Accessibility links

Breaking News

Bosnia-Herzegovina: NATO Aims To Merge Rival Armies Into Single Bosnian Force

NATO’s top general in Bosnia was in Brussels this week to brief the alliance on sweeping defense reforms drawn up under his command earlier this year. The reforms outlined by U.S. General Stephen Schook would create a single army for Bosnia under one chain of command and financed from a unified budget. The change would represent a radical departure from the 1995 Dayton peace accord, which left Bosnia’s Serbian, Muslim, and Croatian communities with their own militaries. The three communities must now approve the proposed reforms, which if implemented could bring Bosnia closer to eventually joining NATO.

Brussels, 18 August 2005 (RFE/RL) - After handing over Bosnian peacekeeping operations to the European Union in 2004, NATO is now hoping to claim credit for groundbreaking defense reforms in the Balkan country.

The commander of NATO headquarters in Sarajevo, General Schook, told journalists in Brussels yesterday that he believes the Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim communities of Bosnia will soon accept a NATO-engineered blueprint to fuse their forces into a single army.

He said that if implemented, the reforms could represent a “fundamental shift” away from the division of the country into three parts cemented in the 1995 Dayton peace accord. Instead, Schook said, if the blueprint handed over to Bosnia’s constituent communities in July works, Bosnia’s army could soon for the first time be wholly owned by the state.

“I’m extremely optimistic that we’ll have significant reform in defense that catapults us from the dictates of Dayton into a single military force palatable to NATO, [under] one command -- one chain of command -- ethnic representation and a single budget," Schook said.

The reforms should introduce what Schook described as a regimental system, borrowing heavily on the experience of Britain and Canada.

The U.S. general said a division of the army into regiments -- while having no direct effect on the way it functions -- will allow the “entities” that make up Bosnia to preserve their military traditions and history. Regiments are fighting forces of about 3,000 soldiers.

Schook said NATO advisers also kept a close eye on the alliance’s own requirements while drawing up the new legislation. He said that while any membership decisions are a matter for the governments of NATO allies, the reforms, if properly implemented, will put Bosnia “on the path” toward NATO membership.

The reforms will abolish conscription, and should result in the creation of a professional army numbering 9,000-10,000 men. They will also do away with the huge reserve force standing currently at some 40,000 men. In its place, a small professional reserve will be established whose size may not exceed more than half that of the new army.

Key Debates

Schook said the reform plans are the result of a “laborious process” led jointly by NATO and the Bosnian Defense Ministry. The main vehicle for them has been the “Defense reform commission” set up in January. The commission comprises representatives from the ruling parties in the Republika Srpska, as well as the Croat-Muslim federation. Schook said that fact ensures that the green light from the commission means there exist “at least the beginnings” of a political agreement among all parties prior to debates in constituent national assemblies.

These debates will be vital. All of Bosnia’s constituent entities must adjust their constitutions to allow for the replacement of their ethnically divided forces by a single Bosnian army.

Schook indicated yesterday that a vote in Republika Srpska’s National Assembly (RSNA) in the last week of August will be crucial. Some time ago, the RSNA rejected an important NATO-sponsored police reform.

This time, Schook said, he believes the reforms have the support of all major players.

“In our coordination with the RSNA, in our coordination with the Ministry of Defense of Republika Srpska, in our coordination with President [Dragan] Cavic of the Republika Srpska, I can [categorically say] that I am very optimistic that this will pass through the RSNA," Schook said. "I am also very optimistic that even the opposition parties to the ruling government in the RSNA will support this legislation.”

Schook noted that practical considerations have played an important role in generating goodwill toward the reforms. He said budgetary concerns were a major driving force, as the present system is considered unaffordable by all sides.

He said the reforms could significantly contribute to security both inside and outside Bosnia.

“This [reform] is significant for many reasons," Schook said. "The first reason I would give to you is it creates a sense of security within Bosnia-Herzegovina. Why? Well, if you don’t have the entity armies and you now created a state army, that’s a different set of security conditions than what existed [previously]. And our latest polling shows up to 40 percent [of the inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina] are concerned about security still. Number two: It further stabilizes the region, it has an impact on neighboring countries of Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

Schook said he hopes that the reform will “pull” in its wake other reforms geared toward strengthening Bosnian society and its governance.