Officials and regional security experts view the Alliance as crucial to the region's prosperity.
By Linda Karadaku for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 25/03/14
NATO's presence has brought a sense of security to the region. [AFP]
The Crimea crisis and increased tension between Russia and the West has brought many reminders of the Cold War, and reinforces NATO's key role as a security platform that ensures sovereignty and stability while providing a check against authoritarian tendencies, experts said.
The Alliance offers a crucial security umbrella at a time when Russian actions have raised concerns that it is attempting to restore the influence of the former Soviet Union, said Ilir Ibrahimi, vice president and chief operating officer of the American University of Kosovo in Pristina.
"States that in one way or another see a risk of such an expansion by Russia have to make NATO membership their main priority," Ibrahimi told SETimes.
Ukraine is not a NATO member, but has been at a centre of an international crisis after its Crimea peninsula voted to leave Ukraine and be annexed by Russia. Russian troops have taken over the peninsula and Ukraine's military bases in the region, although the annexation is seen as illegitimate by the West.
NATO Supreme Allied Military commander in Europe General Philip Breedlove said on March 23rd (Sunday) that Russia has built a large force on Ukraine's eastern border that threatens Moldova's Trans-Dniester region.
"The [Russian] force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizable and very, very ready," said Breedlove, who spoke at a German Marshall Fund think tank event in Brussels. "There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome."
Russian troops were moved from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to Kosovo in 1999 after the withdrawal of the Serb forces, prior to NATO's arrival there.
The Russian troops eventually agreed to be integrated in NATO operations, stationed at the Pristina airport, but only after month-long negotiations when Hungary and Romania denied their airspace to prevent Russian reinforcements.
"The safety of each member country depends on the safety of all member countries. If the safety of one of them is endangered, all members are endangered," Albert Cekrezi, a former Albanian military officer, now a Tirana administration official, told SETimes.
NATO's engagement in Kosovo and BiH and its admitting of Bulgaria and Romania created a security shelter for the region, said Xhavit Shala, security expert and professor at the Luarasi University in Tirana.
"Admitting Albania and Croatia in the Alliance [next] and the steps other countries have taken to become NATO members have made Balkan peoples feel increasingly safe," Shala told SETimes.
NATO has enjoyed strong support in the region also because the public views the Alliance as a guarantor of economic development.
"Nobody will come to invest in a country that may be in a conflict in the future. In times of economic crisis, it is good if one's capital is protected by guarantees such as NATO as well as the EU," Milo Janjusic, a resident of Zagreb, told SETimes.
Janjusic said everyone's hope in the region is NATO will never have to intervene.
"But just in case, it is good that they are here," he said.
NATO is crucial to the security and stability of BiH, said Sefik Dzaferovic, deputy chairperson of BiH's parliamentary committee on defence and security.
"When those two elements [security and stability] are present, others, such as economics, investment, political and social benefits, follow. Euro-Atlantic integration is the only way where BiH as well as the whole region need to go," Dzaferovic told SETimes.
The events in Ukraine show that Balkan countries are still vulnerable, and NATO provides an important degree of security for countries that without big power allies can become the subject of other countries' aspirations, said Blagoj Conev, professor of international relations and diplomacy at MIT University in Skopje.
"Only [under such an arrangement] a small country like Macedonia can survive in the anarchic world of international politics, and together with its [NATO] partners can protect its national and strategic interests," Conev told SETimes.
Correspondents Drazen Remikovic in Sarajevo and Miki Trajkovski in Skopje contributed to this report.
What role should NATO play in promoting peace and security in Ukraine? Add your opinion to the comments below.