Destabilizing the Balkans: US & Albanian Defense Cooperation in the 1990s
Mirko Dakovic and Boro Miseljic
Independent Center for Geopolitical Studies
Belgrade, Serbia
March 22, 2001

Recent events in the Balkans indicate that the foreign policy team of President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney is confronted with a monumental task in this part of the world. Unfortunately, little is known about the magnitude of problems that the Bush administration has inherited from the Clinton administration in this part of Europe and in Serbia’s Kosovo province. While President Bush might genuinely want to extricate American soldiers from the Balkans, in reality, the truth and the facts on the ground speak to very different circumstances. In order to understand the current conflict in southern Serbia and Macedonia, we need to step back and focus on lines of inquiry that have been avoided in Western media and policy making circles. One of the answers to continued ethnic Albanian separatism in the Balkans can be found in the Clinton administration’s policy of fostering defense cooperation with Albania in the 1990s.


The security architecture that was facilitated and institutionalized by the Clinton administration in the Balkans was part of a wider regional strategy that predated the initial stages of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. As part of this strategy, the disintegration of Yugoslavia was intended to demonstrate that at the end of the Cold War, the old bipolar security architecture was inadequate to prevent the outbreak of a regional conflict on the fringes of Europe. For this reason, a new strategic concept for the NATO Alliance and a new security architecture in the Balkans became the focal points of attention for American strategic planners. A part of this new strategy was to promote the integration of Central and Eastern European states into the European Union and into the security structures of the NATO Alliance. However, where the Balkans were concerned, for American strategic planners, Albania was chosen to become the center of the new security architecture that Washington was consolidating in the Balkans.

Prior to Sali Berisha’s election as President of Albania in 1992, the United States donated over $100 million to Albania in combat vehicles, medical gear, and communications equipment. However, the first important event marking the beginning of institutionalized cooperation between the United States and Albania started with Albania’s admission into the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in June 1992. Concurrently, after Albania’s admission into the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, NATO headquarters would become a place of pilgrimage for Albanian delegations and missions. Albania’s inclusion into the North Atlantic Cooperation Council was soon followed by a deployment of an American Military Liaison Team to this Balkan country. The purpose of this American Military liaison team was to facilitate visits and exchanges between members of the US and Albanian militaries. The growing military ties between the two countries would eventually be grounded into a military agreement in 1993, which became known as the Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation. The agreement enabled the United States to use the Albanian military base Perlat, 35 miles southwest of Tirana, which became the first military facility to be used by the United States in a post Communist country. Consequently, at the end of the Cold War, Albania would become the first Central and Eastern European State to request membership in NATO.


At the same time that Albania started its defense cooperation with the United States, it was also beginning to develop stronger political, military, economic, and cultural cooperation with Turkey. The first meeting of significance at the Ministerial level between Albania and Turkey took place in Ankara, Turkey on July 24th, 1992 at which the two parties signed a comprehensive agreement on defense cooperation. This agreement according to the Turkish Minister of Defense at the time, Nevzeta Ayaza, "focussed on broadening cooperation in the fields of military education and technology." During his visit to Turkey, Albanian Defense Minister, Safet Zhulali, was allowed to visit Turkish military facilities such as factories, command centers, and bases, which at that time only NATO members were allowed top secret access to such facilities, and notably Albania was not a member of NATO. In return, the Turkish naval vessel, Fevzi Cakmak, visited the Albanian port of Drac on August 28th, 1992, the first such visit of a Turkish naval vessel to Albania since the days of the late Ottoman Empire. In another reciprocal gesture, November 18th of the same year marked the first visit of Turkish officers to the Albanian Defense Ministry. Today, Turkey is giving Albania 120 million dollars over the next four years to modernize its army and this figure is expected to increase to 80 million annually in 2004.

Defense cooperation between Albania and Turkey would not have been possible unless it was sanctioned by NATO members at the highest coordinating and decision making bodies within the Alliance. In fact, the official reasoning out of Brussels was that the goal of the Alliance was to consolidate democracy in Albania. Therefore, Albanian and Turkish bilateral defense cooperation did evolve within the framework of NATO. With Turkey being viewed as a vital geopolitical pivot of the United States in Eurasia, it is understandable that in any dispute or conflict arising with Serbia over Kosovo, the Turkish establishment would wield significant influence over American diplomatic posturing vis a vis a potential conflict with Serbia. When one considers that Turkey and Israel are close allies and that this relationship has been grounded in a comprehensive agreement on defense cooperation, the prospect of a combined American, Turkish, German, Israeli and Albanian diplomatic offensive against Serbia became highly probable in the event of a conflict over Kosovo.


