NATO has “good relations with Serbia” – while Serbia “has the right to decide” whether it also wants to cooperate with Russia.

Deputy Secretary General of NATO Rose Gottemoeller said this in an exclusive interview for the European Western Balkans website, Tanjug is reporting this Wednesday.

“One important thing that is often talked about is as if there is a competition going on between NATO and Russia in Serbia for example, but we do not see it that way,” Gottemoeller said, and added:

“I think any country anywhere in the world, and this is a basic principle for NATO, must be able to exercise its own decision-making with regard to the security relationships it chooses. From our perspective, it is important that Serbia has come to NATO and asked us for cooperation to help build up some of its defense institutions, and we have a very good partnership plan with Serbia, and if they also choose to work with Russia, that is up to them.”

“We are glad that Serbia is a partner of NATO and willing to work with us in the IPAP, which for the first time came to us in the 2015, so it is a pretty recent phenomenon. It is really good we have one now, that is a kind of platform or foundation that we can build on and we hope we will have the opportunity to do so. But, again, it does not foreclose Serbia having relations with other security partners, that is all there is to it,” she said.

According to Gottemoeller, it is not necessary for all Western Balkan countries to join the alliance in order to move forward – “and it is really important that everyone is building their institutions and building their capacity to fight those internal challenges, such as corruption.”

She also thinks that “the main security challenges come from within” – for the countries in the Western Balkans these are related to “corruption and difficulties in institution building, challenges to constitutional processes.”

As for “Russia’s influence and soft power” in the Western Balkans and other parts of Europe, and NATO’s “strategy of countering this,” Gottemoeller said:

“The most important thing NATO can do is not descend to the Russian example. NATO does not fight propaganda with propaganda, but NATO brings forward information, facts, tries to get the real picture out there and let people judge for themselves. That is what we like to emphasize, and it has been of a concern to me to see how propaganda at times seems very explicitly designed to whip up tensions and to create differences, to create fissures in societies. How we think of the role of information is to get the real story out there and let people judge for themselves. Once again, I think that is an important point, that is what NATO is doing – trying to be an as honest broker as possible, in terms of providing information and facts.”

Asked to comment on a recent letter “about the situation in Kosovo, how it can deteriorate” sent by Albanian and Croatian ministers to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Gottemoeller said there were “obviously some difficult circumstances now across the region.”

“It is a very difficult time at the moment,” she said, adding:
“I would not just point to Kosovo, by any means, but I think what NATO can do is be present in the area, continuing to work on the training missions and so forth, continuing to respond in other arenas.”

Asked why NATO finds Montenegro’s membership so important – considering that it’s a country with an army numbering 2,000 soldiers – Gottemoeller said it was above all “an important sign and signal that NATO’s open door policy is alive and healthy.”

“Having Montenegro participate in the alliance as a full ally, we see being a positive influence in the region as a whole, so that is another very important reason,” she added.

Speaking about Bosnia-Herzegovina, the NATO official said:

“I think it is really important what NATO has been doing to build institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. For example my boss, Jens Stoltenberg was just recently out there, at the beginning of February, and he came back with a very strong impression of the construction work that NATO has been doing on the national army in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As Jens likes to say – 20 years ago there were three separate fighting forces in that region, fighting each other, and now through the training efforts that NATO has undertaken over the years, building up defense capacity and defense institutions, there is a national army that is multi-ethnic and a very good fighting force, but one that is again under the influence of the rule of law.”

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