Interview with James Appathurai, NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy and NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia.

European Western Balkans: There seems to be a lot of instability in the past weeks in the Western Balkans, and there is a general impression that the EU is not dedicated enough to the region, that it is reluctant to offer membership perspective and therefore stabilise the region. At the other hand, many consider NATO to be more active and more interested. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think that Western Balkans and its stability are important to NATO?

James Appathurai: Firstly, the answer is yes. I would like to say that we discussed Western Balkans at the recent meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers ten days ago. High Representative Mogherini was also present at the meeting. I would say that like NATO, the EU is also very committed to the Western Balkans, they are very active and very interested in the region.

NATO has even stepped up its game. We have a higher level of political attention than we had in recent years. We haven’t dedicated a ministerial discussion to the Western Balkans for a little while and now we did. But more importantly and more concretely, NATO has moved on Open Door. As you know, it is the case of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. We hope that the name issue will be resolved soon and than we’ll move forward on this basis.

“NATO has a higher level of political attention to the Western Balkans than it had in recent years”

During the ministerial meeting it was also decided that NATO is open to receiving the Annual National Programme from Bosnia and Herzegovina. I think the Allies have taken concrete steps through NATO to demonstrate our commitment to the region, but also our engagement, our support for reform. So, I think you are right when you say that Western Balkans is even higher on NATO’s agenda than it has been in recent years.

EWB: After Greece and Macedonia had reached the deal, the EU was reluctant to open negotiations with Macedonia, but NATO was quick to promise membership in 2019 if the Prespa Agreement is ratified. Do you think it is realistic that Macedonia joins the Alliance in 2019 and how do you see the prospects of Bosnia and Herzegovina now that the Annual Programme has been accepted?

JA: On Skopje, I think that it is 100% realistic that the country will join NATO under its new name, because our policy is very clear: once there is a successful resolution of the name issue, we can move forward with the accession process.

It is 100% realistic that Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will join NATO under its new name

We have already begun with the accession talks a few months ago so that we can clarify what are the issues in terms of steps that need to be taken in terms of contributions and other technical issues, but the political step is obviously the Prespa Agreement. When it is, hopefully, satisfactory implemented for the two main parties, we will move forward with the accession process.

It takes a while, however, so I don’t know when it will be completed, I think the average time in the past decades has been between 12 and 18 months. And it has taken that much because, while our own processes are quite quick, the national parliaments have to ratify the accession.

When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Allies have said that we are open and look forward to the country submitting its first Annual National Programme. Now the ball is 100% in their court. When they do that, we will have a higher level of engagement, we can support reform in a more active way, but I have to say that the conditionality which NATO has had for many years with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that is that defence properties registered now at the entity level should be registered on the level of national government. That conditionality remains in place as we engage through the Annual National Programme.

EWB: Speaking about probably the number one topic in the Western Balkans right now the transformation of Kosovo Security Force into Kosovo Armed Forces which began with the adoption of the three laws last week NATO is clearly opposed to this transformation, Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General were quite vocal about this even though KFOR is actually quite active in building capacities of the Kosovo Security Force. Is NATO opposed to the transformation itself or its timing and the lack of consensus over this issue at the moment?

JA: You are quite right that the Secretary General has been very clear about his and NATO’s concerns. One of the key words that he used has been “untimely”. We are concerned that this will not lead to greater stability, potentially on the contrary, and that this was not the right time to take that step. Different allies have expressed their national views, but this is the NATO leadership view.

We are concerned that this will not lead to greater stability, potentially on the contrary, and that this was not the right time to take that step

KFOR has a role under UN Security Council Resolution 1244 to contribute to and ensure a safe and secure environment throughout Kosovo. It will continue to carry out that role, because it is UN Security Council-mandated role. NATO also an advisory role, and has had for a while, in helping Kosovo Security Forces to develop.

What will happen now is a discussion within NATO about that supportive role and how or if it goes forward. The Secretary General has been very clear from the beginning, when this idea first came up, that this role would have to be reviewed if Pristina took the steps that it took last week. I think we will soon begin with the discussion with the Allies about what kind of support NATO would continue to provide or not.

EWB: Secretary General has mentioned the possibility of changing the role of KFOR. We have also had an interview with Major General Salvatore Cuoci who was the Commander of KFOR up until recently, and he also mentioned that NATO will reconsider its role in Kosovo if the transformation of KSF took place. Now that this process is underway, what kind of changes do you think we can expect from KFOR?

JA: I think it is very important to stress that the role of KFOR in terms of a safe and secure environment is not open to the question or discussion within NATO. As I said, we have a mandate from the UN, and it will continue to be implemented. I think that it is the most important foundation for security and stability not just in Kosovo but also in the region.

There are many Allies who have real concerns with this decision by Pristina

What is going to be discussed is the advisory support for the development of Kosovo Security Forces. I do not know where this discussion will end up, but there are many Allies who have real concerns with this decision by Pristina. I certainly would not suggest that nothing would change. I think some things may well change. But I couldn’t tell you what that would be since we haven’t started that discussion yet.

EWB: Many, including the media, worry that this transformation will lead to KFOR leaving Kosovo, and since it is guaranteeing stability and security, they are quite concerned about the consequences. Do you think there is a possibility that KFOR might leave Kosovo, having in mind that some of the key members of the Alliance, such as United States, United Kingdom and Germany, are the ones that are actually supporting this change?

