What Is Nato’s Balkan Plan as Kosovo and Bosnia Wobble?


Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrapped up a tour of Western Balkan countries last week, in a show of support for and engagement in a region with fires on multiple security fronts.

“This region is strategically important to Nato, but there are reasons for concern,” Stoltenberg said at a press conference in the North Macedonian capital of Skopje on Wednesday at the end of his trip. “We see secessionist threats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a fragile security situation in Kosovo and stalled normalization between Belgrade and Pristina.”

Since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, Nato has played a major security role in the region. It intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo in the bloody wars that marked the eventual breakdown of Yugoslavia into separate states. Today, three of the six Western Balkan states are in Nato (Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia), and three are not (Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina).

Kosovo gunfight cause for concern

Hostilities are on the rise between minority ethnic Serbs and majority ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which was a province of Serbia during Yugoslav times but broke away and declared independence in 2008 following a bloody war in the 1990s. The United States and 22 of the 27 EU states recognize its statehood, while Serbia and Russia regard it as a breakaway province.

In May, troops from the Nato-led KFOR peacekeeping force were injured trying to manage ethnic Serb-Albanian clashes in northern Kosovo, close to the Serbian border. Kosovo Serbs are often highly distrustful of national authorities and retain close relations with Serbia. In September, four people were left dead after a gunfight between ethnic Serbs, who had barricaded themselves in a monastery, and Kosovo authorities.

As a result, Nato has sent around 1,000 extra troops to Kosovo and stepped-up patrols in the predominantly Serb north. This takes KFOR’s troop total to more than 4,500, according to news agency Reuters.

Speaking on Monday in the capital Pristina, Stoltenberg said Nato would “do what is necessary to maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all people in Kosovo.”

“We are now reviewing whether we should have a more permanent increase to ensure that this doesn’t spiral out of control and creates a new violent conflict in Kosovo or the wider region,” he said.

Republika Srpska threatening to secede from Bosnia

Meanwhile in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the multiethnic state’s two political entities, the Republika Srpska, has been threatening to secede. Republika Srpska makes up about half of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina and is home to some 1.2 million people, mostly ethnic Serbs. It was also formed during the violent breakdown of Yugoslavia and in a context of bloody war.

The EU, which leads a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is unpopular in Republika Srpska. Instead, the entity has close ties with Serbia and Russia. The EU forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina took over from a Nato mission in 2004.

Message to Moscow

With various fires smouldering, Stoltenberg’s statement in Skopje at the end of his tour on Wednesday was delivered alongside leaders from four Balkan Nato allies — Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia — and aimed partially at Moscow.

Nato sees Russia as playing a destabilizing role, particularly since the invasion of Ukraine.

“Authoritarian states like Russia seek to undermine our democracies with cyber and hybrid threats,” Stoltenberg, who is tipped to soon leave his post at the head of the Western military alliance, said.

As Bojana Zoric of the European Union Institute for Security Studies explained, in general Russia’s aim in the region is to stop the expansion of Nato and the absorption of states into the EU.

The war in Ukraine has also served to underline existing divisions, the analyst from the EU funded research agency said: “The Western Balkans is not unified when it comes to the response to the war in Ukraine.”

This was to Moscow’s advantage.

“Russia always wants to seize any opportunity it has to produce disorder and to inflame hostilities in the region and in a way use ethnic fractures to its own benefit,” Zoric told DW.

What was Stoltenberg trying to achieve on his trip?

For Zoric, Stoltenberg’s trip was mainly about sending “a clear message to the region and other actors present and involved, including Russia, that Nato remains strongly committed to ensuring security.”

A greater Nato presence in Kosovo ought to encourage all sides to show restraint and therefore hopefully support the reinvigoration of effective normalization dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, she said.

Serbia, which aspires to be part of the EU but not Nato, would itself not risk conflict with the military alliance, Zoric said. Most EU states are in Nato. These days, Belgrade has stable relations with Nato, according to the analyst.

What’s the risk of further conflict?

The analyst doesn’t see a danger of overt confrontation on the horizon, however.

“Not even now or in the near future will Russia be able to afford entering a war on the Western Balkan front, particularly having in mind the fact that half of the Western Balkans is in Nato,” Zoric said.

Instead, Moscow would be more likely to continue with its current modus operandi of encouraging disorder by working with key regional interlocutors, she argued.