Zoran Zaev and Jens Stoltenberg; Photo: NATO

BELGRADE – NATO leaders have agreed, in the aftermath of the latest Alliance summit, to invite Macedonia to begin accession talks to join the Western alliance following a landmark accord with Greece over the republic’s name.

At the July 2018 Brussels Summit, Allied leaders welcomed the historic agreement between Athens and Skopje on the solution of the name issue. In line with their policy, they decided to invite the government in Skopje to begin accession talks to join the Alliance.

If the process of name change is successful as expected, accession protocol will probably be signed in January 2019. In all likelihood, Republic of North Macedonia will become NATO’s 30th member state by the end of 2019, after the ratification process in every other country is completed.

Macedonia is already a part of Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is a NATO programme of advice, assistance and practical support “tailored to the individual needs of countries wishing to join the Alliance“. Current participants are Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia.

Military analyst Aleksandar Radić states that Macedonia has proven itself as a consistent partner to NATO, and it participated in the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan more than some other members of the Alliance.

According to Radić, if Macedonia became 30th member of the Alliance, Bosnia and Herzegovina would almost certainly become 31st, which would force Serbia to redefine its military neutrality.

“From the position of public opinion in Serbia, military neutrality is all too often seen as ‘not in NATO’ message”, Radić assesses.

He also added that the security situation in the region would be “more predictable” because of NATO’s effective mechanisms, which would render the potential conflict in Macedonia impossible.

Bosnia and Herzegovina – the next member of NATO?

After Macedonia’s NATO accession, only countries in the Balkans outside of NATO will be Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has joined the Membership Action Plan (MAP). Although Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Presidency members were unanimous about the decision to apply to join the MAP, the fulfilment of the condition set by the Allies has not yet been met. Effectively, this means that all immovable defence properties in the country need to be registered as state property, for use by the country’s defence ministry.

© U.S. Army Europe Images

This has effectively given the Leadership of Republika Srpska an excuse to stall on the issue of NATO membership. Besides this, in December last year, National Assembly of Republika Srpska adopted a resolution on protection of military neutrality, naming Serbia as a partner with which all of the coordination regarding these issues will be discussed.

NATO integration is the top priority for Bosnia and Herzegovina beside its European integration, said Bosnia’s Defence Minister Marina Pendes for regional TV N1, and according to her, MAP for Bosnia may be activated by end of the year.

“We demonstrated a credible effort and did a maximum because the state property hasn’t been registered before 2015. No location was registered but now we have 31 of 57 locations put in the record,” she stressed.

NATO membership prospects of Serbia and Kosovo?

Marko Savković, Programme Director of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, recognized three main benefits that would arise from the positive outcome of Macedonia’s name change referendum for that country itself and for the region.

According to him, by joining NATO Macedonia would secure its borders. “I do not question the country’s unity, but that way its integrity and statehood would become unquestionable”, said Savković.

He sees the second benefit in intensifying security cooperation in the region and continuing with security sector reform.

“The third argument is solving one of the ‘neuralgic’ points, by which I mean problems and limitations caused by the outside influence in the region”, said Savković, adding that Macedonia’s accession to NATO would lower the possibility of Russian and, in a sense, Turkish influence in the region.

Aleksandar Vučić, Jens Stoltenberg; Photo: NATO

Savković assessed that the negative experience of NATO military intervention in 1999 is maintained in Serbia by the tabloid newspapers, that civil casualties of that conflict should not be undermined, but also that Serbia cooperates well with NATO on the issue of Kosovo, that is that KFOR is a “direct example which is constantly pointed out as a good consequence of the cooperation with the Alliance”.

“It is time for the elites and the citizens to realize that the accession to NATO, and later the EU, achieve better standard and economic growth. We should follow the examples of Baltic countries, East and Central Europe. Western Balkans will otherwise remain some kind of a periphery, which it cannot be due to its geographic position”, Savković concluded.

This also means that for the few remaining territories in the region outside of NATO, excluding Macedonia which has a broad political consensus on joining that Alliance, Serbia is a lynchpin which could speed up or slow down NATO enlargement in the Western Balkans.

Serbia citizens seem to be opposed to it, arguably more than ever, and they have elected political leaders who, among many other things, promised to keep their country neutral, Savković reminded. On the other hand, Serbia has signed Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO and is continuing cooperation within that framework.

IPAP represents the most intensive form of bilateral cooperation between NATO and countries that are not members of the Alliance. In practice, that accord is just another indication proving that this alliance is more than a military-security organisation, as it is often perceived by the public, and that cooperation with the Alliance can include different areas.

Regarding NATO prospects of Kosovo, Savković argued that Pristina would push for NATO membership immediately, but that its long standing ambition to transform the existing Kosovo Security Force into an army has been opposed by both Serbia and political representatives of Serb minority, because for the transformation to take place, “consent from all minorities is needed“.