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Burying the hatchet

Pavle Janković and Srdjan Gligorijević analyse Serbia and Montenegro’s relationship with NATO and urge the Alliance to admit their country into the Partnership for Peace.

Serbian speech: Lord Robertson became the first serving NATO Secretary General to visit Belgrade where he spoke at the Military Academy (© NATO)

Serbia and Montenegro is the only country to have been the target of an extended NATO air campaign. But that was five years ago. Today membership of NATO’s Partnership for Peace represents the country’s immediate foreign and security priority. This reflects a remarkable shift from war to peace through a period of détente and now rapprochement that holds out the promise of a more stable and potentially prosperous future entente and the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and the Euro-Atlantic community.

At present, Serbia and Montenegro is together with Bosnia and Herzegovina the only significant continental European country outside the Partnership for Peace. This situation is in stark contrast to that of the neighbouring states. Hungary has been a NATO member since 1999; Bulgaria and Romania joined the Alliance in March of this year; and Albania, Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* are on the road to membership via NATO’s Membership Action Plan. The irony for Belgrade is that as the capital of Tito’s Yugoslavia it began building a relationship with the Alliance more than half a century ago.

In 1951, Yugoslavia was included in the US Military Assistance Programme and, a year later, it established a political-military alliance with Greece and Turkey that remained in effect until mid-1955. During negotiations on this Tripartite Alliance, Belgrade sought unsuccessfully to insert a provision in the treaty to the effect that an attack on one ally should be considered an attack against all three. In this way, given that Greece and Turkey had just joined NATO, Yugoslavia hoped indirectly to be covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the Alliance’s collective-defence clause. In the event, the Tripartite Alliance withered, in part because of a thaw in relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union following Stalin’s death and in part because of disagreements between Greece and Turkey. From then until Yugoslavia’s dissolution in the 1990s, the country pursued a policy of non-alignment, refusing to take sides in the bipolar world. In retrospect, however, it is safe to assume that Yugoslavia would not have had the luxury of such a policy had it not been for the existence of NATO.

Belgrade came into indirect conflict with NATO in the early 1990s as the Alliance helped enforce an arms embargo against the whole of the former Yugoslavia and economic sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro. In 1994 and 1995, NATO launched air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets in order to force compliance with UN Security Council resolutions designed to bring an end to the conflict. These acts helped turn the tide of battle and paved the way for the negotiations that culminated in the Dayton Peace Accord. After the signing of this agreement, a NATO-led peacekeeping force, the Implementation Force or IFOR deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina to oversee implementation of Dayton’s military aspects. As a signatory and guarantor of the agreement, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, since renamed Serbia and Montenegro, was obliged to offer logistic support.

NATO air campaign

Relations with NATO disintegrated as a result of a deteriorating situation in Kosovo. In the wake of escalating fighting between ethnic Albanian insurgents and Serbian security forces and failed peace talks, NATO launched air strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in March 1999. These lasted 78 days and caused substantial material and environmental damage and, worse still, numerous civilian casualties, as well as a potentially unbridgeable chasm between NATO and Serbia and Montenegro. The human rights violations against ethnic Albanians were brought to an end, but the dynamics of inter-ethnic relations within Kosovo remained unchanged. Violence and other extremist measures continue to be used by different groupings within the province to achieve their goals, but now Serbs are generally the victims.

At the end of NATO’s air campaign, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244, which authorised deployment of a NATO-led force in Kosovo, known as the Kosovo Force or KFOR. In parallel, the first KFOR Commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Jackson, negotiated a Military Technical Agreement with the Yugoslav military authorities. This covered the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Army and police from Kosovo, the creation of a demilitarised, five-kilometre Ground Safety Zone in western Montenegro and southern Serbia adjacent to Kosovo and the establishment of a Joint Consultative Commission as a tool for permanent contact between KFOR and the Yugoslav Army. Relations with NATO remained tense until the Yugoslav electorate rejected Milosevic in elections in October 2000 and street protests forced him to accept his defeat.

