NATO - Yesterday's Enemy

Only the military old guard is disturbed by Belgrade's increasingly close relationship with NATO.

NATO - Yesterday's Enemy

Only the military old guard is disturbed by Belgrade's increasingly close relationship with NATO.

When NATO launched its bombardment of Kosovo in March 1999, few could imagine that, within two short years, Belgrade and alliance headquarters in Brussels would come to view it as an unfortunate spot of unpleasantness relegated to the distant past.

When defence analysts in Belgrade attempted to map a post-Milosevic foreign policy, they envisaged a Serbia relying on "traditional" allies such as Russia, Greece and France.

Even as Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic pushed for reconciliation with the EU, NATO was mentioned as little as possible for fear of reminding Serbs of the traumas of 1999.

NATO has since emerged as an intimate ally of the new government in Belgrade, in spite of attempts by the extreme right and former members of the Milosevic regime to brand the relationship as a "betrayal of national interests".

Much of the credit for this transformation is due to Serbia's deputy prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, who initiated close collaboration between Yugoslav security forces, KFOR and NATO, in December 2000 to resolve the security crisis in southern Serbia.

The partnership culminated in the entry of Yugoslav troops into the southern Serbia security zone in June 2001 - the first time federal forces served under NATO officers.

"The entry into the village of Oraovica was the crowning event," a Yugoslav Army, VJ, officer, who took part, told IWPR. "The action was jointly planned by FRY and NATO officers. Everything was done as agreed. The operation laid the foundations of today's military cooperation with the alliance."

Yugoslav delegations, headed by Covic and including Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic and VJ commanders, visited NATO headquarters three times last year. The FRY contingent expressed interest in joining the alliance's Partnership for Peace programme, PfP.

Entry into the PfP would enable Belgrade both to bring its armed forces into line with Western standards and to increase its political credibility at an international level. Belgrade also hopes to fast track the FRY's candidacy for admission into NATO and the EU by joining that programme. The extradition of Milosevic to The Hague appears to have removed the last major bstacle to achieving that goal.

Opinion polls in Serbia indicate that a majority of citizens believe the FRY should join the PfP, and that EU membership should be the highest foreign policy priority. In anticipation, young VJ officers are already attending English language courses.

"Regardless of the fact that we were at war," a senior NATO official told IWPR. "We respect the VJ. In some areas, it is closer to NATO standards than many countries that joined the PfP several years ago."

But the policy of cosying up to NATO has enemies in both Belgrade and the army, where there are still pro-Russian factions. They have little political influence but are nonetheless active, partly due to President Kostunica's refusal to sack the VJ senior command, headed by Nebojsa Pavkovic, which served under Milosevic.

The anti-NATO campaign has largely focused on spreading malicious rumours about the alliance's intentions in Yugoslavia.

At an early stage of the Presevo crisis, so-called military analysts circulated claims that NATO only permitted VJ forces into the area to be "an easy target for Albanian extremists".

In July, the Belgrade weekly Glas Javnosti published a document claiming that the FRY security forces would only be allowed to deploy in the south of Serbia temporarily, casting doubt over Covic's efforts.

The Belgrade media reported last month that the FRY delegation which visited NATO also turned up at the offices of the US Army Command in Europe, EUROCOM, in Stuttgart, where it was asked whether American forces could lease the VJ base in Sjenica and its radar centre on Mt. Kopaonik in southern Serbia.

General Ninoslav Krstic, a close associate of Covic and commander of the FRY joint security forces in the security zone, said the rumours were launched by the same circles in the army and the police "that have been trying to undermine our efforts and successes since the beginning of the resolution of the crisis in southern Serbia".

Covic and Krstic later explained that the Stuttgart meeting had nothing to do with the leasing of military bases. It concerned, he insisted, preliminary steps towards future cooperation between the US army and the VJ and the creation of training courses for Yugoslav officers in US military academies.

But the FRY delegation's visit to EUROCOM was significant politically, demonstrating that NATO's most powerful member supports the government's efforts to come in from the cold, not only in economic and political terms but also as a military power.

"Belgrade is being given a unique opportunity to take the fast train towards Western military integration, " a senior NATO official told IWPR after the Stuttgart meeting. "If it uses it, the FRY has the chance of becoming an influential military power in the region."

IWPR sources inside NATO headquarters in Brussels say the FRY is pencilled in to join the PfP as early as 2002. Western analysts point out that Belgrade's ability to exploit the opportunities the programme offers will depend mostly on whether President Kostunica is able to sever his political dependency on Milosevic loyalists in the army.

Daniel Sunter is IWPR assistant editor in Belgrade.

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