RFE: What is your security assessment of the current situation in northern Kosovo? And what are the biggest challenges for NATO in that part of Kosovo?
BG Romano: The NATO-led KFOR mission is fully focused on the daily implementation of its mandate – based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999 – to ensure a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all people living in Kosovo. It is closely monitoring the situation, through an agile, flexible and visible posture on the ground. This past May, we saw violence against our KFOR peacekeeping mission, leaving 93 NATO troops injured, some seriously. This is totally unacceptable. In response to the recent unrest, NATO has deployed about 500 extra troops to Kosovo and KFOR stands ready to act as necessary. Our KFOR mission will always take all necessary actions to maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo; and it will continue to do so impartially and in line with its United Nations mandate. Any changes to our force posture in KFOR will remain conditions-based and not calendar driven.
All parties must prevent any renewed escalation. Violence can push the Western Balkans into instability and put the region’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations at risk. So, we welcome the recent steps by the Institutions in Kosovo to reduce the number of police officers around the municipal buildings in northern Kosovo, and to facilitate new municipal elections. These are steps in the right direction and they should be matched by further de-escalation. Constructive dialogue is the only way to resolve differences. The EU facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is the best platform to find a solution that respects the rights of all communities.
KFOR’s Commander, Major General Angelo Ristuccia remains in contact with the Chief of Staff of Serbian Armed Forces, General Milan Mojsilovic, as well as with the representatives of the Institutions in Kosovo and of the Security Organizations in Kosovo, the EU-led Rule of Law Mission (EULEX), the OSCE and the international community.
The interview of Chief NATO MLO, BG Giampiero Romano on Radio Free Europe's regional webpage
RFE: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic met in July with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels asking for "security for Serbs in Kosovo". Has there been any follow-up? In what way is NATO MLO in Belgrade participating in efforts to deescalate the situation in northern Kosovo?
BG Romano: President Vucic’s recent visit to NATO Headquarters has provided a good opportunity to discuss the challenges in northern Kosovo, and to reaffirm NATO’s long-standing commitment to its UN-mandated KFOR mission. Secretary General Stoltenberg pointed out that it is important to reduce tensions and that all parties must refrain from escalatory actions and rhetoric. We are still waiting to see a full de-escalation. The only path forward is to engage in dialogue, in the EU-facilitated dialogue, which is strongly supported by NATO. We trust that as a long-standing partner of NATO, Serbia will indeed engage in such dialogue in a constructive way.
As I have said, KFOR will continue to play its part in providing security, in accordance with its UN mandate. Likewise, my team continues to provide its own contributions, through our daily activities of political dialogue and practical cooperation with many Serbian counterparts in Belgrade and across the whole of Serbia.
RFE: How would you rate cooperation with relevant Serbian institutions?
BG Romano: I assumed the role of Chief of our Military Liaison Office in Belgrade last December, when I succeeded my esteemed compatriot, Brigadier General Zanitti. The ceremony was attended by our Serbian friends from the Foreign and Defence ministries, the Armed Forces and many other national institutions. Being welcomed to Belgrade by two ministers and the Chief of Staff of your Armed Forces represented to me a very clear demonstration of how Serbia sees our partnership.
For almost seventeen years now, NATO and Serbia have been developing our mutually-beneficial partnership, through close political dialogue and a substantial level of practical cooperation across many domains. When it comes to our political dialogue, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is in regular contact with President Vucic, and senior NATO officials regularly engage with their Serbian counterparts in Belgrade and Brussels.
As for the practical cooperation aspects of our partnership with Serbia, I can point you to various activities conducted with a number of Serbian institutions within the framework of the Partnership for Peace Programme. These primarily involve the Ministry of Defence and the Serbian Armed Forces. For instance, we work together to be better prepared for civil emergences, such as floods and forest fires.
NATO also trains Serbian soldiers for peacekeeping missions, and provide education and training to Serbian Armed Forces officers and personnel in different ways; These activities help Serbian Armed Forces to develop further their capacity for their participation in multinational peace-keeping operations.
In addition, we have invested millions of euros to help Serbia destroy hundreds of tons of obsolete ammunition.
We are able to do all this because your leadership understands the importance of Serbia’s partnership with NATO and what benefits it brings to your country.
Everything we do together is based on Serbia’s request and it is tailored to Serbia’s needs, while we fully respect Serbia’s stated policy of military neutrality. For NATO, the stability of the Western Balkans is of strategic importance, and we believe that strengthening the NATO-Serbia partnership can be beneficial in many ways, including for further stabilizing the region.
RFE: Dozens of KFOR personnel were wounded in unrest in the north of Kosovo at the end of May. In what way will NATO ensure those responsible are taken accountable?
BG Romano: NATO and the entire international community condemned the unprovoked attacks against KFOR troops as they were saving lives and ensuring security in northern Kosovo. Such attacks against KFOR personnel are unacceptable and must not be repeated. KFOR troops have been implementing a UN mandate for decades, impartially, and for the benefit of all communities living in Kosovo.
