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[EWB Interview] Minuto-Rizzo: Historic engagement of NATO in the Balkans will continue

The recent security developments in Europe have had a strong influence on the Western Balkans as well and NATO has been devoting more attention to the region in it’s strategic documents. NATO has been present in the Western Balkans for a long time now, it recognizes security challenges countries in the region are facing and has been active in addressing the security major issues in the Western Balkans. The conference Balkan and Black Sea Perspectives 2022: Supporting the transition organized by NATO Foundation on 7 December once again reaffirmed the interest of the Alliance for this region. 

We talked to Ambassador Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, President of the NATO Foundation and a former Deputy Secretary General and acting Secretary General of NATO, who shared his insight about the topics discussed at the conference, such as regional integration perspectives, the role of international community in addressing the grey areas in the region and consolidation of fragile democracies.

European Western Balkans: NATO Strategic Concept 2022 recognized the Western Balkans as a region of strategic importance, which is a message we’ve also heard from the Bucharest Summit of NATO Foreign Ministers. What does that mean in practice? Do you expect NATO to get more engaged in the Western Balkans due to the war in Ukraine?

Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo: The new Strategic Concept of NATO recognizes the Western Balkans by name. It may look like new language. As a matter of fact, the active presence of the Atlantic Alliance in region dates back to the mid-nineties. We cannot easily forget the interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, North Macedonia.

Without the engagement of the Alliance the Dayton agreement would not have been possible. As a matter of fact, it has been decisive to end the civil war in Yugoslavia. The KFOR operation in Kosovo is still underway. It is easy to say that this historic engagement of the Alliance will go on in the future.

EWB: One of the topics of the conference is addressing grey areas in the region. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the three partner countries NATO increased its support to since the war in Ukraine started. How important is NATO support in ensuring stability and resilience of Bosnia and Herzegovina and how do you see the development of the relationship between the country and NATO considering polarized attitudes of ethnic groups towards NATO?

AMR: Bosnia Herzegovina is a fragile state since the beginning and the reasons are well known. The present agreements are not perfect and the situation is often uncertain and remains delicate. We have to keep in mind that it is very difficult to do change the present balance. Everybody should realize that, and work for keeping peace and advancing statehood. In the end the destiny of the country is to join the Euro-Atlantic institutions.

EWB: Another grey area discussed at the conference is Kosovo, where we recently once again saw rising tensions and what some called a security vacuum due to Serbs from the North leaving the Kosovo institutions, including the police. While KFOR is ensuring a safe and secure environment on the ground, how do you see NATO contributing to a long-term solution of the Serbia-Kosovo dispute?

AMR: Kosovo is an independent state and it is there to remain. Of course, we understand the emotions coming from past history that explain the recurrent states of tension. We respect the feelings of everybody. However, the spirit of compromise should prevail recognizing the political reality and giving to the Serb minority the right to keep their cultural identity.

The Alliance is there since a long time to preserve peace and to guarantee a continued attention. KFOR works in good faith and with discipline to accompany the consolidation of good practices. Italy has shown a special interest towards Kosovo and also to safeguard cultural heritage. There is every reason to think that this effort will continue in the future.

EWB: The Strategic Concept 2022 mentions authoritarianism for the first time as a challenge to the Alliance. The global trend of democracy erosion impacted the Western Balkans as well. Fragile democracies are another issue on the agenda of today’s conference, as they threaten regional stability. What are the biggest security challenges stemming from unconsolidated state of Western Balkans democracies?

AMR: There is little democratic tradition in the Balkans, in the current way of referring to it. Many national actors have no historic state consolidation. Fragmentation encourages localism and a distorted meaning of national identity. It is therefore important to follow the lines and rules already existing in Europe and in European institutions, even if it takes time.

Authoritarianism is completely out of place in today’s Europe and democracy is clearly a priority, a system to be adopted. We see a slow progress in this direction.

EWB: NATO seems to be increasingly concerned by China, judging by the recent statements, but also strategic documents. Do you expect the influence of China to be increasing in the Western Balkans and what would that mean in terms of security?

AMR: The Indo-Pacific is now indicated in basic documents of the Atlantic Alliance.  They show China as a competitor more than an adversary and there should be no misunderstanding. This a new chapter in the evolution of NATO where there is not yet a clear direction to be followed. In a way we have a sort of placeholder for the future which is not a defined strategy.

China has an influence in some countries of the region and we worry that this influence might become a sort of conditionality for those countries. However, I cannot say that the Balkans represent a priority for China at this time.

EWB: Another actor with strong influence in the region is Russia, especially in Serbia, which has received much criticism from the EU for not aligning with sanctions. What can NATO do to contain the Russian influence in the region and to present itself as a viable alternative to both Serbian authorities and public, given the negative perception that exists since 1999?

AMR: Russia has a historic presence in the region. For cultural and political reasons, especially in Serbia, that have their roots in the past. Russia has often presented itself as a protector against other influences like the Ottoman empire in the 19th century.

On the other hand, Serbia is an important actor, it has a solid national tradition and we have all the good reasons to convince its people that their future is to become part of the European family. I think that, with time, this will be a successful story. And NATO is not hostile to Serbia, a reality that will be recognized with the Serbians looking at their real long-time interest.

EWB: In 2022, NATO published a document called “Human Security: Approach and Guiding Principles.” Do you see this commitment to human security and protection of civilians as a shift in NATO’s approach towards a more comprehensive concept of security and how do you expect that to look in practice?

AMR: It is good for the Atlantic Alliance to have a comprehensive approach to security. An issue that has been discussed several times inside the Alliance. Human security is fundamental and it has to be a serious objective to address. In the past NATO has been often identified with hard security and I agree that this image should change. 

A comprehensive approach to crisis management cannot address only the military part of the crisis, but also the other phases, equally important. We have already the experience, in various ways , that such an approach should prevail.

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