At this year’s Belgrade Security Forum, we had the opportunity to hear an exchange of views on the current cooperation between Serbia and NATO between Deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller and Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić. On both sides, it was emphasized that relations and the cooperation between Serbia and the Alliance are taking place at a high level. In addition, it is asserted that there was an understanding on the side of NATO that Serbia currently does not have an aspiration for membership, thus emphasizing it was Serbian sovereign decision which NATO would not interfere with. Such cooperation represents a significant difference in comparison with relations that existed during the 1990s.

Relations between Serbia and NATO, since the break-up of the SFRY up until the present day, could be described as turbulent, from utmost hostility to current closer cooperation and strengthening of relations without open political issues. In the wake of the conflicts in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, when the federal state began to dismantle, the adoption of a new strategic concept of NATO at the Rome summit in late 1991 took place. With the adoption of this document, the framework of the organization was significantly expanded and it was given a task to provide a stable security environment in Europe. In the context of the break-up of Yugoslavia, this was an announcement of what would later happen in terms of regulating regional security. Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO had no authority to act outside the territory of its members, but the new strategic concept was an introduction to later decisions to act militarily outside the territory of the member states, even though they were not endangered.

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” events, 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 scene after a period of isolation.

At the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis, NATO expressed its concern over possible spilling over of the conflict in the region, but mostly over human casualties and further escalation of the conflict. NATO, for the first time, acted outside the territory of the member states to support the valid UN resolutions pertinent to BiH, and after signing the Dayton Agreement, it took on itself the task of guaranteeing the implementation of Dayton, in particular, provisions pertaining to the military aspects of the treaty.

The second active involvement of NATO during the 1990s is related to the Kosovo crisis, when the first reaction of the UN Security Council condemned the excessive use of force by Serb forces over civilians, and at the same time condemned the KLA acts as terrorist. As the situation in Kosovo worsened, NATO was also closer to the intervention, so that by the end of 1998 the NATO Council approved the activation of an air strikes order. At the last moment, it was decided to support the diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully. This involved the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo and Metohija. The turning point, however, were the events in the village of Račak 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, along with NATO’s 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 began to re-orientate towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration. In the atmosphere of a new climate in 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).

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 PfP does not imply membership in NATO, although a large number of countries joined the Alliance following the signing of the PfP. The reform course and the strong desire to deepen cooperation with NATO, led to the official submission of the candidacy for the PfP membership in 2003. Ever since then, the heart of the partnership has been the support of Serbia’s institutional, democratic, and defense reforms.

It is interesting to note that the support of the public opinion for NATO membership was much higher at the onset of the new millennium, after the bombardment and the October changes, than is the case today. The reason for this can be traced in 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 Zoran Đinđic and the arrival of the new government led by Koštunica slowed down the process of reforms. The government headed by Koštunica changed its ideological agenda, having approached the right-wing national pole, which gradually led to siding with Russia.

Drifting apart with the West notwithstanding, at the same time Serbia joined the Partnership for Peace program and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which is a political framework for NATO’s cooperation with partner countries. By doing so, Serbia has expressed its readiness to assume responsibility for maintaining a stable and lasting peace in the region, participate in peacekeeping operations with a mandate of the UN, and reach the interoperability of the armed forces with the forces of the NATO member states.

By the end of 2006, NATO opened a Military Liaison Office in Belgrade in order 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 alliances until eventual referendum in which a final decision on the matter would take place. 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.

What is less known is that since 2007, Serbia has been an active participant in the NATO program for Peace and Security (SPS), which enables cooperation on issues of common interest aimed at enhancing the security of NATO members and partners.

“The NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme is designed to promote cooperation between NATO and partner countries, and all those in Serbia interested in the programme can contact our office. I would like to see more scientific institutions and universities, because this is an opportunity for them,” Cesare Marinelli, Head of the NATO Liaison Office in Belgrade, recently said to European Western Balkans.

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 defence and security sector is the backbone of this cooperation. The Serbia-NATO defence reform group was set up to provide Serbian authorities with advice on reform and modernisation of the armed forces in order to build a modern defence structure under democratic and civilian control. The Ministry of Defence of Serbia also participates in the NATO Integrity Building Program (BI) for the purpose of strengthening integrity, transparency, and accountability, as well as reducing the risk of corruption in the security sector.

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.

The Head of NATO’s Liaison Office in Belgrade is optimistic about the further cooperation of Serbia and NATO, especially if we have in mind that since the “visit of Secretary General Stoltenberg in 2015, the Agreement on the Status of Forces (SOFA) has been signed, mutual activities and cooperation have increased, but there is still room for their improvement”.

As early as 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. The latest visit by senior NATO officials, Deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller, occurred during the Belgrade Security Forum this year, where the importance of co-operation in maintaining peace and stability in the region was highlighted. “Every country has the right to choose according to its own will. And we have excellent cooperation with other military neutral countries as well. Hence we should look at how to expand the cooperation we have as partners, “said Deputy NATO Secretary General.

However, what is not possible to see in the mainstream media is the scope of cooperation between Serbia and NATO. Commenting on NATO’s presence, Marinelli points out that “there is a problem in the media environment and the news that is just not accurate”.

A number of donations stemming from NATO and the United States, as well as the number of joint military exercises, are by far higher in comparison to those of Russia, but for reasons of military neutrality or the desire of political elites, the cooperation with Russia is given incomparably more attention in the media. Thus, the procurement of Russian MIGs has been the main news in the Serbian media, without questioning the purposefulness of such procurement.

However, there will be the first military exercise with the NATO member states held in the territory of Serbia next year, which could represent a new step forward in cooperation with the Alliance.

Commenting on relations between Serbia and NATO, Deputy Chief of the US Mission to Serbia, Kurt Donelli, told the European Western Balkans that he saw progress and an increase in people’s understanding of NATO and that people here were open and could think of positive ways in which Serbia and NATO can co-operate. He is optimistic about further cooperation, but “if we want to be responsible and talk about positive things, we can examine ways in which Serbia can look into the future.” “There are positive things that NATO can offer in cooperation with Serbia,” emphasizes Donelli.

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 remains on 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 in order to clearly define and codify its goals.