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[EWB Interview] Filipović: Improving cooperation with NATO in line with military neutrality is in Serbia’s national interest

In September 2020, Ambassador Branimir Filipović became the new head of the Serbian Mission to NATO. We talked with the ambassador about the relations between Serbia and NATO, the cooperation in the coming period, the importance of KFOR mission for Serbia, the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), Serbia’s attitude towards Bosnia and Herzegovina’s membership in NATO and the implication of the election of Joseph Biden as President of the United States for NATO and the Western Balkans.

European Western Balkans: In December 2020, you officially became the new ambassador of Serbia to NATO. What challenges did you face immediately after taking the post and in what direction do you expect the cooperation between Serbia and NATO to go in the future?

Ambassador Branimir Filipović: The biggest challenge we all face all over the world is the COVID-19 pandemic, which affects our life and professional activities, due to justified universal restrictive measures regarding travel, gatherings and physical attendance at meetings and other events. Although for these reasons the dynamics of diplomatic activities in NATO was reduced, as everywhere in the world, I am extremely glad that, in compliance with all health measures in Belgium and the measures applied at NATO headquarters, I handed a letter of credence from the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić in mid-December last year to the NATO Secretary General regarding my appointment as the Head of the Mission of the Republic of Serbia to NATO. At that time, I had a cordial, open and very good conversation with the NATO Secretary General on the priorities of Serbia’s partnership with the Alliance, followed by other meetings at NATO headquarters in the same atmosphere and constructive spirit of mutual cooperation and understanding.

In those talks, the pandemic was an indispensable topic, and for me, it was a special pleasure and honour to present the results that Serbia has achieved in building hospitals, obtaining vaccines against COVID-19 and organizing the vaccination process, and on the other hand to hear expressions of respect from my interlocutors for the achievements of our country regarding these activities, which ranked it at the very top of Europe, while preserving economic stability in these unprecedented circumstances. This once again confirmed Serbia’s reputation in the world, which is also of special importance for the realization of our country’s foreign policy and internal priorities.

When it comes to the second part of your question, I would like to emphasize that the task of the Mission of the Republic of Serbia to NATO, both its diplomatic and military work, is to communicate with the Alliance’s international secretariats and member states and partners from the aspect of protection of our national interests in two key areas.

One is the improvement of partnership cooperation with NATO, within the framework established by the policy of Serbian military neutrality, without pretensions for membership in the Alliance or other military alliance, but at the same time with openness to further improve partnership cooperation with NATO in all areas of common interest at all levels, but also specific forms of partnership in various fields. Also, the key issue is the cooperation with NATO regarding Kosovo and Metohija, since the situation in the Province represents the biggest political and security challenge for the Republic of Serbia. In accordance with Resolution SBUN 1244 and the Military Technical Agreement, the NATO-led KFOR Mission was deployed in the Province and its mandate was determined, and it is of priority importance for us that this mandate is fully realized and that KFOR as the only legal military formation in the Province protects the Serbian population and culture. religious and historical heritage.

Partnership cooperation with NATO is closely connected with our bilateral relations with Alliance member states and partners, i.e. they make up two sides of the same coin. That is why we are all part of a joint endeavour to promote and protect the national interests of Serbia on the international scene in the best way, and at the same time to define common interests with NATO, its members and partners, thus contributing to regional security and stability and thus the position of our country as a responsible and reliable factor and exporter of security is confirmed, not only in the region but also outside it.

Having in mind the five-year experience as Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for Security Policy, as well as the impressions from taking over the new function in contacts at NATO headquarters, I am optimistic when it comes to the upward trend of partnership cooperation with NATO in the defined foreign policy framework of military neutrality and creation of new content of that cooperation. Our contacts in Brussels are just as important as our communication in Belgrade, and in that sense, I want to emphasize the excellent cooperation with the NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade, about which I have extremely positive personal impressions and experiences during my previous function.

EWB: It seems that the COVID-19 pandemic, together with the Government’s decision from September 2020 to cancel all military exercises, almost stopped the cooperation between Serbia and NATO, so there were no military exercises last year. Can we expect the return of cooperation to normal in 2021 and are there talks about that?

