Serbia has taken a step closer to NATO by granting freedom of movement and immunity to NATO troops. But the move has sparked a fierce public debate, and shaken up the country's traditionally good relations with Russia.
Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's cooperation deal with NATO has called Serbia's military neutrality into question. Despite assurances that Serbia will not apply for membership in NATO, tensions with Russia have not diminished. Instead, right-wing forces are growing stronger and the government is avoiding a serious public debate by shifting the "guilt" to its predecessors.
Maintaining military neutrality while cooperating with NATO through the Partnership for Peace program and at the same time keeping good relations with Russia is still the best option for Belgrade, from both an economic and political point of view. However, every step closer the administration moves toward EU and trans-Atlantic integration is met with an increase in right-wing rhetoric. Since 2000, all Serbian governments have attempted to juggle the competing interests, but it is a strategy with a definite expiry date.
The creation of a legal basis for cooperating with NATO - as well as the deaths of two kidnapped Serbian diplomats during the US bombing of positions held by the "Islamic State" in Libya - has revived public debate about Serbia's relationship with the alliance. Some opposition members, as well as Russian officials, believe that Serbia is endangering its proclaimed military neutrality and taking a big step toward formal membership in NATO. But Vucic, as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, all deny that this is the case.
"The law itself brings nothing new," Zoran Dragisic, a professor at the Faculty of Security Studies at Belgrade University, told DW. "It is an act confirming the ratification of the agreements previously signed. Serbia clearly stated that it will not join NATO. And nobody has asked us to do it so far. In my opinion, we missed our chance in 2009, when Croatia and Albania joined the alliance."
The part of the agreement that has been most heavily criticized is the clause that gives NATO troops diplomatic status, immunity from criminal liability and taxes, and access to Serbian military facilities. Dragisic explains that these are universal rules that appear in all the documents agreed with partner countries. But the opposition is using the provisions as an argument for turning towards Russia.
Dissatisfaction with current politics prompted an anti-NATO rally in Belgrade. The protest was attended by few thousand people who see cooperation with the alliance as a kind of national humiliation. The situation has been further complicated by the announcement of early parliamentary elections in April. Divisions between supporters of the West and supporters of Russia are intensifying, and right-wing populism is growing.
"If the law had been passed two months ago, when the elections were not yet in sight, nobody would even have noticed it," Dragisic said. "In the absence of quality political solutions, the right-wing block wants to take an advantage and focus on a topic that will benefit them in the elections. I think that our citizens are more interested in how the future government will solve real problems and provide them with a better standard of living, healthcare, and education. NATO is absolutely not a topic that interests people."
After a series of insults and threats, the website belonging to the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies - a nongovernmental organization that openly supports Serbia's entry into the EU and NATO - was hacked. The head of the EU delegation to Serbia, Michael Davenport, was booed at a lecture at the Faculty of Political Sciences. Just a few days earlier, a group of young men heckled American ambassador Kyle Scott during a debate about the US.
Lost in the past
The cooperation between Serbia and NATO has been shaped mainly by the 1999 intervention against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Even today, 17 years after the NATO bombing, some consider the West to be an enemy, and its actions to protect Kosovo Albanians as an act of aggression on their sovereign soil.
"I will never support cooperation with the aggressor," Nikola T, a student from Belgrade who was only 5 years old when the intervention started, told DW. "NATO bombed us and took Kosovo from us. People died because of them, and now we are giving them immunity. We have a short memory, and that's our biggest problem."
Thirty-seven-year-old Anita J. has a completely different opinion. She says that Serbia has learned nothing from its tragic past. "The regime of Slobodan Milosevic terrorized not just Kosovo Albanians, but its own people. They provoked the bombing even though they knew they were fighting against a superior opponent. The attacks lasted 78 days, more than 2,000 people lost their lives, including my friend who worked at Radio Television of Serbia. Our schools, hospitals, factories and infrastructure were destroyed. The aftermath can still be seen. We will need several decades to fully restore our country," she said.
The pro-Russia right has taken advantage of the ruling elite's inability to improve the economy and frequent popular representation of the European Union as a "blackmailer." Exhausted by poor political decisions, conflicts and poverty, some Serbians can see neither their past nor future clearly.
"A part of our community falsely believes that NATO is a criminal organization created in 1999 to bomb Serbia. Their opinion is hard to change. That's why the government of Serbia should explain to their citizens the advantages of EU membership and cooperation with the alliance. That is the only way to eliminate the persisting prejudices, so Serbia could move forward," said Dragisic.