Thank you, Dragan, for that introduction and for inviting me to take part in this event. And thank you to the Serbian American Friendship Club for partnering with our Department of Defense to put on this conference. You always do a good job and it’s great to see so many of your members here today.
I’m also happy to see representatives from NATO ally and partner countries here today. We should extend a special welcome to the newest member of NATO, our friends and colleagues from Montenegro. It’s great to see that your country joined the alliance just last week and you’re already out on the lecture circuit.
Montenegro’s accession is big news and we’re seeing the topic of cooperation with NATO in Serbia being discussed more in the media here as well. There are a lot of different opinions and points of view. And I have to tell you, the more that I see the reporting on this issue, the more I’m convinced that to have a real conversation about Serbia and NATO we need to first be clear what it is we are talking about.
So I want to take a few minutes to talk about this with you here today.
We need to separate fact from fiction. The fact is that Serbia has made it clear that it is not pursuing NATO membership. The fact is that NATO as an organization and NATO member countries respect Serbia’s neutrality. The fact that Serbia is a NATO partner does not mean NATO is pressuring Serbia to join NATO or that there is any obligation for Serbia to participate in NATO operations. In fact, when it comes to NATO, Serbia always has and always will decide what it does with the alliance and when.
It is also a fact that partnership with NATO does not prevent Serbia from working closely with other, non-NATO countries. Serbia is a sovereign country and there is nothing in Serbia’s partnership arrangements such as the IPAP, PfP, Status of Forces Agreement, or any other document or agreement that tells Serbia who it can and cannot work with.
In this regard, Serbia is pursuing the same model for cooperation used by Austria, Ireland, Sweden, and Finland. All these successful EU countries remain militarily neutral but are also active NATO PfP participants.
So what is Serbia’s partnership with NATO all about? What are the facts that we need to know? Serbia’s partnership with NATO benefits Serbia. It makes Serbia safer. It makes Serbia more secure. And it makes Serbia better able to cooperate with its neighbors.
Serbia’s participation in the Partnership for Peace program has been going on for more than 10 years. This cooperation has grown to now include more than 100 engagements a year and there are a number of benefits from the program that many people are not aware of.
One good example of this is the NATO Trust Fund Projects. Since 2006, Serbia has been the beneficiary of four Trust Fund Projects valued at more than 15 million dollars. These projects have sought to make Serbia safer by helping to safely dismantle old and unsafe ammunition and weapons. This includes the ongoing project at Technicki Remontni Zavod in Kragujevac.
The United States is proud to have contributed to this project, alongside 10 other NATO member and partner countries. We remain committed to the TRZ installation and staff and we will continue to support operations at the site in addition to providing funding, part of which will now be used to rebuild the site following the tragic accident earlier this year.
Together with our NATO allies and partners at the Serbian Armed Forces, we will ensure that the project continues to move forward and remove the danger of unstable munitions in Serbia. We will also make sure that the more than 100 people who work at TRZ will continue to have job security for the next two years.
Aside from that, in 2011, a fourth NATO Trust Fund project completed its mission to help more than 6,000 former members of the Serbian Armed Forces transition into civilian employment. It did so with vocational training, support services, career counseling, as well as grants and loans to start and expand small and medium sized businesses.
A lot of people are surprised when I talk to them about the different kinds of opportunities available to Serbia through its cooperation with NATO. Most people think only about NATO’s military defense activities. But NATO is much more than that. At its core, NATO is a powerful network of European countries which acts as a focal point to bring together the resources of the international community to address safety and security issues throughout Europe, including Serbia. The NATO Trust Funds are just one part of those resources.
Many of these resources focus not on military defense activities, but challenges in the civil sector. Though still in its early stages, Serbia’s relationship with NATO has helped it to address the migrant crisis, civil emergencies and natural disasters, terrorism, and cyber security.
When Serbia was facing the height of the migrant and refugee crisis, seven NATO countries, including the United States, responded to Serbia’s request for assistance. Through NATO, these countries sent Serbia more than a million dollars worth of humanitarian supplies such as food, tents, blankets, heaters, generators, and warm clothing.
