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[EWB Interview] Vitale: Public diplomacy one of the biggest challenges for NATO in Serbia

We interviewed Brigadier General Tommaso Vitale, Chief of the NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade, about cooperation between Serbia and NATO, the future perspective of that cooperation and how the citizens of Serbia perceive it, also about the KFOR mission and its new commander, as well as on NATO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

European Western Balkans: Now that you have been in Belgrade for almost a year as the head of the office, what are your impressions of Serbia and the cooperation developed between Serbia and NATO?

Tommaso Vitale: My impressions of Serbia are very positive. By living here and learning something new about your rich culture every day, I had the pleasure of experiencing true Serbian hospitality, feeling the friendliness of the Serbian people and seeing their traditions and the true beauty of your country. Belgrade is a wonderful city. When I arrived at the beginning of the year, I experienced a very warm welcome, something I really appreciated. I have been in Belgrade since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. I was deeply touched by the generosity and solidarity that Serbia showed to me and my countrymen, through the delivery of medical assistance. I believe Italians will forever remember and carry in their hearts what you have done for us. Thank you once again.

When it comes to Serbia-NATO cooperation, our partnership is much more developed than it may seem to an ordinary observer at first glance. We do many things together. Serbia is a valued, committed and reliable partner to NATO. The scope and depth of our partnership can be seen, through many prisms. From the many successful projects carried out together in cooperation with the scientific and technological communities to the exchange of knowledge and experiences, through training and exercises, to cooperation in the disaster management domain, as attested by the complex civilian disaster relief exercise held in Serbia in October 2018. We should also remember the good bilateral relations that Serbia has with many NATO member states, including my own country Italy. I feel very privileged to witness the current phase in Serbia-NATO relations; and I look forward to continue to provide my own contribution to their further development.

EWB: Politicians in Serbia are reluctant to talk about cooperation between Serbia and NATO, because that is not a popular topic. The situation is similar with most media. Therefore, the citizens of Serbia do not have the opportunity to be informed about the extensive cooperation between Serbia and NATO. What do you think are the most important aspects of this cooperation?

TV:. Serbia-NATO cooperation dates back to 2006, when Serbia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. It is thus based on Serbia’s own request and is tailored to Serbia’s needs and priorities.  It is framed and implemented in full respect of the country’s stated policy of military neutrality. Currently, Serbia can choose from over 1,400 different activities and programmes of cooperation with NATO.

In late 2019, Serbia and NATO renewed the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) within the framework of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) Programme. The IPAP is a fundamental document, which encompasses political and military issues, by setting priorities and coordinating all aspects of our cooperation. This was a great step forward as it provided us with an agreed cooperation programme for the next two years, featuring over 200 activities for NATO-Serbia cooperation.

The Western Balkans is an area of strategic importance for NATO. It is made up of NATO member states and NATO partners. Regional stability is therefore key to ensure that these countries remain secure and develop economically. It is also key to safeguard our shared, euro-atlantic security.

Serbia is our partner and it plays a key role in this aspect. As I have said, Serbia is a respected neighbour and trusted partner for NATO in promoting peace, security and cooperation. These are all very important aspects that underpin our relationship and make it mutually beneficial. Stability, prosperity, security and economic growth are what our populations strive to achieve.

EWB: Solidarity is something that NATO often emphasizes as one of the very important values, and in recent months, through its Coordination Center for Emergency Situations, it has provided support to its members and partners. Can you tell us more about that and did Serbia, as a partner country, ask for that support since it has the right to do so?

TV: NATO Allies have stood in solidarity in response to the pandemic, in words and in deeds; and they continue to do so.  In the first half of the year, NATO Allies flew more than 350 flights to transport medical personnel; transported more than 1,000 tonnes of equipment and helped build almost 100 field hospitals and over 25,000 treatment beds. They also cooperated with the scientific community in the development of innovative responses.

Our Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre has played a very important role in helping to provide relief to Allies and partners. This Centre is NATO’s principal civil emergency response mechanism in the Euro-Atlantic area; and it operates on a 24/7 basis. Since the start of the pandemic, our Centre has coordinated22 requests for international assistance submitted by Allies, partners and International Organizations, which translated into more than 125 offers in support of requests.

Serbia did not formally request assistance through the NATO’s Disaster Response Coordination Centre. Having said that, NATO and individual Allies and partners have provided critical medical assistance to countries in the Western Balkans – including Serbia – to help curb the spread of the Coronavirus. Much of the support came through NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre. Here are a few examples. Turkey has provided masks, overalls and test kits to Serbia and other countries in the region. The Czech Republic has worked closely with Serbia in the development of filters for masks. This was done under a NATO framework of cooperation amongst defence education institutions. The Netherlands helped with transporting protective equipment and medical supplies from China to Montenegro. Austria has offered to provide assistance to Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Albania. Including tents, gloves and disinfectants. In Kosovo, our KFOR mission has provided assistance against the Coronavirus to dozen of municipalities, for the benefit of all communities, including with donations of food and clothes, together with charities and the Red Cross. And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the US and our NATO Headquarters in Sarajevo have provided medical supplies and disinfectants to the national health authorities.

Furthermore, in response to the second wave of the pandemic, we have established the NATO Pandemic Response Trust Fund. This Trust Fund includes a readily accessible NATO stockpile of medical equipment and supplies, and funds available to support NATO partners.  We have already received offers of medical equipment and funding. This includes ventilators from the United States and Hungary, protective equipment from Germany as well as financial support in the millions of euros from several NATO Allies. Albania, the Czech Republic, Montenegro and North Macedonia have received dozens of ventilators, as well as around 1.5 Million euros in medical supplies from the stockpile. NATO Allies deployed military medics to the Czech Republic in response to their request for assistance. Some financial support is earmarked to provide relief to our hardest-hit partners, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, Moldova, Tunisia and Ukraine.

