Albania and Croatia became official NATO members April 1 after their ambassadors to the United States filed accession documents with the U.S. government. The two countries will benefit from membership in NATO, while NATO will benefit from its expansion into two strategic areas.
Albania and Croatia became NATO's 27th and 28th member states April 1 after their ambassadors to the United States filed accession documents with the U.S. government. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer offered Tirana and Zagreb his congratulations from Brussels, adding, "In becoming NATO members, Albania and Croatia share the benefits and responsibilities of collective security." The two countries will join fellow NATO member states at the alliance's April 3-4 summit in Baden Baden, Germany, and Strasbourg, France. (click image to enlarge) With Albania's and Croatia's accessions into the alliance, NATO has entrenched itself firmly on the western Balkan Peninsula, which was site of numerous conflicts in the 1990s as former Yugoslavia disintegrated. With Macedonia's membership a lock as soon as the Greek-Macedonian name dispute is resolved, NATO member states will surround Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo — the three most likely conflict points in Europe today. (click image to enlarge) For Albania, accession into NATO is a crucial step on the road to becoming integrated into Europe. The mountainous country and its clan-based society are separated from all neighbors by either the Adriatic Sea or formidable mountain chains. For much of the Cold War, Albania shied from both the Western and Soviet camps, instead forming a close relationship with China. NATO membership gives Albania a strong foreign ally on which to rely in the face of foreign and domestic threats. Due to the clan-based structure of Albanian society and the country's geography, internal cohesion and central government control have historically been difficult. The central government in Tirana is notoriously weak, and it even allowed the country to descend into anarchy and lawlessness for five months in 1997 due to public angst over failed pyramid investment schemes. From NATO's perspective, Albania's membership brings the alliance squarely into the epicenter of organized crime activity in Europe. Albania is a transshipment point for the smuggling of everything from cigarettes to heroin to humans into the European Union, particularly through the Straits of Otranto into Italy. The Albanian mafia is one of the most powerful in Europe, using its tight-knit, clan-based structure to avoid infiltration by European law enforcement and to control drugs and prostitution rings in practically every major European city. It controls the so-called "Balkan route" for heroin shipment (which goes through Iran and the Middle East into Turkey and Bulgaria, and finally to Albania for distribution throughout Europe) as well as 65 percent of all trafficking of women in the Balkans. (An estimated 200,000 women are smuggled through the region each year.) NATO membership for Albania does not mean an end to the lucrative organized crime presence, but it does mean that the West will have a greater role in border security and law enforcement in the region. The West's thinking on Albania is that it is a far better option to have Albania as part of the alliance, where NATO will be able to keep tabs on organized criminal activity in the region, than to have no control whatsoever. Of particular importance will be getting Albania's borders with Kosovo and Macedonia — which are extremely porous due to cultural links between Albanian communities on both sides and mountainous terrain that is difficult to police — under control. NATO has already been very active in the region in providing military advice on border security and smuggling interdiction. Advisers were sent to Albania as early as 2001 to help officials deal with porous borders and crack down on smuggling operations. A firm NATO presence in Albania (and in Macedonia in the near future) will therefore mean that should conflict flare up again in Kosovo, NATO will be able to interdict the movement of people and weapons between Albanian communities in the three states. In 1999, it was not in NATO's interest to do so; in fact, moving people and weapons across the borders was encouraged, since the Kosovo Liberation Army was a NATO ally in the conflict against Serbia. But the West's interests in a future regional conflict could very well change. For Croatia, a close relationship with NATO is crucial because Croatian geography demands that Zagreb ally itself with a strong power as a guarantor of its sovereignty. Every iteration of an independent Croatia has had a powerful patron, whether Nazi Germany during World War II or the United States and Germany during the conflict with Serbian separatists in the early 1990s. The crescent-shaped country has no natural borders with its main rivals in the region, Hungary and Serbia. Its capital and core city, Zagreb, sits on the southern edge of the Pannonian Plain, where it can be accessed with ease from both Budapest and Belgrade. Furthermore, Croatia's coastal region — which traditionally has been a source of much of its economic and trade activity — is separated from its core via the Dinaric Alps, allowing foreign influence (mainly Italian) and independence-minded movements that resent Zagreb to take root. With NATO accession, Croatian independence not only is assured by a powerful nonregional ally, but is in fact guaranteed by NATO's nuclear deterrent. Its borders and territorial integrity, brought into serious question in the early 1990s by the Serbian separatists in Krajina, are now completely assured. From Zagreb's perspective, membership in NATO also gives Croatia veto power over potential Bosnian and Serbian membership bids down the line — a power they are sure to exercise with very little moderation when the time comes. From NATO's perspective, Croatian membership plays a key role in allowing the alliance to surround the unstable Bosnia and the regional power Serbia. Bosnia is a state in name only, with the two ethnic federal units (the Serbian Republika Srpska and the Croatian/Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) in a tenuous and volatile relationship that could be jeopardized by ethnic tensions at any moment. With Croatia, the Western alliance now gets a member state with both a vested interest in what happens in Bosnia and a lengthy border that allows Croatia and NATO to easily monitor the entire territory. This gives NATO greater legitimacy and capacity in dealing with any future problem arising in Bosnia. Serbia, on the other hand, despite its reduced size and numerous military losses throughout the 1990s, is still the undisputed heavyweight of the Western Balkans, boasting the population and the industrial core necessary to sustain an independent military effort. Left to their own devices, Serbia's neighbors would be in dire straits against a remilitarized Belgrade. Along with Croatia and Albania, NATO member states Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria (and potential member state Macedonia) surround Serbia. Instead of being a dominant regional power player, Belgrade is now the regional black hole, surrounded by a nuclear-armed alliance. The question before Serbia is whether it will continue to stand outside the alliance and play a dangerous game of balancing Russian and Western interests in the region, or whether it will join NATO at some point in the future. The latter possibility, however, just got more difficult, because whatever Belgrade decides, its rival Zagreb will have a say — one that involves a veto — in it.