Welcome speech delivered by Director of CEAS Ms Jelena Milić at the Opening Ceremony of the Sixth Belgrade NATO Week (as delivered)

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Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to the Sixth Belgrade NATO Week, organized from its inception by the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies from Belgrade and supported by NATO's Public Diplomacy Division and in the past several years, by the Embassy of the United States of America in Belgrade as well.

This year’s Belgrade NATO Week is being held at the Palace of Serbia – a historic, architectural and artistic jewel of Belgrade, Serbia and of the former Yugoslavia.

Dear guests, partners and friends, together we have come a long way. Belgrade NATO Week started six years ago as a small project of cooperation with representatives of youth organizations of Serbia’s political parties. We have tried to initiate debate and contribute to the public being better informed of: NATO’s founding principles and its functioning; current events in and around NATO; and the scope, nature and perspectives of Serbia’s cooperation with NATO. The first foreign lecturer ever to address our event was Mr. Matthew Palmer, current Deputy Assistant Secretary at U.S. Department of State - Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, then a Political Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.

Sixth Belgrade NATO Week is being held in very dynamic geopolitical circumstances. Even for Western Balkans, a region that, Churchill said, produce more history than it is capable of absorbing, this is a very important, one could say historic period. Circumstances are ripe, as they may not be again in some time, to solve the remaining decades-long disputes and enable a speedy integration of the region into the Euro-Atlantic community in line with the democratically shown will of its citizens, who must decide the level of such integration. Positive trends in our societies and the readiness to compromise shown by some leaders of the region must be defended from the corrosive effects of the disinformation campaigns coming from the countries of the region themselves, as well as from abroad.

Their goal is to impose their particular interests, both political and financial, by using nondemocratic means, not hesitating to even provoke incidents with possibly dangerous security implications such as the one seen in the case of the attempted coup in Montenegro during the elections process in the run-up to the country’s accession to NATO.

One of the key goals of this year’s Belgrade NATO Week is to provide as accurate and up-to-date assessment of the security situation in the Region as possible, having different possible scenarios in mind.

Especially for this conference, CEAS has ordered a public opinion survey on Euro-Atlantic integration; Serbia’s relationship with Kosovo and possible outcomes of the negotiation process; the perception of NATO; Serbia –U.S. relation, and some other relevant issues.  Very interesting key findings of this polling will be presented at our panels during the conference.

Unlike other actors advocating stronger cooperation or Serbia’s joining the NATO, and while CEAS is being quite lonely on this front, we have never taken a stand where ‘all of the past of Serbia’s relationship to NATO should be forgotten, let us turn towards the future’ because we firmly believe that for both Serbia and Serbia’s society, but also for NATO, it is important that the traumatic and very special history of the relationship needs to be discussed and learned from. That is why we were not surprised by the information from our announced survey that 47 percent of those who would vote against Serbia’s membership in NATO would do so because of the NATO bombing. This circumstance might very well have influence on the positions of the citizens on the possible outcomes of the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina.

A Serbian aphorist once said that Serbia has either years of drought or years of floods, but all of them are historic. Joking aside, the western international community considers that the time is ripe for Belgrade and Pristina to finally come to a historic, multidimensional agreement on the normalization of their relationship, enabling both sides to finally focus more on the challenges of the European and Euro-Atlantic integrations. This multidimensional agreement would also help other countries of the Western Balkans and our Euro-Atlantic partners in their common efforts to find functional and efficient answers to growing common social, political, economic and security challenges.

One of last year’s participants of Belgrade NATO Week, recently retired United States Army officer Ben Hodges who served as the commander of U.S. Army in Europe and is currently holding a high post at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), recently reminded, on several occasions, that alliances are difficult and that when making decisions on bilateral issues, possible implications to the cohesion and the functioning of the alliance must be kept in mind.

If the majority of our society honestly supports Serbia’s membership in the European Union and wants the support of Euro-Atlantic partners in those and in other processes, then it will support a solution between Pristina and Belgrade that it may consider, with more or less valid arguments, to be unfair, but one that will keep Serbia firmly on its European path. It is now necessary to pay close attention to the campaigns of disinformation, coming from inside and from the outside, and not allow them to outweigh facts in relation to this difficult decision.

Such social-historic approach would, I am convinced, give Serbia a chance to continue with reform and to start being treated as an important and reliable ally.  

I believe that a similar approach in the long run would also be useful to the society of Kosovo, whose interim institutions’ high representatives often claim to be devoted to Euro-Atlantic integration.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Since this summer, a more flexible stance started emerging, in the first line from the U.S., in support to achieving a mutually acceptable, multidimensional solution for the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, where Serbia would not emerge as an actor who lost everything in the negotiating process. There have since been many opinions warning of possible dangers that certain elements of an agreement suggesting the possibility of an adjustment of the administrative border might carry, often tied to the justifiably negative experience that the western international community and the Western Balkans region had with Serbia from the wars of the 1990s.These experiences, on purpose or by accident, cast a shadow over many accomplishments that Serbia achieved in the meantime, despite huge challenges or even provocations.

