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[EWB Interview] Filipović: Developing further partnerships with NATO is an undisputed interest of Serbia

A few days ago, on 24 February, marked two years since the start of the war in Ukraine, which radically changed the security architecture on the European continent. While the war in Ukraine remains the main geopolitical priority for the European Union and NATO, Serbia is still the only candidate country that has not aligned with EU sanctions against Russia. All statements from NATO officials indicate that Serbia is an important partner and that cooperation is at an excellent level, while the Serbian public remains largely uninformed about the level of cooperation.

About the security situation in the Western Balkans, cooperation between Serbia and NATO, and the importance of the KFOR mission fo preserving stability in Kosovo, we spoke with the Serbian Ambassador to the NATO mission in Brussels, Branimir Filipović. 

European Western Balkans: How do you assess the current cooperation between Serbia and NATO? NATO officials often say that Serbia is an essential partner for the Alliance.

Branimir Filipović:  During his visit to Belgrade in November 2023, General Secretary of NATO Stoltenberg reconfirmed that Serbia is an important regional actor and long-term partner of NATO. The continuous position of the Alliance is to respect Serbia’s military neutrality and to develop partnership cooperation in mutual interest, as well as in the interest of peace and stability in the region and beyond, which are also Serbia’s clear commitments.

Since joining the NATO Partnership for Peace Program, which is the case even now, Serbia has expressed and confirmed in practice its determination to be a responsible and predictable partner. Partnership relations with NATO, as part of Serbia’s foreign policy and the other side of our bilateral relations with members of the Alliance, are based on partnership cooperation based on Serbia’s military neutrality, without aspirations for membership, but with the openness to improve political dialogue and partnership cooperation in the areas of common interest. We see military neutrality not as self-isolation but as readiness for collaboration and sharing responsibilities in modern international relations. Such a partnership, which implies mutual understanding and appreciation, contributes to realizing the strategic interests of peace promotion and long-term stability of the region and the European integration process of Serbia and the Western Balkans countries.

Exceptional importance for Serbia in partnership cooperation is represented by Kosovo and Metohija, where the KFOR Mission is deployed in accordance with the mandate based on UNSC Resolution 1244 and the role of KFOR as the only legal military formation in the Province. We appreciate the status-neutral deployment of the KFOR Mission, which is crucial for the full and impartial implementation of its mandate. It is vital for Serbia that KFOR, with its role as a key security actor for stability in the Province, contributes to the protection of the members of the Serbian community and their rights, which, unfortunately, are threatened by the unilateral and arbitrary actions of the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government in Pristina.

Serbia’s interest in developing further partnerships with NATO is indisputable, especially since the Alliance’s partnership concept emphasizes that it is shaped by the interests and needs of the partners, which is one of the most significant values of this concept.

EWB: Since 2020, the authorities in Serbia have repeatedly announced and introduced moratoriums on military exercises with foreign partners. The Government of Serbia officially adopted the conclusions on the moratorium on February 27, 2022, three days after the Russian aggression in Ukraine began. Has this moratorium slowed down or reduced the new cooperation between Serbia and NATO?

BF: The conclusion adopted by the government of Serbia following the conclusion of the National Security Council represents the definition of Serbia’s position concerning the situation and the war in Ukraine. That position has not changed even today, in which Serbia, among other things, based on its principled position on respect for international law, provides full support for the principle of territorial integrity of all states, including Ukraine. The moratorium on military exercises with all partners in the world is part of that conclusion and is based on the premise of expressing military neutrality in the context of the war in Ukraine.

Military exercises have always been one of the recognizable forms of cooperation between Serbia and NATO, and the failure to hold them can create a perception of a change in the level of collaboration. When it comes to military cooperation, however, in the last two years, there have been around 120 different activities per year, as well as Serbia’s active participation in other programs of the Partnership for Peace, which indicates that the level of cooperation is maintained. The key is the presence of political dialogue, above all at the highest level between President Vučić and General Secretary Stoltenberg, which has been going on successfully for years and is very important for the overall political dialogue and various forms of practical cooperation. I also add to that the activities of our competent institutions, primarily the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense, the General Staff, and other institutions, as well as the Mission of the Republic of Serbia to NATO, its civilian and military part with the NATO international secretariats, missions/delegations of Alliance members and partners, as well as military structures in the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons (SHAPE). Also, the comprehensive cooperation of the NATO military office in Belgrade with our institutions is directed in the same direction and goals, which all make for a very successfully developed network of communication channels between Serbia and NATO, in order to better shape the partnership cooperation, which is layered and developed, with common interest.