JA: Let me say this – there is absolutely no discussion in NATO about KFOR leaving. As far as I know, there is no discussion in the UN about KFOR leaving. Both relevant parties in this discussion, the Kosovars and the Serbs, want KFOR to stay. So, I don’t know who is talking about KFOR leaving, but I haven’t heard any discussion about that from any party.

There is absolutely no discussion in NATO about KFOR leaving

I think the media should not speculate about that, because, as I said, the mandate is there, the role is necessary and NATO is not discussing any changes to KFOR’s mandate and both the Kosovars and the Serbs want KFOR to stay – I think that is the basis on which we can go forward.

EWB: Government of Kosovo actually claims that this transformation might be a step towards joining NATO, whereas we have heard from Deputy Secretary General Ms Gottemoeller that it is a step backwards. What is your opinion?

JA: My personal view is that the only way for Kosovo to join NATO is that there is a successful resolution of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, however that takes place – NATO, of course, is not leading this process – so that there is, eventually, recognition of Kosovo throughout the UN system and throughout the NATO system. Without all countries in the Alliance recognizing Kosovo, it cannot join – that is a very simple and straightforward point that anyone can understand.

The only way for Kosovo to join NATO is that there is a successful resolution of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue

Therefore, I think this is where Deputy Secretary General was going with her concerns. The way forward for Kosovo towards NATO, if that’s what they want to do, requires political solutions that right now run through the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. This decision to move forward with creating an Army, does not help the dialogue, it actually takes it backwards. So, I think that that was her perspective.

Without all countries in the Alliance recognizing Kosovo, it cannot join – that is a very simple and straightforward point that anyone can understand

EWB: Speaking about Serbia, it is anticipating to adopt the new Individual Partnership Action Plan next year, but it is still unknown when or whether it will happen. Do you have any information about this, and how do you see the future of Serbia-NATO relations in the coming years?

JA: Overall, Serbia-NATO relations in the practical sphere are doing quite well. As you know, Serbia recently hosted the disaster relief exercise, which was the biggest one hosted by one of our partners. They did it extremely well and we have excellent high-level political meetings between the Secretary General and President Vučić. So, at the political, as well as practical level – we have a small office in Belgrade that helps to support reforms – things are doing quite well.

One of the biggest challenges for NATO in Serbia is in public diplomacy

I think one of the biggest challenges for NATO in Serbia is in public diplomacy. The public does not see how much we do together, and is talked down by some politicians who ignore how much we do together. I regret that, because I don’t think that NATO should be “sold” to Serbian people, but they should at least see what we do together.

I think the next year will probably not be the best one for public diplomacy, because of the 20-year anniversary of the events around Milošević and NATO intervention in Kosovo. But the reality of what we do is good. I don’t have any particular concerns about the renewal of our partnership agreement. I think that will go just fine and that we will continue to do more together.

EWB: You mentioned public diplomacy as a major issue. Serbia and NATO enjoy strong cooperation, but it is not very visible to the public. Large part of the problem are tabloid media that are almost always putting NATO in a negative context and projecting it as opposed to Serbias national interest. Some of these tabloids are quite close to the Serbian government and are supporting its policies, which is confusing. Is it an issue for NATO, having in mind the problems of public diplomacy? How do you see this issue?

JA: It’s a bit the way I’ve just expressed to you. I think that “selling NATO” is unrealistic and not something that we should pursue, not even in my home country of Canada. It is not about spin. It is about, at least, having an accurate image of NATO and what we do anywhere. So, if the tabloids could at least portray an accurate image, we’d be a bit more satisfied.

It is also true that we express to our interlocutors in Belgrade that we would like to see all actors in Serbia at least to show NATO more accurately

So, we do our best, our press and media colleagues at NATO do their very best to show what NATO is, to engage with all media in Serbia, to try to promote an accurate image of NATO. But it is also true that we express to our interlocutors in Belgrade that we would like to see all actors in Serbia at least to show NATO more accurately.

EWB: You mentioned the civilian exercise Serbia 2018, which was organized this October. How do you see the importance of this exercise for the future of Serbia-NATO relations? It was, if Im not mistaken, the largest event of this kind ever organized, and when it was announced there was quite a bit controversy for having a NATO exercise on Serbian soil. Are there signals from Serbian Government that these exercises will continue in the future as a proper way for cooperating with NATO?

JA: Good question. I was actually there with the Secretary General to observe a part of the exercise. We left with a few clear impressions: The first one is that it was very professionally organized, and this was a view shared with me by military experts.

Second, we left with a positive impression about the way in which cooperation with NATO was portrayed during this exercise, starting with President Vučić, but other Serb official also made every effort to portray this cooperation in a positive light.

Third, we felt that this was the kind of cooperation which we can pursue usefully with Serbia, because it was largely civilian, it was dealing with disasters, which is something that unites us all, and where NATO played a role in the region during floods and other natural disasters in the recent past, and which allows for cross-border cooperation in the mutual interest of neighbours in a way in which other, more military cooperation is sometimes more sensitive.

We felt that this was the kind of cooperation which we can pursue usefully with Serbia

Overall, we saw this as very encouraging in the way that it was run, in the way that it was portrayed and as an example of the kind of cooperation we can pursue in the future.