Euro-Atlanticism and the creation of a 'security community' in the Balkans

Pressure from the EU and NATO terminated the civil war in Yugoslavia, but this area has remained a potential crisis point due to the legacy of war, open ethnic and border disputes, and mutual mistrust between the successor states of the former Yugoslavia.

By Professor Predrag Simić

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The civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s was the first serious crisis in Europe after the Cold War. The crisis in the U.S. and the EU, meanwhile, “has opened the first serious debate on foreign policy and international relations after the Cold War” and influenced the evolution of the main institutions of European and Euro-Atlantic security, primarily, the European Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While early attempts of mediation on the part of the EC/EU in the former Yugoslavia brought only partial results, NATO’s combat operations – the first in the organization’s history – were conducted in 1995 and 1999 right here in the Balkans. Pressure from the EU and NATO terminated the civil war in Yugoslavia, but this area has remained a potential crisis point due to the legacy of war, open ethnic and border disputes, and mutual mistrust between the successor states of the former Yugoslavia.

One consequence of the dissolution of, and war in, the former Yugoslavia was the fragmentation of the region and the creation of new states which have remained burdened by the consequences of war and the disintegration of the former common state.  Countries of the region were lagging behind due to the legacy of the Cold War division of the Balkans, which in the last half of the 20th century was divided between NATO, the Warsaw Pact, the Non-Aligned movement and self-isolated countries. Hence the Balkans can be referred to more in geographic terms, rather than as a region connected with economic, social, political and other links. Even the commitment of all of these countries to join the EU, and most of them to join NATO (except Serbia), does not automatically imply their willingness to restore mutual relations and create regional institutions. Moreover, the European orientation of the Yugoslav republics in the early 1990s was more driven by a desire to “escape from the Balkans” and connect with the developed part of Europe, whilst emphasising their mutual differences and hostility.

These were some of the reasons why major initiatives towards the renewal of regional cooperation in the Balkans came from without. For the EU and NATO, fragmentation and crises in the region became obstacles to its integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. Early attempts at restoring regional ties (for instance, the Royaumont Initiative, SECI, etc.) all had limited results. The EU, therefore, after the Dayton Peace Agreement for Bosnia and Herzegovina, began systematic efforts in this direction within the frame of the so-called regional approach to the Western Balkans. These efforts on the part of the EU were given full swing only after NATO’s military intervention against the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, when the Stability Pact in South-East Europe was established at the EU summit in Cologne. The common stand taken at European summits in Zagreb (2000) and Thessaloniki (2003) was that all Western Balkan countries could be admitted into the EU if they fulfilled the required conditions. The prospect of membership and the requirement on the part of the EU pertaining to regional cooperation have contributed to the restoration of mutual connections and the relatively rapid development of regional relations, starting from cooperation in the field of infrastructure, the fight against organized crime, the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers. and the development of economic and military cooperation, mainly within the framework of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme.

The Western Balkans is now surrounded by the EU and NATO members and is one of the few areas on the political map of Europe not fully incorporated into European and Euro-Atlantic integration.  Despite the cessation of armed conflict, this area is still burdened by a number of problems which make the probability of their integration into the EU (except Croatia) unlikely. In addition to the legacy of war and incomplete transition of their economic and political systems, these countries continue to be burdened by ethnic tensions, unresolved territorial disputes, migration problems, underdeveloped infrastructure, corruption and organized crime. A particular problem is the areas that are still under international protectorate. The commitment of these countries to EU accession and, in most cases, membership in NATO, opens the possibility of building a new security architecture; not only in the region of the Western Balkans, but the Balkans as a whole. In addition to continuing and deepening the region’s economic integration, the need to create a so-called security community in the Balkans – which would serve as a framework for resolving inter-state disputes and integration into the EU and NATO – is frequently emphasized.

