Interview with Nikola Petrović on Serbia's foreign relations

  • Matěj Novák
  • 7.4.2017 15:14

Nikola Petrović is one of the founders and the Director of the ISAC Fund in charge of logistics, finance and administration. From July 2004 until the end of December 2005, he served as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Minister of Defence for Serbia and Montenegro. Mr. Petrović also worked for the International Organisation for Migration / OSCE joint out-of-country voting program as assistant to Program Director. He also worked for the EU Justice and Home Affairs fact finding mission in 2001. In the lines below, Mr. Petrović provides answers concerning the key issues such as a Kosovo-Serbia relations or Serbia’s accession to the EU with providing a glimpse of a Serbia’s position towards these topics.

Mr. Petrović, can you present to me and our readers what the ISAC Fund is, what its purpose and main goals are and what has brought you to take part in the conference*?

The International Security Affairs Center Fund (ISAC Fund), is an over 10 year old Serbian NGO think tank, but not only think, but also “think and do tank“, for example the participation in this conference is one of the “do“ elements. Our organisation deals with national security affairs, foreign relations, security sector reform, and membership in international missions. The purpose of our participation at the conference is to exchange experiences, because of the similarity between the Czech Republic as Serbia also started later with its participation in multilateral missions and we are currently in the process of building a system for these kind of activities. Generally, the main role of the ISAC Fund lies in influencing policy and decision-making in Serbia through research, policy proposals, political analysis and forecasts, and specialist education, with the aim of attaining a more prosperous future for the present and coming generations.

How does Serbia perceive the EULEX Kosovo Mission, which aims to build a rule of law state system through strengthening its security institutions and legislature, following a pattern of western democracy standards?

We have to choose between the local population, and running the judiciary and interior section without having proper human capacity, and I think that all Serbian citizens would prefer the locals to be involved in these sections. But it’s necessary to have these positions running as effectively as much as it possible, and in that case international assistance is very viable. Having new police and law graduates is not enough, the experience and assistance of the international community is also a key necessity. Our own educational and state system in those matters can’t always provide completely sufficient skills that would enable people to conduct these roles with maximum efficiency, and most of the EU countries have, on the other hand, a deep tradition and know-how of how to build, adjust and maintain necessary processes and institutions connected to the rule of law principles and western democracy thinking.

How would you describe actual political and security situation debate or the public mood concerning Kosovo-Serbia relations?

At first, it’s important to realise that for Serbia, Kosovo and Metohija is our southern province which is currently inaccessible to our legislation, meaning that we do not recognise Kosovo and Metohija as an independent state and that won’t change in foreseeable future. The Serbian government sees Kosovo and Metohija as an occupied state, to certain extent, and for many Serbians, because of Kosovo, NATO is perceived as an occupier, and is quite unpopular in Serbia for several reasons, for example regarding the Kosovo liberation movement and NATO’s ambivalent approach towards it. On the other side, there are still a lot of Serbs in Kosovo and the only thing which protects them at the moment, to some extent, is a NATO’s KFOR Mission. So we Serbs are a bit schizophrenic in this matter, when we both hate NATO for occupying Kosovo but we still want it to remain because it provides security to the local Serbian population.

 

“It’s important to realise that for Serbia, Kosovo and Metohija is our southern province which is currently inaccessible to our legislation.”

 

Recently, we heard about plans for the Kosovo security forces to reform into regular armed forces, what do you think is the main reason for this decision? And what is Serbia’s position towards this plan?

The reason for it is simple – having an army is one of the major measurements or signs of a truly independent and sovereign state, so from that point of view it’s logical that if Kosovo wants to be a truly independent state, it has to have its own army and that’s why they plan to realise this step. However, for Serbia, as we don’t recognise Kosovo as an independent state, it’s understandable that our southern province simply can’t have a regular army, from our point of view. Also, these plans to transform the security forces into armed forces are perceived by Serbia as a threat and it is being seen as a deterrent by Kosovo from any further possible Serbian involvement in Kosovo and Metohija. At the moment and luckily for Serbia, the international community has the same stand-point that Kosovo cannot and should not even attempt to transform its security forces into regular armed forces. 

How much importance does Serbia place on partnership with the EU in terms of security cooperation, and what are the main areas where you see the biggest potential for doing so?

