General Knud Bartels, chairman of the NATO military committee, in an interview with RFE/RL, said he had assurances from Belgrade Serbia’s cooperation with Russia is within the scope of neutrality.
That position is intended to give Serbia the ability to cooperate with both NATO and Russia.
Bartels was visiting Serbia as part of an “Individual Partnership Action Plan” to extend cooperation with the West but without Serbia having to pledge to join NATO. The interview, lightly edited, follows:
RFE/RL: General Bartels, thank you very much for this interview.Could you please tell us what the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), signed between NATO and Serbia offers to Serbia?
Bartels: IPAP is, as it says, an Individual Partnership Action Plan….It is created for the common benefits of both…the Republic of Serbia and NATO. And we have developed, after negotiations, a common understanding on the military development, which leads to [cooperative operation] of the Serbian armed forces with NATO forces, the development of the ability of Serbian forces to react to emergencies, development of medical support peace support operations. And those goals have been developed together and are already starting and this will ensure the possibility thatinteraction of Serbian forces and the armed forces of the 28 allies is increased, which leads to a better common understanding of each other and leads to better cooperation.
RFE/RL: Serbia and NATO aim to improve public access to information of the benefits of Serbia and NATO cooperation. But Serbian citizens hardly know anything about IPAP. Is that your perception too?
Bartels: I hope very much that this interview will contribute to a better understanding of what the IPAP is. And conversations with Serbian authorities lead me to think they also intend to develop an information campaign as to what the content of IPAP is and to make sure to stress that this is to th emutual benefit of both the Republic of Serbia and NATO.
RFE/RL: What are the media strategies and platforms for Serbia to enhance that information campaign? Are other countries who have signed such agreements working to enhance communications?
Bartels: The number of countries which have an IPAP is rather limited. In fact, there are only six nations and one of them is Serbia. [In such a pact] we develop a mutual information system about what we are doing… My visit ispart of this….
RFE/RL: In accordance with IPAP, are NATO and Serbia going to improve their joint military cooperation including peace operations abroad? Is Serbia ready for that advanced cooperation?
Bartels: Serbia is already cooperating in a substantial number of EU and UN operations, which I think shows good initiative from the Serbian authorities. What we are doing is that we are fully respecting the neutrality of the Serbian armed forces… [and] the future will be up to the Serbian authorities. But our armed forces will be more inter-operable.
RFE/RL: Do you think Serbia is taking responsibility for security in Europe and in the Western Balkans?
Bartels: I think that the best example of that is the Pristina-Belgrade and Belgrade-Pristina dialogue conducted within the framework of the European Union. I think both sides have shown considerable political maturity in addressing this issue, knowing perfectly well what the history is and how difficult it is for both countries. So I do indeed support very much the initiatives which have been taken.
RFE/RL: What is your opinion about the decision of the Serbian president to attend and to send Serbian armed forces to participate in the military parade in Moscow on May 9?
Bartels: There were relationships between the Russian armed forces and the Serbian armed forces during WW II. So the decision has been made and it is entirely up to Serbia to decide, and I have no further comments on that.
RFE/RL: Serbia and Russia are also planning joint military exercises this coming September. How does this square with the improved cooperation between Serbia and the NATO?
Bartels: It is a national decision by Serbia, whose authorities have made it quite clear that they are in the position of neutrality, which implies that they cooperate with both the Russian Federation and NATO.
RFE/RL: What is NATO’s view on the Serbian-Russian Center for humanitarian emergency responses in Nis? The EU had some concerns about it.
Bartels: It is a national decision of Serbian authorities and I can only say that it has no impact on the implementation of the IPAP, which is proceeding well and which involves substantial activities.
RFE/RL: Is there going to be a regional military center in the south of Serbia - in Bujanovac? And will it become the regional training center for partner-countries and NATO members?
Bartels: In IPAP, what we are dealing with is the relationship between the NATO members, the armed forces of 28 allies, and the Serbian armed forces. But we cannot exclude any kind of development and we are very optimistic about the future in whatever format.
RFE/RL: Regarding NATO’s KFOR [its security force for Kosovo], there is a concern in Serbia that KFOR might soon leave. Is KFOR staying or leaving?
Bartels: KFOR is being adapted [to be] condition-based and it is an issue that I have discussed extensively with the Serbian authorities in the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense. We are perfectly aware of the responsibilities of KFOR, we are perfectly aware of the situation in Kosovo and I would also like to use this opportunity to commend the cooperation between the Serbian armed forces and KFOR. It is a very good example of, from a professional perspective, how to treat the issues that we are facing. We will adapt KFOR after mature political decisions by the 28 allies, and, as I mentioned, we are well aware of the situation in Kosovo.
RFE/RL: What is your view on the defense and security sector reform in Serbia? Is that reform really implemented or is there a lot more to be done?
Bartels: We are moving ahead with it and we are moving forward in a satisfactory way. It is not always very visible, but there are very close exchanges between the Serbian military authorities and NATO headquarters with the purpose of bringing the Serbian armed forces in line with the standards at the political and military level in NATO.
RFE/RL: And when it comes to transparent democratic control of the security and defense sector in Serbia, what can you say? Do you see such control?
Bartels: Based on the dialogue which I have mentioned earlier, that I had yesterday and today, it is my perception that there is a full understanding of the political-military relationship, which is never an easy one. This is reflected in a way that Serbian armed forces respect their neutrality and are operating in the context of the United Nation and EU actions, so I think that we are moving in the right direction.
RFE/RL: But when it comes to parliament’s control of the defense and security sector, do you feel that any reforms were implemented?
Bartels: Those are national responsibilities on which I have no views.
RFE/RL: My last question is: What are the mayor security challenges in this part of Europe?
Bartels: First of all, the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo is not fully normalized yet, but we are making very good steps, and considering where we came from I think that we should reflect on how much has already been achieved. So that is the first thing. The second thing is, I think, that there are many shared concerns about the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the lack of political development in the country, which is an issue I have also discussed with the Serbian authorities and where I know they share our concerns. Therefore, I hope we will see evolution in the right direction. And of course, there is the whole economic development in the region, but that is entirely in the hands of the EU and the cooperation between the various countries.