Interview with Ambassador Branimir Filipović, Assistant to Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia in charge of security issues.

European Western Balkans: Now it is widely known that Serbia annually has several times more exercises with NATO countries than Russia, but since 2014, there has been growing trend of exercises with Russia. Is this a consequence of greater affirmation of the military neutrality concept, although it is not clearly defined in the new strategic document?

Branimir Filipović: It is completely understandable that we carry out the most common activities with NATO member countries and NATO partners because many of them are our neighbors, and neighbors, here as everywhere in the world are most concerned about each other. One of Serbia’s foreign policy priority is the preservation of regional peace and security, which is done by the improvement of regional cooperation, so that cooperation in the field of security and defense contributes to the realization of this priority.

We have developed bilateral relations with many NATO member states and partners who are not our neighbors, and at the same time we are participating with many of them in international missions and operations of the EU and the UN, which is another aspect that defines the number of exercises and joint activities. I would like to point out that these are the exercises we have with NATO, as an organization, but also more numerous exercises that we have on a bilateral basis with many NATO members and partners. I would like to point out that these are the exercises we have with NATO as an organization, but also, we have numerous exercises on a bilateral basis with many NATO members and partners.

I would like to emphasize that military exercises and other activities that we have with the NATO member states and NATO partners are completely transparent and they are not at the expense of our other partners and relations that we have with them and vice versa. As we successfully cooperate and in the common interest with NATO and member countries of the Alliance, we are equally successfully cooperating and in common interest with other partners – the Russian Federation and China, as well as all other countries around the world. In doing so, the policy of Serbian military neutrality is not at stake at all – this remains our sovereign decision, which NATO, Russia, and our other partners in the world fully understand and respect.

It’s not our goal to artificially balance the number of exercises on both sides, in order to confirm our commitment to the policy of military neutrality. The essence of Serbia’s military neutrality policy is the absence of the intention to join existing military alliances in the world, but this does not mean that there is no cooperation in meeting common interests through numerous activities, including military and other exercises.

For this reason, the number of exercises and the commitment to individual exercises is determined by our interest in each individual activity, which can contribute to cooperation with the countries that organize and participate in these exercises, while at the same time contributing to the improvement of our capacities and the acquisition of experience in certain areas.

EWB: Can it be excepted to Serbia adopt a new IPAP with NATO next year? Are you satisfied with current level cooperation between Serbia and NATO and are there any new activities in relation to old IPAP?

BF: Currently we are at the final stage of harmonization and preparation for the adoption of the second, three-year cycle of the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) between Serbia and NATO, which represents the highest mechanism of NATO cooperation with partner countries that do not aspire towards membership in the Alliance.

We are very satisfied with the implementation of the IPAP so far, since most planned goals and activities have been successfully implemented. This assessment is shared by NATO and Alliance members structures, as evidenced by the NATO Report on the Implementation of the IPAP, which recognizes remarkable progress made in the development of partnership relations.

When it comes to the content of the new Serbia-NATO IPAP document, it relies heavily on the existing document. The four existing chapters remain, meaning that the main priorities of partner cooperation remain unchanged. I would like to mention that in in the first cycle of IPAP there are numerous activities that have a continuous and multi-year character. Above all they relate to the reform process in many areas and are complementary to our EU accession process, so these activities will remain in the second IPAP cycle.

Of course, activities and goals that have already been implemented, as well as some that time overcame, have been omitted. The new IPAP will be complemented with new activities, both in the areas of military cooperation, as well as in science and technology cooperation, information security and a like, in accordance with the estimates of both sides in which areas cooperation can be further intensified and improved.

Like the current IPAP, the new document is conceived in accordance with the principles of the Partnership for Peace Program (PfP), and these are volunteering, transparency and flexibility. Also, in accordance with our goals and interests, we have defined the areas together with NATO, in which we can in a best possible way achieve this cooperation. Furthermore, starting point document has the position of Serbia as the country that implements a policy of military neutrality, without aspirations for NATO membership or membership in any other military alliances.

EWB: How do you see importance of civil-military exercise “Serbia 2018” which was organized jointly by Serbian Ministry of Interior and Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC)? Do you expect continuation of this kind of cooperation with NATO?

BF: Serbia has been continuously achieving successful cooperation with NATO in the field of emergency response since the moment of joining the Partnership for Peace Program, primarily through active participation in the activities of the NATO EADRCC. Many years now the Sector for Emergency Situations of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs has been participating in annual exercises and other activities in this field. Last year, our representatives took part in exercises of this type in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the year before in Montenegro.

We are pleased that this year we have brought our cooperation to an even higher level by the joint organization of the exercise ” Serbia 2018”. The exercise was realized in early October around Mladenovac and Aranđelovac, with the participation of more than 2000 representatives from 40 NATO member states and partners and it was opened by President Aleksandar Vučić and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. I would like to emphasize that this was not a military exercise, but civil in order to improve cooperation and strengthen interoperability in the field of emergency response.

When it comes to the improvement of cooperation in this area, it is certain that hat natural disasters and catastrophes will not disappear, and we must be aware of this fact. So, it is in our interest to continue with active preparations in order to adequately respond to all the challenges. In that sense, the continuation of cooperation with NATO, but also with all other actors that can contribute to strengthening international cooperation, coordination and further improvement of our national capacities in this area, will be of particular importance.

EWB: Do you believe that the crisis in the aftermath of formation of Kosovo Armed Forces could harm Serbia’s relations with the Alliance? How do you see the role of KFOR in stabilising the situation in Kosovo?

