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[EWB Interview] Romano: A stable Kosovo is essential for regional stability 

NATO officials emphasize that Serbia is an important partner for peace and stability, while NATO respects Serbia’s decision on military neutrality. They also highlight progress in cooperation in many areas. Despite cooperation in various fields, Serbian citizens remain uninformed about that. 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.

About the NATO cooperation with Serbia and the security situation in the Western Balkans region, we spoke with the Chief of NATO Military Liaison Office Belgrade, Brigadier General Giampiero Romano. 

European Western Balkans: How do you assess the current security situation in the Western Balkans? 

Giampiero Romano: The Western Balkans is a region of strategic importance to the Alliance as reflected in NATO’s Strategic Concept, approved at the 2022 Madrid Summit. This point has been reaffirmed at successive high-level meetings, including at the Vilnius Summit last July, as well as at the Meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers in Brussels in November 2023 and at the recent meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence in Brussels this February. It was also underlined by the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, during his visit to the region in November and by the NATO Deputy Secretary General, Mircea Geoană, during the recent visit by the North Atlantic Council to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Overall, the region has come a long way since the conflicts in the 1990s. However, there are still reasons for concern. In Kosovo, the situation is calm, but it remains fragile. We saw increased tensions and violence last year, including the unprovoked and unacceptable attacks on KFOR troops last May, and the attacks on Kosovo Police in Banjska last September. There has also been no real breakthrough in the process of normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. All sides must refrain from escalatory actions and divisive rhetoric, and reengage in good faith in the EU-facilitated dialogue.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we see rising tensions, divisive rhetoric and secessionist threats, which endanger reforms and undermine stability. This trend is worrying and unacceptable. It goes against the letter and spirit of the Dayton Peace Agreement. The Dayton Peace Agreement must be respected and NATO continues to fully support the work of the Office of the High Representative. NATO also continues to support Bosnia and Herzegovina’s reform efforts and Euro-Atlantic path. We need a genuine commitment and constructive approach from all Bosnia and Herzegovina’s leaders to ensure the preservation and function of unified structures.

As the Secretary General said during his visit to the region, stability in the Western Balkans depends on all sides choosing dialogue and diplomacy over conflict and chaos. A peaceful and stable Western Balkans is important for our own security and for stability across the Euro-Atlantic area. NATO will continue to play its part, including through our KFOR mission in Kosovo, and our Military Liaison Office in Belgrade, and NATO Headquarters in Sarajevo.

EWB: In February, it will be two years since the start of the Russian aggression on Ukraine. How has that war affected the security architecture in the region and what are the major challenges for the region?

GR: Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in 2022 – following its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 – has shattered peace in the Euro-Atlantic area and gravely altered the security environment. NATO condemns in the strongest possible terms Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war against Ukraine, an independent and democratic country, and a close NATO partner.

For more than 30 years, NATO tried to build a constructive partnership with Russia, developing dialogue and practical cooperation in areas of common interest. Despite this, Russia has continuously violated the norms and principles that underpin a stable and predictable European security order, and it has demonstrated an increasingly aggressive pattern of behaviour particularly over the past decade.

The impact of Russia’s brutal war of aggression is far-reaching, and felt across many regions. Concerns over Russia’s influence in the Western Balkans region have intensified since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This is why NATO will continue to enhance our cooperation with partners in the region to support reforms, peace and security, and counter malign influence, including disinformation, hybrid and cyber threats, posed by both state and non-state actors. We urge Russia to play a constructive role in the Western Balkans. Unfortunately, we regularly see Russia doing the opposite.

At the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Allies reaffirmed NATO’s determination to enhance our political dialogue and practical cooperation in the Western Balkans. Democratic values, the rule of law, domestic reforms, and good neighbourly relations are vital for regional cooperation and Euro-Atlantic integration. The NATO Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General stressed the importance of continued progress in this regard during their respective visits to the region. Continuing to strengthen our support for partners will also be a key priority as we prepare for the Washington Summit this July to mark NATO’s 75th anniversary.

EWB: How NATO reacts on the decision by US, an important NATO member, to approve the sale of Javelins to Kosovo? What message does this send to the official Belgrade?

GR: These are decisions for the Institutions in Kosovo and the US to comment on. The NATO-led KFOR mission is fully focused on implementing its UN mandate – based on Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999 – to provide a peaceful and secure environment for all communities living in Kosovo and freedom of movement. KFOR is the third security responder, after the Kosovo Police and the EU Rule of Law mission (EULEX), respectively. KFOR has a flexible posture on the ground, which is adjusted regularly based on our assessment of the security situation. This allows us to face any challenges that may arise, and contribute to security throughout Kosovo and across the region.

EWB: The past year has been marked by numerous security challenges and threats in Kosovo. Is KFOR still a guarantor of peace and stability in Kosovo?

GR: A stable Kosovo is essential for regional stability and for our own security. For more than two decades, NATO has contributed to a peaceful and stable Kosovo. The UN mandate for our KFOR peacekeeping mission is unchanged.  We continue to support a safe and secure environment for the benefit of all communities living in Kosovo and freedom of movement.

Last May, we saw violence against our KFOR peacekeeping mission, leaving 93 NATO troops injured, some seriously. In September, we saw another outbreak of serious violence against the Kosovo Police in Banjska. This is unacceptable. The facts must be established and the perpetrators must be brought to justice.

