Military neutrality of the Republic of Serbia

Author: PhD Dragan Luković, member of advisory board of Council for strategic Policy

Photo: Dimitrije Ostojić

According to the Resolution of the National Assembly on the Protection of Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and the Constitutional Order of the Republic of Serbia (2007), Serbia made a “decision to proclaim military neutrality in relation to the existing military alliances until a possible referendum was called upon to reach a final decision on this issue.” Since 2007 to date,
there has been no political initiatives or other relevant state defense documents, or foreign policy that would strengthen this strategic direction of defense as well as foreign policy of Serbia. The debate about the correctness and worthiness of the poor and insufficiently legally shaped and grounded concept of military neutrality of Serbia was not provided, even though the internal political circumstances dramatically changed and although there was a more intense process of Kosovo recognition as an independent state and getting membership to different organizations of international and global character of this only formally “southern Serbian province”.

In the meantime, NATO cemented the global influence as the major and the strongest military-political formation that spreads to countries that were not part of the alliance at the time of the adoption of the Resolution. This is the case in the countries that are located in the nearest neighborhood of Serbia, so that it happened, except for the smaller part of the western border (BiH) of the states, that Serbia is completely territorially and militarily surrounded by the members of the NATO alliance, which was not the case at the time of adoption of the parliamentary resolution, because Albania and Croatia joined NATO in 2009 and Montenegro in June 2017, with gaining the status of full member and ratified in the NATO national parliaments. In February this year, the Protocol on the admission of Northern Macedonia to NATO was signed, which has so far been ratified in six parliaments of the European member states of the Alliance. Therefore, it is clear that geopolitical and foreign policy circumstances over the last ten years suggested that it is time Serbia started a serious political debate on the sustainability of the concept of military neutrality and its advantages and disadvantages, and in general, its political
validity in the changed political and military circumstances, before all, in those above mentionedregarding the Balkans.

Serbia keeps on persisting on its military and foreign political activities on the status of military neutrality, which is undoubtedly limited regarding the realization of national interests and which the highest state officials (the heads of state and government) neither changed since the Resolution was adopted nor “embedded” in the binding strategic state documents, on which the key political parties in the country agreed on/ would agree on, thus, giving them the necessary political legitimacy. The valid strategies, and national security and defense, have been brought into the current context of foreign political reality, primarily with the aim of establishing a hierarchical pillar of strategic defense documents, but not with the aim of more serious and
lasting value-related, political orientation, primarily because of the absence of a more serious political consensus of the ruling political structures at that time. Certain withdrawal was made in the near past, or in the period after the adoption of the Resolution. The National Security Strategy of Serbia was adopted in 2009 and it is still valid as well as the Defense Strategy and in
2015, Serbia signed with NATO the IPAP (Individual Partnership Action Plan), widening the areas of cooperation between Serbia and NATO and representing a kind of an “upgrade” of the PfP (Partnership for Peace) agreement, in which Serbia has been a member since 2006. It is important to emphasize that the National Security Strategy declares that “illegally proclaimed independence of Kosovo represents the greatest threat to Serbia’s security”, and that the Defense Strategy of the Republic of Serbia states that the vital defense interests of Serbia are: “the preservation of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia;
building confidence, promoting security and stability in the region as well as cooperation and partnership with international security organizations”. Also, in the RS Defense Strategy, “NATO’s Partnership for Peace program as well as a broad framework of political, security and defense cooperation and the joint actions of the member states, are ” particularly important for the strengthening of European security. Therefore, the documents defining the objectives of the defense policy and the risks faced by the state have no relevance to neutrality, although the themes of the influence of Kosovo independence on the security of the country are highly prioritized as a problem and a risk, but parallel to that, they find political formulations that can, at the same time, be interpreted as a soft departure from the cemented military neutrality, but still relate to cooperation with international security organizations. Nevertheless, what is mentioned in brief, but even more what is not mentioned at all (the status of military neutrality), indicate that military neutrality is not firmly rooted in the political value and the foreign policy guideline for shaping the Serbia’s attitudes towards military-political alliances.

