21 August 2019

The NATO-Serbia cooperation-challenging for both sides

Stelian Teodorescu

The NATO-Serbia relation history has many phases, starting with the conflict in the former Yugoslavia territory, up to signing the military-technique Agreement, from Kumanovo, June 1999, and the changes initiated by Serbia, followed by Belgrade establishing some new foreign policy objectives, including the current military neutrality position, as well as the European integration aspiration and replacing the country on the international scene after a long period of isolation.

Image source: Mediafax

Military neutrality and an anti-NATO public opinion

The NATO-Serbia dialogue and cooperation developed constantly, starting with 2006, when the Belgrade authorities joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP/14.12.2006) and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). Therefore, on 18.12.2006, Belgrade opened the NATO Liaison Office, which supports Serbia’s defence reforms, eases Serbians participation to Pfp program activities and offers assistance to NATO’s public diplomacy activities in the region. The Cooperation between both sides got stronger starting with January 2015, when Serbia and NATO signed the Individual partnership action plan (IPAP), which is a framework wherein the partner country exposes its reforms, and NATO supports the accomplishments of such objectives. The moment it came into force was a major success for the bilateral relations and created a favorable framework for continuing the cooperation and improve the political dialogue.

The following NATO-Serbia relation development continued through the ratification of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that NATO structures from Serbia rely on when using their freedom of movement and the military infrastructure. It is noteworthy that, given this favorable framework for cooperation, in the same period, Serbia and NATO signed a Cooperation Agreement in the logistic support field.

In November 2015, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, visited Serbia and underlined the importance of the NATO-Serbia cooperation, also showing his regret for the victims and the pain caused to the civil population during the NATO bombings. J. Stoltenberg reiterated that NATO respects Serbia’s sovereign decision on its military neutrality, underlining that it will not insist on the Alliance member quality of a state until it will not show itself available to join NATO.

Currently, Serbia strengthens its political dialogue and military cooperation with NATO, exclusively on common interest issues, mostly focusing on supporting reforms, even if, unlike the other Western Balkans entities, Serbia does not want to join the North-Atlantic Alliance. However, NATO keeps its position, expressed in 2015, by J. Stoltenberg, fully respecting Belgrade’s authorities’ military neutrality, even if the Serbian leaders are also cooperating with the Russian Federation in terms of defence.

Kosovo remains the key topic in the Serbia -NATO dialogue, especially given Kosovo NATO Force (KFOR) presence in the region. The Alliance continues to work inside the former Serbian province, independent since 2008, based on UN Security Council Resolution 1244 provisions, ensuring a stable and secure security environment, despite disagreements with Belgrade authorities on this issue. However, the Serbia -KFOR forces cooperation has developed based on the Kumanovo military-technical agreement provisions, NATO supporting dialogue’s continuation, mediated by the European Union (EU), aimed at normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

The NATO position in terms of its relationship with Serbia has been permanently expressed for the public eye, including by North Atlantic Alliances’ Secretary-General, an example to that end being the 29.06.2011 speech, stating that "Serbia's future lies in a peaceful cooperation with its neighbors and with EU and NATO. [...] We have made great progress in recent years in developing a solid basis for partnership and cooperation. It is now up to Serbia to decide whether it wants to move forward in cooperation with NATO and how quickly. "

It is also important that, at that time (June 2011), there was a significant public support for Serbia's Euro-Atlantic integration, with 69.4% of Serbian citizens being against the NATO accession, 64.8% in favor of military neutrality, 59.3% for the EU accession and only 15.6% in favor of the NATO accession.

Suggestive to that end is another study, made by the Ninamedia agency from Serbia, conducted at the end of May and early June 2019, on 800 Serbian citizens, as part of the "Euro-Atlantic integration in the Serbian media" project, which shows that 89% of the Serbian citizens questioned are against their country's accession to NATO.

US Ambassador to Belgrade, Kyle Scott, was not surprised by these results and that Serbian citizens have not forgotten NATO's military intervention in 1999. A senior US official stressed that "the number of NATO news is growing, but they are mostly negative, even though NATO and Serbia are increasingly cooperating in military exercises and their general cooperation is advancing." He added that it is important for journalism in Serbia to be based on facts but, as the US official has pointed out, there are media outlets in the country who "simply do not want" to publish anything positive about NATO.