Since last May, we have increased KFOR’s presence in northern Kosovo, with the deployment of reserve forces, and additional patrols. These are prudent steps to ensure that KFOR has the forces and capabilities it needs to fulfil its UN mandate. KFOR’s Commander, Major General Ozkan Ulutas remains in contact with the Chief of Staff of Serbian Armed Forces, General Milan Mojsilovic, and with the representatives of the Institutions and security organisation in Kosovo, the EU-led Rule of Law Mission (EULEX), the OSCE, the UN, and the international community.

At the same time, Pristina and Belgrade must take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation and refrain from further irresponsible behaviour. We welcome recent positive steps on licence plates and the implementation of the energy roadmap. We continue to urge Belgrade and Pristina to engage in the EU-facilitated dialogue, as the only way to resolve outstanding issues and reach solutions that respect the rights of all communities. This is key for lasting security and stability in the region.

EWB: How do you assess the level of cooperation between NATO and the authorities in Belgrade? In which areas the cooperation is closest?

GR: Serbia is a long-standing partner of NATO dating back to 2006, when Serbia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace. For more than 17 years, Serbia and NATO have enhanced cooperation across a range of issues, and worked together to promote reforms, security and stability across the Western Balkans and broader Euro-Atlantic area. My role as Chief of the NATO office in Belgrade helps to strengthen our cooperation, which benefits both NATO and Serbia.

Our partnership is tailor-made to suit Serbia’s needs and security interests, in full respect of Serbia’s stated policy of military neutrality. We cooperate on many different levels, and across political, military and scientific domains. We have well-established communication, including at the highest political level, with regular contacts between the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. During his visit to Belgrade last November, the Secretary General and President Vučić discussed the resumption of joint military exercises.

When it comes to our practical cooperation, Serbia can choose from over 1,600 different activities in our partnership menu. These activities include education, training and other events, which cater to the specific needs of partner countries.

In addition, since 2007, Serbia has been actively engaged in the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme in different fields, including energy and environmental security, advanced technologies, cyber-defence, and counter-terrorism. The Secretary General saw some examples of recent projects on his visit to Belgrade. Some practical examples include DEXTER – a project to create systems for the early detection of explosives and firearms in a mass-transit environment – and SP4LIFE – to create early detection systems against terrorist attacks and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear accidents. Another example is the development of more sustainable energy storage systems to decrease the cost and safety issues of Lithium-ion technology and the use of biofuels as a key future renewable energy solution with military and civilian applications.

This programme has brought many scientists from NATO and Serbia together over the years to share experiences and pursue technological and scientific breakthroughs. Many laboratories in Serbia have been equipped thanks to these projects and now scientists, the curious minds from Serbia can work together to help create a safer future.

There is also a lot that NATO and Serbia do together in the domain of military training. This helps the Serbian Armed Forces contribute even more effectively to UN and EU led peace-keeping operations, which help to safeguard international peace and security for all.

EWB: Does NATO expect the authorities in Serbia to highlight and promote cooperation with NATO more than they have done so far?

GR: NATO and Serbia have a comprehensive and solid baseline on which to build to move our cooperation forward, and there is a scope to do more to communicate our joint activities to the Serbian population in a transparent and factual manner.

Serbia has made a sovereign decision to formalise its relationship with NATO, through a tailor-made partnership based on political dialogue and practical cooperation, in full respect of its stated policy of military neutrality. This is what underpins all of our communications efforts and what we will continue to highlight in all of our engagements with Serbian audiences. For us it is very important to inform the public about our cooperation, since it is mutually beneficial for both NATO and Serbia, and has a direct effect on regional stability and security in the Euro-Atlantic area.

We have come a long way since 2006, when Serbia joined the Partnership for Peace, and we are ready to move our partnership forward, in accordance with the pace and scope determined by the Serbian authorities. This is especially important at a time where disinformation and fake news and false narratives are prominent. Public diplomacy is one of the areas where Serbia and NATO could do so much more for our mutual benefit.

We have been playing our part for several years already in different ways, including through visits to our offices – communicating on our different activities – engagements with a wide number of media outlets through interviews and access to high level NATO events, such as Ministerial Meetings and Summits, scientific cooperation, participation in conferences and workshops, and visits by journalists, academics, opinion formers, Members of Parliament and government officials to NATO Headquarters.

Against this backdrop, NATO and Serbia can work even more closely together to debunk fake news, counter false narratives, and tackle hybrid threats. These challenges are best addressed through transparent and concrete actions, which convey facts and communicate shared values. All this is key to safeguard democratic societies and strengthen resilience against malign external interferences.

On a bilateral level, there are also many activities going on between Serbia and the NATO Allies. These countries donate and invest a lot of resources in Serbia, through NATO Trust Funds, EU funds, or on a purely bilateral basis.

There is still a considerable information gap between what we do and what reaches the audience in Serbia, so this is one of my key priorities. We will continue to do our best to explain what NATO is, the values it stands for, and the principles of NATO and Serbia’s long-standing partnership. We stand ready to continue engaging with the people of Serbia and to explore new ways to continue interacting in a transparent and constructive way.

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