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In focus / General Giampiero Romano: Serbia and NATO are closer than it seems at first glance

We have a long history of partnership with Serbia since 2006. Serbia joined the Partnership for Peace programme and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Since then, we have done a lot together, including, for example, projects within the Science for peace and security program. In addition, we have many ongoing activities, and in the last 17 years we have carried out over 1000 joint activities, in military and other domains. Also, in 2018 we had a very large emergency preparedness exercise. The exercise was attended by over two thousand participants, from Serbia, from NATO member states and partners

Stable Kosovo is essential for stability in the region and for our security. For more than two decades, peace and stability in Kosovo have been a priority for NATO. The United Nations mandate for our KFOR peacekeeping mission, which is based on Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999, remains unchanged. We continue to support a safe and secure environment in Kosovo

I want to make it clear that NATO does not seek new members, nor does it force anyone to join. However, we have an open door policy for those who want to become part of our Alliance

General Giampiero Romano: Serbia and NATO are closer than it seems at first glance

In focus / General Giampiero Romano: Serbia and NATO are closer than it seems at first glance

We have a long history of partnership with Serbia since 2006. Serbia joined the Partnership for Peace programme and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Since then, we have done a lot together, including, for example, projects within the Science for peace and security program. In addition, we have many ongoing activities, and in the last 17 years we have carried out over 1000 joint activities, in military and other domains. Also, in 2018 we had a very large emergency preparedness exercise. The exercise was attended by over two thousand participants, from Serbia, from NATO member states and partners

Stable Kosovo is essential for stability in the region and for our security. For more than two decades, peace and stability in Kosovo have been a priority for NATO. The United Nations mandate for our KFOR peacekeeping mission, which is based on Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999, remains unchanged. We continue to support a safe and secure environment in Kosovo

I want to make it clear that NATO does not seek new members, nor does it force anyone to join. However, we have an open door policy for those who want to become part of our Alliance

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Marija Stojanović | Demostat | Beograd 5. Jan 2024 | In focus

I think that the citizens of Serbia are not fully aware of how much we do and achieve together through our partnership. We believe that this is a real challenge, since NATO and Serbia are partners. We highly appreciate and respect Serbia, and we are always ready to communicate with the Serbian public about our joint activities, transparently and with the help of facts. This is especially important at a time when disinformation and fake news have become an integral part of our daily lives, said Brigadier General Giampiero Romano, Head of NATOs Military Liaison Office in Belgrade.

General Romano said in the podcast “Half an Hour of Demostat”: “I want to emphasize that Serbia is a respected, important and valued partner of NATO, as well as that the partnership between NATO and Serbia is mutually beneficial”.

- These are the things we want to bring to ordinary people. We see Serbia today as a modern country that is a key factor of stability in the Western Balkans. The reality is that our cooperation is reliable, and that we are doing our best to better communicate what we are doing, by stating the facts about what NATO is, and what our partnership with Serbia means. Therefore, I want to thank you for this opportunity to tell the Serbian people about the partnership we have. It is very important for us to promote this mutually beneficial cooperation, our interlocutor stressed.

Asked whether he believes that the public in Serbia is sufficiently informed about the degree of relations between Serbia and NATO, as well as the concrete results of these relations, the Head of the NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade pointed out: ”We are trying to be proactive”.

 - There is always more work to be done when it comes to communication on the scope of relations between Serbia and NATO, as well as further strengthening our engagement with the Serbian media. We will continue to play our role in this regard. We have a long history of partnership with Serbia since 2006. Serbia joined the Partnership for Peace programme and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Since then, we have done a lot together, including, for example, projects within the Science for peace and security program. In addition, we have many ongoing activities, and in the last 17 years we have carried out over 1000 joint activities, in military and other domains. Also, in 2018 we had a very large emergency preparedness exercise. Over two thousand participants attended the exercise, from Serbia, from NATO member states and partners. this exercise was very successful, we learned from each other, we improved our abilities and our mutual understanding, explained the interlocutor of Demostat.

Speaking about the cooperation between The Alliance and our country, which has been a member of the Partnership for Peace since 2006,  and a signatory to the SOFA and IPAP agreement, General Romano said: ”NATO appreciates the long-lasting partnership it has been building with Serbia since 2006. Serbia joined NATOs Partnership for Peace programme. For 17 years, Serbia and NATO have been developing a broad and mutually beneficial cooperation and together they have been supporting reforms, security and stability throughout the Western Balkans region and the wider Euro-Atlantic area”.