BF: The position of Serbia on not accepting Pristina’s decision to form a classical military formation through widening the mandate of Kosovo Security Forces is very clear and familiar to our NATO partners, and we have used many opportunities and places to further clarify it.

These acts clearly show that Pristina does not give up on formation of armed forces, which violates the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, which is still in force, and the Military-technical Agreement, despite the warnings of NATO and the parts of international community, with complete ignorance of interests and positions of Serbian community in Kosovo and Metohija, which goes against even their own legal acts of the highest level.

For Serbia, in accordance with the Resolution 1244, KFOR is the only legitimate military formation in the area of our southern province. In that sense, KFOR is the only adequate interlocutor for the issues of security in KiM, with which Serbian Armed Forces has developed a good level of cooperation. We recognize KFOR as the only partner in securing the administrative line and guaranteeing security for the citizens of KiM, with the focus on members of Serbian community, as well as protection their national, cultural-historic and religious heritage.

Serbia has until now respected its international obligations and legal acts and rightfully expects that other actors respect their own obligations, and that is especially the case with the authorities in Pristina. In the atmosphere of heightened tensions which are exclusively the result of one-sided and irresponsible moves of Pristina, it is of vital importance that the continued communication with NATO and the engagement aimed at de-escalation and ensuring peace and stability continues.

We expect of NATO and KFOR to fully execute their mandate in accordance with UNSC Resolution 1244, to ensure full safety of Serbian community in Kosovo and it is also important that, as a guarantee of Brussels agreement prevents that KSF or any other heavily armed formation of Albanians come to the North of the province in the areas populated by Serbs. Their arrival would represent a serious danger and a potential for destabilisation and endangerment of rights and security of Serbian population.

I would especially like to mention the importance of statements of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg given immediately before and after the decision of Pristina to begin with the process of formation of Kosovo Army, which sent a clear message to Pristina that it is not the right time for undertaking such a one-sided action, that NATO will reconsider its level of cooperation with KSF and that KFOR acts in accordance with the UN mandate and that the acts of Pristina will not have any influence on it.

The clear position of Secretary General, talks on the highest political and military levele between Serbia and NATO, as well as the guarantees of the Alliance that it will fulfill its mandate are a good foundation for building trust between two sides and that Serbia and NATO are working together on the peace and stability in the province in these delicate moments, first and foremost on the protection of Serbian community, which is one of the key issues for the state of Serbia-NATO relations.

EWB: How do you assess the importance of Serbia’s participation in the NATO Programme Science for Peace and Security? What are the concrete benefits for our science community and the army?

BF: Serbia has participated in the Science for Peace and Security Programme since 2007 and it enables closer cooperation in the areas of mutual interest in order to enhance the security of NATO and partner countries in many fields, first of all in the aspect of meeting security challenges. Apart from that, this programme promotes regional security through scientific cooperation between NATO member states and partner countries. Until now there have been 20 project realised with Serbia in various areas such as fight against terrorism, energy security, environmental protection, cyber security, defence against chemical and biological weaponry, as well as security related technology and other.

Realisation of some projects in the area of energy security, defence against CBRN agents, cyber security, fight against terrorism and human and social aspects of security with military and civilian purpose, is currently ongoing.

These examples, alongside many others, show that this programme, which mostly has a civilian component, can be extremely useful and precious for strengthening the capacities of many of our scientific and research institutions, as well as other institutions and enabling scientists, researchers and representatives of academic field to join projects they are interested in. Furthermore, specific projects are significant for solving some issues for local community, and can be of interest for the area as a whole, and both its military and civilian aspects.

EWB: German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron have announced some time ago the initiative for formation of the European army. Can Serbia join the initiative, or would it be considered the violation of military neutrality?

BF: President of France Macron, in a radio-interview, and German Chancellor Merkel, in her speech in front of the European Parliament in November, have raised the issue of formation of the “European Army”, but it should be noted that this issue is not a new one and that it has been raised in many previous occasions.

Let me just mention, among others, the initial idea of then president of the French Council of Ministers Rene Pleven at the beginning of 1950s, which brought to the negotiations on the Agreement on European Defence Community, which was never ratified by the France itself, as well the idea of then Prime Minister Juppe, during the middle of 1990s, or similar ideas of President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker at the beginning of his mandate.

So,the  two of the highest officials of France and Germany have come forward with the general idea, but without a concrete details which would be crucial for understanding this announcement, as well as for further process of consideration of this issue in the EU structures. For those reasons it is not possible to say what could be the relation of this idea to the concept of military neutrality and independence. Anyhow, Serbia would have to take a more definite position, if this initiative gets concrete shapes, and before the formal debate within EU institutions commences.

This initiative is certainly connected to the strengthening of European defence capacities in current international moment, which was recognized at the EU level especially 2016 when an ambitious package – “Defence Package”, made of three mutually connected elements: Implementation plan in the areas of security and defence, European action plan of defence and Strengthening EU-NATO cooperation.

Furthermore, having all that in mind, this initiative, with the expectation of more details, should be considered from multiple aspects: EU’s ability to contribute to its defence more robustly, relations with NATO, as well as collective defence system, whose members are the majority of EU countries, coordination of the activities and agreements on the ways of capacity building, as well as many other issues, which would relate to command structure, national contributions of member states, making political decisions on the use of these forces, which is all without concrete answer as of yet.

Time will show in which direction the present concept of Common Security and Defence Policy according to which EU undertakes military operations and civilian missions in the cases of peacekeeping, conflict prevention and enhancing international security will evolve, with the Defence Package and other concrete activities strengthening the position in favour of stronger integration in this area.