NATO PA delegation visit to Belgrade underscores strong NATO-Serbia cooperation despite the persistence of misperceptions of the Alliance and its regional role in the country

Belgrade, 27 April 2018 - Serbia-NATO political and military cooperation is at its highest levels in decades. Serbian military cooperation with NATO far exceeds that with any other organisation or nation state. Still, as Serbian officials told a visiting delegation from the Defence and Security Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Serbia remains firm in its policy of military neutrality and prefers to maintain its current level of partnership  with the North Atlantic Alliance. In return, members of the NATO PA delegation noted their support for Serbia’s sovereign decision to remain militarily neutral and encouraged Serbia’s continued efforts to join the European Union.

Joao Rebelo (Portugal), Chairman of the Sub-Committee on Future Security and Defence Capabilities (DSCFC), reassured his Serbian parliamentary peers during a meeting with the Chairmen of the Serbian Parliament’s Committees on Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Internal Affairs and European Integration: “The NATO PA respects the choices Serbia makes with regards to both NATO and the EU and we applaud Serbia’s strong, positive role in international security.” Rebelo continued by stating he is “encouraged by the closer relations between the Serbian Parliament and the NATO PA, which is increasingly important as Serbia takes a leading role in regional peace and stability today.”

Since Serbia’s accession into the Partnership for Peace programme in 2006, NATO and Serbia have strengthened the breadth and depth of their partnership. Serbian interlocutors stressed a shared interest in peace in the Western Balkans as a key driver in this strong relationship. As a result, 2015 witnessed NATO and Serbia deepen their security cooperation via Serbia’s agreement to an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP). The IPAP is a significant step for NATO-Serbia relations as it entails not only stronger political consultation between NATO and Serbia, but also enhanced practical cooperation on the ground in the region and in joint efforts to further international peace and security.

Serbian officials were quick to point out that, despite their desire to remain militarily neutral, Kosovo remains a key security issue. As Serbian Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin told the delegation: “The independence of Kosovo remains unacceptable to us, and we therefore remain opposed to the idea of the creation of a standing army for Kosovo, which is prohibited by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244.” Defence Minister Vulin continued by stating: “We thank NATO for maintaining peace and security in the region through the continued presence of KFOR.” NATO’s KFOR (Kosovo Force) operation has been in place since the end of the 1999 conflict over Kosovo, where it maintains a secure environment and guarantees freedom of movement for all people throughout Kosovo. 

Serbia and NATO will continue their strong levels of military cooperation throughout 2018. Serbian officials noted the country will participate in over 200 military exercises this year and play host to several important regional exercises, such as SRBIJA 2018, which aims to improve regional and international forces’ interoperability in international disaster response operations. 

Despite such high-levels of cooperation, anti-NATO sentiment and misperceptions about the Alliance remain strong throughout Serbia. As Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told the delegation: “Before I came to office, I assumed the majority of our military cooperation was with Russia, but the numbers I saw shocked me – by far NATO is our most significant military partner and even our bi-lateral cooperation with the United States surpasses that with Russia.” While approximately 52% of the Serbian population support becoming a member of the EU, less than 20% support NATO. Public support for the EU would be expected to drop to the same levels as support for NATO if recognition of Kosovo’s independence was a condition for joining. 

In addition to their meetings with members of the Serbian Parliament, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence, the NATO PA delegation also meet with representatives from a local think tank. The delegation also witnessed a dynamic demonstration from Serbia’s River Flotilla Command forces in Novi Sad. A full report on the visit will be made available on the NATO PA website in the coming weeks.