The post-Milosevic, democratic government immediately set a very different foreign policy course, whose cooperative spirit was reflected in the way that Belgrade worked together with the Alliance to defuse an ethnic Albanian insurrection in southern Serbia during the winter and spring of 2000 and 2001. In January 2001, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic visited NATO Headquarters and, in February, together with Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, he briefed the North Atlantic Council on plans to resolve the conflict in southern Serbia peacefully. Since then, these two officials and other Yugoslav and Serbian representatives have regularly visited NATO Headquarters. In March 2001, Yugoslav security forces began a phased return to the Ground Safety Zone, a process that was accompanied by confidence-building measures for the local Albanian population and coordinated with NATO. In December 2002, in accordance with the terms of both the Dayton Peace Accord and UNSCR 1244, NATO aircraft began over-flying Serbia and Montenegro in support of the SFOR and KFOR missions. And in June 2003, Foreign Minister Svilanovic officially applied for membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace.

Two historic events in November 2003 illustrate the extent of the rapprochement that has taken place. Firstly, AFSOUTH Commander Admiral Gregory G. Johnson, the officer responsible for SFOR and KFOR, met with Defence Minister Boris Tadic and Yugoslav Chief of Staff General Krga in Naples, Italy. Secondly, Lord Robertson became the first serving NATO Secretary General to visit Belgrade on his farewell tour of those parts of the former Yugoslavia in which the Allience was engaged. In addition to meeting with the highest political and military representatives, Lord Robertson made a speech at the Military Academy in Belgrade.

Kosovo violence

The upsurge in violence in Kosovo in March this year seemed to take NATO by surprise and threatened to undermine much of the progress that had been made in relations between Serbia and Montenegro and the Alliance. As Albanian extremists turned on the province’s remaining Serbs, the peacekeepers initially appeared paralysed. The situation was, nevertheless, rapidly brought under control by the decisive intervention of key NATO officials – in particular KFOR and SFOR Commander Admiral Johnson, Supreme Allied Commander General James L. Jones and Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer – and the dispatch of reserve forces.

During the crisis, the Serbian and Montenegrin authorities – civilian and military alike – avoided an emotional response and took a series of measured actions. Despite differing views within the government, the authorities focused on establishing permanent communication with NATO and other organisations responsible for security in Kosovo. In cooperation with NATO, Serbian and Montenegrin officials helped to create the best possible conditions for the restoration of order and an end to the attacks on Serbs and on their property, historic monuments, churches and monasteries. Throughout this period, Defence Minister Tadic maintained permanent telephone contact with both Secretary General De Hoop Scheffer and Admiral Johnson. This proved to be of incomparable importance and demonstrated that only through cooperation between NATO and Serbia and Montenegro can effective stability in Kosovo be achieved.

Education is proving to be another field for fruitful cooperation. Since June 2003, military officers and civilians have been participating in NATO Orientation Courses. These aim to provide participants with a basic knowledge of the Alliance as well as an introduction to crisis-management issues, peace-support operations and civil-military cooperation. In support of these goals, the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany, has ongoing intensive training programmes that include military personnel from Serbia and Montenegro. The Defence Ministry has also developed bilateral educational links with several NATO countries. Moreover, a number of foreign advisers are now embedded in the Defence Ministry and are available at all times to the Minister and his staff.

In late May, the Army of Serbia and Montenegro participated in joint anti-terrorist exercises named Blue Road 2004, together with the Romanian Army. Since Romania is now a NATO member, the Army of Serbia and Montenegro was obliged for the first time to comply with NATO standards. The exercises were also an opportunity for Serbia and Montenegro to demonstrate how it could contribute to PfP activities as well as NATO-led peacekeeping missions.

