Budva, Montenegro. 7 June. Graham Greene once wrote, “There is always one moment when the door opens and lets the future in”. Here in beautiful Budva the Adriatic laps gently on the beach below my balcony and then stretches away like a carpet of crushed opal with the sun leaping from shard to shard. I have just spent the past two days at the excellent ‘2BS’ (To Be Secure) conference as a guest of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro along with ministers and leaders from across the Western Balkans. In the wake of NATO’s Chicago summit the most profound of questions has hung in the air; will the Western Balkans be given sanctuary within NATO and eventually the EU before the region slides back into dangerous instability?
It is all too easy to slot the Western Balkans into the ‘job done’ box of what now seems an endless conveyor belt of crises. That would be a mistake. As I write the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation has just concluded with China, Russia (and observer Iran) warning the West to keep its hands off the Syrian tragedy just as another massacre is denied by Assad and his cronies. Closer to home Prime Minister Cameron is meeting Chancellor Merkel to discuss the Eurozone crisis and Spain’s imminent banking crash.
At Chicago the one commitment of any substance was the determination to move rapidly towards NATO membership for at least three of the successor states of Yugoslavia; Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia ('Former Yugoslav Republic thereof to keep you Greeks out there happy, although the argument over a name demonstrates the pettiness of many Balkan contentions) and Montenegro. Serbia is of course key to stability in the region and unless Belgrade is happy (something Serbs tend to find hard) the Western Balkans will never be truly stable.
However, incorporating countries from the region will not come without cost. First, the western Balkans will need financial support for many years to come at a time when most of Europe is mired in dangerous debt. Second, the region still faces a profound challenge from organised crime that too often spills over to blight the rest of Europe. Third, Russia is still prickly about aspirations from countries in the region to join NATO in particular. Fourth, several of the causes of past conflict remain not only unresolved but bubble just below a dormant political volcano that is by no means extinct – Republika Srpska remains unreconciled with Bosnia-Herzegovina and the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo is always a flashpoint. As one senior Montenegran said to me, “true peace will take generations to achieve”.
The bottom-line is this; on balance (and international politics is always ‘on balance’) I have been convinced that NATO’s Open Door must be honoured and quickly. Indeed, with Greece facing possible exit from the Euro there is a very real chance that the instability traditionally associated with this region will spread across the rest of the Balkans. Above all, with Syria burning what hope can we in Europe possibly offer those struggling for the respect of human rights in North Africa, the Middle East or elsewhere if we cannot guarantee stability in this corner of Europe?
There is no question that the Eurozone crisis represents the greatest security threat of the age with Iranian nukes not far behind. However, the danger that the Western Balkans slides back towards war is also very real posing a threat to the stability of Europe at a time of particular instability. The Western Balkans cannot be brushed under some metaphorical (and mythical) security carpet by capitals otherwise engaged.
The next NATO enlargement will take the Alliance into the heart of Balkan instability and must therefore be a model enlargement. Montenegro is small enough and committed enough to make that embrace work. With a population of only 650,000 and having adopted the Euro as the national currency there is no duplicity – either open or subtle – about Montenegro’s ambitions and leanings. Be it security sector reform or democratic control over armed forces Montenegro can show the way for much of the rest of the Western Balkans so that Europe is never again blighted by the obscenity that was the War of Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s.
Europe will not be able to do it alone and the open support of the United States at this conference in the elegant and impressive shape of the US Ambassador Sue Brown was both welcome and necessary. For all the talk of America’s ‘pivot’ to Asia-Pacific it is clear Washington is committed to the Western Balkans and will need to remain so.
Graham Greene was right; this is indeed the moment when NATO’s open door can shine a light on a Balkan future that offers hope not just in Europe but much of the world beyond. In time another door might lead into the EU. Montenegro holds a mirror up to us all and the image I see is not a pretty one.
We must not close the door on Montenegro.