Security in Europe: Threats and Challenges

CASDI would like to start by thanking the organizers who invited me to share my views and thoughts with you, on “The Security Situation in Europe, its threats and challenges”.  It is my pleasure to share my observations here, in this Senior Center of Defense Studies, an organization of thought and discussion of the intertwined defense and security related issues. I already have expressed, many of the ideas and thoughts, a few months ago, at the Atlantic Council in Washington and at the Royal United Services Institute, in London.

As the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed at the Munich Security Conference a few weeks ago: “Last year was a black year for our security”.  And this year has started on an equally dark note.  But history is not written in advance.  We can prevent an age of disorder – if we have the will.   We can keep the international order that has served us so well, if we respect its rules and if we stand up for each other.  So, everything depends on us.   

Our discussions on history, issues, causes and roots of the conflicts that have arisen in the Balkans, especially during the last century may continue for hours around this table, but I would like to draw your attention on a current issue. How do the current conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East influence on the Western Balkans? What is the international community doing to respond to any potential attack, that can be caused by what is called “the powder keg” of Europe? I will speak briefly so that there is time for round table opinions and discussions.

NATO member countries are recently facing various threats coming from the East and South, according to different characteristics.  However, they have in common the principles of collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security. Concerns across the Eastern and South-eastern flanks of the Alliance are obvious. Member countries have discussed, decided, planned and taken all the necessary measures regarding the new threats coming from Russia and the jihadists.

But with these new conflicts, we must not forget the regions that can easily be affected by the international turmoil, due to their instability and vulnerability. Western Balkans is one of them, relatively far from Russia and the Middle East, but largely influenced by the money and ideology of Moscow and fundamentalism.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, along with Montenegro and Macedonia, despite being potential candidate countries for NATO, for several years, have not yet joined the Euro-Atlantic club. These countries have different paths, wills and agendas towards NATO and EU. From those whose existence was assured by the Alliance but are still very weak in building their liberal democracies, to potential NATO candidates from some years.

Meanwhile, the best examples of the region are Slovenia and Croatia, NATO and EU member countries; Albania, only a NATO member country. The other countries are candidates for EU and NATO accession, while Kosovo is making great progress toward its recognition and integration in international organizations. 

The way towards EU membership is more complex for Western Balkan, and so it is for my own country. Political uncertainties and economic restrictions are weakening the dream of integration, and in times of such conflicts, we all agree that other conflicts can be easily prevented by integration processes.

With the rise of nationalism in Europe, Russia has had a clear and concrete project for the Balkans, by defining very well matters of influence, based on religion and racial descent. For two centuries, despite the leading regimes in Russia or in the new Balkan countries, the policy has been the same. Our region is always seen as a supplement to the expansion of Russia towards the Mediterranean. Dreams of Western civilization of the Balkans have never been accepted by Russia.

Nowadays, banks, businesses, tourist infrastructure, gas and fuel companies in the Western Balkans, are targeted by Russia’s money. Russia’s economic presence is growing steadily in these times of difficulty for the West.

Regarding the foreign policy there are political forces in many countries of the region which see the Russian way of thinking as the best option for the future of their countries. In some countries, such political parties look ridiculous, but elsewhere, in the heart of the Balkans, they represent a significant part of the population. Moreover, the number of these people from the Balkans participating in the Russian hybrid warfare is obvious and disturbing.

Furthermore, I am not here to talk about approaches and viewpoints of the other countries in the region, because their foreign policy remains a national prerogative, but I cannot ignore some recent facts. President Putin’s visit in the region, hundreds of millions of dollars investments, and joint exercises recently held in November, 2014, near the Croatian border (a NATO ally) and Kosovo (which Russia tried to use as an example in the case of illegal annexation of Crimea), in my view and given the current security environment, are of great concern and may constitute a desired controversy.