During a visit to the United States last July, Serbian Prime Minister Zivkovic announced that his country was willing to participate militarily in ongoing peacekeeping missions. Specifically, this meant participation in the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan. Serbia and Montenegro’s Supreme Defence Council passed a decision soon afterwards allowing the armed forces to begin preparations for participation in international peacekeeping missions and since then a National Centre for Peacekeeping Missions has been established. However, the federal parliament, which is responsible for final approval of troop deployments beyond state borders, has yet to give its consent.

According to the most recent reliable opinion polling, carried out by Belgrade’s Centre for Civil-Military Relations in January and February of this year, two thirds of those polled – 69.8 per cent in Serbia and 54 per cent in Montenegro – believed that Serbia and Montenegro should join the Partnership for Peace. Moreover, more than two-fifths thought that PfP membership would bring more benefits than costs to the country. Compared to earlier surveys carried out in May and July 2003 and October 2003, these results show that the public is warming to the idea of PfP membership. On the other hand, about half of those polled – 56.2 per cent in Serbia and 50.2 per cent in Montenegro – do not wish Serbia and Montenegro to join NATO. When asked about their level of trust in NATO, only 4.3 per cent in Serbia and 3.2 per cent in Montenegro said that they would “trust” the Alliance.

The evolution of public attitudes towards NATO will likely depend on future interaction between the Alliance and Serbia and Montenegro and on NATO actions in Southeastern Europe. Specifically, popular attitudes to NATO will depend on the Alliance’s ability to provide security for ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and on the way its forces conduct themselves in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.

Outstanding issues for Serbia and Montenegro

ICTY Cooperation

Of the various preconditions for PfP membership, the most difficult to fulfil is that of full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. In practice, this means surrender of the most wanted indictee: Ratko Mladic. At present, however, no one appears able to say for sure whether he really is living in Serbia. Moreover, the NATO-led force operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the past eight years has failed to track down either Karadzic or Mladic in spite of the intelligence-gathering resources at the disposal of Alliance members.

A show of remorse by NATO for civilians killed in Allied air strikes would contribute to the healing process

The Serbian government has made it clear that if and when it is presented with reliable information about Mladic’s whereabouts in Serbia, appropriate forces will arrest him. Moreover, it has already extradited several individuals, including former President Milosevic. As a result, even moderate Serbs find it unacceptable that their country is effectively held to ransom by this issue. Moreover, most Serbs find it hard to view the ICTY as an impartial body, given the overwhelming preponderance of Serb indictees. And many point to double standards. Countries whose democratic credentials are no better than those of Serbia and Montenegro are already members of the Partnership for Peace.

Clearly, cooperation with the ICTY is important and must continue. However, care also needs to be taken not to undermine Serbia and Montenegro’s nascent democratic institutions. Zoran Djindjic, the late prime minister who was murdered in March 2003, may have paid the ultimate price for his cooperation. Despite this, some outsiders appear to prefer to focus more on criticisms of Serbia and Montenegro for failing to meet all ICTY obligations, than on seeking to help build a viable, democratic system.

Lawsuit against eight Allies

Since the 1999 NATO air campaign, Serbia and Montenegro has had a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague against eight NATO member states (though not against the Alliance itself). As long as this exists, it is another obstacle to PfP membership. In April, legal representatives of Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom asked the ICJ to dismiss the case on the grounds that at the time of the indictment Serbia and Montenegro was not a member of the United Nations. In the opinion of the authorities of Serbia and Montenegro, this case is linked to two other cases at the ICJ, namely genocide charges against Serbia and Montenegro brought by Croatia and by Bosnia and Herzegovina respectively. In the Bosnian case, the ICJ ruled that it has competence, even though Serbia and Montenegro was not a member of the United Nations at the time of the indictment. Belgrade has proposed the simultaneous dropping of all three lawsuits as the only way to overcome the current deadlock. To date, there has not been a response from the other two parties, but the proposal remains on the table.

