BalkanInsight, By Maja Zivanovic, 13 June 2017
Montenegro’s decision to join NATO – and Macedonia’s readiness to discuss removing the remaining obstacles to accession – are putting Serbia’s doctrine of military neutrality under growing pressure.
Serbian military experts are warning that government in Belgrade will one day have to re-consider its doctrine of military neutrality as neighbours in the Balkans join, or come closer to joining, the Western military alliance.
Foreign policy analyst Bosko Jaksic said that Serbia’s military neutrality was always a somewhat problematic concept because “while Switzerland and Austria are [generally] recognized by other countries [as neutral], Serbia’s [neutrality] is not recognized,” Jaksic told BIRN.
The majority of Balkan states in Serbia’s vicinity are now already members of NATO – Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Croatia and – most recently – Montenegro.
The fall of the nationalist government in Macedonia has meanwhile brought to power a more pro-NATO administration. “Our proclaimed military neutrality is only creating problems because it [Serbia] doesn’t have that status, which is only causing suspiciousness on all sides,” Jaksic said, adding that the evolving situation in the region is further undermining the idea of continued neutrality.
Local realities are shifting. Macedonia’s new Social Democrat Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, on May 12 met NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and discussed the possibility of removing the remaining obstacles on Macedonia’s NATO accession.
One week earlier, Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic officially handed over the NATO accession document at a ceremony in Washington, after which his small Adriatic republic became the 29th member of the club.
Military expert Aleksandar Radic told Beta news agency on June 5 that as both Bosnia and Macedonia adopt increasingly pro-NATO stances, Serbia may have to re-think its neutrality, not least because many Serbs – in Montenegro for example – now live in NATO states. While maintaining its constitutionally guaranteed equal distance between the US and Russia, since 2006 Serbia has in fact been participating in NATO’s Partners for Peace, PfP, programme.
Besides bilateral military cooperation with NATO and with individual NATO states, Serbia also holds joint military exercise with Russia’s military. According to the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, a think tank, the majority of the population in Serbia remains firmly against NATO membership – partly because of the negative sentiments left over from NATO’s air campaign in the late 1990s, which forced Serbia out of Kosovo, which then declared independence in 2008.
NATO launched air strikes in Serbia on March 24, 1999, without the backing of the UN Security Council, after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused to sign up to a peace deal on Kosovo and end his harsh crackdown on rebels seeking independence. By the time Milosevic eventually conceded 78 days later, the civilian death toll from the bombing campaign was put at around 500 by watchdog organisations such as Human Rights Watch.
The latest survey by the Centre for Security Policy published on March 8 showed that less than one in ten citizens favour NATO membership, although a much larger number, one-third, favour continued cooperation through the Partnership for Peace program.
Katarina Djokic, a researcher from the Centre for Security Policy, told BIRN that although maintaining military neutrality looks difficult, because of the continued anti-NATO atmosphere she does not expect a change of policy.
“I don’t expect a serious revision of policy in that field. NATO is too unpopular in Serbia and that still influences the way authorities are deciding [this issue],” Djokic said, adding that she expects continued cooperation with NATO on a lower, less formal level.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on May 29 reiterated that while EU membership is a very important goal for Serbia, Serbia does not intend to enter NATO.“I was at a NATO meeting and I said we don’t have that aspiration … Our intention is [still] to be militarily neutral; we want to be out of any military blocs,” Vucic said on Pink television.
Only a few small political parties in Serbia are pro-NATO, such as the Liberal Democratic Party and the regional League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina. However, some believe the current position will be hard to maintain. The secretary of the Security Committee of the opposition Democratic Party, retired captain Nikola Lunic, told BIRN that after Montenegro joined up – and amid indications that Bosnia and Macedonia could join NATO – Serbia will have to review geopolitical realities.
“Any arguments on the possible closer cooperation with NATO should be based on national interests and through public debate, rather than on national emotions,” Lunic told BIRN, concluding that military neutrality is not sustainable in the long term.