itself too. In its very essence, the Alliance is a mechanism for collective security. We cannot talk about collective security in Europe without ensuring long-term stability in the Balkan region.

The very concept of NATO has evolved. It is now a community of nations which have mutual interests in terms of security, but more importantly adhere to a shared system of values. This system of values entails rule of law, transparency, good governance, economic prosperity and welfare, and respect for democratic principles. This is key to ensuring a secure environment and preventing any malign influences and security threats.

An integrated Balkan region as part of NATO can be an additional stabilizing factor for Europe at large. Even beyond security, NATO membership makes a big difference. In a conversation with my Montenegrin colleagues about their recent NATO accession, they stressed the surge of new investors that show interest in bringing their business to the country since they joined NATO. These are serious investors with a credible profile who will contribute to healthy, sustainable economic growth and in turn help build a stronger more developed society. This is a novelty directly correlated to Montenegro’s accession.

NATO membership has a profound impact on the resilience of developing nations, such as the Western Balkan countries, which face the ever-evolving contemporary challenges much like the rest of Europe.

EWB: What do you consider to be the key security challenges in the region?

Bošković: The one of the most important security challenges the region is facing today is the negative external influence and turmoil, such as direct interference in internal affairs, in order to achieve active control of the foreign policy of the countries of the Western Balkans. A classic example of this kind of influence is the interference of the Russian Federation in the political situation in Montenegro, which culminated in the organization of last year’s parliamentary elections in our country when Russian representatives tried to change the government in a violent way.

Like most European countries, the region is facing a security threat posed by the phenomenon of foreign fighters, more precisely their return from foreign warfare and the spread of the influence of religious extremism that may potentially escalate. The precondition for an active solution to this problem is the quality cooperation of all countries in the region, exchange of information and active monitoring of security interests. Also, a certain security threat is imposed by the current migrant crisis, that is, the possibility of the influx of a larger migrant wave that also carries with it a potential threat of terrorism.

The response to the security threats of the region must be strategic and common in order to eliminate inequalities and ensure the long-term peace and stability of the Western Balkans.

Šekerinska: Well, as a country that recently overcame a deep political and moral crisis, I think the answer to that question lies within, and not beyond.

The weakness and vulnerability of the current state apparatuses and their institutions in the Balkans is perhaps the gravest concern. Countries with flawed systems, riddled with corruption and clientelism are by default more prone to be susceptible to the current security threats.

Of course, violent extremist ideologies are a shared concern in the Balkan region, there is the migrant crisis which is predicted to continue, and many others.

I firmly believe that there will always be threats to security across the globe, just like there always has been. But, with strong institutions, inclusive societies, and transparent governance I am confident we can ensure continuity and build the capacity to address these challenges.

It is vital to have some form of guarantee that these institutional issues are addressed systematically and tackled at the very root. Macedonia slumped into the abyss of corruption after 2008 which is the year of the Bucharest summit where we missed the opportunity for membership in NATO. NATO is a form of guarantee which ensures that at the very least, a country remains on the democratic trajectory.

In addition, we have to work on fostering a more vibrant cooperation within the region. We do work together, but there is significant room for improvement. The exchange of information, pooling of resources and joint initiatives will create a strong coping mechanism which will be able to respond to any exterior threat promptly and adequately.

EWB: How would you assess the cooperation of the countries of Western Balkan when it comes to security?

Bošković: I consider that the countries of the Western Balkans have understood in a timely manner that not a single country has sufficient capacity to deal with security challenges and threats on its own, and therefore active and high-quality cooperation in the field of security has become a precondition for the prosperity of the region in this domain. In this context, it is important to note that the accession of the Western Balkan countries to the NATO Partnership for Peace program, dating from 1994, provided in some way a comprehensive framework for the initiation of regional cooperation, as well as the cooperation of the region with European and international entities in the field of defence. In addition, aside from the bilateral security cooperation, a   strong impulse is given to strengthen defence cooperation in the countries of the region through active participation in regional initiatives such as the US-Adriatic Charter (A-5) and the SEDM (South East Europe Initiative). Member States A-5 provide a joint contribution to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, which is also the most important project of this initiative. Within the framework of the SEDM initiative, it is also important to point out constructive cooperation within projects such as Integrity Building and Women’s Leaders in the Defence Sector.

Also, the pooling and sharing of national capacities in security cooperation best reflect the establishment of a Balkan Medical Task Force (BMTF) in the field of crisis support and natural and man-made disasters.

Montenegro is developing very successful bilateral cooperation in the area of defence with NATO allies from the region such as Slovenia, Croatia and Albania, but also with partner countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo. We are also proud of the fact that the countries of the Western Balkans, so-called security consumers, have become recognizable exporters, especially taking into account active participation in international missions and operations.

Šekerinska: This year, the Republic of Macedonia concluded its Chairmanship with the U.S. – Adriatic Charter. During the Ministerial Conference we hosted, I must say that there was a positive atmosphere and a shared will to work with one another which I found very promising. I think the region is ready to rise above the mist of nationalism and leave history to the historians. There is a consensus that our region needs to be more future-oriented and the Republic of Macedonia wants to lead the way.

For the first time in history, in Macedonia our citizens voted outside of their ethnic and religious block. We think there is political and social capital here. We want to be a beacon for the Balkans and spread the message of coexistence. This is the cornerstone of our internal stability. Furthermore, it is the government with this kind of mandate that signed an Agreement of Friendship and Good-neighbourly Relations with the Republic of Bulgaria and entered a new era of partnership with our neighbours. Last week our government held a joint session with the Albanian government. Our diplomats are engaging in a series of efforts to build confidence with our Greek counterparts. This is truly a historic moment for Macedonia.