Security Communities

The concept of a ‘security community’ was introduced in the late 1950s by the American Professor Karl Deutsch in his book, “Political community and the North Atlantic area”.  In short, security communities define regions or groups of countries that have voluntarily waived their right to resolve mutual disputes by force and where the likelihood of violence, i.e., a war, is minimal or impossible. According to Karl Deutsch, “a security community” is “a group of people, which has become integrated.” He refers to integration as the “attainment, within a territory, of a ‘sense of community’ and of institutions and practices strong enough and widespread enough to assure, for a ‘long’ time, dependable expectations of ‘peaceful change’ among its population.”

By “sense of community”, Deutsch means “a belief amongst individuals in the group that they attained an agreement on at least one of the issues: that common social problems must and can be resolved by processes of ‘peaceful change’”. Such a change involves resolving social problems through institutionalized procedures and without resort to physical force on a large scale. A security community is, therefore, a community where there are, “real assurance that the members of that community will not fight each other physically, but will settle their disputes in some other way. If the whole world was integrated into a security community, wars would be automatically excluded”, concludes the author.

Karl Deutsch in his book identified two types of security communities. The first type are so-called ‘amalgamated communities’, whereby two or more independent units connect into a common and broader unit, within which a certain form of shared power arises. Such examples are the United States and, perhaps also, the former Yugoslavia – which, according to the definition of this author, could be designated as a failed security community, since it disappeared during the civil war. The second type are so-called ‘pluralistic security communities’, in which smaller units retain legal independence and separate governments. Deutsch identified such a community in North America between the U.S. and Canada. Pluralistic security communities are more common, and as examples of this type we could specify the Euro-Atlantic area, which incorporates NATO, the European Union in Europe, ASEAN in Asia and Mercosur in South America.

Although the theory of Karl Deutsch emerged in the late 1950s, it gained its full influence only after the Cold War, when his ideas were further developed by social constructivists, Emmanuel Adler and Michael Barnett, in their book “Security Communities”. According to Adler and Barnett’s view, security communities, as well as all other types of human communities, are distinguished by three characteristics. First, community members share a common identity, values and meanings. Second, community members have many-sided and direct relations.  Third, communities exhibit some kind of long-term interest of the community members or even altruism: “long-term interest arises from the knowledge of the other with whom you interact while altruism may be interpreted as a sense of obligation and responsibility.”

Adler and Barnett state that security communities should be built gradually: an emerging community corresponds with the basic needs of peaceful change, while a mature security community is characterized by the collective security mechanisms, as well as by supranational and transnational elements.  In contrast to Deutsch, Adler and Barnett distinguish between tightly- and loosely-integrated communities. Following in the footsteps of these ideas, some other authors talk about ‘inter-state security communities’ (between which a war is not possible) and ‘comprehensive security communities’ (in which even civil war is not possible). Communication and transactions between countries lead to what Emanuel Adler calls the »socialization« and building of a new common identity, on which the solidarity of members of the security community rests. According to Adler, this means that “national politicians must accept new meanings and interpretations of reality, as they are created in intellectual, bureaucratic and political circles, due to which they must change their interests, abilities and/or willingness to consider new courses of action.”

The role of international organizations in the Balkans

In the theory of social constructivism, “socialization” is one of the most important ideas through which individual actors create identities and ideas that govern their behaviour. This idea, meanwhile, has also been accepted by the constructivist theory of international relations, which perceives international institutions as social institutions around which the identities, ideas and expectations of their members are built. According to American authors, John Ikenberry and Charles Kupchan, socialization in international relations usually occurs after wars and other major crises, in conditions of great social and political turmoil and when the domestic institutions are more willing to accept external influence. An example of this is post-war Europe, which accepted the Marshall Plan, creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and of the idea of early European communities, even though its previous legacy pointed to a different direction. As a result of the process of “socialization”, modern Europe emerged, gathered around the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance.

