Albania and Arms Race in the Western Balkans
By Genc Mlloja
Albanian Daily News
Published February 15, 2017

Rising winds of an escalation of local arms race seem to be
blowing across the Western Balkans over the last years, especially in 2016, and
it appears distinctly in two main aspects: the growth of the demands for
military weaponry supplies and the frequent talk on bringing back the
compulsory military service.  But what
has drawn attention more apparently lately is the effort of Serbia to boost its
military air force. "We finally have an air force that will keep our skies
free," Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic boasted in a press
conference at the end of 2016. 

Following suit such a statement Serbia's Defense Minister
Zoran Djordjevic said a few days ago that the country was getting a shipment of
Russian fighter jets. The Associated Press announced that the Djordjevic said
after returning from one of his frequent visits to Moscow on February 12, 2017
that six MiG-29s will be delivered to Serbia. Djordjevic said that Russia also
is providing experts to upgrade the aircraft acquired from Russian Army
reserves. In various circles, be them political, social, media ones, Serbia's
arming has triggered alarms in the Balkans, which was engulfed by a bloody war
in the 1990s that killed more than 110,000 people and left millions homeless.

Serbia formally has been on the path to joining the European
Union, but under pressure from Moscow has steadily slid toward the Kremlin and
its goal of keeping the country out of NATO and other Western institutions,
said an AP dispatch.

But should the risk of the escalation of the arms race in
the Western Balkans be taken seriously as different diplomatic sources have
kept informing that military supplies that could worsen tensions with neighboring
states have kept rising in Serbia?

'Balkans is heating
up again as tensions flare up'

Lubljana- based newspaper Delo warned on February 3, 2017 on
a front-page commentary that the Balkans is heating up again as tensions flare
up. It notes that the region could suffer due to the new geopolitical
circumstances. The driving force behind the push to revamp national armies does
not seem a rising foreign threat but rather issues closer to home.

Nevertheless relevant suppositions do not lack which, in my
opinion, might even be speculations as the one mentioned by the under the pen of Mr. Denis MacShane, UK Foreign Office
minister responsible for the Balkans 2001-2005, who claimed bluntly: "But
if Putin asks Trump for a favour in support of Serbia, the West Balkans risks
falling back into open conflict."

Viewing the scene from the perspective of the main actors in
the region one of the most apparent rivalries in the armament field for the
moment seems that between Serbia and Croatia, which are the largest countries
in the Western Balkan s and have the most powerful armies. Likewise, any
element of any eventual arms race between them should be understood in the
context of a bloody war between the two countries when former Yugoslavia split
up. The armed incidents of early 1991 between them escalated into an all-out
war over the summer, and the fighting in Croatia ended in mid-1995.

While Croatia is now a member country of NATO and EU, Serbia
has followed another path strengthening its links with Russia. Although there
are forces which seem to make efforts to drift the country towards the
Euro-Atlantic bodies, the pro- Russian forces have the upper hand in Belgrade.

But Croatian-based military analyst Igor Tabak has recently
told RFE/RL that he feels the above- mentioned danger is being exaggerated.
"I understand that a lot of people in Croatia are seeing images on TV of
Serbia unveiling new armaments purchased in Moscow and Minsk. They also
remember 1991", a reference to the Croatian war of independence, fought
against the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Army- "and they foresee a conflict
that is not going to take place," Tabak says.

In face of what Mr. Tabak says, NATO Secretary-General Jens
Stoltenberg has been visiting the region a few weeks ago, and speaking to
journalists in Sarajevo on February 2 he said that NATO was aware of reports of
increased Russian influence in the Balkans and of Russian intervention in
political processes in Montenegro. "We are following that very closely. We
work with partners, including Montenegro, to help them strengthen their
intelligence capacities and defense institutions," Stoltenberg said.

Incidentally exactly at these moments Serbia has lately
arrested two of its citizens wanted in connection with an alleged coup attempt
in Montenegro, including a well-known right-wing agitator who made headlines
last month when he appeared in a photograph standing near Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Serbia's Interior Ministry told RFE/RL on January 13, 2017
that Nemanja Ristic and Predrag Bogicevic were arrested on suspicion of
involvement in the alleged plot to overthrow Montenegro's government, which
Montenegrin authorities say was aimed at thwarting the nation's accession to
NATO.  Montenegro has previously urged
Serbia to arrest and extradite the two men to face charges of involvement in
the purported coup attempt in October.

But it cannot also be considered a coincidence that both
Serbia and Croatia are eying the re-introduction of compulsory military service
in their countries.  According to
Croatian Defense Minister Damir Krsticevic, the scheme under consideration
would amount to three or four weeks of mandatory basic training for draftees.
Compulsory military service existed in the former Yugoslavia, and Croatia continued
the practice until 2008.

"Our intention is not to reinstate national service in
its previous form, but to teach basic military skills to young people,"
Krsticevic told Croatian TV channel HRT last week.

For its part, Serbia, seemingly buoyed by the prospect of
arms shipments from Russia and Belarus, has also eyed bringing back compulsory
military service. The proposal, which came from the Serbian Defense Ministry,
has been shelved for the time being by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic as too

"I was almost glad that we are a poor country and don't
have the money to pay for bringing back the draft," Serb journalist
Veselin Simonovic wrote in Blic.

