A High-Level Visit to the Western Balkans Puts the Region Back in Focus for the NATO PA’s Defence and Security Committee

24 April 2024

In Ljubljana and Zagreb, NATO Parliamentarians commemorated the 20- and 15-year markers of Slovenia and Croatia in NATO. Their accessions, which were later followed by Montenegro and North Macedonia, proved that stronger democracies across the Western Balkans could resolve disputes with neighbours, successfully integrate themselves into Euro-Atlantic institutions, and contribute positively to regional security and prosperity.  

Their successes, however, do not tell the whole Western Balkan story today. Despite concerted international attention since the Bosnian and Kosovo Wars, contentious issues remain around border delineations and minority rights. While all Western Balkan countries look West for their future, a divergence has emerged between those who have been more successful – Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia – and those whose integration has proven more difficult – Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Serbia, and Kosovo.  

To better understand the complex and evolving political and security environment in the Western Balkans, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s (NATO PA) Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Defence and Security Cooperation Defence and Security Committee (DSCTC) visited Ljubljana, Slovenia; Zagreb and Split, Croatia; and Podgorica, Montenegro from 8 to 12 April 2024. Vice-Chair of the DSCTC, Fernando Gutierrez (Spain) led the delegation representing ten Allied nations.  

A Defining Moment for the Alliance: Regional contributions to NATO’s collective defence  

Throughout the visit, the delegation heard resounding support for Allies to present a strong, unified front at the upcoming summit this July. Each noted the landmark summit offers the right venue at the right time for Allies to recommit to their pledge to work together in defence of their common democratic values to which their one billion citizens hold. Russia’s clear challenge to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area is a test of Allied resolve, and every Ally must do their part to prove that NATO remains the uncontested defender of the rules-based international order. 

Delegates discussed Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and its preliminary military and political lessons for Allies throughout the visit. One Croatian expert stressed that the rapidly changing nature of warfare will require Allies to remain innovative, flexible, and adaptive to maintain their technological edge over adversaries. How militaries combine legacy systems and traditional methods of warfare with novel technologies and capabilities will determine superiority on future battlefields.  

Sustained, strong political will to remain in solidarity with Ukraine’s legitimate fight for freedom must also continue to be a priority. Throughout the visit leaders and experts alike noted the Balkans’ distinct history with war to push back against anachronistic notions of regional spheres of influence.  

In the face of Russia’s escalating military aggression in Europe, Allies in the Western Balkans have proven themselves to be valuable assets to NATO’s efforts to adapt their collective deterrence and defence posture. Each Ally underscored their contributions to the Alliance’s reinforced and adapted military presence on the Eastern Flank, particularly by contributing to NATO’s multinational battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. As regional interlocutors noted, not only do they strive to be anchors of regional stability, but they also work wherever possible to contribute to Allies’ broader collective defence mission of the Euro-Atlantic as well as missions and operations seeking to promote peace and stability abroad. 

In meetings with military personnel at the Baron Andrej Čehovin Barracks, members of the DSCTC learned about Slovenia’s important position as a hinge between the Adriatic and Central Europe. Commanders outlined the Slovenian Armed Forces’ (SAF) participation in NATO exercises and operations, as well as its recent efforts to assist with training Ukrainian soldiers.  

The delegation also was given a view into Slovenia’s burgeoning defence industry. Visits to Slovenian firms C-Astral and Guardiaris demonstrated the Slovenian entrepreneurs’ efforts to advance UAV and training simulator design and impact. Each is making a name for itself in already busy arenas of defence sector research and investment.  

In Croatia, defence ministry officials and armed forces commanders emphasised the country’s strong contributions to all three of NATO’s core tasks, with Croatian soldiers taking part in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) in Hungary and Poland, Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean, and the NATO Training Mission – Iraq (NTM-I). Parliamentarians also met with representatives from the Croatian defence industry and discussed how Croatian firms are leveraging funds from the EU and NATO to boost defence industrial capacity to respond to surging market demand in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.  

Montenegrin briefers told the delegation that, though small in terms of geography and population, the country punches above its weight in terms of its contributions to Allied security. Montenegro’s foreign policy focuses on accelerating its EU integration, where the country has opened all the 33 screened chapters after eight years of accession negotiations, support for NATO, and serving as a trusted interlocutor among regional states to broker peace and stability. In line with the latter two pillars, Montenegro’s defence spending has reached NATO’s 2% of GDP benchmark this year, while its forces contribute to NTM-I, KFOR, and multinational battlegroups in Latvia and Bulgaria.  

Euro-Atlantic Integration at Different Speeds 

The countries of the Western Balkans have made varied progress in their respective economic, political, and security transitions since the devastating Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Fully embedded in the Euro-Atlantic community as strong members of the European Union (EU) and NATO, Croatia and Slovenia represent veritable regional success stories. Meanwhile, Montenegro and North Macedonia joined in the Alliance in 2017 and 2019 respectively and remain on track for EU accession this decade.  