- From the very beginning, we have been trying to create a partnership that is tailored to best suit the needs and desires of Serbia, with full respect for the proclaimed policy of military neutrality of Serbia. As I have already said, Serbia cooperates with the Atlantic alliance on several different levels, in the political, military and scientific domain. We have well-established communication, among other things at the highest political level, where there is regular contact between the president of Serbia and the Secretary General of NATO. The Partnership for Peace program enables mutually beneficial cooperation. When it comes to military co-operation, the things we do together help Serbia effectively contribute to operations under the auspices of the UN or the EU. The things we do together not only improve cooperation between NATO and Serbia, but also help Serbia to cooperate with others, in international operations and peacekeeping missions around the world, which is therefore beneficial for NATO, as it fosters stability, he pointed out.

General Romano specified that, for example, soldiers from Serbia are working together with Italian soldiers in Lebanon. In that contact, he stated: “My Italian colleagues have assured me that the cooperation is excellent and they are very satisfied. On many occasions they emphasized the professionalism and readiness of Serbian soldiers”.

- When it comes to our practical cooperation, Serbia can choose from more than 1600 different activities in our partner menu, which support the reforms of Serbias security institutions and structures, strengthen its capacities to prevent and manage natural disasters, and include scientific cooperation and joint exercises, among others. As far as scientific cooperation is concerned, Serbia has been active within the NATO Science for peace and security programme since 2006. Serbian scientists and institutes are leading some of the activities under this program, including those related to energy and environmental security, defense against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, fight against terrorism, cyber defense and peoples security, said the Head of the NATO Military Liaison Office.

Demostat interlocutor emphasized that “over the years, many projects within this program have brought together, and continue to bring together scientists from NATO and Serbia, enabling them to share experiences and push boundaries through the achievement of technological and scientific goals, thus bringing us closer to a better and safer future, which is of course for the benefit of everyone. Thanks to these projects, many laboratories are equipped in Serbia, and now your scientists, curious minds from Serbia, can work and create history in them. So, as you can see, Serbia and NATO are closer than it seems at first glance”.

Asked where he sees additional opportunities for cooperation, General Romano said: “I think our level of cooperation is at a high level, but we can improve it even further”.

- The starting point is very simple. Partnership is a process based on mutual trust and understanding, which guides all our cooperation. I believe that we have significant achievements behind us, and that we need to continue on the same path, to work together for a better and safer future. During the recent visit of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to Belgrade, among other things, at the meeting with President Vucic, the possibility of restarting the organization of a joint military exercise between NATO and Serbia, the first of its kind, which was planned even before the covid epidemic. I believe that such an important exercise could be a great opportunity to improve our cooperation, he said.

As he emphasized: ”the very reason why I am here, and why the NATO military liaison office in Belgrade was established, is to contribute to the security needs of Serbia, to improve our cooperation and to enhance this long-term partnership that we have”.

 - Our partnership Plan provides a framework for further development of our cooperation, so that it better serves the expectations of both Serbia and NATO. I repeat, since each NATO partnership is tailored to meet the requirements and needs of partners, it is primarily up to Serbia itself to decide in which direction and in which way it wants to develop it. It is a choice that Serbia, as a sovereign country, should make. It is up to Serbia which path it wants to choose, according to how it sees its future. Whatever decision Serbia makes, of course, NATO will respect it. I believe mutual respect is the starting point of any relationship. We are ready to further strengthen our cooperation, which would benefit Serbia, NATO, as well as stability in the entire Western Balkans region. One of the areas where we can strengthen cooperation is responding to hybrid threats. For this, we need to put more effort into public diplomacy and jointly confront disinformation campaigns that undermine trust and, in general, negatively affect our democratic societies, general Romano underlines.

Answering the question of how he sees the public perception of NATO in Serbia, bearing in mind the fact that the Alliance is not popular in our country, primarily because of the bombing in 1999, the interlocutor of Demostat emphasized: ”This is a very important thing. I am aware that NATO remains a controversial topic in Serbia. Memories of year 1999 continues to be painful for many, especially those who have lost their loved ones. Every life lost is a tragedy, for which I deeply regret. The secretary general of NATO expressed his condolences to all who have lost loved ones on both sides”.