NATO also provides a framework through which Serbia can better work with its neighbors to address natural disasters. Last year, Serbia participated for the first time in a multi-day disaster relief exercise called “Crna Gora 2016” in Montenegro, along with 680 other participants from 32 countries. The exercise focused on developing an effective, multi-national response to widespread flooding in the Western Balkans, just like the disaster Serbia faced in 2014. We are looking forward to Serbia taking part in this exercise this year as well, in Bosnia.
Now, there are people who like to point to the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center here in Niš as a source of that same kind of support. But I have to tell you, it’s not even close.
The resources that are available to Serbia through NATO for disaster response are unmatched. That’s humanitarian supplies and logistical and technical support. And if you look at what the Russian center has done, there’s just not much there. They’re good at advertising, but the truth is that Russia just cannot offer much in the way of humanitarian relief. And it cannot provide any kind of mechanism for Serbia to better cooperate with its neighbors.
This is an important point. Regional threats to safety, whether they are natural disasters or man-made crises, require a regional response. When you take a look around, almost all of Serbia’s neighbors are in NATO. Those that aren’t members have strong partnership agreements with NATO and regularly take part in NATO activities, the same as same Serbia does. The network of support for Serbia when it comes to security issues is clear. No other partner or organization can offer Serbia the tools it needs to truly look after the safety of its citizens by working with its neighbors the way that NATO can.
But this cooperation is a two-way street. Serbia’s contributions to these and other bodies are important for other countries in the region as well. Your armed forces, police, and emergency responders are top notch. They have a well-deserved reputation for professionalism and your neighbors want to work with you. NATO provides a framework to help make that happen.
This cooperation is essential in the fight against terrorism. For example, NATO members and partners regularly train together with Serbian professionals at the Chemical, Biological, Radioactive, and Nuclear Center in Kruševac. Since NATO certification of the center in 2013, participants from more than 100 countries have come to train there, both improving their skills and giving Serbia a network of partners from around the world to assist in the event of a chemical or biological attack.
NATO also recently joined Serbia as a member of the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS, opening further areas of potential partnership. Serbia is an active member of the coalition and has made significant contributions of defense materials and medical supplies. It will be interesting to see how Serbia and NATO can help each other develop defenses against extremism.
And there are other benefits of cooperation with NATO, including the Science for Peace and Security program. This program provides a framework for universities in Serbia to partner with institutions in the region and throughout the NATO network.
There are a number of projects ongoing throughout Serbia, including right here at the University of Niš with international partners. Professor Goran Djordjevic at the Faculty of Electronics has been working on a project for a robot that can operate in hazardous areas. It is exciting to see Serbia developing new technologies which have the potential to help further develop industry.
This is another of the many areas of Serbia’s cooperation with NATO.
More broadly, Serbia seeks to transform its military along structural and training lines that are compatible with forces for EU and international peacekeeping operations. And that means adopting NATO standards, and that is what Serbia is getting via its engagements with NATO.
On this point, the United States is proud to have partnered with Serbia and invest more than seven million dollars in the development of South Base as a regional training hub for peacekeeping operations. The Ohio National Guard and the European Command of the United States military have worked closely with the Serbian army to train and equip units before they deploy and this is a relationship that has produced impressive results.
As a matter of fact, at this moment there is a peacekeeping operations training exercise going on with the Ohio National Guard and almost all of Serbia’s neighbors at South Base. The exercise is called Platinum Wolf and it involves more than 400 soldiers from places like Bosnia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, the UK, and the U.S. who are all there to enhance their interoperability and improve their peacekeeping operations abilities. If you ask me, this kind of exercise, with these partners, is where Serbia belongs.
Serbia is a leading nation in the region for deployments of military personnel on UN and EU peacekeeping missions abroad. More than 300 Serbian men and women in uniform serve with honor and distinction on important missions ranging from Africa, to the Middle East, to Cyprus. They have earned their reputation for toughness and professionalism and the international community is proud to serve alongside them.
So let’s have a constructive conversation about NATO and the region. To do so, we need to focus on the future – what Serbia wants, what Serbia needs, and what partnership with the most successful military alliance in the history of mankind can bring to this country.
Today, we are lucky to have representatives here with us from NATO member and partner countries throughout the region who can help to answer some of those questions. Each of these countries has decided for itself how cooperation with NATO best helps it to meet its security and defense goals. And I look forward to hearing from each of you.