Serbia and NATO: co-operative neutrality[8 min. za čitanje]

Translated by Dragan Plavšić

NATO is trying to enter Serbia by the back door – and to stay. Nineteen years on, it is doing so using more subtle means – it is no longer raining bombs, but organising civilian exercises in co-operation with Serbia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.

On Monday in several towns across Serbia – Mladenovac, Sopot, Arandjelovac – civilian exercises called “Serbia 2018” began. They are the largest exercises so far organised by NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) in co-operation with the Sector for Emergency Situations of Serbia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. The official goal of these exercises is to train members of the civilian services of 38 countries in how to remedy the consequences of emergency situations.

A rather more “unofficial” goal is to show the world, and especially the Balkans, that in the intervals between its bombing campaigns for “humanitarian” purposes, NATO can provide advanced logistics for dealing with natural disasters. The Serbian government, for its part, is aware that the bombing in 1999 did not exactly make the population’s heart warm to the idea of joining NATO – on the contrary. Nevertheless, the government wants to send a message to a greatly superior Western bloc that, although not a member, it stands ready to be of service, and will, at any time, by hook or by crook, coax its people into moving on from the past and embracing a future in the prestigious North Atlantic club.

That NATO isn’t particularly popular in Serbia is clear not only to Aleksandar Vučić, but also to the Alliance. Especially after the devastating outcome of the referendum in Macedonia held on September 30, it isn’t at all superfluous for the West to try and fix its image a little in the Balkans.

That’s why on 6 October NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg arrived in Belgrade on an official three-day visit. Who better to convey regret over the 1999 bombing of Serbia and to explain the significance of NATO’s role in civilian operations than the Secretary General of the Alliance who had his first ice cream on the Kalemegdan walls and sang Serbian nursery rhymes as a child when his father was first secretary at the Norwegian embassy in Belgrade?

Just a few days before his heartfelt personal visit to Belgrade, at a press conference in Brussels, Stoltenberg spoke altogether more harshly when referring to the referendum in Macedonia. On that occasion, he confirmed what was abundantly clear from the referendum question itself – that the only goal of the “historic” agreement between Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras, the prime ministers of Macedonia and Greece, was for Macedonia to join the tirelessly eastwards expanding Euro-Atlantic bloc as soon as possible. On the eve of the referendum, the Macedonian Prime Minister said so himself, underlining the fact that Macedonia wasn’t changing its name because it wanted to, but because its future in the EU and NATO required it.

When it turned out that for more than 60% of Macedonia’s electorate the multiple assurances about their western future were not enough to get them to overlook the manipulative character of the referendum question, Stoltenberg was left with this only: to lay bare the manipulation of NATO, the EU and their allies in the Balkan ruling classes. In true Thatcher style, the NATO Secretary General said that as far as Macedonia’s membership of the Alliance was concerned “there is no [other] alternative” but to fully accept the Prespa Agreement – just as it was now up to Macedonia’s “democratic institutions” to decide on Macedonia’s future path. After all, the will of the people had only been expressed in a consultative but not a binding referendum.

Stoltenberg also took the opportunity both in Brussels and Belgrade to present NATO as a “family circle” of security and prosperity. Both he and Vučić were full of praise for the civilian exercises – surprisingly, very poorly followed in the domestic media – as a wonderful opportunity to strengthen friendly relations between Serbia and NATO. For where better for NATO to show its human face than, in Stoltenberg’s words, “in a region exposed to natural disasters”? It is therefore ironic, is it not, that according to recent estimates, Greece’s forest fires this summer have taken 99 lives, although Greece is on many indicators the “leading” country in the Balkan region and a member of NATO’s “family circle” practically from its inception.

It is even more ironic that this very same “defensive” military alliance, formed during the Cold War as a Western shield against the “communist threat”, has justified its existence after 1991 by sowing humanitarian catastrophes allegedly in the civilian interest. Stoltenberg did not fail to notice, in his lament over the 1999 bombing of Serbia, that NATO’s intentions were pure – the protection of the civilian population from Milošević’s regime. We heard the very same justification in mid-April this year, when some of the leading NATO members, the United States, Britain and France, bombed Syria under the slogan of protecting its civilian population from the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Most of the remaining NATO members supported this decision, which was reached in spite of international law. In early September, Germany even announced that it would join the military alliance of the three countries should the need arise to bomb Syria again.

In any event, the military alliance already consists of 29 member states plus 21 countries involved in the “Partnership for Peace” programme, including Serbia since December 2006. NATO, however, won’t stop there: its goal is to expand further eastwards, and to sink even deeper roots there where it already has some – including in the Balkans. As it expands at the expense of an old and relatively weaker enemy, Russia, NATO will not shrink from the challenges of humanitarian crises and wars, just as it didn’t in the case of Ukraine in 2014.

Although the NATO Secretary General claims that it’s not for Brussels to solve the problems of the Balkan region but for the inhabitants of the region to do so, NATO’s longstanding practice makes us question the sincerity of this claim. Since the 1999 bombing, by establishing protectorate regimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, all the way to the recent Macedonian referendum, the patronage of the institutions of Western imperialism towards the Balkan countries and nations is nothing if not confirmed. At the same time, the Balkan ruling classes serve imperialist interests and not the interests of their populations. By signing the Prespa Agreement, the Macedonian Prime Minister agreed to an unfavorable compromise with the interests of Greek nationalism and Western imperialism, representing it as the solution to the longstanding ethnic dispute and as the guarantor of Macedonia’s new ascent to civilization. The current president of Serbia has for years been thanking KFOR for keeping the peace in Kosovo, although the very presence of KFOR testifies to the perspective that NATO and the “domestic” ruling classes obviously share: somebody has to keep those “wild” Balkan peoples chained up.

On the other hand, we sincerely believe that only the solidarity of the Balkan peoples can build peace in the Balkans. The frameworks of the European Union or NATO will only constrict our ability to build that solidarity from below and to oppose the decisions the great powers will think up for us; the solution, therefore, does not lie in turning to Russia, which sees in Serbia one of the last strongholds against further NATO expansion eastwards. Although Vučić insists on the military neutrality of Serbia and NATO allegedly respects its sovereign state will, the fact is that Serbia has been participating in many more military exercises with NATO in recent years than with Russia. Of the first such exercises held on the territory of Serbia, called “Regex 18”, the domestic media wrote even less than they have about the civilian exercises now in progress.

Serbia’s “co-operative neutrality”, however, is nothing but a fragile balancing act for meeting the interests of both the West and Russia – with NATO’s interest, as the objectively stronger but also more violent force, being serviced more subtly but more consistently. The consequences of this co-operative neutrality will fall on the backs of those whose “civil interests” the imperialist blocs are supposedly protecting – the ordinary population that succumbs to bombs so as to defeat ruling regimes, whose livelihoods are cut to meet the military budget, who suffer the effects of natural disasters because of cuts to public services for the sake of the elite’s interests, and who are repeatedly assured that they need “someone from above” and “someone from outside” to live in peace.

The Balkan nations don’t need the European Union, NATO or Russia, or those political leaders who are “ready to make sacrifices” only in the sense that this means stamping on the interests of the ordinary population. We need solidarity in the common struggle against the forces that sow discord, misery and death across the Balkans and the world. Only on the basis of this solidarity can we build true peace, equality and freedom. We have only one message for Stoltenberg, Vučić and their allies: get out of the Balkans!