The Western Balkans region has come a long way since the conflicts of the 1990s, but we have seen recurring tensions, including in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with more aggressive rhetoric, stalled reforms, and foreign actors working to undermine progress.
Our Strategic Concept reaffirms the strategic importance of the Western Balkans region for the Alliance, and this point has been reaffirmed loud and clear by NATO leaders, during their Summit in Vilnius this past July. Security and stability in the Western Balkans is important for NATO, and for peace and stability in Europe.
As I have already said, KFOR’s mandate – based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999 - is to maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement in Kosovo. Our mission will continue to implement this mandate in an impartial way and will always be ready to take all necessary measures to this end. NATO has increased its presence with around 500 Turkish troops from our operational reserve force for the Western Balkans and an additional battalion of reserve forces is on higher readiness. These are prudent steps to ensure that KFOR has the forces and capabilities it needs to continue to fulfil its mandate.
Violence risks to set back Kosovo and the entire region, and puts Euro-Atlantic aspirations at risk. Pristina and Belgrade must thus take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation and refrain from further irresponsible behaviour. We call on all parties to de-escalate, look for useful solutions and give their best to return to the EU-facilitated dialogue. This is key for the lasting security in Kosovo and stability in the region.
RFE: Has NATO detected Russian influence in the recent unrests in the north of Kosovo?
BG Romano: For more than 30 years, NATO tried to build a partnership with Russia, developing dialogue and practical cooperation in areas of common interest. Despite this, Russia has continuously violated the norms and principles that contributed to a stable and predictable European security order, particularly over the past decade. Russia’s brutal and unlawful war of aggression against Ukraine in 2022 – which occurred against the backdrop of its illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea in 2014 - has shattered peace and has gravely altered the security environment. The impact of Russia’s brutal war is already far-reaching, and felt across many regions.
Indeed, concerns over Russia’s influence in the Western Balkans region have intensified since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In this sense, we have seen cyberattacks, disinformation, economic pressure or political intimidation in recent months. We urge Russia to play a constructive role in the Western Balkans, but, unfortunately, we regularly see Russia doing the opposite.
RFE: What do you see as a viable solution in terms of normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo?
BG Romano: At the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Allies reiterated their full support to the EU-facilitated dialogue and urged both sides to seize the moment and engage in good faith towards reaching a lasting political solution. They also called on them to immediately de-escalate and implement the agreement on the path to normalization and its implementation annex reached earlier this year in Brussels and Ohrid.
NATO strongly supports the efforts of the EU-facilitated dialogue towards the normalization of relations. We remain in very close contact with the European Union and Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak.
Allies are strongly committed to security and stability in the Western Balkans, as it has been for decades; and our longest lasting mission, KFOR mission in Kosovo, is the best demonstration of that steadfast commitment.
RFE: Serbia declared its military neutrality. However, it has an ongoing cooperation with NATO ever since 2006 through the Partnership for Peace. What do you see as the key results of that cooperation?
BG Romano: The common challenges that we are facing in today’s modern world are best addressed through joint efforts. This is why for NATO, partners are essential as they contribute to stability beyond our borders and enhance our security at home. In the Western Balkans, our long-standing partnership cooperation, including the Open Door policy helped foster stability and advance democratic reforms. In the same way, the NATO-Serbia partnership contribute to peace and stability in the region, which both NATO and Serbia see as a strategic interest. What is important to emphasize is that your country is the one defining the scope of our partnership. We are pleased with what we have achieved together through this process, but there is always room to do more.
There are many results of our long-standing cooperation. For instance, developing capacities and skillsets of Serbian officers for their successful participation in multinational operations is one of the ways NATO aids Serbian Armed Forces’ important contributions to peacekeeping missions led by the UN and or the EU worldwide.
By providing education and training to your officers and personnel through different visits and programmes, we enable them to obtain valuable new skills and expertise, hence strengthening their ability to operate effectively alongside troops from other countries.
NATO Allies are providing support to Slovenia after recent record rainfall triggered severe flooding affecting two-thirds of the country this summer, including through the provision of helicopters, modular bridges, excavators, and engineering expertise. I welcome Serbia’s own contribution in this respect, through the delivery of manpower, helicopters and other equipment. Thanks to joint exercises and trainings, such as “Serbia 2018” organized by Serbia and NATO in Mladenovac, we are all able to act as one in times of need.
We fully respect Serbia’s policy of military neutrality, as we do with many of our other partners, and this does not prevent us from doing great things together, now and in the future.
Overall, as made clear by NATO leaders at their recent Summit in Vilnius, strengthening NATO-Serbia relations would be of benefit to the Alliance, to Serbia, and to the whole region.
RFE: How could this cooperation be, in your opinion, improved?
BG Romano: By continuing to illustrate to the people in Serbia and in the region how much NATO and Serbia do in real life, working together across many domains, which have a direct impact for the security and well-being of our populations.
