European Western Balkans

What assistance did NATO provide to the Western Balkans during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Foto: covid19.rs

Although NATO could not be on the front line in the fight against COVID-19, because the crisis caused by the spread of the coronavirus is primarily a civilian health crisis, this organization provided support to the health institutions of NATO allies and partners.

This support was made possible primarily through the long-term development of the capacity of this organization, through the strengthening of the domain of civil protection, primarily through the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC). This center, which is the main mechanism for responding to civil protection emergencies, has the task of coordinating the requests of members and partners in dealing with major crises, such as the crisis caused by the spread of COVID-19.

The question that arises is how NATO and its members helped Serbia and other Western Balkan countries during the crisis.

How did NATO help?

The way the EADRCC mechanism works consists of three steps. The first is that after a catastrophe or crisis occurs, a member state or partner country can send a request to this center, which contains, among other things, an assessment of the situation and a list of things needed (such as equipment, supplies, human resources, services, etc.).

Upon receipt of the request, the EADRCC then, in communication with the requesting country, forwards the request to other NATO member states, partner countries and international organizations. Finally, a NATO member, partner country or international organization can contact the requesting country and agree with it on a bilateral basis what kind of assistance it will send.

For example, countries in the region have received dozens of respirators and medical supplies with a total value of more than 1.5 million euros.  Montenegro received 20 sets of equipment for respirators, and the Netherlands helped transport protective equipment and medical supplies from China to Montenegro.

Also, in February 2021, Slovakia donated four ventilators to Northern Macedonia through EADRCC, and in October 2020, Slovakia provided assistance in the form of masks, hygiene products, blankets, tents and generators.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the NATO HQ command in Sarajevo donated various medical equipment to the hospital in Bihać on January 27, 2021, and in Albania, for example, in December 2020, received donation of about 60 ventilators.

KFOR also helped in Kosovo during this period, as in the first months of the crisis it donated personal protective equipment worth over 70,000 euros to hospitals in Gračanica and Pristina.

Nikola Lunić, Executive Director of the Council of Strategic Policy (CfSP), explains for EWB that Serbia, as a partner country, had the right to use NATO assistance during the pandemic.

“Some other countries, such as Moldova and Ukraine, have used their partnership status and the right to help. It was not about significant material help, but the donation came in the form of delivering ventilators, protective masks, clothes and other things needed to deal with the pandemic”, says Lunić.

He adds that NATO cooperates very closely with the United Nations in this area, so that Serbia’s membership in that part of the NATO mechanism is strategically very important in cases of emergency situations.

However, Serbia has been cooperating with NATO members on a bilateral basis. Thus, it is less known to the Serbian public that Turkey delivered masks, overalls and tests to Serbia and the countries of the region. Another NATO member, the Czech Republic, has worked closely with Serbia to develop mask filters under the Defense Education Enhancement Programme (DEEP).

Political question

As is the case with many things in the Western Balkans, politics has intervened again. That is how a dispute broke out in Northern Macedonia over who was the first to help during the pandemic, says Aleksandar Kržalovski from the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation (MCIC) for EWB.

“I remember that there was even an argument between the leading parties who “provided” the first shipments, then mostly masks, gloves and protective overalls for health workers, and since when they arrived from Slovenia and Hungary after phone calls from the president of the opposition party VMRO – DPMNE with Janša and Orbán, while the Government (SDSM) presented it as help from NATO “, says Krzalovski.

However, he notes that the aid to NATO was either used late or not used in full capacity.

Nikola Lunić also points out that this topic is being politicized, and that the best example of that is certainly the fact that Serbia did not ask for help from NATO.

“The fact that we did not use this opportunity only shows how politicized this topic is. “It interferes with foreign policy and shows that donations from China and Russia are welcome to us, especially in the context of political capitalization at the domestic level,” says Lunić.

“Unfortunately, NATO donations are not attractive to politicians,” Lunić said, adding that welcoming NATO aid at airports did not bring politicians rating, all in line with NATO’s tabloidization in Serbia.

Although the procurement and management of the vaccination process can be praised, Lunić believes that he is manipulating his geopolitical orientation, which is the reason why Serbia does not use all the mechanisms of available assistance.

The fact that Serbia has cooperated a lot with the EADRCC in recent years also supports Lunić’s statement. Thus, in 2018, in Serbia, EADRCC in cooperation with the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs, conducted the largest exercise in the field of managing the consequences of emergency situations.

Lunic also thinks that it would be useful for Serbia to delegate a Serbian citizen who would work and learn from NATO on crisis management and emergency situations.

“The experience and knowledge gained can often be invaluable, as well as the diplomatic influence that we can project in that way. If it is in our national interest to participate in some NATO mechanisms through the Partnership for Peace program, then it is in our strategic interest to pay for such positions in order to gain the necessary knowledge and experience. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should legally define that”, Lunić concludes.

The capacity of this civil protection organization is not negligible, so the interest of the citizens of the Western Balkans would be to achieve full cooperation in this area because what the past year has shown is that solidarity and cooperation are necessary to overcome this international crisis while intervening of politics can have a disastrous impact.

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