During the visit of GS Stoltenberg to Belgrade, the possibility of holding military exercises NATO – Serbia, which was planned earlier but postponed after the start of the war in Ukraine, and based on the conclusion of the Government of Serbia mentioned above, which was also noted at the joint media conference of President Vučić and GS Stoltenberg, was discussed. The possibility of renewing military exercises with partners is currently being analyzed, given that every army, like ours, needs interoperability in the development of its capabilities and capacities, especially bearing in mind our prominent role in EU and UN missions and operations, which is an essential part of our foreign and defense policy, and as part of that, the partnership with NATO. This role is highly recognized in the military and civilian structures of NATO, as well as the EU and the UN, and contributes to strengthening Serbia’s position on the international scene as a relevant contributor to peace and stability in the region, but also outside of it.

EWB: Clear signals are coming from the European Union that official Belgrade is expected to comply with sanctions against Russia. Is the fact that we did not impose sanctions on Russia a problem for cooperation between Serbia and NATO?

BF: Unlike the EU, within which a regime of sanctions against Russia was introduced, NATO does not have a similar mechanism, and this issue is not raised within the framework of partnership cooperation. On the other hand, since the majority of NATO members are EU members are well, the fact that Serbia has not imposed sanctions on Russia affects the shaping of the perception of Serbia within NATO, taking into account the attitudes of the member states on the war in Ukraine.

It should be borne in mind that the war in Ukraine, the new security environment of the Allies, as well as the process of adapting the Alliance to the current global moment, led to NATO focusing again on its core task, which is collective defense (deterrence and defense). Logically, this is reflected in the other two core tasks of NATO: cooperative security and crisis management. When it comes to partnership cooperation, all partners face it.

NATO and the EU, as two organizations, are cooperating more closely in certain areas and have so far concluded three joint declarations. Since Serbia is the EU candidate country that is implementing its accession process, this cooperation between NATO and the EU, especially in the field of security policy, provides a logical basis for both Serbia and NATO to have an interest in additionally shaping the cooperation based on established principles of partnership relations. In this context, the interest of both Serbia and NATO in maintaining peace and stability in the region should be viewed as a key condition for economic and any other progress. I sincerely believe that Serbia’s capacities and contribution to security in the region, as well as outside it, are recognized and valued in NATO, and, among other things, NATO values Serbia’s role as a partner for these reasons.

EWB: The Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) was last adopted from 2019 to 2021. What is the fulfillment of IPAP so far, and what can we expect in the future regarding this action plan? 

BF: Serbia has passed two cycles of IPAP, and as you know, since the IPAP was published on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, as well as all partner documents, which are transparent and accessible, the focus was on foreign and security policy, reforms in the defense sector and interoperability, participation in international missions/operations, scientific cooperation, emergency planning. As can be seen from the table that is part of the IPAP, some activities had a particular timing that was implemented, and some were ongoing processes since they are about reform processes in different areas, which are also related to our European integration process. These documents confirmed the trend of partnership cooperation between Serbia and NATO, created conditions for the continuation of a regular and structured dialogue on all issues of mutual interest, and facilitated the coordination of our bilateral cooperation with NATO members and partners. Both documents were based on a clearly defined policy of military neutrality of Serbia.

From 2021 and 2022, NATO began the process of transforming partnership documents without changing the basic principles of partnership cooperation: voluntariness, transparency, and flexibility, to unify all existing aspects of partnership cooperation into one process, which will be updated during the duration of the single document – ITPP Individually Tailored Partnership Programme. It replaces, that is, consolidates existing documents and instruments of partnership cooperation, such as the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) and the Planning and Review Process (PARP). The goal was to ensure greater political control, both by NATO members and the partner countries themselves, greater transparency, rationality, and efficiency while reducing administrative difficulties when dealing with many documents.

