As NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels discuss efforts to deter Russian aggression, rising tensions not seen since the Cold War will be on the minds of central and eastern European foreign ministers gathering Thursday in the former Yugoslavia.
The agenda of the annual meeting of the Central European Initiative (CEI) in Banja Luka aims to focus on Europe’s migration crisis as well as business, transportation, and energy issues.
But the 18-member state group is expected also to discuss plans by some Balkan nations to join NATO, the Euro-Atlantic military alliance whose expansion Russia has deemed a threat to its security.
NATO foreign ministers in May signed the Accession Protocol for CEI member Montenegro, paving the way for Podgorica to become the defense alliance’s 29th member as soon as July.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are also pursuing NATO membership, while Russia’s strongest ally in the region, Serbia, is so far remaining neutral. Albania and Croatia became NATO members in 2009.
Pushed towards NATO
NATO expansion in the region underscores Balkan security concerns but also Moscow’s waning influence in the former zone of Soviet influence.
“For Russia it's something like a very telling signal... that it's losing it's traditional influence it had lost with many countries in eastern and central Europe,” says Moscow State University's Institute of International Relations’ Viktor Mizin. “And, now it's the turn of [the] Balkans,” he adds.
While all the Balkan countries looking to join NATO began their efforts years ago, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has only spurred the drive toward NATO, says Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based independent military analyst and visiting researcher at Uppsula University in Sweden. “And, I think it’s a clear [example] of Russian ‘successes’ in foreign policy when the most closest allies to Russia are trying to escape from it as soon as possible,” he tells VOA’s Moscow Bureau via Skype. “Of course, it’s the result of Russia’s ‘successes’ in Ukraine and Crimea,” he adds.
Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and ongoing military support for rebels in eastern Ukraine sparked calls for stronger deterrence in NATO’s eastern European members.
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