NATO is also supporting innovation through research and scientific collaboration on COVID-19. For example, NATO has tapped into its pool of 6,000 defense scientists, calling for ideas to improve virus detection and decontamination.

Through the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme, Italian and Swiss scientists are collaborating on a NATO-supported project to develop rapid COVID-19 diagnostics. As part of a coordinated approach, NATO is working closely with other international organizations, including the European Union and the United Nations.

Against this background, NATO has ensured that this health crisis did not turn into a security crisis. We have taken all the necessary measures to ensure our forces remained ready, vigilant and prepared to respond to any threat. NATO has thus been able to continue delivering all its vital tasks for the defence and protection of around one billion of its citizens.

EWB: How did KFOR help the local population during the pandemic in Kosovo?

TV: Since the outbreak of the pandemic in Kosovo, the NATO-led KFOR mission has continued to regularly conduct its security tasks in accordance with its mandate derived from the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999 – i.e. to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo and preserve archeological, cultural and religious heritage sites. At the same time it has contributed to the local response to COVID-19 through the supply of personal protection equipment and the sanitization of public facilities. KFOR has also facilitated the delivery of aid to the Institutions in Kosovo by NATO Allied and Partner countries.

KFOR was my first operational mission. I learned a lot during my time in Kosovo. And I can tell you that, when I was there, and I believe that is a case with almost everyone I met during my deployment, I become deeply aware of the importance of guaranteeing the wellbeing of all of the communities we were serving. This sentiment is only reinforced at a time of a global pandemic, like the one we are currently tackling, which does not know barriers and borders and affects us all equally.

From day one, KFOR troops, which come from NATO members and partner countries alike, have played their important role in response to the Covid-19 crisis, by supporting all communities in Kosovo, with a direct, positive effect for the daily lives of the local population. Including children being able to play safely outdoors, and go to kindergarten and schools.  Here are some examples. KFOR helped disinfect a number of primary schools and kindergartens, which permitted their continued regular functioning. It donated a new playground to a primary school that will help kids develop social skills and will serve all communities and ethnicities. In addition, KFOR refurbished a basketball court shared by 2 primary schools for the benefit of children of all communities living in the area and donated special equipment to provide support to children affected by autism. The equipment will allow the improvement of motor skills, skill-related fitness, social functioning and muscular strength and endurance.  In the same framework of NATO funded projects, KFOR delivered air conditioning systems to an institution that provides physiotherapy and other treatments to disabled persons.

In order to make sure that all citizens and those in need are protected and well, KFOR donated part of its reserve stocks of lifesaving anti-venom immunoglobulin, in response to an urgent request from  the University Clinical Centre in Kosovo and donated Personal Protective Equipment to the Clinic for infectious diseases in Pristina. KFOR also delivered medical instruments and equipment including a sterilizer, an electrocardiogram, glucose monitoring systems and other diagnostic tools to institutions that needed them. These are just some of the examples how the NATO-led KFOR mission has been contributing to the wellbeing of people of Kosovo during the pandemic.

EWB: KFOR has a new commander, Major General Franco Federici. What kind of cooperation do you expect with your colleague and compatriot?

TV: We are all professionals and we take our job and duties very seriously, especially when tasked with the responsibility to provide security to local populations and safeguard their wellbeing. No matter who will be or was the KFOR Commander the mission always remained the same, namely to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo, and preserve archeological, cultural and religious heritage sites, in accordance with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999.

Of course, when your colleague in NATO is your compatriot, someone you have known for years and worked closely with, you are happy and proud. General Federici is an outstanding soldier with a solid track record of military assignments. He is fully committed to his task; and he will carry it out with due diligence.

EWB: Polls show that the citizens of Serbia still have negative attitudes towards NATO and potential membership in it, but that they have a much more positive opinion about mutual cooperation. How satisfied are you with the way this cooperation has been communicated to the public?

TV: One of the biggest challenges for NATO in Serbia is public diplomacy. I think people do not see how much we do together, despite the fact that we are open and transparent about what we do and that we are ready to continue to exchange opinions, positions and views on NATO with all interested parties. We highly respect the Serbian public opinion. Its perceptions and perspectives are a crucial factor we consider in our daily activities. Serbia is a valued, respected and important partner for NATO.  Our cooperation is reliable, mutually beneficial, and articulated in a number of domains. These are the facts, which we focus on communicating in a transparent manner. There is another important point that needs to be communicated more regularly. NATO consists of member states, countries which are Serbia’s neighbours, economic partners, i.e. countries that are in one way or another close to Serbia and to the Serbian people. NATO is Italy, my home country, one of its 12 founding members, NATO is Germany. NATO is Norway, home to our current Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. NATO is Greece, Hungary, Spain, Slovakia, Denmark and many other member countries.

Of course, we are not complacent. There is always work to do in communicating the scope of Serbia-NATO relations in a factual and transparent manner and in further strengthening our engagement with the Serbian media. So, we will continue to play our part to this end.

EWB: Next year marks the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the NATO Liaison Office and Serbia’s entry into the Partnership for Peace. How do you assess the cooperation in these 15 years and where do you see opportunities for improvement?

TV: Serbia and NATO, side by side, have been developing this partnership steadily for the last fifteen years, improving it even more, day by day, through a mutually beneficial cooperation.

It is up to Serbia to decide where and in what direction it wishes to take this partnership forward. My office has been established exactly to facilitate this process. At Serbia’s request, we carry out a range of joint activities designed to strengthen Serbia’s defence and security capacities, structures and institutions, within the framework of the Partnership for Peace with NATO, signed by Serbia in 2006.

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