BF: The temporary decision on the suspension, with erga omnes – which was made in order to preserve our principled position of military neutrality, as a rational and only possible decision at that time, was clearly explained which we told our partners.

NATO is a military, political and security organization, and cooperation with NATO covers other areas, in addition to the military, so that the cooperation has continued to the extent allowed by the pandemic. Also, I started my mandate as the Ambassador of Serbia to NATO at the end of September last year, so in accordance with that decision, I continued communication at the NATO headquarters in other important issues, which are not from the military and defence domain. I am convinced that this decision and its explanation were understood because it did not favour any individual partner.

Recently, a new decision was made by the Government of the Republic of Serbia, which again unfroze military and defence cooperation with everyone, except when it comes to military exercises. In accordance with the hints of our officials, it is expected that at the beginning of March, upon the expiration of the initial decision on the temporary suspension, the area of ​​military exercises will be unfrozen.

Within the Partnership for Peace, we have a number of activities and programs, which are not in the military domain and do not refer only to military exercises. There are also civil-military areas of cooperation. In this sense, we maintain political dialogue, as well as other activities, such as courses, training, cooperation within individual programs, and evaluate existing documents and instruments of cooperation, such as PARP and IPAP.

Cooperation in the field of civil protection and emergency situations is also extremely important, which is reflected in the exceptional cooperation between the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia and the Euro-Atlantic Coordination Center for Disaster Response. We are grateful for the help that NATO member countries have sent us on a bilateral basis in order to combat the consequences of the pandemic. We also highly appreciate the activities that were realized through the engagement of the NATO-led KFOR mission in Kosovo and Metohija in order to help local communities, especially when it comes to the Serbian community in the Province.

Also, I would mention as an important area of ​​cooperation and trust funds, where there was several in the past years, and now the Trust Fund Serbia IV for the decalibration of surplus munitions in the Technical and Repair Institute Kragujevac. In addition, there are projects within the Science for Peace and Security Program in which our scientists and scientific and educational institutions participate.

Therefore, many of these programs continued after the decision to suspend military and defence cooperation, and the pandemic somewhat slowed down the implementation of certain programs, if the implementation requires a presence that is not in line with health measures to combat the pandemic.

The basic message is to remain open to agreements on how to continue activities when the pandemic is decisively suppressed. I would like to emphasize that both sides have preserved their efforts to improve partnership cooperation and that our side in defining it continues to take into account our national and other interests of state policy and in communication with NATO, best defines concrete steps and areas in which to affect.

EWB: Did the cessation of military exercises affect the fulfilment of what was outlined in the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) of Serbia and NATO for the period 2019-2021 and how will the procedure for the adoption of the new IPAP proceed as the current cycle ends this year?

BF: Although military and defence activities and cooperation form a significant part of the second cycle of the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) between the Republic of Serbia and NATO, the document itself contains a number of other areas related to our political priorities, economic priorities and all other areas where we implement reform process. All these areas have been identified by our institutions, and a significant part of them are priorities in the European integration process of the Republic of Serbia. Therefore, the process of IPAP implementation is taking place, of course, within the framework imposed by the pandemic. As previously known, many activities are permanent – processes that will last for several years and will certainly be the content of future IPAP cycles.

At the moment, there has been no discussion about the new IPAP cycle, partly because there is still time for that, and neither side has raised this issue. In addition to what I consider important and decisive for this issue, NATO is currently considering a kind of reform of all partnerships, including the one in the Euro-Atlantic area – the Partnership for Peace.

This reform, according to the initial proposal, would not affect the very essence and goals of the partnership, while maintaining the basic principles of bilateral relations, voluntariness, inclusiveness, transparency and the so-called. “Tailored approach”, which means that each partner has according to their own priorities defined partnership goals and activities undertaken in this context. The aim is to make partnership cooperation as transparent and efficient as possible, as well as to adapt the formal forms of documents to that, which would mean their simpler application, both by the partner and by NATO. In general, Serbia supported this proposal, as the essence of the partnership does not change. These proposals were discussed with all partners, which confirms the inclusiveness of the process on this issue as well.