Even though, according to constructivist views, international organizations and institutions arise as a result of this process, they may also be its drivers. Many Anglo-Saxon authors today see confirmation of this in changes that occurred in Central and Eastern Europe after the Cold War, where these changes were driven by the EU, NATO or the OSCE. Following this logic, some authors believe that the EU and NATO could play a similar role in the creation of a security community in the Balkans. According to such a view, the following three assumptions are required. First, that would imply the creation of preconditions, i.e., factors that can incite regional actors to start approaching each other through technological advances, demographic, economic and environmental changes, an external threat and changed notions of “social reality”. Second, structural and procedural factors that lead to development of the security community are important, such as factors of power and knowledge. Power factors can also be external (in this particular case, the EU and NATO) and internal (in the form of new political elites).

Knowledge relates to new ideas, such as liberal democracy, civil society, the rule of law, and human rights, which all encourage the development of mutual trust and a sense of community amongst regional actors. They are expected to intensify various forms of mutual communication and exchange, starting from economic to social, security and political. The third assumption is a continual action on the part of international factors in the direction of creating a security community. By “promoting the development of a shared definition of security, proper domestic and international action, and regional boundaries, social learning encourages political actors to see each other as trustworthy. Also it leads people to identify with those who were once on the other side of cognitive divides.”

Seen from a constructivist perspective, the contemporary Balkans seemingly fits into this model: the region has gone through a decade of violent conflict in which the former joint state disappeared, whilst successor states and their societies are burdened with post-conflict trauma, their economies fragmented and the political elites mutually opposed. However, certain assumptions for the process of reconciliation and the creation of a security community in the region exist: it is emphasised that NATO’s two military interventions (1995 and 1999) terminated armed conflicts, that the political scene was abandoned by the main protagonists of these conflicts, and that all of these societies have undergone the process of transition by following, to a lesser or greater extent, the same principles and values of liberal capitalism.

In addition to Slovenia – which was the only former Yugoslav republic to become a member of both the EU and NATO – Croatia and Albania became NATO members in 2009, whilst Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina have been included in the Membership Action Plan (MAP). To some extent, the only exception is Serbia, which declared neutrality; although it is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, an associate member of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly and is very active in military cooperation with its neighbours. All Western Balkan countries have concluded Stabilisation and Association Agreements with the EU and some have started talks on future membership. The most advanced is Croatia, which is currently finalizing accession negotiations with the Union.

In the mid-1990s – after the Dayton Peace Agreement for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) was signed – the EU adopted a policy towards the Balkans which was a part of its broader policy towards Central and Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unlike the first and second generation of “Europe Agreements”, stabilisation has been set as a precondition for these countries in order to join the EU. The policy of “stabilization and association” has two main instruments: a regional approach and a policy of conditionality. The regional approach to the so-called countries of the Western Balkans aims to build a regional economic and security community, whilst conditioning means that these countries now have the opportunity to become members of the leading western institutions, i.e., the EU and NATO. The condition for that is a process of “socialization”, which would make them more compatible with the values, goals and practices underlying the European and Euro-Atlantic community. The view that the improvement of relations and regional cooperation in the Western Balkans is a precondition for successful integration of these countries into the EU has become the official policy of the EU in relations with all of them: “Regional cooperation is also a specific requirement under the stabilisation and association agreements, which are already in place with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Croatia…..Regional cooperation is therefore a cornerstone of the EU’s policy framework for the western Balkans.”

For its part, NATO’s policy in the region has relied on its peacekeeping missions, two of which are completed (in BiH and Macedonia), whilst the mission in Kosovo (KFOR) has been prolonged; on receiving new countries as members and through activities within the PfP programme. On the basis of this, the Adriatic Charter was signed in 2005, which enabled the creation of the Adriatic Group, gathering Croatia, Albania and Macedonia as a sort of regional alliance within NATO. This policy has, after 2000, brought some results: the number of regional initiatives, organizations and projects has increased, economic and political relations between the Western Balkans countries have clearly improved (especially between the three formerly leading Yugoslav republics: Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia) and many barriers to the free circulation of people and goods in the region have been removed.