A series of violent events in 2023, however, culminating in a paramilitary attack on Kosovo police in northern Kosovo, have refocused NATO Allies’ attention on the Western Balkans. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has further heightened concerns about possible conflict spill-over or the Kremlin’s regional influence peddling destabilisation. In response, both NATO and the EU have reviewed and adapted their force postures in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina and are applying renewed political pressure on regional leaders to settle long-standing disputes and move on with their common goals of closer Euro-Atlantic integration. 

In BiH, the Dayton Peace Accords have preserved a relative degree of stability since the Bosnian War, but the country’s political framework is under significant strain, as dangerous political paralysis and state dysfunction have become the order of the day. In the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, Serb-nationalist leader Milorad Dodik leverages (often violent) secessionist rhetoric to boost his own political fortunes, leaning into the Serbian political leadership’s dissatisfaction with ethnic Serbs’ representation in the region outside of Serbia. Dodik is also courting ever closer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even going so far as to award him with the Order of the Republika Srpska, the entity’s highest honour.  

Belgrade and Pristina, meanwhile, are at an impasse in the process of normalising their relations. Serbia continues to block international recognition of Kosovo wherever possible, and Kosovo has yet to implement the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities (ASM) which would guarantee the Serbian municipalities in northern Kosovo the degree of autonomy they seek. The EU-facilitated high-level Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue has reached a degree of technical successes on the ground in northern Kosovo and between the two governments but continues to fail to achieve its ultimate goal of a comprehensive and legally-binding normalisation agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.  

In the absence of normalisation, security on the ground has deteriorated rapidly. In May 2023, 93 KFOR personnel were injured during violent protests, and a few months later in September, a paramilitary attack by Serb shooters on Kosovo police resulted in the death of one officer and three attackers. A large cache of weapons capable of inflicting significant damage and casualties found near the incident – including anti-tank rocket launchers, mortars and grenade launchers, anti-tank mines, and 24 vehicles (one armoured) – raised concerns about the scale and scope of the failed operation. In response to the incidents and to curtail future escalations of violence, NATO has reinforced and changed the disposition of its KFOR mission, including the addition of 800 troops and heavier weaponry.  

Throughout the visit high-level political and military decision-makers briefed the delegation on the root causes and current drivers of the region’s ongoing security, political, and economic challenges. All agreed that external interference, principally by disinformation campaigns, exacerbated these challenges by creating artificial divisions, sowing distrust, and imbuing local leaders with dangerous views on nationalism. Russia, which maintains historical and current ties with Slavic and Eastern Orthodox communities in the Western Balkans, seeds disinformation across the region to manipulate potentially sympathetic regional political figures. Russia works hard to use its remaining levers of regional influence to block further regional Euro-Atlantic integration and draw Allied and European attention away from its war efforts in Ukraine.  

China, the delegation learned, is also increasingly asserting itself in the region, principally through economic investments and loans via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which, regional interlocutors stressed, has created cycles of debt dependency and transmits authoritarian practices wherever BRI deals have been struck. Cooperation between China and the region, however, is not limited to trade and infrastructure investment. China has also recently become Serbia’s largest arms provider, with Belgrade procuring HQ-22 surface-to-air missile systems and CH-92 armed drones and becoming the first operator of Chinese weapons systems in Europe. 

Former President of Slovenia Borut Pahor told NATO parliamentarians that full integration into the EU and NATO is simply the best way to resolve the region’s problems. In this regard, the European Commission’s recent decision to open accession negotiations with BiH, as well as Montenegro’s progress toward meeting accession criteria, are promising developments.  

Steadfast support for Ukraine  

Allies in the Western Balkans are familiar with Russian interference in domestic politics and feel the destabilising impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine acutely. As such, they are not only renewing their steps to thwart Russian influence and meddling in the region, but they have also stepped up to the challenge by offering political, economic, and military support for Ukraine.  

As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2024-2025 term, Slovenia is consistently using its voice in support of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. In parallel, it advocates for NATO’s Open Door policy and Ukraine’s eventual membership in the Alliance. In support of these positions, Slovenia recently pledged financial support to the Czech initiative to organise the purchase of 1 million artillery rounds for Ukraine.  

Croatia is a regional leader in terms of aid to Ukraine, providing over 1% of its GDP to Ukraine bilaterally and through the EU, and last year donated MI-18 helicopters to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Montenegro, for its part, has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s legitimate self-defence: its parliament was one of the first to adopt a resolution condemning the invasion and has fully aligned itself with European sanctions against Russia, a particularly laudable step as it entailed significant costs for its tourist industry. Moreover, on a per capita basis, Montenegro is among the top countries accepting Ukrainian refugees. 

Photos of the visit

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