As I pointed out, this process is ongoing, the proposal is being considered within NATO structures and has not yet been completed with a definite position. Depending on the outcome of this process and possible new solutions regarding the documents of partnership cooperation, we will determine together with NATO further steps, in order to best implement the existing or new solutions.

EWB: Two years ago, the Kosovo Parliament voted to transform the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) into the Kosovo Army, which was condemned by both Serbian and NATO officials, from whom we often hear that NATO is reviewing its level of cooperation with the KSF. What is the position of Serbia on this issue and has it found understanding and support among the Allies?

BF: We highly appreciate the constructive position taken by NATO after Pristina took a unilateral move in a series of previous ones, and in regards to the beginning of the process of transformation of the so-called KSF into the so-called Kosovo Army. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg then clearly pointed out, and later repeated it on several occasions, that the transformation process was done contrary to the Alliance’s advice, which had certain consequences in terms of cooperation with the KSF in the field of “enhanced interaction”.

A key position is also the four NATO members who did not recognize the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo (Greece, Slovakia, Romania and Spain) who oppose this unilateral decision of Pristina and oppose the Alliance’s cooperation through NALT with the KSF outside the approved KSF mandate, providing assistance in emergencies, rescue and other similar activities.

It is obvious that Pristina, contrary to international law, despite warnings from the international community, but also completely ignoring the interests and attitudes of the Serbian community, does not give up plans to try to install a new security player in Kosovo and Metohija through the implementation of unilateral decisions regarding the formation “Ministry of Defence” and starting the process of transformation of the so-called KBS in the so-called Kosovo Army.

For Serbia, any expansion of the current structure, mandate and mission of the so-called KSF forces which would transform them into a classic armed military formation is completely unacceptable, because it is contrary to UNSC Resolution 1244, which determines the mandate of the KFOR mission as the only legal military formation in the Province, which is responsible for military aspects of security in Kosovo and Metohija.

Serbia has fulfilled its undertaken obligations, and rightly expect other actors to fulfil their obligations, and that primarily refers to the temporary institutions of self-government in Pristina. It is very important to continue the continuous communication with NATO and the commitment to prevent the increase of tensions and escalation, as well as to take all necessary measures in order to preserve peace and stability.

Therefore, in our activities, we expect NATO to understand our priorities regarding the issue of Kosovo and Metohija, and it is extremely important that the mandate of the KFOR Mission in Kosovo and Metohija is fully realized in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and the Military Technical Agreement. as well as that the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina runs smoothly, with the realization of the agreed and without taking unilateral moves. It is crucial that the responsibility of the guarantor of security in Kosovo and Metohija cannot be transferred to any other institution or organization, because such a change requires an amendment to the current UNSCR 1244. Therefore, the international KFOR force is a key guarantor of the Brussels Agreement and practically the only guarantor of security and survival of Serbs, their property, religious and cultural heritage in Kosovo and Metohija.

EWB: A few weeks ago, the commander of the Allied Forces in Naples, Admiral Robert Burke, stated that KFOR remains in Kosovo with an unchanged mandate. Although we have heard similar claims from NATO officials for years, there are periodic speculations about reducing the number or changing the role of KFOR. What is your opinion on that? Have you perhaps encountered such a controversy among the Allies in Brussels?

BF: NATO has confirmed to us on many occasions that KFOR will remain unchanged in Kosovo and Metohija, and its number ranges from 3,400 to 3,500 members, which is estimated by NATO military structures to carry out the mission, and that the presence of KFOR will continue to be based on the principle of “condition basis” and that the size of the composition will be at the appropriate level depending on the situation on the ground. In practice, there are, of course, changes in national contingents, rotations are made, some countries reduce their participation or withdraw completely in accordance with their foreign policy, military and economic priorities. However, in such situations, some countries are strengthening their presence, and we have new contributors to the KFOR Mission.

Serbia supports and highly appreciates the engagement of the International Security Assistance Force KFOR in the Province in strict, complete and impartial implementation of the mandate established and assigned to KFOR on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which includes providing a stable and safe environment and freedom of movement for all.