With the ratification of the Partnership for Peace Framework document by the Albanian parliament in April of 1994, the necessary conditions were created for increased Albanian and American bilateral defense cooperation to continue within the framework of NATO. On an official visit to Tirana in January of 1995, the US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategic Planning, Joseph Nye, boldly asserted that "Albania had become one of the pillars of stability in the Balkans." To date, the United States has provided Albania with humanitarian assistance, security assistance, military to military contacts, and the two parties have engaged in an annual Bilateral Working Group meeting on defense matters. Moreover, the Albanian military received over 150 courses of instruction in fundamental war fighting concepts and to illustrate the importance of this growing relationship, the two states in 1996 alone participated in five joint military training exercises. As well, Albania received ‘Most Favored Nation’ trade status from the United States and the Clinton administration directly assisted the Albanian American Investment Fund.

In return, Albania gave NATO free use of its air, sea, and land facilities for peacekeeping activities in the Balkans in the 1990s. Specifically, NATO was allowed to use Albanian airfields and ports in order to support the operations Safe Haven and Deny Flight over Bosnia. The Albanian Navy also participated in operation Sharp Guard which was aimed at enforcing the sanctions regime against Serbia and Montenegro. Moreover, the United States even deployed unmanned aerial vehicles in Albania and subsequently used them for intelligence gathering purposes in the former Yugoslavia. The 500 mile range Gnat 750 remotely piloted aircraft was deployed from Albania for surveillance operations over Bosnia along with the unmanned US Predator vehicle. The Predator possessed enough aerial capability to cover the entire territory of the former Yugoslavia, and more importantly, could fly at low enough altitudes in order to spot troop movements and heavy weapons. Armed and readied with stealth technology, the deployment of the Predator marked one of the most significant American operational deployments in Albania before the war against Serbia and Montenegro in 1999.


Throughout 1995, Albania’s armed forces participated in 12 joint military exercises with NATO and non-NATO members. Of note are operations Sarex 95, Medceur 95, Crystal Water, Rescue Eagle, Peaceful Eagle 95 and eventually Peaceful Eagle 96. In January 1995, under the Partnership for Peace program, Albania participated in a search and rescue operation code named Sarex 95. This operation involved the participation of several NATO and non-NATO members. Operation Medceur 95 was a similar exercise focussing on humanitarian exercises, as was operation Crystal Water, which while multinational in character, primarily consisted of soldiers from the Albanian, American and Turkish military establishments. More importantly, in July of 1995, the military exercise Rescue Eagle was conducted north of Durres, Albania by the Albanian Military and the US Sixth Fleet. The amphibious force of the Sixth Fleet and approximately 1700 Marines of the 24th Marine Expedition Unit participated in this joint US-Albanian military exercise as did the US Kearsage and USS Nashville.

While this exercise was officially portrayed as a search and rescue military training exercise between the United States and Albania, operation Peaceful Eagle 95 offers further insight into the nature of US-Albanian military exercises. Peaceful Eagle 95 was organized in September of 1995 and the training exercise took place again near Durres, Albania. Approximately 150 American and 150 Albanian soldiers from the US 82nd Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, and the Albanian Shijaku Division, participated in the joint military exercises. According to official statements, Peaceful Eagle 95 was designed to "familiarize the participating soldiers with a variety of peacekeeping tasks." Specifically, these tasks included ‘escorting humanitarian convoys’, ‘establishing and operating a checkpoint’, ‘route security’, ‘securing a fixed site’, and ‘establishing and operating a combined mobile checkpoint.’ The 10-day exercise created the conditions for NATO to run a similar military exercise in 1996, code-named operation Peaceful Eagle 96.


This level of bilateral defense cooperation prompted some officials in Washington in the mid 1990s to boldly assert that "America’s military relations with Albania were more important than with any other country of the former Communist bloc." Responding to this increased level of defense cooperation, defense officials from other states stated that "many foreign observers looked on Tirana as the capital of the Pentagon in the Balkans." To complicate matters, it did not go unnoticed that more American military commanders were visiting Albania on a monthly basis in the 1990s than Tokyo, Japan, which is central to America’s dormant containment policy in the Far East. While the Clinton administration was investing a significant amount of material energy in consolidating a relationship with Albania, the Albanian establishment was simultaneously attempting to consolidate its indispensability to Washington. Between 1993 and 1995, Albania established various bilateral agreements on cooperation with 45 states and became a signatory to over 112 intrastate agreements and memorandums. Anchoring Albania in the Alliance was a key geostrategic imperative of the Albanian establishment because there was a perception among Albania’s political elite that this strategic posture would enable it to realize its wider political objectives.

