Interview 24 Mar 17

NATO’s Jamie Shea Regrets Nationalist Revival in Balkans

Jamie Shea, NATO spokesperson during the bombing of Yugoslavia which started 18 years ago, says revived nationalism is setting the region back - and urges Kosovo not to waste its resources on forming an army.

Perparim Isufi BIRN Pristina
Jamie Shea. Photo: NATO.

On the 18th anniversary of the start of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, Jamie Shea, who is now the Western military alliance’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, said that it was disappointing to see nationalistic voices upping the volume once again in Balkan countries.

With Bosnia facing an uncertain future, Macedonia dogged by political quarrels and Kosovo locked into permanent struggle with Serbia, Shea told BIRN in an interview that nationalism can only set the region back.

“I do see a revival of nationalist forces in the Western Balkans today. This is disappointing, given the way in which aggressive nationalism only led to suffering on a massive scale in the 1990s and greater poverty and isolation,” he said.

Shea said both NATO and the European Union should see this situation as a “wake-up call” and engage more in supporting democratic forces and help countries deal with reforms.

“The thing about nationalism is that it can be an attractive slogan for the emotions and a mechanism to vent anger and frustration. But it does not provide any solutions to any of the practical problems of daily life,” he said.

Moreover, he noted that aggressive nationalism cannot survive without an enemy, often an imaginary one, which is why it ultimately leads to violence and confrontation.

NATO concerns about the Balkans are growing as Russia expands its influence in the region, Shea observed.

“Russia is certainly more active in the Balkans today than it has been for several years,” he said, referring, for example, to Moscow’s attempts to undermine Montenegro’s decision to join NATO, “by using propaganda and organizing provocations and destabilizing activities”.

Speaking of Serbia’s decision to obtain new weapons from Russia, the British NATO’s diplomat said Belgrade had a choice to make.

“It is the choice of a country like Serbia to decide where it wishes to buy weaponry but again, I believe that all the actors in the region should ask themselves whether building up sophisticated and expensive weaponry is really going to buy more security in the long run and stabilize the region, or is really what their populations most urgently need in the short run.”

Eighteen years ago, during the conflict over Kosovo, Shea was NATO spokesperson and as popular in Kosovo as he was hated in Serbia.

Looking back to the war that drove Serbia out of Kosovo and led later to Kosovo’s independence, he said NATO’s decision to launch air strikes came about quickly and “with a real sense of consensus and determination around the NATO Council table”.

In June 1995, the world had sat back and allowed one of the worst massacres since World War II, when Bosnian Serb forces under Ratko Mladic entered the eastern town of Srebrenica, which had been designated a UN “safe area”, and killed more than 7,000 Bosniaks.

“After all the years of hesitation during the Bosnia conflict, when we often agonized over the utility of force, it was a relief for me to see that this time NATO was ready to act before terrible massacres had taken place,” Shea recalled.

“This unity came from the fact that we had learned in Bosnia the consequences of mixed messages, making empty threats and delaying too long before taking action.”

In the case of Kosovo case, the international community held a three- week conference held in Rambouillet, France in February 1999, when the Western powers and Russia tried to bring the two sides to a common solution to end the armed conflict that had started in the spring of 1998.

At the end of the conference, the Kosovo delegation signed the deal but Serbia refused the terms.

“There was a sense that every effort to avoid the use of force had been made and that the use of force was now both necessary and legitimate,” Shea added.

The bombing operation, which lasted for 78 days, ended with Yugoslav forces withdrawing from Kosovo in June 1999 and the establishment of a UN-led civil administration in Kosovo with a NATO military mission, KFOR, composed of more than 50,000 troops.

Shea does not deny that NATO HQ hoped the operation would be briefer than it was, and that Serbian leader Milosevic “would quickly agree to withdraw his troops and stop the ethnic cleansing”.

“As Napoleon famously said, ‘No plan survives the first contact with the enemy’. But once the air campaign started, the Allies were convinced that perseverance would ultimately pay off and the key thing was not to allow Milosevic to break the unity of the Alliance,” he said.

Giving up, according to him, would have gravely undermined NATO and made the situation in Kosovo far worse.

More recent international military interventions outside Europe have reminded Shea that you cannot expect “instant miracles” from such campaigns.

If 78 days seemed “a long time at the time”, he said, “if one thinks of Afghanistan or Iraq, the Kosovo campaign was exceptionally short and one of the most successful military actions in recent memory.”

Even within this short period of time, Shea says NATO drew some important lessons.

“The key lesson is to stay united. Milosevic was obviously hoping that NATO would break apart but once he understood that this was not the case, he had no alternative but to comply with the demands of the international community,” Shea said.

The end of the conflict in June 1999 saw the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, transformed into a civil emergency agency called the Kosovo Protection Corps.

When Kosovo declared independence in 2008, this agency was transformed into the Kosovo Security Forces, with limited competencies, while national security remains in the hands of a NATO peacekeeping mission of around 5,000 soldiers drawn from 30 member and partner states.

This month, Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi launched an initiative to create a Kosovo army despite US and NATO opposition.

Shea says that Kosovo institutions should be focusing on other areas rather than on creating an army.

“At a time when Kosovo really needs to focus on reform, fighting corruption, educating its people and developing its society and institutions, I do not see how the creation of a Kosovo army is a useful use of precious resources, or will help stability in the wider region,” he said.

“For the cost of a modern fighter jet or even a main battle tank, Kosovo could build several schools or upgrade the information technology at its universities and public institutions across the entire country,” he noted.

“So I hope that there would be a proper debate within Kosovo about priorities, and that President Thaci will not pursue this initiative,” he concluded.

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