BRUSSELS — NATO on Wednesday gave Bosnia-Herzegovina the green light to take a major step forward on its path toward joining the world's biggest military alliance, despite Bosnian Serb objections to membership.
NATO foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, invited the ethnically-divided Balkans country to submit its first annual program of reforms aimed at bringing it into line with the alliance's standards.
The move is part of NATO's Membership Action Plan, or MAP, process, which helps aspiring countries prepare for membership.
"We are ready to accept the submission of the country's first annual national program. This includes practical measures covering political, economic and defense reform, which will help to prepare for membership," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters.
The move doesn't mean that Bosnia will join anytime soon, and it's unclear whether Sarajevo will even accept the MAP invitation.
"We made our decision. We are ready to receive their annual national program. But let them decide and we are ready if they are ready," Stoltenberg said.
Bosnia was riven by war in the 1990s as the former Yugoslavia broke apart. It is governed at federal level by representatives from each of the Bosnian Muslim, Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb communities.
Muslim Bosniak presidency member, Sefik Dzaferovic, welcomed NATO's invitation and said it would give new impetus for the country to reach one of its "most important foreign policy goals".
"I expect that (Bosnian) institutions will immediately start preparing the annual program of reforms in cooperation with NATO," Dzaferovic said in a statement.
That view was reiterated by the Croat presidency member, Zeljko Komisic, but the pro-Russian Serb presidency member Milorad Dodik remained silent on the issue.
Dodik has long been a vocal opponent of Bosnia's membership in NATO and has repeatedly vowed to block all the efforts to reach that goal.
Western organizations like NATO and the European Union see the integration of countries in the Balkans like Bosnia as a powerful force for democratic reform.
Bosnia was granted MAP status in 2010, but NATO declined to "activate" it until all conditions had been met. The process has been held up over the registration of defense property like military barracks and buildings used by the defense ministry.
This is supposed to be registered at national level, but Dodik's Republika Srpska refuses outright to do so with its property.
Rather than allow the Bosnian Serbs to have a de-facto veto over the membership action plan, NATO allies have decided to move forward regardless, even though the property must still be registered at federal level for the MAP process to conclude.
They also believe it is important to promote reform in the wake of the Oct. 7 general election, which led to nationalist politicians dominating Bosnia's three-member presidency; an institution which wields little formal, but much symbolic, power and is meant to help heal ethnic wounds.