In a region where manmade catastrophes can seem as likely as
any natural disaster, the idea of mandatory military service was not
necessarily well-received by everyone, analysts thought.

Serbia's provocation
and Kosovo's urgent need for its army

The sending of a train covered in nationalist slogans and
pictures to Kosovo on January 14, 2017 has not passed unnoticed by regional
strategic analysts, who could not fail to speak that official Belgrade does not
give up its ambitions towards Kosovo accompanied by warmongering declarations
of Serbia's highest authorities. 
Tensions between Pristina and Belgrade soared, after the train, painted
in the colours of the Serbian flag and bearing the words "Kosovo is Serbian" in
21 different languages, including Albanian, set off from Belgrade to the
northern, Serb-run part of the town of Mitrovica.

The Serbian authorities stopped the train in Raska, southern
Serbia, just before the Kosovo border, after which Serbian Prime Minister
Aleksandar Vucic dramatically accused the Kosovo government of trying to blow
up the railway line and of sending special forces to attack the train. Kosovo
dismissed the charges. Kosovo police in a statement said they "strongly deny
that Kosovo citizens or Kosovo Police officials in any way took any action to
do with preparing any railway damage". However, Serbian President Nikolic announced
after a session of Serbia's Council for National Security on February 15 that
Belgrade was ready to send its army to Kosovo "if Serbs are being killed", said
Birn on February 16, 2017.

And it should be noted that everything occurred against the
background of the EU- mediated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. So this
is an ample example giving right to those circles in the country claiming that
Kosovo has the right to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity and
the dialogue is fruitless. In addition what has become the talk of the day in
Pristina, but even in NATO circles, is the need for Kosovo to have its Armed
Forces. It is meaningful Washington's latest statement that Kosovo should turn
its Kosovo Security Forces into an army.

There are comments by NATO military analysts that the
increase of Kosovo's capacity would also enhance the NATO and US
interests.  Camp Bondsteel is the main
base of the US Army in Kosovo. Covering nearly 100 acres, Bondsteel hosts a
Multinational Battle Group from NATO countries. Bondsteel could be transformed
into a major transit hub for troops and equipment, the analysts say. It could
also host a rapid reaction force for emergencies in the Baltics to the Black

Albania out of
'Balkans arms race... Long live NATO'

Politicians in Albania also criticized Serbia's decision to
send the train decorated in Serbian nationalist iconography to Kosovo.  So the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama
hastened to retort by saying on February 2 that if Serbia touches even a centimeter
of the territory of Kosovo, Albania and Kosovo will be ready to counteract.
This statement was quoted immediately by more than a dozen of Kosovo dailies.

But Rama apparently changed heart and the strong reaction
turned into a 'prudent stance' referring to heart and mind, to political
maneuvers for political gains by Serbia. 
"Freedom and independence of Kosovo are done. Serbs from Belgrade
can come to Kosovo as tourists but not any longer as (Kosovo)s owners," Rama
wrote on Facebook a day after the incident.

Pandeli Majko, who was the Albanian Prime Minister during
the war in Kosovo, also wrote on Facebook about Nikolic's statement that
"declarations of war do not make you brave". He added: "War is an act and not a
declaration. This needs some wisdom, which Serbs as a nation don't lack."

Even a naive person realizes that Albania does not have any
military capacity to match its neighbors in all-out war neither in the south
nor the north. On the other hand, even in the course of history this tiny Balkan
country has never bothered any of its neighbors; rather it has been target of
acts of aggression by the others.

Its 'limitations' go that far that today Albania even does
not have any means to police its own airspace and that crucial matter for the
protection of the country is left in the hands of Italy and Greece after its
membership in NATO in 2009. According to official reports, those two countries
do that on a rotation basis. Albania's only defense is NATO and the strategic
alliance with the United States. 
Washington and Tirana signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2014.

Mr. David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on
Peace-building and Rights, Columbia University's Institute for the Study of
Human Rights recommended in a comment published on the World Report on
December, 12, 2016 that "Albanians are staunchly pro-American. They crave
closer security, cultural, and commercial cooperation with the US. Albania and
Kosovo would welcome the expansion of US military bases on their territory."

If the US is looking for partners in an increasingly complex
world, it can rely on Albanians. President-elect Donald J. Trump knows the
value of a diversified portfolio. Albania and Kosovo are indispensable assets.
Albanians are reliable friends, concluded Mr. Philips in his analysis.

Instead of conclusion

It remains premature to talk about any high feverish drive
of the Western Balkans countries to increase their fighting capability.  For now at least, it seems that the
nationalist ambitions of any countries, especially of those who cherish the
'greater' schemes of their territories like in the past, and talk of a regional
arms race, might be kept in check by Balkan countries' financial limitations.
Much of the weaponry that some of them are getting is supplied now like grants
or contributions in the frame of alliances. In the meantime all indicators show
the global economic crisis has affected all the Western Balkan countries and as
financial experts say no government would undertake the initiative to turn to massive
armament because that might be a boomerang. And its impact could be worse than
any 'arms race'.

It might be the wrong action at the wrong time for any
regional country!

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