NATO-Serbia relations: New strategies or more of the same?

The Serbian government will soon have to clarify to its citizens its policy of neutrality towards NATO, argues Jelena Radoman, a research fellow at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy.

The following contribution is authored by Jelena Radoman, research fellow at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy and research associate at the Athens Working Group: Transforming the Balkans, a programme of the Hellenic Centre for European Studies.

"Serbia remains the Western Balkan country least interested in joining NATO despite recent improvement in relations with the Alliance and a booming arms industry.

Unlike its regional neighbours, Serbia never declared an interest in membership despite, participating in the 'Partnership for Peace' (PfP) programme since 2006 and opening its mission to NATO in 2010. The legacy of the NATO-Serb trifecta – NATO's intervention against Bosnian Serbs in 1995, the bombing campaign in 1999 and NATO members' support for Kosovo's independence since 2008 – keeps public approval for joining the Alliance low. Yet just as NATO has had to redefine its Strategic Concept, Serbia's leaders will soon have to clarify the country's declared neutrality vis-à-vis NATO.

The Serbian political leadership lacks a clear message as to whether Serbia should strive for NATO membership at all or if it has chosen alternative security projects. Without variation, several opinion polls have shown that more than 50% of the Serbian public would say 'no' to membership in NATO.

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There is high support for PfP participation, which is a sign that the Serbian public is generally not well informed about what NATO or the PfP is, what membership implies and what would be the cost (political, security, economic) of the voluntarily choice to exclude oneself from that security community.

The prevailing negative image of NATO among the Serbian public has frequently served as a perfect excuse for the state leadership to artificially remove the issue of possibly joining NATO from the agenda. Since the political establishment chose not to speak clearly on the issue it is little wonder that public opinion remains in a permanently frozen ratio of less then 30% being in favour of NATO membership.

As a result, no-one in the Serbian political establishment is willing to risk their political future on NATO membership. Nor do Serbian citizens feel that NATO has much to offer them. In the past, Serbia's officials were straightforward [in stating] that future relations with NATO and the possibility of Serbia's membership could be dependent on the future status of Kosovo.

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In that context, NATO's role in establishing the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF) have strained these relations. This direct connection between the Kosovo problem and Serbia's relations with NATO may be less straightforward than it used to be, since recent events indicate a thaw in relations.

The opening of the Serbian mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels this September came after two years of deadlock during which Serbian leaders constantly declared the opening of the mission as the priority in relations with NATO. Serbia is also sending a military representative to its mission at NATO, which could be seen as a sign of progress.

NATO's Military Liaison Office was established in December 2006 in Belgrade along with the Defence Reform Group (DRG) consisting of both Serbian MoD and NATO officials. The DRG was suspended after Kosovo declared independence in February 2008 and re-established in 2010.

Serbia's military industry is perhaps the biggest stakeholder in improved NATO-Serb relations. The Serbian MoD [Ministry of Defence] postures itself as the heir apparent of Yugoslavia's developed and reputable military industry.

According to the MoD, Serbia is the largest arms exporter in South Eastern Europe, selling its products 'from Malaysia to Canada and the USA'. In 2008, the arms industry earned a profit of $400 million, its highest margin since 1991. Especially prominent have been the trade contracts signed with Iraq in 2008 - worth $235 million, mostly regarding the export of infantry weapons and uniforms - and a similar contract signed with Libya in 2010, which offered the Serbian military industry an opportunity to construct a military hospital in Libya.

The MoD's top establishment argues that NATO membership would allow Serbia to develop this industry further. That argument has so far been one of the strongest in favour of NATO membership since it stresses the possible benefits Serbians could enjoy if they opt for membership.

Some political actors do try to push the issue of possible NATO membership on the daily politics agenda. Among them there are two political parties in favour of membership, one participating in the government, the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), and the other in opposition, the Liberal–Democratic Party (LDS), both without significant support among voters. A number of civil society organisations follow either a clear pro-NATO membership agenda or a more value-neutral approach in an attempt to improve awareness of NATO-related issues.

Arguments used by both types of actors are almost the same. The first and foremost argument is political; Serbia should not strive for the exceptional position in an environment where all other regional states have joined NATO or will soon. Likewise, NATO and EU membership go hand-in-hand, which has been the experience of all the ex-communist Central and East European states.

Second is the security argument: Serbia should not pass up the collective defence offered by NATO and military neutrality is too expensive in economic terms.

On the other side, there is a broad spectrum of actors who are explicitly against NATO. Among them are opposition parliamentary parties, which have different ideological backgrounds and origins. A number of civil society organisations are self-labelled as 'anti-NATO.'

Interestingly, the Serbian far right and far left have agreed on opposition to NATO for different reasons. For example, rightist parties and organisations label NATO an enemy who attacked Serbia in 1999 and committed war crimes for which its policymakers have never been prosecuted.

More moderate, less emotional, anti-NATO arguments make three main points: scepticism about NATO's purpose and intentions, the possible use and loss of 'Serbian boys' and a desire to consider Russian interests.

Both opponents and proponents of Serbia's NATO accession are locked into arguments with little sign of change. Public opinion may shift from Serb participation in UN or EU peacekeeping missions, and regional security initiatives.

The MoD has already declared its willingness to cooperate within the EU security umbrella, a possible substitute to the issue of NATO membership since it is both more acceptable for the Serbian public and in line with the country's EU membership ambition.

President Tadic's recent statement that it is not possible to envisage Serbia aspiring to join NATO in the foreseeable future confirms that Serbia's political leadership will take no steps to persuade the public of NATO membership's desirability. They do not necessarily have to do so if they clearly outline the country's vision of security, aside from not allowing Kosovo to secede."