The NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade has existed since 2006 and has been the main link between the Alliance and the authorities in Belgrade for more than 17 years. Since then, Serbia and NATO have significantly improved their cooperation, although this is rarely discussed in public. Serbia operates within the NATO program Partnership for Peace with the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), the highest form of cooperation below formal membership. Despite cooperation in various fields, support for Serbia’s membership in NATO has dropped to only 4-5% in the last 20 years.
The 74th anniversary of the founding of NATO was the occasion for an interview with the Chief of NATO’s Military Liaison Office in Belgrade, Brigadier General Giampiero Romano. Some of the topics we discussed with Brigadier General Roman are the relations between Serbia and NATO today, the reputation of the alliance among the citizens of Serbia, and the role of the NATO KFOR mission in Kosovo.
You can find the message of the Chief of NATO’s Military Liaison Office in Belgrade on the 74th anniversary of the NATO founding on this link.
European Western Balkans: How do you see the cooperation between Serbia and NATO so far? In which areas is cooperation the best?
For sixteen years now, NATO and Serbia have been developing a mutually beneficial partnership, through political dialogue and practical cooperation across many domains, in full respect of Serbia’s stated policy of military neutrality. Everything we do together is based on Serbia’s request and tailored to Serbia’s needs.
When it comes to our political dialogue, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is in regular contact with President Vučić Political dialogue with various Serbian interlocutors is also a key component of our daily activities in Belgrade; and it features through regular visits to Serbia conducted by high-level NATO officials, such as for instance, most recently Mr. Javier Colomina, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy and Ms. Burcu San, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Operations.
As for the practical cooperation aspects of our partnership with Serbia, I can point you to various activities conducted within the framework of the Partnership for Peace Programme signed by Serbia in 2006. For instance, we work together to be better prepared for civil emergences such as floods and forest fires. In this respect, the civil preparedness NATO exercise “Serbia 2018” – jointly organized and performed in Mladenovac by the Ministry of Interior of Serbia and NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) – was a particularly important event, where we learned a lot from each other, through a very professional exchange of experience and best practices. That exercise was the largest ever organized by the EADRCC, with around 2,000 personnel from 40 countries – including NATO members and partners.
NATO also trains Serbian soldiers for peacekeeping missions. We provide education and training to Serbian Armed Forces officers and personnel in different ways; including through visits to NATO countries and their participation in training programs where they exchange experiences and train alongside NATO personnel, some of whom are Italians like me. They train, study and work together with the purpose of gaining new skills and expertise. All these activities help Serbian Armed Forces to further develop their capacity and skillset for their successful participation in multinational operations, including those led by the UN and the EU, where Serbia already features as a very important contributor.
In addition, we are helping Serbia modernize its security forces and institutions. We have invested millions of euros to help Serbia destroy hundreds of tons of obsolete ammunition. Furthermore, Serbia and NATO also worked together to train Iraqi military medics.
I look forward to taking this partnership even further, by trying to illustrate to Serbian people all that we do together, so that they understand how beneficial and crucial our partnership is for them and for the overall security of the Western Balkans.
EWB: What are the biggest benefits of that cooperation for Serbia, and which for the Alliance?
GR: Our cooperation is developing across many different domains and is shaped in a way that helps Serbia best address its needs. Serbia chooses the areas it wishes to improve or upgrade, where NATO as an organization can bring added value. So ultimately, it is Serbia which sets the pace and scope of our support activities.
NATO and Serbia also have a long-standing scientific cooperation, through NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Programme, where Serbian scientists work side by side with their colleagues from NATO countries looking for different ways to improve our lives, including energy, environmental security, emerging disruptive technologies, counter-terrorism, cyber-defence, and environment protection.
The work of Serbian scientists in these projects is highly valued, and their professionalism and dedication is remarkable. For example, Serbian scientists from the Vinča Institute, together with their colleagues from NATO member states such as Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, as well as other NATO partner nations, such as Finland, Ukraine and the Republic of Korea, participate in the development of technology for the identification of carriers of firearms and explosives in crowds without disrupting the flow of pedestrians (DEXTER). The aim of this project is to help prevent terrorist attacks in subway stations, airports and other mass transit and gathering venues.