- We should be aware of the reality of our cooperation with Serbia today, but also that the past still has an impact on the image of NATO in this country. We cant forget the past, but we can work together and move on. This is what NATO and Serbia are doing through this partnership, we are moving towards a better future. I repeat, I believe that we must not forget the past, but we can move forward, as happened in Italy, for example, after the Second World War. We then suffered many losses, not only in our lives, but in the design of monuments, culture, infrastructure and so on. But then we decided to look to the future, to move forward, and now we are where we are. I hope that in the future Serbia will be even more successful than Italy, said our interlocutor.

Asked whether efforts will be made to change such a perception of NATO in Serbia, General Romano notes that “there is still a significant gap between what we are doing and the public awareness of it in Serbia. This is one of my priorities, to bring the real story of NATO-Serbia partnership to ordinary citizens”.

- We will continue to do our best to explain what NATO is and what principles and values it stands for. We are also ready to explore new ways of communicating with the Serbian public, which we highly value. Therefore, we believe that public diplomacy is one of the fields where Serbia and NATO could do much more, for the benefit of all. We also welcome the future engagement of our long-term partner Serbia in this regard, as we believe that any opportunity to promote the results of our cooperation is crucial for our efforts to bring the facts closer to citizens. NATO is an alliance made up of 31 democratic countries. NATO is Italy, my homeland, one of its 12 founders. NATO is Norway, where our Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg comes from. NATO is Greece and Turkey, where most of your citizens take their children on vacation. NATO includes Hungary, Slovakia and many other countries. At the bilateral level, there are many activities between Serbia and 31 NATO member countries, some of which are also members of the EU. These countries donate and invest a lot of funds in Serbia through NATO trust funds or EU funds, or on a bilateral basis. These are things that we want to promote more, we want to inform the Serbian public about what NATO is doing here, what 31 NATO member states are doing with Serbia, General Romano explained.

Asked whether Serbia could change its policy of military neutrality in the future and join the NATO, the interlocutor of Demostat said: 2I want to emphasize once again that NATO fully respects Serbias policy of military neutrality, as well as its decision to remain at the partner level. The fact that Serbia does not want to join NATO has not prevented us from achieving excellent results so far through our partnership based on close political dialogue and practical cooperation”.

- When we talk about NATO and its position on military neutrality, examples like Austria or Switzerland show us that it is possible to be neutral and partner with NATO at the same time. But just as we respect the decision of some countries not to join NATO, we also respect the decisions of some other countries to join. For example, Finland, which has become the 31st member state, has decided to abandon its policy of military neutrality in order to join NATO; the same applies to Sweden, which we expect to become a member soon, even though it has long been a neutral country. I want to make it clear that NATO does not seek new members, nor does it force anyone to join. Regardless, we have an open door policy for those who want to become part of our alliance. It is up to each sovereign country to decide its own future. It is up to Serbia to decide what foreign policy it wants to pursue. Whatever Serbia decides, NATO will respect it, we do not impose anything, the head of NATO military liaison office in Belgrade explained.

Asked how he views the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina after recent tensions and events in Banjska, Demostats interlocutor pointed out: ”NATO continues to firmly support the dialogue under the auspices of the European Union and other efforts aimed at normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina as the only way to achieve a lasting political solution and stability in the region”.

- During his recent visit to Serbia, the NATO Secretary General called on Belgrade and Pristina to actively participate in the dialogue, to reduce tensions and refrain from measures that may lead to escalation. He also welcomed the European Unions latest proposal to establish a community of Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo, as a key step towards normalising relations. NATOS KFOR mission is fully focused on the day-to-day execution of its mandate based on Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999, which is to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all people living in Kosovo. KFOR closely monitors the situation and has an agile and flexible attitude and a visible presence on the ground. This May saw violence against KFOR peacekeepers, injuring 93 NATO soldiers, some of whom suffered serious injuries. In September, there were new violent events. This is unacceptable. The facts must be established and the perpetrators brought to justice. In response to the violence, NATO has deployed about 1,000 additional peacekeepers as well as armored units to Kosovo. This represents the largest increase of our contingent in Kosovo in the past ten years, which shows that NATO is ready to keep the peace.

 As he added:”KFOR Commander Major General Ulutash is in contact with the Chief of the General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces, General Mojsilovic, as well as with representatives of institutions and security organizations in Kosovo, the European Union rule of Law Mission (EULEX), the OSCE and the international community. A stable Kosovo is essential for stability in the region and for our security. For more than two decades, peace and stability in Kosovo have been a priority for NATO. The United Nations mandate for our KFOR peacekeeping mission, which is based on Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999, remains unchanged. We continue to support a safe and secure environment in Kosovo”.