Arne Bjørnstad, the Norwegian ambassador to Belgrade, underlined that NATO should face the challenges and change its negative image in Serbia because "what happened in 1999 is the main reason for such a negative image. On the other hand, NATO is a military organization, but also a political alliance that offers access to modern technologies and participation in humanitarian activities”. The Norwegian diplomat also added that it is necessary to talk more about the NATO cooperation benefits and less about the past confrontation.

Journalist Milivoje Mihajlović emphasized that NATO's image was much better 12 years ago and that today the tabloids are putting the Alliance in a bad light, stressing that "since the end of 2007, the phrase "Euro-Atlantic integration" was replaced by “European integration", though "Serbia is surrounded by NATO member states, the Alliance being the only force currently protecting Kosovo Serbians". In the same context, Mihajlović pointed out that “there are almost zero media reports on the participation of Serbian forces in NATO military exercises and peacekeeping missions".

Another journalist, Milan Mišić, underlined that the tabloids dictate society’s whole atmosphere and also public opinion’s position in Serbia towards NATO. He noted that "there is a huge difference between what the media and the state's official policy towards NATO is reporting. The main message from the tabloids is that NATO wants to destroy us, while Russia and Putin will protect us, which is far from reality. ”

However, there are key cooperation fields. Quite a few

The Serbia-NATO key cooperation fields, favoring both parts, are:

Increasing the defence capacity and interoperability

Serbia joined the PfP Planning and Review Process/PARP in 2007, in order to develop its forces’ capacities to join UN multinational operations and EU crisis management operations.

Since 2012, Serbia is actively involved in “Building Integrity” (BI). The transparent and responsible defence institutions which are democratically controlled are essential for the international security cooperation.

Serbia’s Defence Ministry offers its experience and also other countries’ experience involved in the NATO self-evaluation and evaluation process and was actively involved in the establishment of the NATO BI reference Curriculum, published in 2016. 

Since 2014, Serbia is committed in the Defence Education Enhancement Programme/ DEEP, which offers Belgrade support to develop a complete and modern education system and training in defence. This programe is a reform method, offering practical support for the development and reform of the military education institutions, individually adapted to petitioner country. Thanks to DEEP, Serbia is now a military education expertise provider and supports other DEEP programs, like the one in Armenia.

Also from 2014, Serbia joined the Partnership and Interoperability Initiative (PII) platform, launched at the NATO Summit in Wales, which brings together allies and 24 selected partner states, the main objective being to maintain and strengthen the connections built between NATO and partner forces over time.

Serbia provides experts and training to allies and partners at the Kruševac Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Training Center (CBRN), recognized in 2013 as a Partnership Training and Education Center.

In December 2017, in coordination with several NATO states, Serbia coordinated a training course for Iraqi military and civilian medical personnel, as part of the NATO Security and Defense Capabilities Initiative.

Enlarged cooperation

The Allies supported the implementation of "NATO Trust Fund" projects in Serbia, among them a project to destroy a surplus of 28,000 small arms and light weapons, completed in 2003, and another for the safe destruction of 1.4 million mines and various other types of ammunition, completed in 2007. A third project, currently in progress, refers to destroying a surplus of around 8,000 tons of ammunition and explosives. Another five-year project, completed in 2011, implemented by the International Organization for Migration (ILO), has helped nearly 6,000 people in the defence field, start small businesses, in Serbia.

Serbia has been actively involved in the Science for Peace and Security Program (SPS) since 2007. Scientists and experts in Serbia address a wide range of security issues, particularly in energy security, counter-terrorism and defence against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents.

In 2017, Serbia launched the second National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, for the period 2017-2020, the Serbian state being associated with the NATO / EAPC Policy and Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, approved at the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels.

Serbia and NATO aim to improve their activities in the public information on NATO-Serbia cooperation, and the Belgrade NATO Military Liaison Office plays an important role in this process.

