‘It is a great privilege for me to be appointed to this important post in such an important country. NATO attaches a great deal of value to its relationship with Serbia, as a close partner playing a very important role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. The Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg and President Aleksandar Vučić have regular consultations and get on very well with each other. This contributes to improving the political dialogue and strengthening the practical cooperation in the partnership between NATO and Serbia. I have the deepest respect for your country.’
General Tommaso Vitale, the new Chief of the NATO Military Liaison Office in Belgrade, opens his exclusive interview for Kurir with these words. He also talks about Kosovo, the bombing of Serbia in 1999, as well as learning the Serbian language. This is his first newspaper interview after assuming his post in Belgrade.
I trust that you have seen the polls indicating very weak support for NATO in Serbia – 89 percent of the population is against joining the Alliance. What is your view on this and how do you intend to make the citizens of Serbia warm up to the NATO narrative?
The reason why I am here and why the NATO Military Liaison Office was opened in Belgrade in 2006 is to contribute to Serbia’s security needs. At Serbia’s request, together we conduct various activities geared towards improving Serbia’s defence and security capacities, as well as its structures and institutions, as part of the Partnership for Peace programme with NATO, which Serbia joined in 2006. We respect highly the public opinion in Serbia, and the observations and views expressed therein are a key factor that we take under consideration on a daily basis. In this respect, it is important to take into account the actual scope of our cooperation with Serbia today, as well as the fact that NATO is still a controversial subject in Serbia. Serbia is a respected, appreciated, and important partner. That is the message that we wish to send to the ordinary citizens.
Are you happy with the cooperation with Serbia?
For us, Serbia is a modern country and a factor of stability in the Western Balkans. It is a fact that our cooperation is reliable, mutually beneficial, and taking place in multiple domains. For example, NATO and Serbia are working together to increase their preparedness for emergencies such as floods and forest fires. We are helping Serbia in the reform of the security forces and institutions. NATO is training Serbian soldiers for international peacekeeping missions, and in the past 20 years we have invested millions of euros through various projects, including the funds used for assistance in destroying over 230 tonnes of excess dangerous ammunition. Serbia is also contributing to NATO by helping other countries - for example, in training Iraqi medical corps. At the bilateral level, Serbia has been conducting many activities with 30 NATO countries, some of which are members of the EU as well. These countries donate and invest significant funds in Serbia, via the NATO Trust Funds or the EU funds, or on a strictly bilateral basis. Those are the things that we would like to be better known and talked about.
Do you think that people here do not know what NATO represents?
Not everyone knows that NATO is an alliance of 30 democracies. NATO is Italy, my home country, and one of the 12 founders of the Alliance. NATO is also Canada. NATO is Norway, where our Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is originally from. NATO is Greece too, where most Serbs go on vacation with their families. NATO includes Hungary, Germany, and many other countries.
Is the Alliance uncomfortable with Serbia’s military neutrality?
No. Our message is clear: NATO fully respects Serbia and its policy of military neutrality. Serbia is our neighbour, and an important and well-regarded partner to NATO. NATO respects the right of each sovereign state to make decisions on its own future and its security arrangements, without third party involvement or vetoing. This is why NATO respects the right of Serbia to choose its own path without anyone’s interference. This is a fundamental principle of NATO. In the meantime, we will strive towards developing and strengthening our cooperation. We can have strong relations with partners like Austria and Finland although they are not member states. We fully respect their decision not to join NATO, as we respect the decisions of others to join. Lastly, a rich and economically strong Serbia is a precondition for peace and stability in the region. We are glad to see that Serbia is on a path of progressive economic growth.
Experience has shown that the road to the EU and NATO membership are often linked. Could this be made into a condition for Serbia?
Despite the fact that 11 out of 13 countries that have joined the EU since 2004 are also members of NATO, membership in the Alliance is not a condition for joining the European Union, and vice versa. Serbia wishes to only join the EU, and we are fine with that. There are no NATO-related conditions for joining the EU.
In addition to the Alliance, our country has military exercises with Russia as well, and this has not always been received well. Are you uncomfortable with our good cooperation with Russia?
