Serbia's Stance on NATO and the EU

4 MINS READAug 2, 2012 | 14:01 GMT
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic in Belgrade on June 28

Serbia's new defense minister, Aleksandar Vucic, announced in his first public address Aug. 1 that Serbia would not be a member of any military alliance, that there would be no changes in the country's military policy and that Serbia would remain militarily neutral, suggesting that Belgrade will not apply for NATO accession in the near future. Vucic also said that the Serbian army would continue cooperating with the United States and that Serbia would also continue to cooperate with Russia. The statements came the same day as a deadly accident at a Serbian army barracks on Mount Kopaonik, where two soldiers were killed when a NATO cluster bomb, left over from the 1999 bombing of Kosovo, exploded. The incident is yet another a reminder of what Vucic called a crime against the people of Serbia.

Vucic's announcement about the country's military stance must be viewed in a particular political context. In late May, Tomislav Nikolic, a nationalist leader close to former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, was elected president. Nikolic is a highly controversial figure because of his persistent calls for creating a Greater Serbia and his strong defense of Serbia's claims over Kosovo. For its part, the European Union has demanded that Serbia reach an agreement with Kosovo before the former is granted full EU membership. Serbia will make gestures of goodwill to Kosovo to placate the European Union, but Belgrade will not make substantial progress toward recognizing Kosovo's independence.

Of all the Western Balkan countries, Serbia has the worst relations with NATO. Relations between NATO and Serbia improved after the fall of Milosevic in 2000, when former President Boris Tadic sought to strengthen Serbia's relations with the West to apply for EU membership.

Serbia is surrounded by NATO members and allies. The alliance also has a significant presence in Bosnia; NATO Headquarters Sarajevo currently employs nearly 100 people, including military troops and civilian employees, while the NATO-led Stabilization Force has been deployed to help Bosnia reform its defense structures. Macedonia hosts NATO troops that support the alliance's operations in Kosovo as well as Macedonia's efforts to reform its military to meet NATO standards. Other neighboring countries, such as Croatia, Slovenia and Albania, are NATO members.

NATO also has an office in Belgrade, which facilitates Serbian participation in activities within the framework of the Partnership for Peace program, a NATO initiative aimed at strengthening relations between European states and former Soviet countries. However, Serbia is the only Balkan country that has not applied for NATO membership. Recent polls suggest that seven out of 10 Serbian citizens reject NATO accession because memories of the Balkan wars of the 1990s are still fresh.

The Situation in Kosovo

Serbia considers Kosovo a key part of its territory and refuses to recognize its independence. For these reasons, Kosovo is the most important element of Serbia's foreign policy. The status of the disputed territory and what happens there will determine Serbia's relations with the rest of the world, including its neighbors, the European Union, NATO and Russia. Indeed, incidents between Kosovar Serbs in northern Kosovo and the Kosovo Force, the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, are a constant source of tension for Belgrade, Pristina and NATO.

On June 1, four Serb civilians and at least two Kosovo Force soldiers were injured when the soldiers cleared roadblocks set up by Kosovar Serbs. On July 31, Kosovo Force soldiers blocked a road connecting northern Kosovo and central Serbia, after which Kosovar Serbs accused the peacekeepers of helping Pristina to reduce contact between northern Kosovo and Serbia.

These episodes have been somewhat less violent than incidents that occurred late in 2011. On Oct. 20, 22 Serbs and eight Kosovo Force soldiers were injured during clashes with Kosovar Serbs near Brnjak. Then from Nov. 23 to Nov. 24, 21 Kosovo Force soldiers were injured after an explosion went off in northern Mitrovica near the Faculty of Economy. Ethnic clashes also break out occasionally. On July 7, Kosovo police reported that a Serb couple had been shot dead in their home in the southern Kosovo village of Talinoc, which is surrounded by ethnic Albanian communities.

Serbia knows that its access to the European Union will be a lengthy process, therefore it does not have to make major concessions over Kosovo now. In the meantime, Belgrade is interested in maintaining negotiations with the European Union to normalize relations with the West and for domestic political reasons. 

Looking Ahead

Serbia's relations with the European Union and NATO improved substantially during the presidency of Boris Tadic, who delivered war criminals to the International Court of Justice. Nikolic likely will normalize relations with the European Union and NATO and maintain current relations with the West. However, Belgrade knows that negotiations with the European Union will be slow and that EU membership is no longer as attractive as it was before the financial crisis. In this context, Serbia will make gestures of goodwill toward Kosovo, but there will be no substantial progress in the recognition of the rebel province's independence.

Serbia will also use Russia to counterbalance its relations with the West. Serbia is not a vital component of Russia's foreign policy, but Moscow is interested in maintaining its presence in its traditional area of ​​influence, especially when other powers, including the European Union, NATO and especially Turkey, also have interests in the region. Serbia can expect more financial assistance from Russia in the next few years. There will also be more infrastructure projects, most notably the Serbian section of the South Stream pipeline.

September will be a key month for Kosovo because the International Steering Group, which was created in 2008 to oversee the political and diplomatic evolution of Kosovo, will stop overseeing the disputed territory and close its office in Pristina. This will not mark the end of NATO's presence in Kosovo, though. The European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo will remain at least until its mandate expires in June 2014, and about 6,000 Kosovo Force peacekeepers will remain deployed.

The social and economic situation in Serbia will have the most impact on the evolution of Serbian-Kosovar relations. If economic conditions deteriorate, Belgrade will likely use Kosovo for nationalistic means. But if the European Union decides to cool down accession talks with Serbia, Belgrade will have little interest in making concessions on Kosovo.

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