The secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, will visit Bosnia early in February, when officials are expected to update him on the improvements the country has made on the path to NATO membership.
However, experts have warned that because of a dispute over the involvement of Bosnia’s armed forces in last week’s banned holiday in Republika Srpska, as well as stalled progress on registering military property – the key condition for activating NATO’s Membership Action Plan – the meeting may not result in a significant step forward.
The completion last November of a defence review that allows for the development of the Bosnian armed forces over the next 10 years was a positive step, said Denis Hadzovic, a security expert from Sarajevo’s Centre for Security Studies.
“On the other side, there was a huge problem with the celebration of [the disputed holiday on] January 9 [in Republika Srpska],” he said, which represented “a political conflict between the Federation and Republika Srpska” – the two entities that make up Bosnia.
Bosnia’s Ministry of Defence has been caught in the middle of this row, after members of the Third Infantry Regiment, made up of RS soldiers, took part in last Monday’s celebration of Republika Srpska Day, which Bosnia’s Constitutional Court deems illegal.
Soldiers had been urged by both the Ministry of Defence and the commander of NATO’s Sarajevo HQ not to participate in the event.
The chairman of the Joint Commission for Defence and Security, Sifet Podzic, told the media that he hoped a session this Monday would help clarify confusion surrounding the event, about which several conflicting announcements have been made by ministry officials.
During the row, the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, threatened to withdraw the Serb-led entity from a 2005 agreement that unified Bosnia’s armed forces.
The other problem, Hadzovic added, was that there appears still to be “no political will on the domestic level” to solve the issue of the registration of immovable military property to the state – the key remaining condition for activating the Membership Action Plan.
NATO granted Bosnia MAP status at its summit in Tallinn, Estonia, in April 2010, but conditioned its activation on the full registration of such military assets.
The Bosniak member of Bosnia’s state presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, voiced optimism in November that MAP could be activated this year. However nearly seven years after the Tallinn conference, the task of military asset registration remains incomplete.
Bosnia’s efforts to obtain NATO membership have been slowed by the reluctance of politicians from Republika Srpska.
Bosnian Serb leaders have opposed registering the entity’s military assets to the state level, claiming they belong to the entity and not to the state.
Of about 60 prospective military assets in the country, two-thirds are located in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a third in Republika Srpska.
So far, the Federation has registered just over half of 40 properties, whereas Republika Srpska has resisted registering any.
Defence Minister Marina Pendes told local media on Monday that although not all of the tasks set by NATO have been completed, it was still appropriate for Stoltenberg to visit and pay tribute to members of the armed forces.
The Bosnian Serbs however look to Russia for support, so the fact that Russia opposes the expansion of NATO into the Balkans is another factor behind Republika Srpska’s opposition to joining the alliance.
Ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president on Friday, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said that the previous US administration’s policy to expand NATO by supporting the membership of Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia had set back US-Russia ties.
“The consolidated efforts of the Western states are aimed, among other things, at undermining integration processes that our country is part of,” Patrushev said on Sunday.
While February’s meeting is a positive sign to Bosnians that NATO is still interested in the country, Hadzovic cautioned that the country was only likely to be assured that it could join sometime in the future, if it fulfils the conditions.
“Due to the political conditions at present I am not sure that we will gain anything [at the meeting] more than the continuation of the open-door policy of NATO,” he said.
Author: Eleanor Rose