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 expensive.

"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 Sea.

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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