Without formally rejecting the policy of neutrality, Belgrade is actively expanding cooperation with NATO. On February 19, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić signed into law the IPAP (Individual Partnership Action Plans) agreement with Alliance that says Serbia is obliged to provide the right of unrestricted movement of NATO troops on its territory, guaranteeing them immunity.
NATO personnel are exempt from misconduct and criminal acts. The servicemen will not pay taxes, tolls, customs, rent, airport taxes and other charges. NATO is given access to all public and private facilities in Serbia. According to the agreement, a partner nation lays out its reform goals and the areas where NATO can provide assistance to achieve those goals. In other words, NATO, not Serbian national government and parliament, will provide guidelines for the reform of Serbian military and the missions it should be trained for. This is a big step on the way of losing Serbia’s national sovereignty. With the agreement in force, Serbia will never be an independent country the world once knew.
On February 20, patriotic activists of the Republic of Serbia gathered in front of the Russian Embassy in Belgrade to express peaceful opposition to their country’s cooperation with NATO. Up to 2,000 people carrying Serbian and Russian flags gathered outside the Russian mission. Many expressed indignation over the death of two Serbian diplomats kidnapped last November, who were killed in US airstrikes on Libya on February 19.
A closer look at Serbia’s relationship with the Alliance shows that the rapprochement started a long time ago and has been progressing without attracting much public attention.
Serbia has been a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program since December 2006 – an important step towards membership.
The Serbia/NATO Defence Reform Group (DRG) was jointly established in February 2006 to provide advice and assistance to the Serbian authorities on reform and modernization of national military.
Serbia also joined the PfP Planning and Review Process (PARP) in 2007. The PARP provides a structured basis for identifying partner forces and capabilities that could be available to the Alliance for multinational training, exercises and operations. It also serves as a planning tool to guide and measure progress in defence and military transformation efforts. Serbia has been actively engaged within the framework of the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Program since 2007. The NATO Program enables close collaboration on issues of common interest with partner nations.
Serbia’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Training Centre in Kruševac became the Partnership Training and Education Centre in 2013, opening its activities to NATO and its partners.
The NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade, established in December 2006, facilitates Serbian participation in activities in the framework of the Partnership for Peace program and provides assistance to NATO’s public diplomacy activities in the region.
Serbia is currently in discussions with NATO on deepening cooperation through the development of the above mentioned programs and agreements. For instance, on February 10, the Serbian Parliament’s Defense and Internal Affairs Committee approved signing an agreement between Serbia and NATO Support and Procurement Organization (NSPO) on cooperation in the field of logistical support.
Actually, NATO’s invitation to Montenegro last December was a message to Serbia, the one and only Balkan state with no officially declared intention of joining NATO. With Montenegro joining the Alliance, Serbia will be surrounded by NATO member-states.
For NATO Serbia is an important corridor to the Black Sea basin and the Middle East. It’s easier to send reinforcements to Syria or Ukraine across the territory of Serbia, or its airspace. Perhaps, that’s why the US welcomes the idea to build a highway that would connect Niš (Central Serbia), Priština (Kosovo) and Durrës (Albania).
The road will allow to transfer land forces and armored and mechanized troops from the Adriatic coast (port of Durrës in Albania), through Niš to the Black Sea coast (the ports of Varna and Burgas in Bulgaria). In case of war, it will make Serbia a target for air strikes to prevent the movement of NATO reinforcements.
Russia’s position on the recent events in Serbia has been made clear. Drawing Serbia into NATO against the backdrop of deaths of its diplomats under American bombs is a humiliation for the country, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has told the Rossiya 1 TV channel. «They are told, 'You have to be in NATO, particularly Montenegro, because it is your security. We will protect you.' They say the same things to Serbia. How can you protect this country, if, despite the available information that people are held hostage, you bomb them? What kind of security are you talking about? I think this is a special kind of humiliation, attempts to impose the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, when they force their victims to love them and admit publicly that they want to be with them», Zakharova said.
Earlier reports said that two employees of the Serbian Embassy in Tripoli abducted by gunmen in November 2015 had died in the US air strike against a camp of the Islamic State terrorist group (banned in Russia) in Libya.
«The sad thing is that this information was provided by the FBI and the CIA, the Serbian leadership said this. That is, they knew. Now they deny that they know the whereabouts», Zakharova noted.
Serbia has held, since 2013, observer status in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that includes Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In 2014, unlike Montenegro, Serbia refused to support the West-imposed anti-Russian sanctions. In 2015, Serbia participated, for the very first time, in two military exercises with Russia to annoy the West.
Despite that, Serbia’s government has clearly taken a path to NATO membership. This policy has implications to be taken into account. By joining the Alliance, it would recognize the legitimacy of 1999 bombings of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia by NATO and the subsequent decisions on Kosovo. The membership will negatively affect the relations with Russia with significant economic benefits put into question. As a member, Serbia would become exposed to asymmetrical and transnational threats, including terrorist attacks. Being an EU member (another controversial aspect of Serbia’s foreign policy, but that’s the horse of another color) – which is the prime goal of the current government – will provide security guarantees without having to face all the negative aspects of NATO membership. For instance, after the Paris terrorist attacks, France invoked article 42.7 of the EU Treaty. The article «provides that when a state is attacked, all member states must bring their solidarity to address the aggression». All the above mentioned steps to get Serbia closer to the Alliance have been taken in the country where the memory of NATO’s air strikes (1999) remains strong with recent opinion polls showing 73% opposed to membership and only 12% in favor.
This is the most important argument – Serbian people don’t want NATO membership as the above mentioned polls show. They have their own views on the issue. The Serbian government should think twice about the choices it makes.