Mrs. Mimi Kodheli Addresses Strategy Session at the Atlantic Council

Albanian Defense Minister Mimi Kodheli spoke to an invited audience on October 28 at a policy strategy session hosted by the Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Here is the text of her address:

Good day to everyone and let me start by thanking the organizers for inviting me to share views and thoughts on “the Western Balkans region affected by threats on Eastern and Southern zone bordering NATO.”

It is a pleasure for me to give my remarks at the Atlantic Council, a forum of common thinking and understanding on matters of transatlantic and international cooperation.

I come from a region that is so small and unimportant, but has created so much history in the world stage. The version of history that we have generated especially in the 20th century is not any more full of philosophy and art, but of conflict and blood. And I would like to make a separation in terms. I will talk about what is defined as “the Western Balkans,” an area that includes Albania and countries independent from what used to be called Yugoslavia.

We can talk for hours in this table on the history, causes and roots of the conflicts that were generated in the Balkans specifically during the last century. But I would like to draw your attention on a matter of actuality. In which way the actual conflicts in Ukraine and in the Middle East are affecting the Western Balkans? What are the implications in the region? What is the international community doing to tackle any possible threat that might generate in what was called the “powder keg” of Europe? My remarks will not be strictly academic, please allow me to give my inner views and thoughts on these matters. I will also be brief in order to give time to thoughts and discussions around the table.

NATO member countries in 2014 are facing threats coming from the East and South according to distinct specifics, but by having in common the principles of collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security. The concerns of the entire eastern and southeastern flank of the Alliance are evident. We, the member states, have been discussing, deciding, planning and organizing all the necessary measures in the perspective of the new threats coming from both Russia and the Jihadists.

But in these new conflicts, we shouldn’t forget regions that might be easily affected by international turmoil, due to their instability and fragility. Western Balkans is one of them, relatively distant from Russia and the Middle East, but completely affected by the money and ideology of Moscow and Islamic fundamentalism.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, together with Montenegro and FYROM [the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia] 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, full members of both NATO and EU. Albania is a NATO member only. The other countries are candidates for EU and NATO membership, while Kosovo is doing an amazing progress on its path towards recognition and integration from the international organizations.

Western Balkans’ path towards EU is much more complicated, and here I include also my country. Political doubts, economic constraints, enlargement fatigue are weakening the integration dream. But in these times of conflicts, we all agree that further conflicts can easily be prevented by integration processes.

Since the rise of nationalism in Europe, Russia has had a clear and concrete project on the Balkans, by defining very well matters of influence, based on religion and race backgrounds. For two centuries, no matter the regimes leading Russia or the new Balkan states, the policy has always been the same. The region I come from has always been seen as an appendix of Russia’s expansionism towards the Mediterranean basin. And dreams of westernization of the Balkans, has never been accepted by Moscow.

Nowadays, banks, enterprises, tourist infrastructures, oil and gas companies in the Western Balkans are being targeted by Russian money. Russian economic presence is constantly increasing in these times of austerity for the West. In terms of foreign policy, there are political forces in many countries of my region that look to the Russian way of thinking, as the best alternative for the future of their countries. In some country such political parties are ridiculous, but somewhere else in the heart of the Balkans, they represent an important part of the population. Furthermore, the number of those people from the Balkans participating in the Russian hybrid warfare is visible and worrying.

On the other hand, the jihadists are looking for fertile soil in Europe. We are fighting them in our own ways, forms and contributions, but the number of people participating from Western Balkans is increasingly worrying. They have families, friends and neighbors left behind. Is there enough hope for them given by the West? What NATO and the European Union have done in the last twenty to twenty-five years, is remarkable. But still, is it so drastic for the European Union to facilitate access for a few million people of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, FYROM, Montenegro and Serbia? Nobody is asking for gifts or privileges, but what about having a clear roadmap for these countries?

My country welcomes the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal effort to invite the leaders of all Western Balkans countries recently, to the Berlin summit. The heads of government, foreign ministers, and economic ministers of eight governments, as well as the President Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Füle, all came to Berlin for one day for what was meant to not only be a symbolic meeting. In addition to the leaders’ gathering, a business meeting was held, aimed to enhance economic and industrial cooperation in the region. I applaud this entire endeavor, since this was more than necessary, given the region’s high unemployment rates as well as complete lack of an industrial base.

My personal take from this Summit was that EU is “Not forgetting the Western Balkans.”  Even this meeting was a strong push, yet it is not going to be enough if the EU wants our countries to one day be prosperous member states. I do wish that EU will stick to the “European perspective” it has promised to the region. However, placing all responsibility for achieving this on these countries themselves misses the broader picture of a largely disinterested EU that furthermore lacks the tools to break the gridlock holding back the societies of the region.

The same argument goes for NATO integration of my region. Of course, NATO’s path is much clear, everyone knows what home-works should be done. But NATO should not forget that these dark forces coming from the East, would love to backstab the Alliance. The weakest point is right in our backyard, somewhere between Albania, Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria, all NATO countries sharing borders with non-NATO ones.

The NATO leaders in Wales took important decisions to ensure a robust and ready Alliance, including strengthening cooperation with partners by launching a Defense Capacity Building Initiative to help the Alliance project stability without involving large combat forces. Initially we foresee some partner countries like Georgia, Jordan and Moldova to participate. I assure you this is not by coincidence to have countries coming from the Eastern and Southern Flank of our Alliance.

NATO’s enlargement process was not in the agenda of the Summit. However, the Open Door policy was again reiterated and the Alliance offered to Georgia an extensive package of measures to help it advance its preparations toward membership. We also agreed to open intensified talks on Montenegro’s candidacy and will assess by the end of 2015 at the latest, whether to invite Montenegro to join the Alliance. I do hope this will be the case, as I do hope this will be the case for other countries from the region who share the same democratic values and principles. Again, it is evident that we are trying to fill the gaps on those areas around us, I mentioned above. But, taking into account the gravity of the security environment nowadays, we need to move quicker.

I am a firm believer that by integrating this grey area of Europe into the Euro-Atlantic community, we will make our Alliance a better group of countries with common values for collective defense. We all share the same European values and we have the same goals for the future. With more political will, conflicts of the East and South will stay away from the Balkans.

With all these uncertainties, and having in mind the current crises, we need to remind 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 whole international community needs to change too.  It needs to be able to react quickly, not only politically but also to have the right capacity needed.

Thank you for your attention.