It should be emphasized that certain attempts were made to incorporate military neutrality into official state defense strategy documents. In 2017, the drafts of the RS National Security Strategy and the RS Defense Strategy were made available to the public, but two years after that, there was no formal adoption of these documents, and they cannot be treated as the final definitions of national security and foreign policy. Military neutrality in the Draft of the RS Defense Strategy is qualified as “the defense interest of the RS”, which includes “cooperation and partnership with states and international organizations in the field of security and defense”. It is precisely stated that military neutrality is “the interest of the RS that has emerged from its national values, interests and international position,” and that does not exclude cooperation in the field of defense with military-political alliances. The set goals of realization of the military neutrality of Serbia are the non-involvement in the military-political alliances, the integral engagement of defense subjects and the creation of conditions for defense based on the own strengths and potentials of the RS . However, although the goals of military neutrality were properly formulated, first of all, on the basis of experiences of states with a longer determination and a more realistic ground for the military (and political) neutrality as a main principle of acting in the regional and international relations, justify this strategic orientation of the state, a great confusion is caused by the formulations given in the the draft of the Defense strategy related to the reasons for cooperation with the two dominant military-political groups of the modern era. Cooperation with
NATO is designated as a “common interest” between Serbia and this alliance, and cooperation with the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) is designated as “the RS’s commitment to cooperate with the CSTO and its member states”. These strange formulations lead to the conclusion that it is proposed that Serbia defines itself as a Russian ally, but that it must cooperate with the Atlantic alliance from the necessity.

Therefore, there are more questions about whether the military neutrality of Serbia is a real political category and value per se and whether it has a specific political weight in the existing international and geopolitical circumstances and processes, or it is just a mantra the current political leadership uses in the same way as before, with only one goal: to enable authorities to continue to lead foreign policy in a way that they cannot be associated with any major force or block. The question could also be formulated in the following way: Is the inherited status of military neutrality a productive tool / political tool that the current creators of Serbian foreign
policy use as a means of dealing with the changed foreign policy circumstances without choosing a side, until the soft conflict between the US as a NATO leader and Russia and anti-NATO countries does not end with the announcement of the winner?

Continuous pursuit of the concept of military neutrality of Serbia, especially in the conditions of the spread of low-intensity conflicts between the US and Russia, does not “make” Serbia an enemy to any important global political superpower, and based on this, political trust, political , economic, military and cultural relations with all states – alliances can continue to evolve. The
problem in the practical and political use of the advantage of Serbia’s military neutrality concept is in the inherited, rather not a small amount of mistrust that the leading global superpowers have towards Serbia, each for its foreign policy reasons and diplomatic experience. These manifest in bilateral and multilateral relations through the low-intensity and occasional political and military support. Because of fostering the traditionally close political and cultural relations between Serbia and Russia, special trade arrangements for imports of Russian military equipment and weapons, the suspicious character of the Russian Center for Humanitarian Interventions and the continued Russian support to Serbia in international organizations as well as the behavior and voting of Serbia in opposition to the US interests in international bodies and on certain globally important issues (Cuba, Venezuela, Israel, etc.), the United States are unwilling to devote more
effort to improving Serbian-American relations and meeting Serbia’s demands regarding the most difficult political issues such as accelerating the European integration of Serbia, supporting a negotiated settlement of Kosovo’s issue and “debasing” and improving relations with neighbors
in the Western Balkans region, On the other hand, Russia looks with distrust at the close relations of the highest Serbian state leadership with the German Chancellor, which sometimes adopts the outlines of the colonial relationships as well as at the complete opening of the Serbian
economy and market to Western European countries, that inevitably leads to serious economic dependence on Western companies and states, and the control of the anti-Western President of the Republic of Srpska as well as at the officially sponsored and approved consulting with the leaders of Kosovo on how to resolve the issue of the final status of Kosovo.

Due to the changed global and international political circumstances in the region, it is necessary that political parties, civil society and renowned state institutions initiate and start a debate on Serbia’s foreign policy and Serbia’s military orientation. First of all, this means the abrogation of the Resolution adopted by the National Assembly, because it is out of date and politically
dysfunctional in the part relating to the introduction of the concept of military neutrality. Ultimately, if there is no political will for this, before all, the will of the highest representatives of government, which is the most realistic scenario in the present political moment, I suggest that the Serbian Government, as a body responsible for the defining and conducting foreign policy, initiates consultations on how to determine a new foreign policy and military orientation of the country. The most appropriate legal form, which would ensure legality and above all the necessary legitimacy, is the referendum on Serbia’s membership in the NATO Alliance, after the
deputies in the National Assembly initiate amendments to the Serbian Constitution and provide a reasonable period for campaigning for and against entry into the organization. In the current political moment, in the circumstances where one party is dominant – political coalition in the
media and complete absence of dialogue between the government and the opposition, there are no conditions for conducting the fruitful debates and campaigns for membership in this organization. As a credible alternative to this proposal, a political scenario which imposes is that the current government, or the successor, takes state and responsible political activities and cancels the status of military neutrality of Serbia by the decision of the executive power, and then opts for full membership in the Atlantic alliance, taking into account the need to realize the full European vision of Serbia and its representation in the society of democratic, progressive and militarily dominant states.

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