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          (first published in Balkan Insight, available online at http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/comment-will-serbs-ever-learn-to-love-nato )

          The Western Balkans may not feature high on NATO’s current agenda due to other, more pressing concerns in other parts of the globe. But in the region itself, the Alliance is still seen as relevant. 

          Among other issues, the presence of peacekeeping troops in Kosovo and the prospect of NATO membership for the Western Balkans, as part of a wider Euro-Atlantic integration plan, are widely viewed as crucial to maintaining the region’s stability.  

          But there is one key exception to this view. Public opinion among Serbs in Serbia, Montenegro and the Bosnian Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, remains sharply opposed - both to NATO itself and to the prospect of NATO membership. 

          NATO’s image among Serbs remains tainted by vivid memories of the Alliance’s bombing campaigns against the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and against Yugoslavia in 1999. The two interventions are fodder for often-repeated accusations that NATO is an “anti-Serbian” organization. 

          In Serbia, the political establishment takes it as a “given” that public opinion is against membership. In a poll conducted by state-run Radio Television Serbia in January 2010, more than half of the respondents rejected membership of the Alliance as an option. The political establishment invests little energy in trying to dissuade the distrustful public of this opinion. Instead, since 2007, Serbia has tried out the politics of military neutrality as an alternative. 

          Meanwhile, Serbia is interested in participating in peacekeeping operations under the United Nations flag or the European Union umbrella.  In this way, Belgrade officials balance neutrality with an ambition to develop Serbia’s military capacity.

          Serbian opposition to NATO is not limited to Serbia. It is equally strong among the Serbs in Montenegro who make up 32 per cent of the country’s population. In Bosnia, 63 per cent of the population in the mainly Serb Republika Srpska opposes NATO membership, according to a poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, NDI, in August 2010. 

          Bosnian Serb opposition to NATO is easily explained, taking into account NATO’s decisive action in ending the country’s 1992-5 civil war, the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the Alliance’s role in terminating Serbian control over Kosovo in 1999, which then declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. The Serbs’ close economic, political and religious ties to Russia - which fiercely opposes NATO’s eastwards expansion - is another factor.

          In Bosnia, popular opposition among Serbs to the Alliance undermines the ability of the country to embrace a NATO-centered security policy. Although all Serbian parties officially support a parliamentary declaration that has committed the country to working toward Bosnian membership, the Republika Srpska’s powerful Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik, has voiced increasing skepticism. 

          Dodik and his party, the Independent Democrats, SNSD, have even threatened to call a referendum on the issue of Bosnia’s NATO membership. If the current political crisis in the country continues, Dodik’s SNSD, and the second biggest Bosnian Serb party, the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, may move towards more outright opposition to NATO membership. 

          Montenegro, on the other hand, is progressing toward NATO membership, although its leadership faces significant opposition from Serbian public opinion. There is a visible line of demarcation in the country between the parties of a so-called “pro-NATO orientation,” and those opposed to such a step. All the key Serbian parties oppose NATO membership, including the most vocal New Serb Democracy, NOVA, and the Democratic Serbian Party, DSS. 

          The Serbian minority, which strongly rejected the 2006 referendum dissolving the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, has accepted the new state but still overwhelmingly oppose Montenegro’s entrance into the Alliance. 

          By contrast, the great majority of Serbs in Montenegro support the process of incorporation into the European Union, primarily due to the belief that entering the EU will bring economic progress and a higher standard of living. 

          This split among the Serbs over Euro-Atlantic integration stems partly from the failure of their respective political elites to enlighten them as to what Euro-Atlantic integration really means. 

          Serbs in Bosnia and Montenegro and their elites are likely to continue to follow this pro-EU, anti-NATO trend until Serbia itself changes its strategy, since Serbia’s official line influences the Serbian population no matter where they live in the region. 

          NATO’s negative image among Serbs cannot be changed overnight. The diplomatic tools that NATO has successfully employed in other candidate states are unlikely to bear fruit among this community in the near future. 

          There is still an opportunity for NATO to engage with domestic stakeholders over defence reform and international peacekeeping operations. But for that to happen, the Serbs will need to reach more of a consensus than they have so far over what it means to be protected and by whom.

          *Jelena Radoman is a research fellow at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy and a research associate at the Athens Working Group: Transforming the Balkans, a programme of the Hellenic Centre for European Studies.

          Bledar Feta is junior researcher at the Athens Working Group: Transforming the Balkans. http://www.ekemprogram.org/csis

        • Tags: Serbia, nato, Western Balkans, Security of Western Balkan, Euro Atlantic integration, Serbs
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