Academic event 2011

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NATO Enlargement and Security in the Balkans

Dessie Zagorcheva

‚ Columbia University, USA


More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, instead of a stable Euro-Atlantic security order and “a Europe whole and free,” a vicious cycle of insecurity has formed in some parts of Europe while Russia still feels alienated from the major security institutions.  Although the Balkans are no longer considered a “powder keg,” they are still plagued by numerous problems, including: persistent state weakness, instability, nationalistic rhetoric, inter-ethnic tensions, economic backwardness, territorial and border disputes, corruption, absence of the rule of law, and others.      This article examines the role of NATO enlargement for improving security in the Balkans.  It proposes some lessons from the experience of three new NATO members (Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia) which are relevant for countries in the Western Balkans that are aspiring to join the Euro-Atlantic institutions and could be potentially useful for the Caucasus as well. In its first part, the article presents a critical review of the political and military costs and benefits of NATO membership and the internal political debates on joining the Alliance.  Despite the existing enlargement fatigue in both the EU and NATO, neither Europe nor the US should abandon the Western Balkans because the region could revert back to the politics of nationalism and radicalism. My evidence confirms that the promise of joining the Euro-Atlantic family has played a significant role in sustaining the economic and political reforms needed for the consolidation of democracy.  However, while integration into NATO is a necessary condition for the Western Balkan countries to feel more secure, it is not a sufficient one.  Furthermore, the focus should not be only on traditional security issues (i.e., mainly military ones) because in the specific strategic environment in the Balkans, the major threats to security are no longer purely military.  There could be no security without stable and effective state institutions or without development.  Regarding the domestic political debates on whether to join Alliance, the lessons from previous NATO accessions show that policy-makers should be very honest with their citizens about the significant costs of membership in the Alliance.  Otherwise, they create unrealistic expectations that are next to impossible to fulfill.  This leads to a sense of severe disappointment with the security institutions and their effectiveness is thus compromised.  Hence, the Euro-Atlantic security architecture itself could be weakened. In the second part, the article analyzes the extent to which NATO membership has helped with the new security challenges facing the Balkan states.  In this connection, I examine how secure these states feel before and after becoming NATO members, as well as the difficulties of evaluating “objectively” their level of security.  Here a particular attention is paid to Russia’s continuing opposition to NATO enlargement and what countries like Bulgaria and Romania have done in order to minimize negative reactions from Moscow.  In this connection, the article also makes some policy recommendations as to how (within the framework of the NATO-Russia “Reset”) the Alliance could engage Russia in a mutually beneficial way in order to improve European security. The article concludes by offering policy recommendations as to the additional steps needed in order to achieve a genuine regional security community which eschews military force as a tool for conflict resolution.


About author:

Dessie Zagorcheva has worked as a researcher at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies (Columbia University), the Council on Foreign Relations, and the East West Institute.  Her areas of expertise include: International Security, U.S. foreign and defense policy and decision-making; democratic reforms in the East Central European countries; terrorism and counter-terrorism.  Dessie Zagorcheva's articles and reviews on these topics have appeared in International SecurityThe Journal of Slavic Military RelationsThe National InterestPolitical Science Quarterly, and others.  As a lecturer at the New York University and CUNY, she has taught courses on International Relations Theories, U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy, Terrorism and Counter-terrorism, International Conflict, American Government and Politics.  Dessie Zagorcheva holds an M. Phil. Degree in International Relations from Columbia University and a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Central European University.