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[EWB Interview] Minuto-Rizzo: Balkans has regained a priority status for NATO

Conference “Black Sea and Balkan Perspectives: A Strategic Region”, organised by the NATO Defense College Foundation, is taking place on Wednesday, 28 July. On this occasion, we interviewed Ambassador Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, President of the NATO Defense College Foundation and a former Deputy Secretary General and acting Secretary General of NATO, who will also deliver the welcome remarks at the Conference.

We spoke with Ambassador Minuto-Rizzo about the three topics of the Conference: external actors in the Balkans, frozen conflicts in the region, as well as illicit activities, all of which represent a potential security threat. We also touched upon the most recent developments when it comes to the Alliance, the June Summit and the NATO 2030 agenda, and how they impact the Balkans.

European Western Balkans: One of the topics of the next week’s Conference will be the presence of China in the Balkans, which has indeed come into the focus of both researchers and politicians in recent years. Does NATO regard this presence, which is still mostly economical, as a security challenge and, if it does, how serious does it find it?

Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo: I don’t think that today we should consider that China represents a serious security challenge for the Balkans. At this moment, we see an increased interest in the area, an economic presence and investments in infrastructures (as in the case of Montenegro). Countries in the region need to be careful in non-compromising strategic interests, in making arrangements that are reasonable and that they can pay back. In general terms China is a competitor, in some cases, it may be a partner. It is a process and a relationship to be followed carefully and with due attention.

EWB: Frozen conflicts will also be discussed, as a source of security threats. One of the most prominent such conflicts is Kosovo-Serbia dispute, which currently does not appear to be close to a resolution. In which way should this issue realistically be tackled by the EU in the coming period, in your view? What can NATO do to support it?

AMR: Serbia-Kosovo is an ongoing issue since many years. It is well known in the region and elsewhere. It raises emotions and remains controversial.  This relationship has complexities of many sorts and there is no magic solution.

We understand that public opinion in Serbia is worried about its minority. That there are also historical roots that have to be preserved and cannot be forgotten. On the other hand, the independence of Kosovo is a fact that has to be recognized. The EU and NATO are trying in good faith to build bridges and to support good compromises. In the end Serbia and Kosovo should become good neighbors in a regional framework.

EWB: When it comes to illicit activities undermining security environment in the Western Balkans, the public perception is that the organised crime still presents a significant security challenge. How do you assess the fight against organised crime in the Western Balkans?

AMR: Unfortunately, illicit activities continue to be relevant and organized crime remains a widespread issue. What to do? Many things at the same time. To reinforce the tools at the disposal of regional governments, to increase cooperation, law implementation and reforms, to continue the development of a civil society and its awareness. Support from the Europeans institutions and their credibility are also important. But they have to be matched by a process of reforms. There is a need for a credible rule of law before a full integration in the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions

EWB: In the June Brussels Summit Communique, NATO Allies pledged to intensify their efforts “in order to support reform efforts, promote regional peace and security, and counter the malign influence of outside actors” in the Western Balkans. Do you think that this pledge will be acted upon in the near future and in which way?

AMR: The June Summit Communique repeats, with different words, concepts that are in use since a long time. The overall presence of NATO in the Balkans has been a positive one, having its roots in the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia. A NATO operation is still ongoing as well as technical assistance. The “open door policy” has been a positive factor and we see North Macedonia as the last country to become a member of the Alliance. Movements in the right direction if you take into consideration the initial situation.

Perhaps the novelty that we can read in the NATO Summit is that the region has regained a priority and that the Alliance is determined “to project security”.

EWB: During the Summit, NATO leaders also endorsed the NATO 2030 agenda. When it comes to the political goals of the agenda, especially on the upholding of the rules-based international order, do you think that there is enough political unity among the Allies to achieve significant results?

AMR: The NATO 2030 agenda has a primary objective: to improve the political dimension of the Alliance, not to give the impression that it is a military organization. Last year the “reflection group” has produced an important report in this direction and work toward reform is going to continue.

It is clear that an increased membership from the original 12 countries, who signed the Washington Treaty in 1949, to the present 30 members represent a huge change with inevitable consequences.

It is normal that regional diversity and a completely new international environment make more difficult to agree on priorities and to share the same threat perceptions. The work to rebuild consensus for a new era (it is the title of the conference of the Foundation on June 9) has just started and is not going to be easy.

On the other hand, NATO will continue to be a primary security provider, the change of Administration in Washington represents a good sign in this direction. It means that multilateralism has regained the high ground; this political-military organization with a proven record is a useful tool

EWB: Which aspects of the NATO 2030 agenda impact the Western Balkan countries, especially non-NATO members?

AMR: The 2030 agenda calls for a renewed approach to international security in parallel with the emerging challenges. It has now to be translated into concrete measures. It also calls for a more global Alliance.

As we have just said, the Balkans has regained visibility and priority because of their recognized significance.

The open-door policy remains in place and an active approach towards countries of the area is the cards. Serbia is logically an important case in this point. It is a historical country, it is strategic in the Balkans, with established national institutions and a developed civil society.

We all know past history and its legitimate wounds, but time has come to turn the page. The world is changing fast and we hope that Serbia is going to take its place in the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. It will require time but what is important is to take new steps in the right direction.

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