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NATO Must Fast Track Bosnia’s Membership

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine rages a thousand miles away, but we in Bosnia and Herzegovina feel as if it is on our immediate borders. Our collective distance from the bombing is illusory, and its terrible echo is heard all over Europe. Bosnians especially know the horror of war, and so too the pricelessness of peace.

It is also why we welcome Finland’s entry into NATO, because it will help ensure peace in the rest of Europe, even amid war in Ukraine. In that regard, President Joe Biden’s declaration that NATO is strengthened by its newest ally and that the Alliance will continue to safeguard transatlantic security, defending „every inch of NATO territory,“ are of the utmost importance.

Alas, our new geopolitical realities mean that it is not only countries in Russia’s immediate environs that are in danger. During the 1990s, Bosnia too was a victim of sustained aggression, which ultimately culminated in the Srebrenica Genocide, the single greatest atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust. News about the atrocities in occupied Ukrainian towns and villages reminds us of our inferno and brings the deepest empathy. We know this suffering all too well.

Even today, our country remains in the crosshairs of Russian-backed Serb nationalists and their expansionist machinations. While Moscow advances its “Russian World“ through the leveling of entire cities in Ukraine, in Belgrade they promote a so-called “Serbian World,“ to be carved out of the sovereign territories of neighboring states, including Bosnia. Serbia has provided safe harbor to Wagner Group militants, has dubious – and anti-democratic — ties to Russian intelligence operatives, and has received billions in Russian and Chinese arms, all while actively sponsoring hardline secessionist elements in Bosnia.

Like Finland, Bosnia is on the geopolitical frontlines. And as a result, I strongly believe Bosnia, like Finland, should be admitted to NATO through an accelerated procedure.  After all, it already has been working under a membership action plan since 2010. Bosnia must not be left to swing in the winds of war blowing from the Black Sea. The Russian attack on Ukraine has proved there is no longer a geostrategic periphery, but that Europe’s security and stability depends on a full-spectrum defense of all vulnerable polities.

A Sense of Urgency

In January, I travelled to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels for official talks with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Royal Netherlands Navy Admiral Rob Bauer. I stressed to them that Bosnia has no other alternative than the Euro-Atlantic route. In fact, after being elected as a member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in October last year, I chose this as my first trip outside the country, because Brussels – home base for NATO and the EU — and Washington are the most strategically significant destinations for BiH.

After tectonic security changes in Europe over the past year due to Russia’s war on Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina needs a NATO fast track to help the Alliance permanently lock down the stability of the Western Balkans and to likewise permanently foreclose the possibility of renewed instability in our country. No one — not NATO nor the citizens of Bosnia — can afford to squander this opportunity. NATO has had a presence in Bosnia since the war in the 1990s and in peacekeeping in the aftermath. It currently provides support to the EU peacekeeping mission there and has a military headquarters to aid in closer integration with the Alliance and to help Bosnia implement the reforms needed to join NATO under the now-13-year-old membership action plan.

The next NATO summit in Lithuania, in July this year, should send a clear message that the membership of Bosnia and Herzegovina is both desirable and strategically important for the entire Euro-Atlantic community. And, most importantly, it is feasible — since the BiH Armed Forces are already trained and equipped according to NATO standards. The pursuit and acquisition of NATO membership is already enshrined into Bosnian law. Article 84 (Activities for Accession to NATO) of the country’s Defence Law states: “The Parliamentary Assembly, Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Presidency, and all defence authorities within their respective constitutional and legal competencies, shall conduct required activities for the accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to NATO.”

In the beginning of February, I was in Washington to attend the National Prayer Breakfast. In the U.S. Congress, I had separate meetings with the members of the House and Senate, and saw for myself the tremendous degree of bipartisan support for Bosnia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Many in Washington already understand the necessity and urgency of fast-tracking Sarajevo’s NATO membership, but we need the key decision makers to give the green light.

Time is of the Essence

During my most recent visit to Brussels, on Feb. 15, I travelled with my counterparts in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s state presidency for meetings with Josep Borrell, the EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and with the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. We were acquainted with the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, and I am convinced Bosnia’s NATO aspirations will advance these objectives.

Yes, there are problems to address. The Serb nationalist establishment in Bosnia and Herzegovina maintains close links to Moscow and a posture of stringent opposition to the country’s NATO aspirations. But they have few institutional means to halt our progress, no more than similar actors did in neighboring Montenegro, which became the Alliance’s 29th member in 2017. Precisely because we oppose the reactionary politics of individuals like the president of the BiH entity Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, and the shameful associations that he and his sponsors in Belgrade maintain with the Putin regime, we urge the Atlantic community to recognize the significance and urgency of our membership in NATO.

Above all, a NATO fast track for Bosnia and Herzegovina would justify the Alliance’s value-based purpose. It is a moral obligation to do everything to prevent history from repeating itself in the Balkans. At the crossroads of history, of course with Ukraine in mind, personal and collective experience compel us to stand up and take bold actions.

As Stoltenberg has observed, Finland’s entry into NATO shows that the Alliance’s doors remain open. Bosnia and Herzegovina must be among the next states to walk through those doors.

Realizing this aim will require vision and leadership, and the support of the United States will be especially key. It will be difficult, but the past year has shown that the Euro-Atlantic community still has the capacity to deliver when the situation demands it. Furthermore, the past year has shown the imperative of acting preventatively, before negative trends descend into a downward spiral. As the experience with Ukraine has shown in the converse, Russia isn’t likely to dare an attack on NATO members, knowing the full force of the Alliance would come to bear. This preventive measure would, in turn, benefit the Alliance in further stabilizing the Western Balkans, supporting EU integration, and adding another professionalized member force.

Through the support of the United States, the EU, and NATO for Ukraine, Moldova, Finland, and Sweden, the whole of the free world is safer. Bosnia and Herzegovina must be part of the future of that calculus. And the most significant resulting policy should be our immediate entry into NATO.

IMAGE: A Bosnian soldier smiles as Bosnian armed forces stand at attention during a ceremony in Capljina, on June 12, 2019, in a departure ceremony that marks the 10th rotation of infantry men and military policy from Bosnia’s armed forces to be dispatched into a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, as part of the NATO troops operating in that country. (Photo credit should read ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)

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