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Serbs don't want to join NATO, but Belgrade's partnership with the Alliance goes on

NATO Serbia
©EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS  |   Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) looks on during a joint press conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (R), after their bilateral meeting at the Nato Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 17 May 2021.

After tensions in the 1990s and the war in Kosovo, Belgrade's relations with NATO have fundamentally improved, as Serbia has sought to break out of the isolation of the Milosevic era. The partnership with NATO is a constant in Serbia's policy, but the relationship is only partially assumed: the authorities emphasize the country's neutrality, the media focuses on the much weaker cooperation with Russia, and the population sees no gain in a possible NATO integration.

During a recent meeting with Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, said that that the Alliance respects Serbia’s military neutrality, and the KFOR mission in Kosovo is the best proof of such a commitment. It was also stressed out that NATO and Serbia have a strong relationship without affecting in any way the latter’s neutrality. Today’s cooperation between the two is a far cry from the relationship they had three decades ago. After all, this year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of the Partnership for Peace Program that is a pillar of collaboration between Serbia and NATO.

According to the newest research done by the Institute for the European Affairs in Belgrade, the average assessment of the relations between Serbia and NATO, on a scale from 1 to 5, is just 2.25, just like it was last year. However, when the results of the previous three researches are analyzed, it is apparent that the overall support has increased. Nonetheless, 63% of citizens believe that Serbia cannot benefit from NATO membership, while 18% believe that it is possible, and 19% are undecided. It is noteworthy that the youngest and oldest respondents think that Serbia would not benefit from NATO membership. When it comes to reconciliation, 49% of respondents believe that even 22 years since the bombing, it is still not time for it, while 36% are supporting it, and 15% do not have a clear attitude on this issue.

Source: Institute for European Affairs, Belgrade

Do you support membership of Serbia in NATO?

Yes

Do not know

No

A turbulent relationship

Relations between these two partners, since the break-up of the Yugoslavia up until the present day, could be described as turbulent, from utmost hostility to current closer cooperation and strengthening of relations. The history of relations between Serbia and NATO could be divided into the period of conflict in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, until the signing of the Military-technical agreement in the famous tent in the NATO military base near Kumanovo, and the period of the changes in Serbia initiated by the “5 October Revolution”, followed by new foreign policy objectives of the country. These goals included European and Euro-Atlantic integration and the return of the country to the international arena after a period of isolation and sanctions.

At the beginning of the nineties, when the Yugoslav crisis started, NATO expressed its concern over a possible spilling effect of the conflict in the region, but mostly over human casualties and further escalation. For the first time in its history, the Alliance acted outside the territory of the member states to support the UN resolutions on Bosnia and Herzegovina, and after signing the Dayton Agreement, it took on itself the task of guaranteeing the implementation of Dayton and the provisions pertaining to the military aspects of the treaty.

The second active involvement of NATO during the 1990s is related to the Kosovo crisis. The UN Security Council initially condemned both the excessive use of force by Serb forces against civilians, and the KLA acts as terrorist. As the situation in Kosovo worsened, NATO was gearing up to step in, and by the end of 1998 the NATO Council had approved the activation of an air strikes order. At the last moment, it was decided to make another attempt to resolve the crisis peacefully, provided that the Serb forces would withdraw from Kosovo and Metohija (today the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Kosovo). The turning point, however, were the tragic events in the village of Račak (Kosovo) and the failed negotiations in Rambouillet, after which NATO, although without the mandate of the UN Security Council, launched air strikes against the FRY.

With the conclusion of the Kumanovo Agreement between the International Security Forces KFOR (the NATO-led peacekeeping force) and Serbian armed forces and the adoption of Resolution 1244, an international military and security presence in Kosovo under the supervision of the UN was established. NATO took the leading role in preserving peace and security, and the military campaign against FRY was over. Following the fall of the regime of Slobodan Milošević, the country switched to a new foreign policy oriented towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration. In the new climate of 2002, three specific foreign policy goals were set up: signing the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union, membership in the Council of Europe and the accession to the NATO Partnership for Peace program (PfP).

After the war: the Parnership for Peace

The Partnership for Peace is NATO’s political-military program established in 1994, based on a commitment to democratic principles in order to increase stability and build ties between partner countries and NATO, as well as between the countries themselves. Membership in the Partnership for Peace does not imply membership in NATO, although a large number of countries joined the Alliance following the signing of the Partnership for Peace. The reform course and the strong desire to deepen cooperation with NATO led to the official submission of the candidacy for the Partnership for Peace membership in 2003. Ever since then, the partnership has been a driving force behind Serbia’s institutional, democratic, and defense reforms.

It is somewhat surprising that public support for NATO membership was higher after the bombing than it is today. The reason for this can be traced to the desire not only of the ruling political elite, but also of citizens, to re-acquire the membership in international organizations and institutions after isolation and wars and embark on EU and NATO integration process, which was ongoing in other countries of the region. However, the assassination of the first democratic prime minister Zoran Đinđic and the arrival of a new government slowed down the process of reforms. The new government changed its ideological agenda, having approached the right-wing national pole, which gradually led to sliding towards Russia.

