TIRANA – Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing threats against Ukraine are a reminder to the countries of Eastern Europe, particularly those in the Balkans, of NATO’s centrality to national – indeed, European – security. But maximizing NATO’s effectiveness requires deeper engagement with and among its most vulnerable members.
If any country understands the value of such engagement, it is Albania. Before the Berlin Wall fell almost 25 years ago, Albania boasted of its self-reliance, and, spurred by relentless propaganda, vilified everyone outside its borders. Then the Iron Curtain was lifted, and Albanians realized that the outside world had not spent decades plotting to invade their country. Building some 300,000 bunkers to repel an invasion by the West had perhaps been more than a little paranoid.
Albania’s perceptions of NATO underwent a similar transformation: the imperialist aggressor became a champion of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Albanians realized that, through collective defense, the Alliance preserved Europe’s peace and security.
Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the specter of disintegration loomed over the Balkan countries. Then, in 1995, NATO intervened to establish and preserve peace in Bosnia. And, four years later, NATO stopped the genocide in Kosovo. Since then, NATO has undergone three rounds of enlargement – always eastward – with Albania and Croatia being the last countries to join, five years ago.
But, despite these achievements, there is no time for complacency. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, undertaken in open contempt of international law, has put European security back at the top of the global agenda, serving as a stark reminder that a free, cooperative, and peaceful Europe – the dream of countless Europeans since the 1950’s – remains a distant prospect.
Making matters worse, NATO engagement in the Western Balkans – a fragmented region that continues to struggle with issues of statehood, the rule of law, and inequality – remains inadequate, putting an already unstable part of Europe at considerable risk. Despite various regional cooperation mechanisms, the countries of the Western Balkans remain insufficiently engaged with one another. While they are not yet in a position to be considered for European Union membership, neither Europe nor NATO can afford to ignore the challenges that they face.
The fact is that security black holes in Europe are growing darker and deeper. This, together with conflicting enlargement agendas, has created conditions whereby international law and basic democratic principles can be flouted with virtual impunity – as Putin’s actions in Ukraine have clearly demonstrated. It is not only Europe’s security interests that are under threat, but also its values.
It is time for NATO to acknowledge its indispensable role – not as a security blanket, but as a security catalyst in Europe that responds to concerns about existing security gaps, many of which are having serious social and economic consequences. Postponing tough decisions regarding the Alliance’s future role and capabilities, or offering half-hearted cooperation, will not work.
More generally, Alliance members must recognize that NATO-protected territory has become a competitive security zone. Adapting to this new reality will be the main challenge at the NATO summit in Wales this September.
Fortunately, the Alliance seems to be moving in this direction. Recently, after an emergency meeting in Brussels, US President Barack Obama announced that a “regular NATO presence” would be established in the “vulnerable” member countries of Eastern Europe – an important step toward bolstering NATO’s role in the region.
But much remains to be done. For starters, NATO should build on its “open door policy,” which states that NATO would welcome any European country capable of fulfilling the commitments and obligations of membership, to institutionalize further its relationships in Eastern Europe.
Albania has repeatedly expressed support for the policy, which we view as vital to promoting democratic development and good neighborly relations – and thus to enhancing national and regional security and stability. In a region that is not yet firmly anchored in structures like NATO and the EU, ethnic, territorial, or religious divisions could have catastrophic consequences. Deeper integration into NATO – achieved through a credible engagement process, instead of short-term reassurances – would help to mitigate this risk.
Today, NATO, the EU, and the Western Balkan countries share the need for more comprehensive, rules-rich cooperation mechanisms that account for the political, economic, and military components of security, and that are backed by the necessary financial commitments and instruments. No effort should be spared in reinforcing NATO. Otherwise, Putin’s annexation of Crimea could be only the beginning.