We are now in the phase of harmonizing that new document, as are the other partners, who still need to complete this process. In general, the content will be similar to the earlier IPAPs because the focus will be on political dialogue and practical cooperation, which are primarily in our interest, of course, in consultations and agreements with NATO, so we expect it to be highlighting the same areas as those that made up the IPAP content. Only the approach methodology will be different. Also, the new document will contain the PARP – Planning and Review Process, which, together with the Operational Capabilities Concept (OCC) and other programs, is the primary mechanism for military cooperation and support for defense system reforms.

EWB: In their statements, NATO officials praise the level of cooperation between Serbia and NATO. Despite this, the negative perception of Serbian citizens towards NATO has not changed. Why is this improved cooperation between Serbia and NATO not reflected in the perception of citizens?

BF: Relations between Serbia and NATO are specific because Serbia is the only partner country that NATO members bombed, so relations are also burdened because of the reflections of those events from the past. I would point out two crucial points.

The former FRY was bombed in 1999 by NATO members without the authorization of the UN Security Council, although it did not attack any member states. It happened during world peace and integration, and the world’s most powerful Alliance attacked a small country. This year marks the 25th anniversary of that event, and every year, we remember the victims, which is a challenging and emotional act for us. Many citizens experienced the bombing, and many lost their loved ones, so it remains an indelible memory. What I want to emphasize this time, too, is that GS Stoltenberg expressed his regret and condolences for the civilian victims on several occasions, which is an act that is appreciated in Serbia since none of the NATO GS before him had done it in such a way. The bombing of the former FRY and the enormous civilian casualties and destruction remain in memory, but both Serbia and NATO have an interest in continuing with a positive agenda and continuing to improve partnership cooperation with common interest because the past cannot be changed, the tragic and traumatic consequences remain in the memory, but the future can be built together. Such a future can only be reached by strengthening cooperation and trust, which is the essence of partnership, but what is also particularly important is the understanding and appreciation of Serbia’s vital interests as an important and responsible partner.

Another critical moment that affects the perception of NATO in Serbia is the fact that many members recognized the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo (JPNK), i.e., the violent secession of a part of Serbia’s territory. It is an indisputable fact that NATO has a status-neutral approach, which our side respects, but some members who have recognized the JPNK have a different approach compared to the one defined by NATO and bilaterally support Pristina even in areas such as defense, which we consider contrary to UNSC Resolution 1244 because KFOR is the only legal military formation in Kosovo and Metohija. This is again maintained in the public’s attitude towards NATO because it is about its members and the most powerful ones. We must all be aware of this, but we should continue to build partnership relations with mutual understanding and respect for interests. What Serbia is expecting is precisely such an understanding, above all the red lines in the defense of its state and national interests (which every country has) and appreciation of the contribution that Serbia makes in all delicate issues related to Kosovo and Metohija, but also the region as a whole.

EWB: One of the NATO programs in which Serbia is particularly active is the Science for Peace and Security Program, in which we have participated since 2007 as a partner country. What is the cooperation in this area, and what are the most important active projects?

BF: In this question, you correctly evaluated Serbia’s activity in this Program because Serbia is one of the leading partner countries regarding the number of projects. The Program promotes cooperation with member states and partners in scientific research, technological innovation, and knowledge exchange. During 2023 and earlier years, researchers and scientific staff from Serbia participated in a series of projects in advanced technologies, the fight against terrorism, energy security, countering CBRN threats, etc. All these projects are significant and provide an opportunity to recognize further our scientists’ achievements on the international stage and the cooperation they achieve with scientific institutions from NATO members and partners.

I would single out an example of cooperation in developing technology to identify explosive devices in places of mass gathering and transit (such as airports, subways, railway stations, etc.) to prevent terrorist attacks in these locations. The project in question is the “DEXTER” project in which scientists from the “Vincha” Institute participated with scientists from NATO members – France, Germany, Italy, Finland, and the Netherlands, as well as partners from Korea and Ukraine.