By the end of 2006, NATO opened a Military Liaison Office in Belgrade to support defense sector reforms and facilitate Serbia’s participation in the Partnership for Peace activities, whereas, in the following year, Serbia joined the Partnership for Peace Planning and Review Process (PARP), which aimed to direct and measure progress in the transformation of the defense and military sectors.

In 2007, the National Assembly passed the Resolution on the Protection of the Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and the Constitutional Order of the Republic of Serbia, which, in its Article 6, emphasized the decision to proclaim the military neutrality of the Republic of Serbia in relation to the existing military alliance. On the other hand, the National Security Strategy of 2009 foresaw further improvement of relations with NATO. Cooperation continued with the decision of Serbia to open its Mission to NATO.

Leading people of the Alliance expressed support for the Euro-Atlantic integration of the countries of the Western Balkans and welcomed Serbia’s progress in establishing a strong partnership at the Wales Summit in 2014. But, unlike other countries of the Western Balkans, Serbia does not strive to join the Alliance but to deepen dialogue and cooperation on issues of common interest.

In January 2015, Serbia and NATO signed the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), which represents a commonly agreed framework within which the partner country exposes the goals of its reforms, and NATO can be supportive in achieving these goals. Its entry into force represents a major breakthrough in mutual relations and a framework for further strengthening of cooperation and improvement of political dialogue. The Head of NATO’s office in Belgrade, Cesare Marinelli, sees the IPAP in the same way, pointing out that “IPAP is a well-established framework for improving cooperation between Serbia and NATO”.

Further development of Serbia-NATO relations follows the ratification of the Agreement on the Status of Forces (SOFA), based on which NATO in Serbia exercises freedom of movement and can use complete military infrastructure. In the same year, Serbia and NATO signed an Agreement for support and procurement of cooperation in the field of logistical support. According to this agreement, NATO members will have the same privileges and immunities like diplomats under the Vienna Convention.

Training is an important part of cooperation with NATO, as it enables members of the Serbian forces to better qualify for effective action within UN and EU missions in which they actively participate. However, the reform of the defense and security sector is the backbone of this cooperation. The Serbia-NATO defense reform group was set up to provide Serbian authorities with advice on reform and modernization of the armed forces in order to build a modern defense structure under democratic and civilian control.

In November 2015, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Serbia, pointing out to the importance of Serbia – NATO cooperation, but also expressing his regret for all the victims and the suffering of the civilian population during the NATO bombing. On that occasion, he reiterated that NATO respected the sovereign decision of Serbia on its military neutrality, stressing that it would never insist on membership of a state until it determined its readiness to join the Alliance by itself. In the beginning of 2016, Prime Minister Vučić visited NATO headquarters, which was the first official meeting of the Serbian Prime Minister and the North Atlantic Council, thus making a leap forward in strengthening relations and cooperation between Serbia and NATO.

Vučić era: discreet partnership with NATO, flaunted friendship with Russia

Source: NATO office Belgrade

However, despite this increased cooperation with NATO, the pro-government media has been painting a wholly different picture. Military cooperation with Russia gets the spotlight, although it pales when compared to the cooperation with NATO. Donations stemming from NATO and the United States, as well as the number of joint military exercises are by far higher than those involving Russia.

Source: NATO office Belgrade

There are more voices heard in support and understanding of NATO and people are more open and could think of positive ways in which Serbia and NATO can co-operate. Despite all the divisions we have been witnessing since 2000, it seems that cooperation with NATO has its continuity and that the alignment and standardization of Serbian armed forces with NATO forces has been brought to the maximum of cooperation possible without being a member of the Alliance. Of course, it is up to the political elites to decide on whether this relationship will continue to be based exclusively on respecting military neutrality, or whether Serbia will redefine its position on the issue and, for the first time, adopt a foreign policy strategy to clearly define and codify its goals.

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  • After tensions in the 1990s and the war in Kosovo, Belgrade's relations with NATO have fundamentally improved, as Serbia has sought to break out of the isolation of the Milosevic era. The partnership with NATO is a constant in Serbia's policy, but the relationship is only partially assumed: the authorities emphasize the country's neutrality, the media focuses on the much weaker cooperation with Russia, and the population sees no gain in a possible NATO integration.
  • It is somewhat surprising that public support for NATO membership was higher after the bombing than it is today. The reason for this can be traced to the desire not only of the ruling political elite, but also of citizens, to re-acquire the membership in international organizations and institutions after isolation and wars and embark on EU and NATO integration process, which was ongoing in other countries of the region. However, the assassination of the first democratic prime minister Zoran Đinđic and the arrival of a new government slowed down the process of reforms. The new government changed its ideological agenda, having approached the right-wing national pole, which gradually led to sliding towards Russia.
  • Despite this increased cooperation with NATO, the pro-government media has been painting a wholly different picture. Military cooperation with Russia gets the spotlight, although it pales when compared to the cooperation with NATO. Donations stemming from NATO and the United States, as well as the number of joint military exercises are by far higher than those involving Russia.
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