Other matters

Other NATO preconditions for a closer relationship between the Alliance and Serbia and Montenegro have largely been met. These include the ending of covert support to the Army of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the progress that has been made in the field of military reform.

Landlines of NATO communication

Serbia and Montenegro could still take additional steps to improve relations with the Alliance, which would simultaneously help provide better security in Kosovo. Belgrade could, for example, make Serbian and Montenegrin territory available to NATO for road and rail transport, thereby improving links between SFOR and KFOR. Since the first reinforcements deployed in Kosovo in March involved transporting troops stationed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such a move would be in the interest of both NATO and Serbia and Montenegro.

Outstanding issues for NATO

PfP membership for Serbia and Montenegro

Serbian and Montenegrin membership of the Partnership for Peace (together with that of Bosnia and Herzegovina) would clearly help build stability in the Balkans. Given the importance of the Balkans to wider European stability, such a move would also likely have wider benefits. Moreover, within Serbia and Montenegro, it would help strengthen the hand of reformers and speed the reform process to help the country play a constructive role in regional security. Since both Serbia and Montenegro and the region as a whole are lagging far behind the rest of Europe, the earlier that Serbia and Montenegro joins the Partnership for Peace the better.

Coordination with the European Union

Serbia and Montenegro has a vested interest in strategic cooperation between two key Western institutions, the European Union and NATO. In July 2003, the two organisations published a framework EU and NATO concerted approach for the Western Balkans, reaffirming a common vision for the Balkans characterised by “self-sustaining stability based on democratic and effective government structures and a viable free market economy,” leading, eventually, to EU and NATO membership. NATO, the strongest and most cohesive political and military alliance in history, and the European Union, the only institution capable of bringing political and economical order and prosperity to the region, have inseparable roles to play in this historical undertaking.


According to the UNSCR 1244, KFOR is responsible in Kosovo for dissuading hostile acts and providing a secure and safe environment for all ethnic communities, their property and historical and spiritual heritage. In practice, this means protecting Serb and other non-Albanian minorities and enclaves throughout the province – an enormous undertaking for the Alliance as the tragic events of March demonstrated. At the time, while most contingents in the NATO-led forces responded in an effective and professional manner, this was not universally the case. For KFOR successfully to carry out its mission, it has to demonstrate at all times its professionalism, unity of purpose and impartiality. It must also remain sufficiently large to deal with all contingencies. Serbian military analysts believe that KFOR should not have been reduced below 25,000 troops and that to improve the security of Serb enclaves and monuments, it should now consider the deployment of up to 1,000 Serbian and Montenegrin troops, as originally foreseen in the 1999 Military Technical Agreement.

Way forward

The issues of Serbia and Montenegro’s cooperation with the ICTY and the outstanding ICJ lawsuits need to be resolved. However, they should not prevent Serbia and Montenegro from joining the Partnership for Peace. Nobody who cares about stability in both Serbia and Montenegro and the wider region could wish to deprive the country of access to one of the most effective mechanisms for responding to contemporary security threats and challenges. Serbia and Montenegro’s continued exclusion from the Partnership for Peace would only fuel conspiracy theories at home and provide further ammunition for extremists.

Progressive elements in Serbia and Montenegro crave a more open and “warmer” approach by NATO and to NATO. Both the political elite and ordinary citizens still have to confront the country’s past, but they have already taken bold steps in that direction. The wounds of the recent past and, in particular, the NATO air campaign, remain deep. A show of remorse by NATO for civilians killed in Allied air strikes would contribute to the healing process and help the Serbian and Montenegrin authorities make the case for wider international cooperation – including that with the ICTY – to the general public.

Serbia and Montenegro desperately needs policies which tend towards its inclusion in the international community rather than its continued exclusion from it. Future prosperity lies in international cooperation and access to the process of Euro-Atlantic integration. A great start would be an invitation from NATO to join the Partnership for Peace at the Istanbul Summit or at the earliest opportunity after it.

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