Another example of our cooperation is a NATO-funded research project to develop the commercial production of biofuel from algae, carried out by the Institute for Multidisciplinary Research of Belgrade University, in cooperation with Manchester University in the United Kingdom and Baylor University in the United States.
NATO projects of scientific cooperation have also helped produce seismic charts for the Western Balkan countries and improve the protection of the Sava River water resources. In addition, Serbian and German are working on developing a decontamination and demining robot called T-Whex.
These are only some examples of NATO-Serbia scientific cooperation. NATO is fully ready and willing to continue to work side by side with Serbia, so we can help each other toward building a better future for all.
I also look forward to playing my part in strengthening our cooperation, as we build on the efforts carried out by my predecessors, and continue to move NATO-Serbia relations forward, for our mutual benefit and for the benefit of regional stability.
EWB: Serbia is still the only country in the Western Balkans region that has not imposed sanctions on Russia. Does this fact affect the cooperation between Serbia and NATO and in what way?
GR: The impact of Russia’s brutal war is already far-reaching, and felt across many regions beyond the immediate area of conflict, including through a food and energy crisis affecting billions of people across the globe. Indeed, concerns over Russia’s influence in the Western Balkans region have intensified since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In this sense, we have seen cyberattacks, disinformation, economic pressure or political intimidation in recent months. We urge Russia to play a constructive role in the Western Balkans, but, unfortunately, we regularly see Russia doing the opposite.
In this regard, NATO’s long-standing commitment to stability in the region remains steadfast. We continue to put this commitment into practice, through the development and strengthening of our engagement with partner countries in the region, as well as through our NATO-led UN-mandated KFOR mission in Kosovo, and the cooperation activities of our Military Liaison Office in Belgrade and of the NATO Headquarters in Sarajevo.
Serbia plays an important role in the Western Balkans, and our partnership based on political dialogue and practical cooperation represents an important platform for boosting regional stability. This partnership continues to evolve in its own merit, as I have said already, with full respect of Serbia’s stated policy of military. This is the prism through which NATO will continue to address its relations with Belgrade.
EWB: NATO’s popularity in Serbia has been declining for years. What do you see as the key reasons for the bad reputation of the Alliance in the country?
GR: I do not want to speculate, but what I can say with certainty is that I will do everything in my power to illustrate the full scope of NATO-Serbia cooperation.
Also, it is not easy to talk about the things that happened in the past when there are so many memories and emotions attached to it. We must never forget the past, but we can move beyond it; and that is what NATO and Serbia are doing with our long-standing partnership. Looking toward a better future. I am fully committed to playing my part in this important process.
EWB: What should be done to improve communication with citizens about the benefits of cooperation with NATO?
GR: Our partnership with Serbia is well developed and mutually beneficial, and continues to develop through political dialogue and tailored and multifaceted practical cooperation. The benefits of the NATO-Serbia cooperation are numerous. We have achieved so much together over the course of previous sixteen years.
Having said that, we are always open to engaging with the Serbian population and discussing the state of play of our important partnership and the prospects for its further development. Public engagements are a very important component of NATO-Serbia relations. In this respect, my team in the Military Liaison Office in Belgrade and I stand fully committed to continuing our engagements and explaining to different sectors of the Serbian population the scope of NATO-Serbia partnership and the benefits that it brings to Serbia, to NATO, and to stability across the region. This is important also in order to increase our mutual understanding. In this sense, NATO values open and frank discussion with Serbian interlocutors in which we discuss all aspects of our partnership, including issues that need to be improved, such as the public perception about Serbia-NATO relations.
We also actively monitor disinformation and propaganda campaigns in the region, which try to sow division, undermine our democracies and our ability to act. We counter false narratives with facts, with our values, and with concrete actions, which demonstrate NATO’s readiness and solidarity. For example, during the COVID pandemic we worked closely with other international actors, including the European Union, the G7 and the United Nations, regularly engaged with free and independent media to explain NATO’s role in support efforts to counter the global pandemic and disinformation related to it, and made our activities in this domain available to the public, including on the NATO website, social media and digital platforms and regular engagements.
EWB: Have the crises of the past year shown that KFOR is the only guarantor of stability in Kosovo?