I would like to point out that for us there is no discrepancy between good relations with NATO and good relations with Russia. We do not force ourselves upon our partners. Others do it perhaps, but we do not. I would like to emphasize once more that military neutrality is not incompatible with cooperation with NATO. It is up to Serbia to decide how and to what extent it wishes to cooperate with Russia. What is most important is that Serbia is not forced to do anything. This is perhaps the most important message: we want the countries in the region to be able to make political decision by themselves, whatever direction they choose, maintaining full political integrity, without external interference.
What do you think about the Serbian Armed Forces, how equipped they are, and about the Serbian soldiers?
Serbia is home to a proud nation with highly regarded officers. Your armed forces have a good reputation around the world. With hard work and commitment, alongside its strong leadership, Serbia is an example to follow in promoting peace and stability in the Western Balkans. As an officer and general, I find it is important to be able to rely on your soldiers. The soldiers that I lead need to understand me, and I need to understand them, no matter where they are from. This brings me to a very important word – interoperability. This word is key to successful multinational peacekeeping missions. NATO helps develop interoperability in the Serbian Armed Forces.
What are Serbian soldiers like in peacekeeping missions?
The brave Serbian officers who take part in peacekeeping mission around the world create a positive image of Serbia. Serbian officers are an example of how commitment and professionalism have made Serbia a highly regarded partner in contributing to international peace and stability. I consider this a mutual success, as it is NATO’s capacity-building activities that allow Serbia to reach the required level of interoperability for participation in peacekeeping missions under the auspices of the UN and the EU around the world – in the Central African Republic, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Some of my colleagues from NATO who have had the pleasure of serving side by side with your officers on these missions only have words of praise for them. I too hold in high regard the contribution of Serbia to peacekeeping operations under the auspices of the UN and the EU.
You spent a few years in Kosovo. What is your view on the position of the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija? How much of a regional security risk is Kosovo?
KFOR, the NATO mission, was my first operative mission. This brings back memories. I was younger then. I spent about a year in Kosovo, in the village of Goraždevac. I can still remember the superintendent, his name was Božidar Krstić. He is a very good person, and I would like to meet with him again sometime. I learnt a lot in Kosovo – I witnessed the hardships and suffering of the local population, but at the same time I discovered the citizens’ incredible and extraordinary dignity in such difficult times. I will always remember the time when my soldiers reconstructed the whole main square in the village, and many Serbs in Goraždevac came to see me, asking me to name the square Piazza Italia. And when we reconstructed the local bakery and organized a baking course for the young, I can still remember the experience and the feelings I got from such a joint enterprise. We share a past, but we can also share a better future. And that is precisely what NATO and Serbia do through this partnership – looking ahead to a brighter future together. I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the Serbian public that NATO, through the KFOR mission, remains committed and continues to play its role throughout Kosovo.
What is your view today of the 1999 bombing of Serbia? Should efforts have been put in to avoid it? In addition to the enormous material damage, many civilians were killed in the attacks.
We understand that the memories of the air campaign from 1999 are still painful to many, especially to those who lost their family members. The Secretary General of NATO offered his condolences to the families and all those who lost their loved ones on both sides. We should not forget the past, but we can look ahead together. This is what NATO and Serbia are doing through this partnership, looking ahead towards a better future.
How much of Belgrade have you managed to see since you arrived?
This is a city which makes it easy to feel good. When I arrived here five months ago, I was given a very warm welcome, which I really appreciate. It was easy for me to see Belgrade as a second home, because people here are very friendly and kind. The fact that Italian espresso is served at cafes the way Italians like it also helps. As an Italian, I was delighted to see just how much the Serbian people love Italy and Italians.
AN HONEST CONFESSION
‘Serbian is not easy to learn.’
Are you learning Serbian? How is it coming along?
Serbian is a fascinating language, but I must admit it is not easy to learn. I know the basics of everyday communication and how to give a compliment or two. I will give it my best to improve my knowledge of Serbian. When I first met ministers Vulin and Dačić, after I said hello in Serbian and they responded in the same language, I realized how complex your language is. Regardless, I will continue to give it my best and, who knows, maybe one day I will surprise myself. For now, I can say that I am putting in a lot effort and that things are going “wellissimo”.
The coronavirus pandemic caught up with you here.
As I have been in Belgrade since the start of the pandemic, I would like to mention one thing that is dear to my heart. The generosity and solidarity that your country has shown by sending medical equipment to Italy touched me deeply. Italians will always remember and carry in their hearts what you did for us. Thank you.
Kurir.rs/ Boban Karović Photo: Kurir