Assessing the security situation in the Western Balkans in changed geopolitical circumstances, caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, General Romano pointed out: “this is a serious matter. When we talk about war, we always remember that war is made up of several stages. And unfortunately, people fight in war. Im a soldier. I think we as soldiers support peace the most. Because if theres a war, were the first to go there. Its not pleasant, not just because youre involved in some conflict, but because people and infrastructure are involved, and thats sad stuff”.

- For over 30 years, NATO has tried to build a partnership with Russia and develop dialogue and practical cooperation in areas of general interest. Despite this, Russia has repeatedly violated the norms and principles that contribute to a stable and predictable security order in Europe, especially over the last decade. The brutal and illegal aggression war of Russia against Ukraine, started in 2022, after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014,  has dramatically changed the environment. NATO strongly condemns Russias invasion of Ukraine, an independent, peaceful and democratic country that is also our close partner. Russias brutal war already has far-reaching consequences that are felt in many regions. Concerns about Russias influence in the Western Balkans have become more intense since Russias general invasion of Ukraine began. In this regard, in recent months we have seen cyber attacks, disinformation, economic pressure and political coercion. For this reason, NATO will continue to further develop cooperation with its partners in the region, to support reforms, regional peace and security, as well as to combat the harmful impact arising from disinformation, hybrid and cyber threats emanating from state and non-state actors. We call on Russia to play a constructive role in the Western Balkans, but unfortunately we regularly see it doing the opposite. The Western Balkans is a region of strategic importance for NATO, which NATO leaders clearly and loudly confirmed at the Vilnius summit this July. We are committed to peace and stability in the Western Balkans, Demostats interlocutor pointed out.

Asked what his impressions about Belgrade and Serbia are so far, since he took office in our country in December last year, General Romano said: “Even before I came to Serbia, I heard a lot about your wonderful country. However, it wasnt until I got here that I realized how beautiful she really was. I come from the south of Italy, and therefore I fit in very easily here, because I quickly concluded how much the Serbian people have in common with my people. We have similar habits, similar customs, similar approach to food, work and entertainment. We share the way we communicate, without restraint, with a strong sense of hospitality. I feel that the Serbian and Italian people are truly close”.

- The openness with which I was welcomed in Belgrade also motivated me to start learning Serbian language and history. You have a very interesting history, in which Italy also participated to some extent, especially in the first World War. Through learning about your country, I was able to get even closer to all the wonderful people I met. Some of them are surprised when I tell them what I do, but when they meet me, and when I explain to them what I do here for NATO, what we are trying to achieve through this partnership, it seems to me that they open up to the idea that cooperation between Serbia and NATO can actually be a very positive thing. When I came here a year ago, it was love at first sight. I have to admit, I feel at home. Belgrade is a fantastic city, which has a lot to offer culturally, as well as in any other sense. The people who live in it are very friendly and friendly. Every day, on every corner, I see hospitality and kindness. Since I come from Italy, which is famous for its excellent cuisine, I have to say that I was amazed at how many great restaurants in Belgrade are preparing perfect food. Since I came here, I have tried many Serbian homemade dishes. The food is very different from the Italian food, but it is delicious. E.g. theres  sarma,  muckalica. My favorite dish is beans with sausage. Also, you are a very rich country in terms of wine and wineries. It was a real revelation to me. I have to commend the quality of your wines, some of which are easily matched by Italian wines, or even exceed in quality. I enjoy learning more and more Serbian every day. Your language is very interesting and rich. There are many different rules and exceptions to the rules. Although it is not the easiest language to learn, I try to improve my knowledge every day. That is why I am trying to exchange some words and sentences in Serbian with my Serbian civilian colleagues from the office, while I work on expanding my vocabulary. In addition, I am learning Cyrillic - it is fun, but not so easy, the interlocutor of Demostat emphasized.

General Giampiero Romano said: “Of course, I am not only focused on your food, but also on your rich history, which is very interesting to me and helps me better understand your culture and heritage. Finally, I want to end this interview with my favorite word from the Serbian language. That is one of the first words I learned in your language, which I used when I took office, and that is - cheers. Cheers is not only a word, but also contains a whole world of meaning, which in my opinion is appreciated all over the world. Cheers, with my best wishes to this beautiful country and its beautiful people”.

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