2018- top period for the Serbia-NATO military cooperation

2018 was highly intense for the cooperation between Serbia and NATO, as well as for the many positive messages sent by Belgrade and North Atlantic Alliance’s leaders. Although Serbia is not a NATO member, this Western Balkans state cooperates closely with the Alliance by participating in the PfP, by ratifying several agreements that define and accelerate this relationship, as well as by participating in multinational military exercises. Some of these cooperation’s benchmarks are the:

The NATO Summit in Brussels, from 11-12.07.2018, was defined as a highly important event for the Western Balkans, the final statement concluding that the participating leaders were able to call the region as one of "strategic importance as proved by the long cooperation and operations history in the region.” In the document, the participating heads of state adopted the "open doors" political position and officially invited northern Macedonia to start the NATO accession negotiations, conditioning it to implement the "Prespa Agreement" provisions, and it was highlighted the increasing cooperation between NATO and Serbia, showing openness for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. NATO Deputy Secretary-General, Rosa Goetemuller, stressed that "the Alliance does not challenge Serbia and does not ask it to join it." In the same context, it was emphasized that NATO will remain in Kosovo by maintaining KFOR forces and will continue to cooperate with Pristina and EU to ensure protection and security, the still rather fragile security environment in the former Serbian province asking for a such decisions.

The visit of NATO Secretary-General, Jens Soltenberg, to Serbia and the international exercise "Serbia 2018", organized by the Serbian Ministry of Home Affairs and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Euro-Atlantic Center for Emergency Situations (NATO EADRCC) on 08.10.2018, in Mladenovac. It was the largest civil defence exercise organized by NATO with a partner country. The activity involved the participation of 2,000 participants, from 38 countries, who, together with the members of the Ministry of Defence and Serbia’s Army, held a joint exercise that involved organizing and conducting the management of rescue activities during disasters. On that occasion, Serbia was visited by NATO Secretary General, Jens Soltenberg, who, along with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, inaugurated this exercise.

Participation in joint multinational military exercises

• “Platinum Wolf 2018” was an international military exercise that took place on 22.06.2018, near Bujanovac. The exercise was attended by about 500 US, UK, United Arab Emirates, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Montenegro and Serbia militaries. Exercises’ themes were "Tactics, techniques and procedures in multinational operations", with participants training to use non-lethal weapons and engaging in actions and applying specific procedures in multinational operations conducted in an international environment.

•In August 2018, Serbia participated in another NATO exercise, "Platinum Lion 2018", at the Bulgarian-American military base, near Novo Selo, where 700 US servicemen, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Romania and the United Kingdom of Great Britain participated. Battalion’s activity aimed at enhancing interoperability, as well as a better understanding of the national tactics, techniques and procedures of the partner countries. During the exercise, the Serbian and Bulgarian military carried out missions to "clean" terrorists from a public building, as well as to evacuate "wounded" soldiers with a Cougar helicopter.

•On September 18-21, 2018, for the fifth time, the international air exercise "Air Solution 2018" was held, jointly organized by the Serbian and Romanian air forces in Serbia and Romania’s airspace, were representatives of the National Guard of Ohio sent observers. The exercise involved fighter jets and transport planes, as well as helicopter units engaged in search and rescue operations. They conducted control and protection tasks of the airspace, crisis situations management in the air border area between the two countries, as well as aviation support, search and rescue tasks.

•In the training and simulation center from "Banjica 2" Belgrade barracks, between October 15 and 19, 2018, it was organized a multinational ordering exercise, supported by computer simulations, entitled "REGEX 18". The purpose of the exercise was to improve the interoperability in the training procedures and develop region countries’ armed forces capacities, of NATO member states and other structures involved in the PfP program.

A possible choice between aspirations and propaganda

Serbia wants to join EU, but, being under a high political and propagandistic pressure, goes towards the Russian Federation, whose main objective is keeping the Western Balkans away from NATO. Given the circumstances, Serbia will hardly redefine its position regarding NATO soon and will hardly want to join the Alliance, especially that Serbians are still insisting on the military intervention which ended with devastating the country and killing Serbian citizens as the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, was underlining, on 24.03.2017 (at that time, prime-minister), on the commemoration day of the NATO bombings over the former Yugoslavia, in 1999.

Despite an extremely complex range of different views on Serbia-NATO cooperation relationship construction, which we have witnessed both regionally and internationally, since 2000 and until now, the cooperation level between the two sides remains positive. Given the conditions, this led to reaching a maximum level, of interoperability, alignment and standardization between the Serbian Armed Forces and NATO forces. Time will prove whether Serbian political elites will decide this relationship will continue based on military neutrality or Serbia will redefine its position in this regard. Therefore, Serbia, for the first time, could adopt a foreign policy strategy to clarify its objectives, especially those concerning the relationship with Kosovo, which could bring substantial changes to Belgrade's relationship with the North Atlantic Alliance.

Translated by Andreea Soare