Interview with Brigadier General Cesare Marinelli, Chief of NATO Miliatary Liaison Office in Belgrade.

European Western Balkans: How do you see the partnership between Serbia and NATO? What do you see as the main benefits of Serbia-NATO cooperation for both sides?

CM: I am happy to say that NATO and Serbia are deepening our practical cooperation and our partnership is getting stronger in all areas. NATO and Serbia have good relations, with extensive practical work and a growing political dialogue that fully respects Serbian policy of military neutrality. We are working together to mutual benefit and our cooperation helps ensure security in the Balkans and in the wider international context.

EWB: What were the most successful forms of cooperation? What do you see as the main areas where this cooperation can be further improved?

CM: NATO – Serbia relationship is mutually beneficial and successful in all areas of cooperation. Of course, like everywhere, there is always room for improvement. The year 2018 was very successful. This October saw the EADRCC consequence management field exercise “SRBIJA 2018”, the largest exercise of this kind ever organized by NATO. The aim of the exercise was to improve interoperability in international disaster response operations and I think we fulfilled our goal.

Recently you could see REGEX, a NATO‐supported opportunity for a Partner country to plan an exercise from beginning to end according to its training requirements. The REGEX initiative involves one Partner nation inviting neighbouring Partners to a national exercise, while NATO provides support to exercise-planning workshops. The latest available data show that Serbia and NATO have more than 150 joint activities per year.

EWB: What are your expectations regarding the new IPAP between Serbia and NATO? What do you think will be the differences from the previous one?

CM: As you know, the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) concluded in January 2015 is a jointly agreed framework in which a partner nation lays out its reform goals and the areas where NATO can provide assistance to achieve those goals. It helps to organize bilateral cooperation, ensuring that NATO and individual Allies can provide support to Serbia in achieving its reform goals.

The IPAP offers an important step forward in the relationship, allowing NATO and Serbia to deepen both their political consultations and practical cooperation. In previous years, IPAP allowed our cooperation to prosper in many fields and we hope that it will continue in the same manner.

EWB: Relations between Serbia and NATO were somewhat strained due to the latest incidents in Kosovo and different interpretations of the role of KFOR. Where do these misunderstandings come from?

CM: KFOR’s mission is CLEAR and that is to maintain a safe and secure environment for all people and all communities in Kosovo in line with the UN Security Council Resolution 1244. In addition to KFOR, other professional, multi-ethnic security forces stand ready to deal with possible security incidents in Kosovo. They were created with the support of the international community and play an important role in any crisis situation. KFOR is the third security responder in Kosovo, after the Kosovo Police and EULEX.

When it comes to the latest development in Kosovo, we regret that the Kosovo Parliament adopted three laws initiating the process of transition of the Kosovo Security Force. This decision was made despite the concerns expressed by NATO. While the transition of the Kosovo Security Force is in principle a matter for Kosovo to decide, we have made clear that this move is ill-timed. NATO supports the development of the Kosovo Security Force under its current mandate. With the change of mandate, the North Atlantic Council will now have to re-examine the level of NATO’s engagement with the Kosovo Security Force.

NATO remains committed through KFOR to a safe and secure environment in Kosovo and to stability in the wider Western Balkans. However, all sides must ensure that this decision will not further increase tensions in the region. All responsible political actors in the region need to focus on progress with reforms, and on dialogue. Let me also stress the importance of continued communication between KFOR and the Serbian Armed Forces, as attested by the recent meeting between KFOR Commander Major General Lorenzo D’Addario and Serbian Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Milan Mojsilović.

EWB: The questions concerning the consequences of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia are still one of the greatest challenges to Serbia-NATO cooperation and public support for it. In May this year, a Parliamentary commission was formed in Serbia, which is researching consequences of the NATO bombing on public health in Serbia and Kosovo. What is NATO’s position on the work of this commission

CM: NATO takes matters of health and the environment very seriously. After the 1999 air campaign, we established a NATO committee to understand as fully as possible the implications of depleted uranium. To date, none of the NATO nations or partner nations deployed in Kosovo reported finding a link between the health complaints of the personnel employed in the Balkans and depleted uranium, nor have we found any threat of radioactivity to human health on the sites we tested there.

I would like to remind you that depleted uranium munitions were used almost exclusively in western and southern Kosovo, and only at a few locations in southern Serbia. I would also like to refer you to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports on depleted uranium in the region, which showed that the risks of exposure of NATO personnel to depleted uranium are “negligible.”

EWB: German chancellor Merkel and French president Macron recently announced an initiative to form a “European Army”. What do you think its establishment would mean for the security architecture of the Western Balkans and the role of NATO in the region?

CM: Projects such as military mobility, European Defense Fund, PESCO, all of that can contribute to fairer burden-sharing within NATO. It can complement NATO, help to develop new NATO capabilities, and address the fragmentation of the European defence market. So this is something that the Secretary General has welcomed many times.

But the Secretary General has been equally clear about the fact that EU efforts must not compete with NATO, must not duplicate NATO, because NATO remains the bedrock of European security. We have to remember that after Brexit 80% of NATO’s defence expenditure will come from non-EU NATO Allies. And three of the four battle groups we have deployed in the eastern part of the Alliance, in the Baltic countries and Poland, will be led by non-EU Allies.

Also, geography matters. Norway in the north, Turkey in the south, and Canada, USA and UK in the west are important for European security. So geography and money, these are facts which we cannot ignore.