It should, however, be noted that the development of regional cooperation is a result of relations of each country with the European Union and NATO, respectively. Moreover, even some serious territorial disputes that have threatened to undermine the newly-created balance in the region (for example, the Piran Bay dispute between Slovenia and Croatia) were resolved by direct diplomatic intervention of the leading members of NATO and the EU. Probably the greatest progress in building a security community in the Western Balkans was noted between Serbia and Croatia over the past few years. In a series of highly symbolic manifestations of reconciliation and regional cooperation, the presidents of both countries indicated the possibility of creating a regional community in this area which would be compatible with the EU and NATO. However, the progress in relations between Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia has not been followed with adequate progress in Kosovo, Bosnia Herzegovina and some other areas of the Western Balkans, where the situation remains unchanged or has even deteriorated.

During the last decade, a significant change in the form of NATO’s presence and its role in the Western Balkans occurred. After military interventions in 1995 and 1999, NATO assumed peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (IFOR, subsequently SFOR) and Kosovo (KFOR). The peacekeeping mission in BiH was an undoubted success, given that ever since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed and NATO forces deployed, there was no single armed conflict or casualty of combat operations. This mission left BiH in 2004, after which it was replaced by the EU’s limited forces. The NATO mission in Kosovo was met with a far more complicated situation, with many more armed attacks against the Serb population, also including attacks and large-scale ethnic cleansing in March 2004, which KFOR managed bring under control only with great effort and a significant number of casualties. However, in this case, only NATO’s robust military presence prevented the continuation of armed conflict from the late 1990s and the continuation of ethnic cleansing.

A change in relations between Serbia and NATO came in April 2001, with the outbreak of a revolt by Albanians in the Preševo Valley. Although at first it seemed as if the scenario of Serb-Albanian conflict from 1998-1999 was to be repeated, the representatives of the new government in Belgrade (Nebojša Čović and Goran Svilanović) contacted the then NATO Secretary General, George Robertson, after which the Serbian security forces and KFOR (i.e., NATO) jointly stopped the actions of Albanian paramilitary forces, the socalled Liberation Army of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa (LAPBM). As a result of this cooperation, a so-called Ground Safety Zone – from which the LAPBM was acting – was established, while Serbian forces took over control of the administrative border with Kosovo from KFOR. Although this episode renewed trust between Serbia and NATO, the next step in mutual convergence occurred as late as 2007, when Serbia requested and received membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme.

“The turnaround in relations between NATO and Belgrade is probably the most spectacular security-related development to have taken place in the former Yugoslavia since the Kosovo campaign in 1999”, noted NATO expert, Robert Serry. Accession of the Western Balkans countries into the PfP, as well as the accession of Croatia and Albania to NATO, strengthened the position of this organization in the Balkans and has also ensured a long-term influence on security sector development in all countries of the region, including the scope and structure of their national armed forces, their interoperability and joint military exercises, etc.

Strong external pressure on the development of regional cooperation in the Balkans prompted some analysts to question the motives behind these efforts. International mediators in crises, in addition to a general interest in contributing to resolving problems, often have some special, public or hidden interests. For some analysts of the EU and NATO’s policies in the Balkans, their motives are, amongst other things, also hidden in the desire to enhance their own legitimacy. So, for example, Philipp Borinski believes that NATO uses the possibility to achieve a “double expansion” in the Balkans, i.e., to simultaneously achieve “expansion in geographic terms, as well as in terms of its role which, if successfully achieved, would contribute to the prestige of the organisation”. The role of the EU is interpreted in a similar way: “only by stabilising the Balkans, the EU can make its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) more convincing and present itself as an important geopolitical factor.”

Analysis of the effects of the EU’s and NATO’s efforts to encourage regional cooperation in the Balkans over the last decade shows that, in addition to the results achieved, it has also had some unexpected consequences. Despite the desire of all Western Balkans countries to become members of the EU, it does not automatically affect improvement in their mutual relations. Similar to the 1990s, each of these countries is interested in its own accession to the EU, even if that does not increase the chances of their neighbours achieving the same. Some researchers estimate that “attempts on the part of individual countries to accelerate the process of EU integration have resulted in weakened cooperation at the regional level.”

