Nedeljnik: Late last year you assumed the duty of the Chief of NATO Military Liaison Office Belgrade. What are your first impressions of Belgrade and of NATO-Serbia cooperation?
Zanitti: Belgrade is a very beautiful city, lively, full of young people and is very dynamic. I was taken back by the helpfulness of the Serbs and how they have a good consideration for Italians. I prefer to go around Belgrade on foot to catch all those nuances that would not be possible by driving: the chatter of the people, the scents coming from the bakeries and restaurants, the cleanliness of the city, even though it has 2 million inhabitants, and not least the kindness of the people I meet.
With regard to cooperation, Serbia is our valuable and long-standing partner. I believe that this aspect is fundamental so as to increase that sense of mutual trust. I think that it is from history that we must learn the lessons that would direct and guide us towards building a world of peace. Cooperation is fundamental. It must be pursued and increased more and more. I think that this cooperation is more visible among the higher spheres of society and the various authorities, but it is still difficult to show it to ordinary people.
Nedeljnik: Serbia has been a member of Partnership for Peace for more than 15 years. What were the results of this programme for Serbia, and what were the results for NATO?
Zanitti: In the past 16 years, we have worked closely on many projects and have achieved significant results. Since Serbia joined the Partnership for Peace Programme in 2006, Serbia has constantly been a reliable and valued partner, cooperating with the Alliance on many different levels, across political, military and scientific domains. Everything we do together is mutually beneficial and shaped in a way that helps your country to best address Serbia's needs, with Serbia setting the pace and scope of our support activities. Overall, the current level of cooperation is intensive with NATO fully respecting Serbia's stated policy of military neutrality.
For example, we provide education and training to Serbian Armed Forces officers and personnel, who visit NATO countries, participate in our training programs where they exchange experiences and train alongside NATO officers, some of which are Italians like me. They train, study and work together all for the purpose gaining new skills and expertise that enable them to improve the image of Serbia as well. We also carry out joint exercises, share best practices. All this activities also help Serbia develop capacities for successful participation in multinational operations, including those led by the UN and the EU, where Serbia features as a very important contributor. On the other side, Serbia also helps NATO with its expertise: Serbian military medicine teams are famous for their knowledge and proficiency which is why they helped NATO train Iraqi forces medical teams. Ultimately, we learn from each other.
Serbia is NATO's valued, reliable and long-standing partner.
Another excellent example of our cooperation is in the domain of civil emergencies caused by natural disasters, such as floods and forest fires, for which we keep strengthening our joint preparedness by participating in NATO exercises together. The civil preparedness NATO exercise "Serbia 2018" – jointly organized and performed in Mladenovac by the Ministry of Interior of Serbia and the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) – was a particularly important event, where we learned a lot from each other, through a very professional exchange of experiences and best practices. That exercise was the largest ever organized by the EADRCC, with around 2,000 personnel from 40 countries – including NATO members and partners.
Also, something that ordinary people know less about is the importance of scientific cooperation and how by giving NATO and Serbian scientists the opportunity to work together, we are creating conditions for a better and safer tomorrow. We have a long-standing and multifaceted cooperation with Serbia in this domain, through the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme. Since 2006, Serbia has contributed to more than 30 activities under this Programme. These have included energy and environmental security, defence against chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear agents, counter-terrorism, cyber-defence, and human security.
Chief NATO MLO Belgrade Brigadier General Antonello Messenio Zanitti
Nedeljnik: What are the plans for further cooperation? Have any new military exercises been announced? How would you assess previous joint activities?
Zanitti: Cooperation is an ongoing process and our partnership is based on Serbia's needs and priorities. Individual Partnership Action Plan enabled Serbia to choose activities it wishes to do with NATO. The spectrum of activities goes from scientific, educational, public diplomacy to military and exercise planning domains. All this provides excellent bases to further develop our partnership. We have well-established communication at the highest political level between the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This in itself constitutes a solid platform for our continued political dialogue, which is key to strengthening our mutual understanding and trust. During your President's visit to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels May last year, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg praised Serbia's partnership with NATO and reaffirmed our long-standing commitment to supporting the consolidation of stability across the Western Balkans. NATO will continue to play its part in promoting stability, security and cooperation in the region with our Allies and partners, and Serbia plays a fundamental role in this regard, taking into account its influence in the Western Balkans.
Ultimately, NATO-Serbia cooperation is of direct benefit for the Serbian people, for the peaceful and stable future of your country, and for the wider Western Balkan region. This message must be regularly and clearly communicated to the public, and we welcome the support of the Serbian leadership in doing so.
Nedeljnik: As regards NATO-Serbia relations, the question of the events of 1999 is unavoidable. What is your view of these events today?
Zanitti: We realise that NATO remains controversial in Serbia. The memories of the Air campaign in 1999 are still painful for many, especially for those who lost their loved ones. Each innocent life lost was a tragedy, which I deeply regret. The NATO Secretary General has offered his condolences to the families and to all those who lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict. We must create our future from future. We are aware that we must never forget the past, but we can work together, like we are, to move beyond it. And that is what NATO and Serbia are doing with our partnership. Looking towards a better future.
Nedeljnik: How would you assess the cooperation between KFOR and the Serbian authorities? How would you assess the security situation in Kosovo?
Zanitti: A stable Kosovo is essential for stability in the region and for our own security. For more than two decades, peace and stability in Kosovo have been a priority for NATO. The UN mandate for our KFOR peacekeeping mission – which derives from the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999 - remains unchanged. We continue to support a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for the benefit of all communities living in Kosovo.
There is an excellent level of dialogue between NATO, through its KFOR Mission, and our Serbian interlocutors and we have direct channels of communication between KFOR Commander Kajari and Serbia's Chief of Defence, General Milan Mojsilovic. These channels of communications are invaluable, as they help ensure mutual understanding. Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision: A safe and prosperous region.
NATO continues also to firmly support the EU-facilitated Dialogue and other efforts aimed at the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, as the only path towards achieving a lasting political agreement and stability for the region.
During the last election campaign in Serbia, there were talks about Serbia's membership in NATO. In your opinion, what is the future of Serbia-NATO relations, and how realistic are the stories of Serbia's accession to the organization you represent? Also, does NATO want Serbia as its member?
Zanitti: As I have said, we fully respect Serbia's decision not to join NATO, as well its stated policy of military neutrality. Your country is NATO's valued, reliable and long-standing partner. Until now, we have worked together for 15 years, through a partnership based on close political dialogue and practical cooperation. It is entirely up to Serbia to decide what kind of relations it wants to have with the Alliance. In that sense, being neutral and being a NATO Partner is possible. Whatever Serbia decides, NATO will respect.
Nedeljnik: Taking into account the events in Ukraine, many believe that the world has changed, and that the security infrastructure has been disrupted worldwide. What is the future of NATO and how do you assess the collective security system will look in the future?
Zanitti: NATO's security environment has fundamentally changed one month since the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine as stated by the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. At a recent extraordinary Summit in Brussel, Allied leaders agreed to reset NATO's longer-term deterrence and defence posture across all domains, land, sea, air, cyber and space. This reflects the new security reality resulting from President Putin's brutal and unprovoked war on Ukraine. NATO condemns in the strongest possible terms Russia's actions calling on President Putin to stop this war immediately and engage in genuine diplomacy.