GR: The NATO-led KFOR mission is the most tangible demonstration of the Alliance’s multi-decade commitment to lasting security in Kosovo and stability across the Western Balkans.
With more than 3,700 troops contributed from 27 countries, including NATO Allies and partners, our KFOR mission plays an important role in ensuring a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo, based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999. KFOR contributes on a daily basis to security in Kosovo and to stability across the region as an impartial and trusted actor.
KFOR troops are fully prepared – in accordance with its UN mandate – to act if stability, security and freedom of movement are jeopardized. Since last October, KFOR has reinforced its presence in northern Kosovo, including with additional troops and patrols. So our commitment to this mission is steadfast. I would also point out that any changes to our force posture in NATO-led KFOR mission remain conditions-based and not calendar-driven; and they are subject to a unanimous decision by the North Atlantic Council – NATO’s decision-making body.
The NATO-led KFOR mission Commander, Major General Angelo Michele Ristuccia, remains in close contact with his main interlocutors, including the representatives of the Institutions in Kosovo and of the Kosovo Security Organizations, the Serbian Armed Forces General Staff, as well as the EU-led Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) and the international community. KFOR also continues to provide the security framework necessary for the EU-facilitated dialogue for the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina to move forward.
Overall, there is an excellent level of dialogue between NATO, including through its KFOR mission, and our Serbian interlocutors. Major General Ristuccia is in frequent and direct contact with General Milan Mojsilović, whom he recently met in Belgrade. The recent tensions in northern Kosovo have not jeopardized these relations. On the contrary, they have reflected the importance that these long-standing relations have, especially in complex situations like the one we have seen late last year. They continue to help ensure mutual transparency and avoid misunderstandings. I stand fully committed to play my part to ensure that this trend continues.
EWB: How does NATO assess the current negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina on the European proposal? Does NATO support such a framework agreement?
GR: We welcome the EU-facilitated deal to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia. It is now key that both sides begin the implementation of their obligations as soon as possible and fully.
NATO stands fully committed to continue providing its own contributions to stability in the Western Balkans, including through our KFOR peacekeeping mission.
EWB: How do you assess the security situation in the region? How much did the war in Ukraine change the security picture of the Western Balkans?
GR: NATO remains committed to promoting peace and stability in the Western Balkans. At the Summit in Madrid last year, Allies have approved the new NATO Strategic Concept, which reaffirms the strategic importance of the Western Balkans for NATO. We are committed to our presence in the region, including through our NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and our offices in Sarajevo and Belgrade.
Russia’s unjustified and brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and gravely changed our security environment. As NATO’s new Strategic Concept makes clear, Russia is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area; and, as I already said, Russia’s influence in the Western Balkans region has intensified since the invasion in various forms.
In this sense, NATO actively engages in efforts to counter Russian disinformation by explaining our actions and providing the truth in statements to both social and traditional media sources. NATO will also continue to help our partners strengthen their capabilities in areas such as combating disinformation and cyber security in order to enhance their resilience.
Additionally, our cooperation with the European Union and other partners in the Western Balkans remains essential, and we will continue to work together to preserve stability and support reform in this strategically important region, given its direct impact on security across the Euro-Atlantic area.
EWB: You come from Italy. What did NATO membership mean for your country? What has it brought you?
GR: The end of World War II left Italy and other European countries in utter devastation. Many cities had been destroyed and the entire Italian artistic and cultural heritage had been damaged. The population lived in a state of extreme poverty and deprivation and many held the Nazis responsible for this. Yet, there was also a very vivid desire to look and work towards a new, better future. The Italians rolled up their sleeves, strengthened by their historical roots from which we have learnt a lot and from which we always try to draw important lessons.
NATO membership was the result of lengthy domestic debates and longstanding reflections engrained within the population and different political factions. However, the desire for peace and security was palpable and the path toward NATO membership was considered as the most viable option for the country.
The decision to join NATO on 4 April 1949 was heavily informed by the country’s fear of insecurity and instability and its desire to play a valuable role on the world scene.
The historical and cultural roots of every nation are very important. We must draw lessons from them, so that we can ensure a peaceful and economically and culturally sound future for our people, especially the younger generations.