No selective neutrality

Calls for a referendum in Serbia on NATO membership are motivated not by a desire for an open and transparent debate on the issue of collective security, but by narrow political interests.

By Mirjana Kosic

A group of 200 intellectuals, gathered around a perceived urge to reopen discussions on Serbia’s possible future membership of NATO, has recently demanded that the National Assembly call a referendum in order to prevent such decision being taken “behind closed doors and the citizens’ backs”. A statement of the people’s will at a referendum on issues that are essentially important for the future of a country is a practice of developed, democratic societies; therefore, their call for a referendum was neither unusual nor disputable. However, what is disputable was the real motivation behind the call – namely, redirecting public attention towards NATO membership, which at the moment is most certainly not a topic which demands urgent discussion.

Several examples of other EU member states that opted for a partnership with – but not full membership of – NATO only attests that it is possible to delineate one’s own frames for cooperation, as well as the fact that EU membership is not preconditioned by accession to NATO, as is often presented to the Serbian public. That means that Serbia indeed has the possibility to chose, which was demonstrated by the adoption of a resolution on military neutrality and the decision that the Partnership for Peace (PfP) Programme remains a sufficient level of cooperation with NATO.

However, instead of politicised bickering about whether or not the present governing coalition will furtively lead Serbia into the Alliance, it would be far more efficient to demand parliamentary and public debates, respectively, whereby it would at last be clarified what the concept of neutrality implies in the context of Serbia, what are Serbia’s concrete objectives and what are its strategic choices? To date, Serbia’s proclaimed neutrality has been all too often interpreted arbitrarily and according to political needs, which leaves the impression that the government itself is not certain in which direction it is conducting the security and foreign policy of the state.

Decision-makers are obliged before their own people to define and promote national interests in a responsible, pragmatic and objective manner, which means that the demand for the neutrality of Serbia in its positioning towards military alliances and potential bilateral partners will only be meaningful should the same principle be applied consistently, without selective interpretation of neutrality based on emotional rationalising and historical memory. If one of the main concerns is the possible reaction of Russia should Serbia develops closer relations with NATO, all claims about the tradition of neutrality and non-adherence to blocs immediately becomes non-sensical.

Historical legacy is indeed important, but one wouldn’t say that Russia was overly concerned about the opinions and feelings of Serbia when in 2002 it joined the NATO-Russia Council; a bilateral body through which Russia’s cooperation with NATO is realised on several levels – including joint military exercises, exchanges of intelligence, security-related consultations, discussions on nuclear armament and the fight against terrorism. In 2005, within the frame of the PfP Programme, Russia signed the Partnership Status of Forces Agreement, which provides for the full cooperation of Russia’s and NATO’s armed forces at the strategic, operational and tactical level. In addition, Russia has already for years endeavoured to maximally use all benefits of this partnership via its military liaison office at the NATO Supreme Headquarters. It would be better for Serbia to follow suit and – in-line with its national and security interests – attain the status of a so-called advanced member of the PfP.

Given that 2010 will be marked by discussions on the development of the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept, it would be wiser for Serbia to become engaged through a more constructive approach towards this and other debates on the issues and challenges of collective security, as well as in the further advancement of a Russian initiative for a new international security architecture.

Any decision on future cooperation with NATO is too complex an issue for it to be decided by a simple “yes” or “no” through a referendum. Before any referendum, it is necessary to conduct concrete security and economic estimates and to achieve consensus at the national level. Apart from the necessary time, that will also require good will and a readiness to view contemporary security dynamics from a more realistic perspective and to protect national interests through a clearly defined national strategy. Russia has already protected their own.

Mirjana Kosić is the executive director of TransConflict Serbia

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