We have an excellent foundation to build on. For instance, there are many success stories in our scientific cooperation, with Serbian scientists having a leading role in this respect. Allied and Serbian scientists work together to improve lives of our citizens by addressing energy and environmental security, emerging disruptive technologies, counter-terrorism, cyber-defence, defence against chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear agents and human security. Here are some examples. Serbian scientists from Vinča Institute, along with their colleagues from Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Ukraine and the Republic of Korea, showed their outstanding professionalism and dedication through their participation in the development of technology for the identification of carriers of firearms and explosives in crowds without disrupting the flow of pedestrians (DEXTER). The aim of this project is to help prevent terrorist attacks in subway stations, airports and other mass transit and gathering venues.
Another example of our cooperation is represented by a NATO-funded research project to develop the commercial production of biofuel from algae, carried out by the Institute for Multidisciplinary Research of Belgrade University, in cooperation with Manchester University in the United Kingdom and Baylor University in the United States.
NATO projects of scientific cooperation have also helped produce seismic charts for the Western Balkan countries and improve the protection of the Sava River water resources. In addition, Serbian and German scientists are working on developing a decontamination and demining robot called T-Whex.
These are only some of many concrete examples of mutual benefits for NATO and Serbia, as a result of their partnership.
The more people know about how much NATO and Serbia do together, the higher the likelihood for more joint projects and activities, through which we can contribute together to building a safer environment for all of us and our children.
RFE: Recent survey conducted by the Institute for European Affairs showed there hasn't been much change in the perception of Serbia potentially becoming a NATO member and NATO in general. Do you see that perception as a challenge in cooperation with Serbia? In what way do you think this perception could be changed towards a more positive attitude?
BG Romano: We of course respect the Serbian public opinion. Its perceptions and perspectives are a crucial factor that underpins our daily activities. Serbia is a valued partner for NATO and our cooperation is mutually beneficial. These are the facts, which we focus on communicating in a transparent manner.
There is another important point that needs to be communicated more regularly. NATO consists of Allies, countries which are Serbia’s neighbours, economic partners, i.e. countries that are in one way or another close to Serbia and to the Serbian people, through bilateral, EU or other multilateral ties. . NATO is Italy, my home country, one of its 12 founding members. NATO is Germany – one of the main Serbia’s economic partners. NATO is Norway, home to our current Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. NATO is Greece, Hungary, Spain, Slovakia, Denmark and many other member countries. And Serbia has many friends amongst NATO countries, countries with whom you have significant trade, economic, cultural and other ties.
There is always work to do and my team and I will continue to communicate on the scope of Serbia-NATO relations in a factual and transparent manner, by making clear that our partnership is based on Serbia’s request, it is tailored to its needs, and is conducted in full respect of Serbia’s stated policy of military neutrality.
In addition, at the NATO Summit in Vilnius earlier this Summer, Allied leaders made clear that we look to Serbia to engage with NATO and its neighbours in a constructive manner, including in its public communications on the mutual benefits of NATO-Serbia cooperation.
We need to find ways how to jointly address disinformation campaigns, hybrid threats and other challenges that undermine trust in our democratic societies in general. These challenges are best addressed through facts and the implementation of our shared values, as well as through transparency and concrete actions. Therefore, we will continue to do our best to explain what NATO is, and what the principles and values it stands for are. We also stand ready to explore new ways to engage with the Serbian public.
RFE: In what way does NATO see Russia's influence in Serbia in the light of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine?
BG Romano: The impact of Russia’s brutal war is far-reaching, and spreads across many regions beyond the conflict itself, including through a food and energy crisis affecting billions of people across the globe. It is also felt in the Western Balkans in many ways.
What we observe across the region is the spread of disinformation, intimidation, hacking, and other destabilizing activities. This is why NATO will continue to enhance cooperation with our partners in the region in order to support reforms, regional peace and security, as well as to counter malign influence, including disinformation, hybrid, and cyber threats, posed by both state and non-state actors.
In terms of the implications of the current geopolitical context on NATO-Serbia relations, we note Serbia’s decision to suspend until further notice all activities related to the planning, preparation and implementation of international exercises. NATO fully respect every nation’s sovereign right to choose their own political and security arrangements, but we don’t see Russia doing the same.
As I already said, NATO is fully committed to stability in the region and looks forward to working constructively with Serbia towards that goal.
RFE: Serbia still hasn't imposed sanctions on Moscow despite appeals from the EU. To what extent does this present security challenge for both Serbia and Western Balkans?
BG Romano: Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is illegal. It has undermined Euro-Atlantic and global security, while Russian war crimes and attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure deprive millions of Ukrainians of basic human services. Russia’s war has also had a profound impact on the environment, nuclear safety, energy and food security, the global economy, and the welfare of billions of people around the world. As I said previously, the negative implications of the war are also felt in the Western Balkans.
We must not tolerate this. NATO welcomes Serbia’s decision to support the UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It is important that our partners join us in defending our shared democratic values and upholding the rules-based international order.