Recently, on the occasion of celebrating the “Day of Women and Girls in Science,” NATO published a statement about the Alliance’s support to “outstanding researchers of member states and partner countries” within this program to develop solutions for new security challenges. Then, among others, the contribution of Dr. Danica Pavlović from the Institute of Physics in Belgrade, who is engaged in research in the field of biophotonics, was mentioned. With the support of the NATO program “Science for Peace and Security,” she completed a research project using elements from nature to improve existing technologies. She worked on the development of a “low-cost” multispectral surveillance camera, using examples from nature, such as usingbutterfly wing scales as camera pixels and she presented the prototype of this device to GS Stoltenberg, during his visit to Belgrade.

I want to mention that there was a very successful research project for the development of commercial production of biofuel from algae, which was carried out by the Institute for Multidisciplinary Research of the University of Belgrade in cooperation with the University of Manchester (UK) and Baylor University (USA), as well as the multi-year project “Carbon-based batteries and supercapacitors”-SUPERCAR with the aim of developing a new generation of batteries and supercapacitors based on more environmentally friendly carbon technology obtained from biomass. Partners in this project are the Faculty of Physical Chemistry in Belgrade and scientific institutions from Ljubljana and Podgorica. Also, a project in the field of using hydrogen energy was recently launched with the participation of the “Vinca” Institute and universities in Podgorica and Madrid. These are only examples, and the list is very long, so it goes beyond the scope of this question.

NATO typically publishes calls for applications for projects within this Program and regularly informs the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Science, Technological Development and Innovation as the competent department for this area while encouraging our scientists and institutions to include their projects in this Program since the experiences so far have been quite positive.

EWB: How do you assess Kosovo security situation after the Banjska events? What is the role of KFOR, and are the relations between the Serbian Army and KFOR still at their previous level?

 BF: Our extreme concern for the security situation in Kosovo and Metohija, due to the endangerment and intimidation of members of the Serbian community in the Province by Pristina and its failure to fulfill its obligations from the Brussels Agreement, was also reflected in the recent extraordinary session of the UNSC. Serbia requested such a session on the occasion of Pristina’s latest unilateral and illegal decisions regarding the abolition of the dinar. This decision led to the culmination of attacks on the Serbian population, and their survival in the territory of the southern Province of Serbia directly depends on the inflow of dinar funds from the Serbian budget of which they are the beneficiaries and which has been going on unhindered all these years. It is very good that the session was open to the public, and it was an opportunity to recognize on the wider international stage the degree of risk and illegality of Pristina’s increasingly brutal unilateral actions aimed at forcing Serbs to leave their homes.

We continuously express our commitment to the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina under the mediation of the EU and at all levels; we point out that for any dialogue process, the two parties must fulfill what was agreed upon because this is the basis for making the process sustainable. The key problem is that Pristina refuses to fulfill these obligations and is taking increasingly brutal and reckless unilateral moves. This is met with rhetorical criticism from international factors. Still, for now, there is no prospect that Prishtina will stop such actions and finally fulfill what was agreed upon in the Brussels Agreement, but also in a special agreement on the principles of the organization of the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities in Kosovo.

It is extremely important that the mandate of the KFOR Mission in Kosovo and Metohija be realized fully under the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and the Military Technical Agreement, as well as that the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina proceeds smoothly, with the implementation of the things agreed and without undertaking unilateral moves. At the same time, it is important to preemptively prevent any provocative action by Pristina, which carries the potential for destabilization. The responsibility of guaranteeing security in Kosovo cannot be transferred to anyone else since KFOR is the only legal military formation in the Province, the only partner of the Armed Forces in securing the administrative line, a vital guarantor of the implementation of the Brussels Agreement and practically the only guarantor of the safety and survival of Serbs, their property, religious and cultural heritage in the Province.

The relations between the Serbian Army and KFOR are very good because of their mutual willingness and determination to implement their respective mandates. Both parties respect and apply their obligations and realize their rights from the Military Technical Agreement. The Serbian Army is in constant contact with KFOR at various levels, from the communication of the Chief of Staff of the Serbian Army and the KFOR Commander to other levels provided for in the Military Technical Agreement, as well as communications with the NATO military structure. The NATO military and other structures highly evaluate this cooperation, so I am convinced it will continue on that basis. This kind of all-around cooperation properly prevents any attempts by political and other circles in Pristina to use provocations to disrupt the relationship between KFOR and the Serbian Army.

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