We feel that our success can lead the way for the rest of the Western Balkan countries as well, and we are prepared to work together.

EWB: Since this year Montenegro became a member of NATO, do you believe that this will have an effect on other non-member states of the region and their aspirations towards NATO?

Bošković: I am convinced that the success that Montenegro has achieved during the integration process is an incentive for other aspirants to be persistent in implementing the fundamental reforms that are a condition for membership. At the same time, the example of our country will serve to our neighbours as a clear indication that the NATO door is open to all countries that have a strong political will and the necessary capacities to carry out reforms in all areas of society.

I want to point out that Montenegro is ready to provide concrete, expert assistance to the aspirant countries in the field of integration processes. In addition to the strong promotion of NATO’s open door policy, we will strive to strengthen regional cooperation in the field of information exchange, expert experiences and participation in joint training.

The support for the EU is necessary, in terms of continuing engagement at all levels and in almost all social areas,ranging from supporting stability to deepening political and economic relations.

Šekerinska: Any country in the region attaining full-fledged membership is good news for the rest of us. We are delighted that Montenegro is now a member. Montenegro will soon reap the benefits of the membership in terms of security but as I mentioned previously, from an economic aspect as well.

Moreover, this was a very important event from a regional, strategic viewpoint. The accession of Montenegro very effectively communicated that the open-door policy is indeed real and that by fulfilling the necessary conditions and criteria membership is attainable. I think this serves as a positive instance and a motivating factor.

I know that in Macedonia we are deeply encouraged by this move and it is a lucid reminder that the Republic of Macedonia can be the 30th member of the Alliance.

Radmila Šekerinska and Predrag Bošković; Photo: Facebook / Radmila Šekerinska

EWB: At the beginning of June, Montenegro became the 29th member of NATO? How many things have changed since then? What do you see as the greatest benefits for Montenegro and its army? Do you think that citizens could already feel the benefits of membership?

Bošković: The advantages of Montenegro’s membership in NATO are multiple. By joining NATO, Montenegro has entered the circle of today’s most developed democracies, which has significantly contributed to the safety and security of our citizens.

The Ministry of Defence and the Army of Montenegro have operationalized a series of political decisions from the Euro-Atlantic agenda, which were confirmed through concrete activities. In this context, I would particularly emphasize the modernization of the Army, reaching the NATO standard, the required level of interoperability of units of the Montenegrin Army declared for NATO operations and missions. All of the above is crucial for the active contribution of Montenegro to the system of collective security.

Today, the Army enjoys a high degree of trust, both of our partners, as well as of the citizens of Montenegro. Participation in international missions and operations was an opportunity to check the level of competence and training of our forces, and with pleasure, I can confirm that we have always received the best grades and praise for our engagement. In the previous period, the results achieved are the basis for further training and professionalization of the Army members, who will no longer be having only the role of observers in military activities of the Alliance. They will take an active part in such events on an equal footing with their counterparts from other NATO countries, which is an opportunity to acquire knowledge and experience from the members of the armed forces of the most developed countries and training in accordance with NATO standards.

One of the concrete benefits of membership is the ability to use allied resources for the protection of the airspace of Montenegro, without any compensation. To that end, Montenegro has already begun negotiations with NATO and the Allies to conduct the mission of protecting our sky.

The Army of Montenegro has proved itself as a reliable partner that continues to provide concrete contributions to peacekeeping operations and peacekeeping missions, including NATO-led missions – “ISAF” and “Resolute Support” in Afghanistan. In this way, Montenegro has clearly shown that it is ready and determined to give an active contribution to international peace, together with its allies and partners.

The advantages of membership are related to the creation of a favourable environment that, with the influx of foreign direct investments, primarily from the NATO member countries, will undoubtedly provide the country’s social prosperity and reputation as an investment destination for serious companies and investors from different areas. In the long term, this will affect the strengthening of our economy, stimulate economic growth and create conditions for new jobs, which is significant for every Montenegrin citizen.

EWB: What would be the next steps of the new Macedonian government regarding the Euro-Atlantic integrations?

Šekerinska: When it comes to our Euro-Atlantic integrations I think we now have unique and quite significant momentum. We are less focused on the spectacle of it, and more devoted to implementing the reforms right. We are doing this for our citizens primarily after all.

Macedonia is treading a new path towards NATO and the EU, and we are not making any calculations on the way. The internal consensus is unwavering, the commitment is unquestionable and the efforts are yielding fruit. We are not simply running the hoops here, we are building a system. Something which will ensure that what happened over the last decade never happens again. Macedonia is a European country, and we are determined to live as Europeans.

Our diplomatic endeavours are frequent and productive, but our foreign policy is merely an extension of our internal reform process. This gives our partners an insight into our progress and a platform for dialogue about potential improvement, as well as recommendations.

We are doing the exact same thing internally. We have opened the state institutions up to civil society, media and the academic community which has indeed led to intense scrutiny, but this is what democracy is really about. Public debate and criticism are the foundation of a democratic society.

The rest is articulated in the 3-6-9 plan which carefully outlines our reform agenda and we intend to follow through and deliver.

We will not allow the crisis to define us, we want to be defined by how we emerged from this crisis.