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Yugoslavia: NATO Current Challenges May Retard Further Expansion

  • Breffni O'Rourke

This is the first of two features in which RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke examines the impact of the Kosovo crisis on prospects for eastward expansion of Western structures. This first feature focuses on NATO. The second will focus on the European Union.

Prague, 9 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Kosovo crisis is imposing new prospects on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as they seek to join Western institutions like the European Union and NATO.

The pattern established during the last decade -- namely of slow but seemingly steady movement by most of the Eastern countries toward integration with the West -- appears at risk of being distorted because of the sudden storm in the Balkans.

That is because both the EU and NATO look like being preoccupied for years with rebuilding and securing Kosovo, and that task will claim vast resources. According to some analysts, it could also distract or deflect them from broader tasks.

Let's firstly consider NATO, then, in a subsequent feature, look at the EU. The NATO alliance will be burdened with the deployment and maintenance of more than 50,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo for an undefined length of time. Another 30,000 troops are stationed in Bosnia under a similar long-term commitment, and thousands more are in Macedonia and Albania.

Writing in the Washington Post this week, (July 7) commentator William Drozdiak says the alliance is now dramatically shifting its military assets towards Southeast Europe, after training for decades to defend itself against threats in Northern and Central Europe. At the same time, says Drozdiak, the increased strain in NATO's relations with Moscow are indirectly hampering membership prospects for the three Baltic states bordering Russia -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. He suggests that is because NATO wants to avoid irritating Moscow further.

NATO of course does not admit either to being too heavily focused on the Balkans, or to neglecting the prospects of the Baltic states or other potential NATO members. Spokesman Alex Chatahtinsky told RFE/RL by telephone from Brussels this week that there is "no linkage" between these issues:

"I think this is pure speculation, I don't think this would necessarily mean that other candidates [for NATO membership] would be disregarded, absolutely not."

However, a senior analyst with Britain's Conflict Studies Research Centre, James Sherr, agrees with Drozdiak's contention that NATO's focus has now shifted to the Balkans. And he agrees the Baltic states might have to endure a degree of frustration as the spotlight turns away, and could even come under a measure of Russian pressure. However, he has a very different view of where the real strategic dangers lie. Sherr spoke with RFE/RL by telephone this week:

"I see little possibility of anything going very seriously wrong in the Baltic states. [But] there is a profoundly strong possibility that things will go seriously wrong in Ukraine."

Sherr's contention is that the Western military intervention in Kosovo has aroused strong doubts among large sections of Ukraine's population, and this has weakened the pro-NATO political and military elements there.

He notes the existence in Ukraine of other political elements which seek a form of Slavic union between Ukraine, Belarus and Russia -- a development which would have considerable consequences for the rest of Europe. And he says this comes at a time when the West's own focus is on the Balkans and not on Ukraine's relations with Russia.

A further factor is that because of its geographical position, Ukraine has key importance to Russia's military presence in the Balkans, in that troop and supply transport are making use of air corridors crossing Ukraine as well as the Ukraine-based Russian Black Sea fleet. The result, according to Sherr, is that Ukraine's own sovereignty is being progressively squeezed by Russia, and it is coming under increasing pressure to be more accommodating to the interest of the Russian armed forces. He concludes that this adds to the risk that Ukraine could change what he calls its "foreign policy identity".

In his Washington Post article, Drozdiak also refers to a debate within NATO in the aftermath of the Kosovo crisis on whether to grant early admission to candidates like Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and others. He quotes a NATO official as saying the question is whether or not to embrace those who are weak and in need of help.

Sherr says by contrast, he sees broad agreement among principal NATO members that the task of properly absorbing new members Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic is a "very serious" mid-term job and that further enlargement should not be hasty. He says other mechanisms than NATO membership must be sought which can help Southeast Europe. Sherr also argues that the political transformation in NATO's three newest member states is further advanced than in current candidate states from Southeast Europe.

"When we admitted Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, we admitted countries who had genuinely achieved irreversibility of change, by which I mean that in those countries the left can return to power and it does not matter because the left itself has been fundamentally transformed." He says there is broad consensus in those societies that the post-1989 changes have redefined the nature of those communities. He says that in Romania, and more so in Bulgaria, this is not yet the case:

"You are dealing there, as to a greater extent you are in Ukraine, with societies in which there is no fundamental consensus, and NATO would be very unwise to admit members who had not cleared that set of hurdles -- psychological, moral and institutional."

Despite his reservations, however, Sherr says that unquestionably Slovenia and Romania have improved their standing through the Kosovo crisis and now appear to be as "plausible" as candidates for NATO membership as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.