Moreover, membership in the EU is sometimes used as a means to resolve some territorial or other disputes with neighbours by blocking their accession to the EU.  Accession of a divided country, Cyprus, into the European Union before this dispute was resolved between the Greek and Turkish ethnic communities on the island, was seen in the EU as a strong warning that something similar should not be repeated in the case of the Western Balkans. The EU and the U.S., learning from this experience, reacted strongly in the border dispute between Slovenia (EU member) and Croatia (candidate) which, at least temporarily, was removed from the agenda; though the dispute between its other member, Greece, and Macedonia, over the name of this former Yugoslav republic, remains an obstacle in relations between the EU and NATO, on the one hand, and this country, on the other. Contrary to expectations, such data indicates that regional cooperation initiated from the outside does not necessarily lead to improvements in trust amongst the countries of the region, nor to the prospects of creating a permanent “security community”.

These problems are even more conspicuous when it comes to NATO’s influence in the Balkans. For example, this issue faces strong resistance in Serbia due to NATO’s role during the civil war in Yugoslavia and, in particular, its military intervention against the Republika Srpska in 1995 and Serbia in 1999. For a large part of Serbian public, NATO remains an opponent and an organization that committed war crimes against Serbs (bombing of Radio-Television Serbia, the destruction of a passenger train in Grdelica gorge, bombing of a bridge in Vladičin Han, the use of cluster bombs in Niš, the use of missiles with depleted uranium, etc.).  Although the negative attitude towards NATO has somewhat declined in recent years owing to the role of KFOR in Kosovo and Metohija (especially in March 2004), support to negative attitudes towards NATO’s role in the Balkans comes from countries that are strongly opposed to its further enlargement (Russia and some of the Arab countries). On the other hand, for other former Yugoslav republics and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, membership in NATO is a guarantee of their independence and security from threats that are still primarily perceived as coming from Serbia.


Endeavours to condition the progress of the countries of the region in their relations with the EU and NATO through normalization of relations between the Western Balkans countries and the development of regional economic, political and security cooperation has borne some results. Undoubted progress has been made in the renewal of economic relations and the free flow of goods between Western Balkan countries, especially within the Central European Free Trade Area (CEFTA). At present, Slovenia and Croatia are amongst the largest investors in Serbia and other former Yugoslav republics, though their markets are still relatively closed to investors from the Western Balkans. Significant progress and cooperation has also been attained between internal affairs institutions and judicial authorities in the fight against organized crime, as well as in some other areas.

Over ten years after the armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia, relations between these countries are stable, though not completely normalized. The biggest obstacle to the creation of a regional community remains the problem of Kosovo, whose status is still open. Kosovo is not only an unavoidable problem on Serbia’s path towards the EU, but also an obstacle to the stability of the entire southern Balkans. On the other hand, even sixteen years after the Dayton Peace Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still more of a mechanical connection of the three peoples living in it, rather than a community with a certain perspective. Even relations between the two largest former Yugoslav republics, Serbia and Croatia, which in the last decade saw significant progress, remain burdened with the legacy of civil war. Confirmation of this has been provided by the recent events in Croatia following the verdict of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on two Croatian generals, which led to a wave of protests across the country and a certain cooling of relations between Zagreb and Belgrade. The problem of refugees and internally displaced persons from the war-affected areas is still pending.