We certainly welcome that kind of cooperation, but you have to realise that Serbia is still not a member state and nor aligns with the security cooperation of Chapter 31**, which due to political reasons that relate to relations with Russia and other non-EU countries, is being postponed. And that’s exactly the reason why Serbia has a direct interest to enhance and upgrade its security cooperation with the EU. There are number of limits that are identical to any other state of our size and capabilities even within the EU like the Czech Republic, nobody expects, nor can expect, that Serbia would be able send hundreds of soldiers or civilians to EU missions. Of course we are building our systems and our capabilities, and we are really devoted to European values on this matter, and we have willing and capable armed forces that have been through full interoperability courses and training making us ready to participate in many kinds of European missions. We already have experience from UN Missions that we could utilise in further participation in EU missions, where we already started sending several of our officers to EU military missions and we are going to slowly increase this number.

The Serbian government is cooperating with both NATO and Russia in the field of defence and security, is it a part of a general approach aiming to balance its orientation to both West and East? What is the sense and purpose of conducting cooperation with two main European security actors at the same time?

NATO is basically the only fully functional military alliance on both the operational and political levels, so it is of course very important to cooperate with NATO. Cooperation with Russia is for us something that comes naturally, we for example use a lot of equipment that is built and produced in Russia, and Russia has its own interests in participating in such cooperation, so they are ready to carry their part of the burden, the financial burden, and the Serbian armed and security forces are glad to participate in exercises on an equal basis of burden sharing with basically any good bilateral partner because that enhances your capabilities. So that counts for Russia, but also for the US, or any other possible partner state. Such cooperation also enhances your political position, not only military capabilities.

 

“This position is that we fully support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but on the other hand, we are not going to say we blame Russia for doing what they are doing.”

 

What is Serbia’s official position on the situation in Ukraine, respective to the matter of the Donbas conflict and how does your government perceive Russia’s involvement in this case?

Serbia’s official position on the matter of the Ukraine conflict is very clear and it was stated more than once by our Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić, while Serbia was presiding over OECD. This position is that we fully support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but on the other hand, we are not going to say we blame Russia for doing what they are doing. This is because of the importance of our relations with Russia. Then there is also the public discourse, which is quite coloured, that what happened in Ukraine is a result of a Russia’s self-defence mechanism, even though they came in and took part of the territory due to NATO’s unfair advancement. Now of course, this is the major discourse, however, all the analysts and experts basically disagree with that and claim that Serbia should condemn what Russia did, especially in Crimea, because there could be a parallel drawn between Crimean crisis and what we have with Kosovo and Metohija, even though Russian president Vladimir Putin said that Kosovo and Crimea are totally different cases. 

Is there any significant V4 – Serbia cooperation in security and defence matters? Does Serbia see the V4 countries as beneficial partners and potential benefactors not only within terms of the security sphere, but also for example in the case of the EU accession process?

Of course, the Visegrad fund is active in Serbia and there is bilateral cooperation between V4 and Serbia. When you are a small country like us, you usually to get close ties with bigger players, so Serbia is certainly open to a further strengthening of mutual cooperation with V4 on every possible level. All V4 countries, with the exception of Poland, are to some extent quite similar to the Serbia in terms of its size and population, ambitions, communist or socialist history and so on. Of course these states are not totally similar in terms of the transition process or their history in detail. However, such cooperation is never easy especially because the V4 also has to deal with EU foreign affairs and fall in line with the principles and set coordinates of EU’s CSFP.

How is Serbia dealing with migration crisis? How is the crisis manifesting in Serbia and what is the official position of Serbia towards the solution of this phenomenon?

The general consensus among anybody who is even thinking about a proper solution is that you don’t put the fire out by sprinkling water on the sides, you go to the source. The only way to solve the migration crisis in the long term is to stop conflicts in the countries from where the migration is coming, but not only stop conflicts but to actually build a sustainable society. From the perception of our western allies like the US, there is only one sustainable system that can be established, from the position of some smaller players from the East, like Serbia, maybe those countries should decide their own fate in what kind of system they want to live in so the population would be content with the society and state arrangement that they live in. About how migration affecting Serbia, our country has a huge experience with big waves of migrants of Serbian nationality, running from former Yugoslav republics, so we have the tools, we have the know-how how to deal with it, but we certainly don’t have the funds to accept a large number ofmigrants. On the other hand, the migrants’ final goal in most cases is not to reach and stay in Serbia, they are trying to get for example to the United Kingdom, Germany, or France. Also, because Serbia is a country still in transition, we are not so open to foreigners historically, especially those of a different religion, due to the bad experience we had during the 90’s.

* The interview took place at the international conference ‘Civilians in Multilateral Missions’ on March 16-17 2017 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Czernin palace in Prague, Czech Republic.

** Part of the Conditions for membership for Serbia are the Chapters of Acquis - Chapter 31: Foreign, security and defence policy. Applicant countries including Serbia are required to progressively align with EU statements and CSFP principles and to apply sanctions and restrictive measures when and where required. 

 

About author: Matěj Novák

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