In debating the implications of possible solutions, some western actors have even shown a certain amount of skepticism in the results achieved so far by the twenty years of political and financial investments in the region of Western Balkans, in the stabilizing effect of the Euro-Atlantic integration, in KFOR’s and EUFOR’s missions, even in the strength of EU and NATO member states, suggesting that certain options of such agreement between Belgrade and Pristina might “re-enflame the Balkans”. I am not certain to what extent does such an interpretation of the region and of the strength of the allies influence third parties, state and non-state actors, who definitively do not have the stabilization and democratization of the region among their priorities.

Some of the arguments were more suitable for the region of the 1990s and early 2000s then they are for the region in late 2018, when Montenegro, Albania and Croatia have become NATO members, government in Skopje is well on its track to enable the country to become a NATO member soon, while all countries are in the process of European integration. For ten years, the successor to the Southeast Europe Stability Pact, the Regional Cooperation Council has been actively working with a broad mandate to strengthen cooperation in the domain of defense and security and has been achieving outstanding results.

We should keep in perspective the fact that Bulgaria and Romania became NATO members in 2004, one year after the murder of our reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was also trying to find a solution to the issue of Kosovo at a time of much worse geopolitical circumstances, and that today they are important factors contributing to the region’s stability.

The most vocal critics of EU’s “stabilocracy” – choosing stability before democracy – who fear that a multidimensional agreement between Belgrade and Pristina might create “mono-ethnic states” are exactly the ones who are actually now applying stabilocracy in considering the solution for normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. In some cases, they do so with factually wrong arguments.

Some of the long-term problems that the region has so far failed to resolve are partly caused by the dogmatic approach in applying identity policies, and the equality of the outcome, rather than of the starting positions. Proponents of today’s stabilocracy in the approach of finding a multidimensional resolution for the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina are often proponents of such an approach which for a long time has had the support of the western international community. It is exactly this approach that has brought about additional stratification of our societies, among others along ethnic and religious lines, which is now being abused by Russia and other actors in articulating their intentions. CEAS has been warning of this in its report from 2017, Basic Instinct: The Case for More NATO in Western Balkans.

Multiculturalism is a noble idea, but it cannot be an ultimate goal, without proper legal and democratically legitimate framework, particularly in smaller territories. The Center for Euro-Atlantic studies is in the process of finding the least harmful yet feasible solution for a sustainable normalization of the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina in its report West Side Story from June this year, where it has suggested a correction of the current administrative line mostly along the four municipalities  in the North of Kosovo, but not as a final desirable result not as a divide along the ethnic lines, because it is not, if democratic facts are honestly seen. Simply, it is an eventually possible means of achieving a sustainable multidimensional agreement, having in mind that some of the key resources, which are a part of the negotiations, are found exactly in that area. It is a relatively small area, so it can be hardly called a “divide of Kosovo”, as it is almost always and often tenaciously being called. Of course, a long and winding road still lies ahead of Serbia.  Some of the ghosts from its dangerous past are yet to be put to rest.  Many citizens the western partners rightfully expect the situation to improve soon, at least in certain areas.  These circumstances make it hard for positive trends that are emerging in Serbia to be easily spotted.

Let me mention just a few of them:

Serbia has opened fourteen chapters in its pre-accession negotiations with the European Union, and several more are expected to be opened soon; a total of 279 members of the Serbian Army are taking part in  multinational operations under the auspices of the U.N. and the EU; the process of harmonization of the new cycle of the Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO is being finalized ; a month ago, the exercise “Serbia 2018” was organized by the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Serbia and NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC), with some 2,000 participants from forty different countries; Serbia’s cooperation with three important NATO member states –Bulgaria, Romania and Greece – in a quadrilateral form and  in field-like infrastructure and energy, is gaining significant momentum. The list does not end here. Some other positive trends, mainly in security and defense, are being mentioned in our report Kosovo First from September this year.

I have already stressed that alliances are difficult and that Serbia needs to show that it understands this even when times are hard. This is equally true for all the countries of the region and for the western international community. They too need to show utmost belief in themselves and in their capacity to prevent any possible abuse of a potential agreement between Belgrade and Pristina. They should not reject a priori such solutions that would keep Serbia, where many positive developments are taking place – although one could get an impression that they are less known and rarely discussed – firmly on its path of European integration and increased cooperation with the Euro-Atlantic world, or reject them simply because they came during an U.S. Administration that they do not support. The same is true for those in Belgrade and Pristina who seem to say NO to anything suggested by Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic or president of the temporary institutions in Kosovo Hashim Thaci.

Euro-Atlantic future of the whole region, which is the common interest of both the region and of its Euro-Atlantic partners, has to be the higher cause.