The ruling elites and public opinion remain divided over the recent past, as well as over the causes and consequences of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. That is confrmed, amongst other things, by the very fact that the interpretation of recent history in the Western Balkans is still fundamentally different and that it is quite unlikely that joint history textbooks will be written soon. Recent polls show that a high degree of ethnic distance between the inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia still exists. National identities remain firmly rooted in negative stereotypes about “the other”, “oriental” and “Western cultural heritage”, whilst neighbours are still seen as “historic enemies” rather than partners in the creation of a new European and regional identity. Thanks to pressure from outside, Western Balkan societies have accepted the idea of modernization, which is generally identified with “Europeanization”, i.e., European and Euro-Atlantic integration, though there is still strong resistance to the creation of a common regional identity with a Yugoslav or Balkan prefix.

This phenomenon is not, however, unknown in the European Union itself. In Spain, the Catalans and Basques, put their local and even their European identity before their sense of belonging to Spain. In Belgium, the Flemish and Wallonians put their respective identities before their belonging to Belgium. In the UK, Scottish, Welsh or Irish identities are given priority over the British identity. Even in France, the cradle of civic national identity, according to which the citizens of a country identify themselves with it, it is not uncommon that, for example, the inhabitants of Brittany, place their Breton and European identity above their belonging to the French nation. Neighbours are, through such a lens, seen as opponents or what is in Anglo-Saxon anthropology referred to as a “constitutive other”, which is perceived as a threat leading to national homogenization. Experience of two world wars and the post-war development of European identity has largely absorbed, but not eliminated, ethnic differences.

Three armed conflicts in less than a century (1870-1871, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945) between the major European nations, France and Germany, have over the last fifty years led to the creation of European communities and the collective European identity, as well as to the new vision of a shared history, whereby these conflicts are interpreted as “European civil wars”, while pejorative descriptions of the other nation have disappered from both languages.

This process, however, lasted for a very long time and was under the influence of joint institutions created after World War II such as, for example, a joint institute for writing history textbooks (Internazionale Schulbuch Institute in Braunschweig) or a common media organization (Franco-German TV channel “Arte”). In the Western Balkans, similar attempts such as creation of a joint “Commission for Truth and Reconciliation” has not yielded results, though some approximation within the triangle of Serbia-Croatia- Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the field of media and art has been noted, and to a much smaller extent, between Serbs and Albanians.

In short, over the last decade the EU and NATO have invested great effort to stop the spiral of civil war in the former Yugoslavia and have launched the process of reconciliation, regional cooperation and new forms of community sense in the Western Balkans. Relying on the common desire of all societies in the region to become part of European and Euro-Atlantic structrures and thus “escape from the Balkans” and from the logic of “Balkanization”, these efforts have brought some results, especially regarding the development of a European identity amongst the Balkan peoples. The results, however, are largely absent when it comes to developing a regional identity, which is still strongly influenced by negative stereotypes, the legacy of war and the logic of “Balkanization.” Moreover, the problems of the EU and, especially, the global economic crisis, which has strongly affected the Balkan countries in recent years, have weakened the impact of the EU and NATO, and led to a substantial decline in the mood of these societies to join them.

Opinion polls indicate that the percentage of support for the EU in Serbia is at its lowest in the last ten years, whilst in Croatia – following the verdicts for Gotovina and Markač – it has dropped to only 42%. The percentage of support for membership of some of these countries in NATO is at a much lower level, even in countries included in the MAP (Membership Action Plan), such as Montenegro. In addition, the impact of the EU and particularly of NATO in the Western Balkans in recent years has also faced competition from new regional actors, some of whom are strongly opposed to further Euro-Atlantic integration of the Balkans.

Dr. Predrag Simić is a Professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Belgrade.

The publication, ‘New Serbia, new NATO – future vision for the 21st Century’, was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Fund for Open Society.

This publication is published as part of TransConflict Serbia’s project, ‘Facilitating Serbia’s Contribution to NATO’s New Strategic Concept’.

The Fund for an Open SocietyFund for an Open Society – Serbia



2 Responses

  1. citizen of Serbia

    We in Serbia hate NATO, plain and simple. Never in thousand years we’ll be part of this aggressive neo-colonial organization.

  2. Pingback : 22.11. – Nasza Skandynawia

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