We expect KFOR forces to maintain a status-neutral position and act proactively to prevent any breach of the security situation on the ground. In addition, NATO’s guarantees that KSF forces and other heavily armed Albanian formations under various pretexts cannot be deployed in the north of the province in predominantly Serb areas without the consent of the KFOR commander are crucial to us.

Such unilateral actions by Pristina, which, unfortunately, have been in the past, represent a very dangerous potential for escalation. That is why we advocate that KFOR reacts preventively in such situations and attempts at unilateral actions and thus prevents any potential situation, which could not be controlled in the event of escalation. It is especially important for security and stability in the Province that the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina takes place without delays, without unilateral moves with the application of everything that was agreed in the dialogue. It is also important that international factors react in the right way in the situation of taking unilateral acts.

EWB: Instead of the Membership Action Plan, Bosnia and Herzegovina has presented a Reform Program, which the Serbian member of the presidency does not perceive as a step towards membership. What is Serbia’s attitude towards Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession to the Alliance?

BF: In the consistent implementation of its foreign policy, Serbia does not interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbors, expecting them to contribute to regional cooperation, which is in the interest of each individual country and the region as a whole. Serbia is a military neutral country, but it fully respects the foreign policy determinations of its neighbors to become members of NATO or to decide on some other arrangements.

When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the position is basically the same, because the issue of NATO membership is a complex internal issue for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which should be decided in accordance with the prescribed procedure, given the constitutivity of all three peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina and equality of the entities.

Serbia has always advocated respect for the Dayton Agreement and the arrangements that define the decision-making process in BiH. Any imposed solution would not be sustainable and would not contribute to stabilization. Serbia wants to see the success of reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina in all areas where these reforms have been agreed in accordance with the constitutional procedure.

EWB: Recently, Secretary General Stoltenberg talked with the new President of the USA, Joseph Biden, about the preparation of the Alliance summit. How do you see Biden’s role in rebuilding transatlantic relations and how can this affect Serbia and the Western Balkans?

BF: At NATO headquarters, there are significant expectations from the new American administration regarding the renewal and strengthening of transatlantic ties, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenebrg spoke about that on several occasions. The dominant discourse in NATO is that the Alliance is facing a number of challenges on a global level, and that the right answer to all these challenges is to strengthen ties in the transatlantic space of Europe and North America.

This year, the NATO summit is expected, ie. a meeting of NATO leaders, attended by the new US President Biden. In the coming period, the new US administration will rank its priorities and announce in more detail specific directions of action, both domestically and foreign policy, which will affect the agreements within NATO on what transatlantic relations will be in the future.

If we look at history, it has been a regular practice in the Alliance for such large organizations to carry out a process of “self-reflection” and consideration of their future role in certain periods of time. Following earlier reflections on the perspectives and role of NATO’s actions, such as the “Report of the Three Wise Men” in the mid-1950s, the Harmel report, the mid-1960s and the reports of earlier reflection groups that preceded discussions on NATO’s strategic concepts, A new process of reflection is being realized – NATO 2030, through the completion of the work of the expert working group, formed by the Secretary General of NATO, the publication of its report and the next steps towards the summit meetings.

The events I mentioned will have an impact on defining NATO’s positions on all issues of interest to the Alliance. Having in mind the continuity of NATO’s establishment in previous years, I do not expect significant changes, when it comes to the Western Balkans. Above all, peace and stability in the region are a permanent commitment of NATO, bearing in mind that NATO is present in the region through the membership of the largest number of countries, as well as to develop partnership cooperation.

On several occasions, NATO has clearly stated that it is the sovereign right of Serbia to determine its foreign policy priorities, as well as that we have an open partner in NATO to further improve this cooperation in the interest of peace and security in the region. The reflection process at the current stage shows that NATO will pay even stronger attention to partnership.

Serbia’s priorities remain as defined, and Serbia’s position has improved significantly in previous years, so we will closely monitor the development of the further situation among NATO members and the prospects for future issues on many issues, whether regional or global.

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