Strategic Documents

Just like in 2021 and 2022, none of the Western Balkan countries adopted new defence strategies or national security strategies in 2023 either. The challenge identified in the previous iteration of the project “Balkan Defence Monitor 2023” still remains in play. That challenge is the inability of the Western governments to strategically plan and formulate policies, as this process remains traditionally burdened with dysfunctional politics and slow bureaucracies. Moreover, this challenge is in no small part also caused by the fact that defence and security policy remains exclusively reserved for the political elites, who frequently monopolise the policy-making process and make it a top-down procedure. The professionals from the government administration are frequently marginalised from this process, and so is wider society.

All of these documents are outdated, as none of them considers the transformations in European and global security generated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. So far, Albania and North Macedonia are the only countries with indications that new strategic documents are underway. On the Albanian MoD’s website, both the National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy are designated as “work in progress.” In early 2023, there were claims that a similar process was ongoing in North Macedonia, but so far, without the outcome of new strategies being put forth.

Strategic documents are normally intended to explain and justify major changes in national defence policies. However, while it is true that adopting new strategies is a long process in every country, it is evident that major policy decisions are made without having a solid foundation in strategic documents.

2024 Strategic Documents

It must be underscored that even without the Ukraine war, adopting new strategies in the defence and national security domain has been a traditionally slow process for the Western Balkan countries, burdened with bureaucratic and political hurdles. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one the most extreme examples, as the country’s last valid strategic documents remain the National Security Strategy of 2006 and the National Defence Strategy of 2008. This can largely be explained by the country’s dysfunctional politics and complicated state apparatus.

North Macedonia has not adopted a national security strategy since 2003, but it adopted a national defence strategy in 2020. Nevertheless, this also points to the lack of genuine strategic planning in the defence policies of individual countries, as defence policy is an extension of the wider rubric of national security policy. Compared to the previous year, none of the Western Balkan countries adopted new strategies, neither when it comes to national security strategy nor national defence strategy. This stands in stark contrast to the changes in the wider European and global security environment brought about by the Ukraine war.

As such, given that the old documents are still in force without new strategies being adopted, the official policies of the Western Balkan countries revolve around the familiar themes. As per old doctrinary documents, the military invasion continues to be defined as a possible but not probable security threat. Nationalism, separatism, economic instability, terrorism and organised crime are mostly defined as national security threats by all countries of the region in their extant documents. International peacekeeping and regional cooperation in emergencies are also major strategic goals in these documents.

The war in Ukraine will almost certainly force the Western Balkan countries to draft and adopt new defence and security strategies in light of the dramatic changes in the European and global security environment. The first to do so will most likely be the countries that are members of NATO: Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia, as NATO adopted its own new strategic concept in 2022. As expected, Russia dominates the agenda in the context of its war against Ukraine; namely, in NATO’s new 11-pages long document strategic document, Russia is mentioned 14 times. In contrast, China is mentioned only twice, once as a threat and second in the context of its partnership with Russia. In the extent strategic document, Russia and China do not have a prominent place.

2023 Strategic Documents

Most countries in the region have adopted the newest versions of security and defence strategies in the last decade, while some did so in the last five years. Croatia and North Macedonia have decided to recently update only one of these documents. The notable exception is Bosnia and Herzegovina, which did not adopt either major strategic document since 2007. For this reason, Bosnian strategic documents seem outdated in many aspects and not adapted to the current global and regional security environment.

When it comes to defining national security interests, there are similarities across a wide set of issues such as protection of independence and territorial integrity, preserving the safety and rights of the population, or promotion of regional stability. Three countries that stand out the most when it comes to the national unity and protection of national interests abroad are Serbia, Croatia, and Albania. They all listed the protection of their ethnic diaspora among the primary national interests.

Countries have also identified a similar range of main threats, varying from organised crime and terrorism to economic challenges, unstable political systems and so on. Almost all the countries have assessed the threat of direct military aggression as significantly diminished but not to be taken lightly, except for Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia which have dismissed this type of threat as basically non-existent.

The two areas in which regional partnership has been underlined as particularly fruitful are mutual support in the European integration process and building joint capacities for protection from emergency situations and natural disasters. On the flip side, all strategies are pointing out extreme nationalism and secessionist tendencies in some of the countries as potential risks to regional security. Among the most urgent regional threats, the state of security of Bosnia and Herzegovina plays a special role in the strategies of the other two signatory states of the Dayton agreement: Serbia and Croatia with former insisting on the existence of Republika Srpska, and latter on the position of Bosnian Croats.

All the countries that are the subjects of this report have proclaimed EU membership as their top priority national interest. Except for Serbia, the other five countries have also declared NATO membership as crucial for assuring their national safety. The same goes for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the only non-member among these five. On the other hand, the security strategy of Serbia underlines military neutrality as the country’s main security concept. Furthermore, the Serbian strategy is the only one that explicitly specifies both the Russian Federation and China as key security partners. In other strategies, non-Western countries are not discussed directly, but are implicitly mentioned among the potential threats, as outside powers whose goal is to derail the region from its Euro-Atlantic trajectory.

2022 Strategic Documents