What would become evident by mid 1998 was that increased military cooperation between the two countries would lead to American support for ethnic Albanian separatism in southern Serbia. In fact, the diplomatic activity of the Clinton administration became increasingly anti-Serbian leading up to the negotiations in Rambouillet, France. One only needs to look at how the negotiations in Rambouillet were handled to determine that the Clinton administration was planning to go to war for the ethnic Albanians in Serbia and at the same time, blatantly violate international law and treaties in the process. America’s relations with Albania and the ethnic Albanians in Serbia were so important that the Clinton administration was willing to breach international laws governing the diplomatic and military behavior of states in the international arena. Instead of scrutinizing the counterproductive diplomacy of the Clinton administration, we are continuously inundated with arguments by the morally bankrupt absolutists like Judge Goldstone and other Western apologists about why the only option for Kosovo is conditional independence. In retrospect, when one examines American national security policy in the Balkans under the Clinton administration, the policy of fostering defense cooperation with Albania contributed significantly to the instability and virulent ethnic Albanian separatism we are witnessing in the Balkans today.

Reversing this trend would require the United States to deploy significant resources in order to combat ethnic Albanian extremism. This seems unlikely since the Bush administration is showing signs that it is content with continuing the Clinton administration’s policy of constructive ambiguity in the Balkans. However, adhering to this policy is becoming increasingly untenable due to current circumstances and President Bush will soon be confronted with a serious foreign policy dilemma in this part of Europe. Either the Bush administration takes active steps to dismantle the levers of Albanian extremism in southern Europe or it faces the prospect of sponsoring the emergence of an extreme monoethnic Albanian entity which will destabilize the Balkans for generations to come. When we throw in the possibility that various cells of Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist international are operating in this part of the world, the prospect of retribution against American assets will increase if the United States moves against the greater Albanian project. As opposed to moving against this abominable extremist project, the Bush administration will in all likelihood move to deploy NATO forces into Macedonia in order to consolidate America’s permanent presence in the region and to facilitate the creation of a Greater Albania.

While the new authorities in Belgrade have presented the Bush administration with a real opportunity to distance itself from the policies of the previous administration, Washington’s posture towards Belgrade has not fundamentally changed. Cooperation with the Hague tribunal is being used to pressure the current government in Belgrade and any prominent extradition to the Hague would destabilize the new government and provoke a bloody civil war. Moreover, while the government in Belgrade has attempted to appease Washington on many issues, President Kostunica has yet to receive anything substantial from Washington with which to influence public opinion in Yugoslavia. This is astonishing when we consider that the new government in Belgrade has firmly crossed the civilizational fault line that Samuel Huntington delineated in The Clash of Civilizations and has attempted to begin integrating Yugoslavia into the European and Western mainstream.


Unfortunately, as Yugoslavia has attempted to meet its obligations, the ‘real’ power brokers in Washington have continuously moved the target, thus frustrating the efforts of the government in Belgrade to turnover a new chapter in its relations with the West. Based on Washington’s continued behavior, one would be tempted to suggest that regardless of what Belgrade attempts to do, the price for admission into Western institutions will be Belgrade’s acquiescence to the establishment of an independent Kosovo. In reality, this is a price that no political leader in Serbia or Montenegro can accept nor attempt to contemplate without risking their political future. Hence, the proposition that the policy of constructive ambiguity will continue to be the central focus of American policy in the Balkan region for the foreseeable future. This approach will ensure over time that the status quo will consolidate the creation of a Greater Albania in all but name.

Rather than bringing stability to the Balkans, the US imposed policy for the region will only be viable so long as Washington can enforce it through the barrel of a gun. Based on current conditions, one should not be hopeful that there will be a sudden change of heart in Washington. Rather, our attention should be drawn to the remarks of Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia who recently stated that "NATO is our private army." The big question that Belgrade is asking today is whether or not it can trust and establish a productive relationship with its former ally in two World Wars, the United States? Carl Von Clausewitz once declared "War is politics by other means." Washington’s duplicity on Montenegrin secession and its continued ambiguity towards taking active steps against Albanian extremists indicates that the policy of constructive ambiguity still remains the central focus of American policy in the Balkans.

Mirko Dakovic and Boro Miseljic are Senior Fellows for National Security Studies at the Independent Center for Geopolitical Studies JUGOISTOK in Belgrade, Serbia.

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