On the other hand, the jihadists seek fertile ground in Europe. The terrorist attacks of weeks ago in France and Denmark, and the prevention of possible terrorist acts in Belgium and elsewhere, are alarm bells of the danger coming from the forces of darkness that modern civilization is facing today. We fight them in our own ways, but the number of Western Balkans people participating in these conflicts is growing dramatically. They have families, friends and neighbors left behind. Is there enough hope for them given by the West? What NATO and the EU have done in the last 20-25 years is wonderful. Nevertheless, is it so drastic for the EU to accept several million people from Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia as its own citizens? No one is asking for gifts and privileges, but how about having a secure region?

Albania welcomes the participation of all the leaders of Western Balkans countries to the summit in Berlin, in late August 2014. Heads of state, foreign and economy ministers of eight governments, as well as President Barroso and Commissioner for Enlargement Füle, went to Berlin summit, which was not just a meeting for symbolic reasons. Besides leaders meeting, a business meeting was held to increase the industrial and economic cooperation in the region. I congratulate all this effort, which was more than necessary, given the high rate of unemployment in the region and the lack of an industrial base.

My personal interpretation of the summit was that EU “has not forgotten the Western Balkans”. This was a powerful incentive meeting but that may not be enough if the EU wants our countries to be prosperous member states one day. I would like to thank Italy for the crucial and irreplaceable role in supporting the region towards European integration. In this sense, we applaud the personal efforts of Prime Minister Renzi and his visit and speech last December in Tirana, are the best encouragement for our future. And I have to stress that this spirit of cooperation and support, I did encounter in my intense engagements with the Minister of Defense, Sen. Pinotti. I hope EU as well, remains faithful to the “European perspective” promised to the Region. However, placing all the responsibility to these countries misses the broader picture of a disinterested EU that furthermore lacks the tools to break the gridlock holding back the societies of the region.

The same argument is valid for the regional integration into NATO. Of course NATO’s path is clearer and everyone knows the homework needs to be done. But NATO must not forget that these dark forces coming from the East want to stab the Alliance on the back. The weakest point is close, somewhere between Albania, Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria, all being NATO member countries that share borders with non-member countries of NATO.

The NATO leaders, in Wales, made important decisions to ensure a ready and strong Alliance, including the intensification of the cooperation among partners by launching the Defense capacity building initiative, to help the Alliance project stability without including large military forces. First, we anticipate the participation of some partner countries like Georgia, Jordan and Moldova. I assure you that having the countries of southern and eastern flanks of the alliance is not a coincidence.

The process of NATO enlargement was not part of the summit’s agenda. However, the open-door policy was repeated and the Alliance offered Georgia a broad set of measures to assist in its preparation towards membership.

We also agreed to open intensive discussions about the candidacy of Montenegro and within 2015 it will be assessed whether Montenegro is to be invited to join the Alliance. I hope this will happen for Montenegro and the other countries of the region that share the same principles and democratic values.

Once again, it is obvious that we are trying to narrow the spaces in the areas mentioned above. Taking into consideration the significance of the security environment today, we have to move faster. I firmly believe that the integration of this grey zone of Europe into the Euro-Atlantic community will make our Alliance a better group of countries with common values for collective protection.

We all share the same European values ​​and have the same objectives for the future. With more political will, the eastern and southern conflicts will stay far away from the Balkans.

During the Defense Ministerial of the Alliance, which took place some weeks ago, we decided upon the strengthening of the Alliance’s Very Rapid Response Force. At the same time, some facilitating units will be placed in some member countries of the Alliance.

All these measures have a defensive nature, are proportional and in accordance with the international principles and commitments. This is the Alliance’s response to potential risks and threats, from the east and the south. And of course, Albania and our Armed Forces will always be actively contributing alongside our Allies.

Taking into account the current crisis and uncertainties, we must remember that peace and stability in our region cannot be taken for granted. History has taught us that as the world changes, NATO, EU and the entire international community need to change. They must be able to quickly react not only politically, but also to have the appropriate and necessary capacity.

Conference at the Center for High Defense Studies, Italian Ministry of Defense, Rome, 30 march 2015.