News25 Years After NATO Bombings: Serbia's Complex Relationship with the West and Putin's Influence

25 Years After NATO Bombings: Serbia's Complex Relationship with the West and Putin's Influence

Putin exploits the tragedy in Yugoslavia
Putin exploits the tragedy in Yugoslavia

2:02 PM EDT, March 24, 2024

Twenty-five years ago, NATO initiated intensive bombings of Yugoslavia to end the Kosovo war. Srdzian Cvijić from the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCBP) points out how "Putin invokes this tragic past to legitimize his aggression towards Ukraine."

"The bombings breached international law as, similarly to the Iraq conflict in 2003, there was no UN Security Council mandate. Putin's reference to this tragedy isn't born out of a defense for Serbia but utilizes it as a pretext to legitimize his harsh aggression against Ukraine," the expert shared with PAP.

"Should the Serbian public adopt a more realistic perspective, rather than absorbing the pro-Russian propaganda pumped daily by state-controlled media, their empathy towards Ukraine would naturally increase," the analyst added.

The bombing campaign, which lasted for 78 days, resulted in approximately 500 civilian deaths. Russian President Putin posits that the airstrikes — akin to Kosovo's independent declaration in 2008 — set a precedent that disrupted international law and order. Putin leverages these incidents as grounds for the annexation of Crimea and his efforts to annex eastern parts of Ukraine, backed by pro-Russian separatists.

When asked how Serbians perceive NATO and their country's Euro-Atlantic integration 25 years on, Cvijić stated that "public sentiment towards NATO and the West is heavily influenced by the anti-Western rhetoric propagated by the authorities."

"The bombings undoubtedly shaped views on Serbia's integration with NATO, but perceptions would differ if not for the heavy anti-Western narrative prevalent in most media, controlled by President Aleksandar Vucic," the BCBP analyst pointed out.

Serbia's Negativity towards NATO

"Negative attitudes existed before the 2012 government takeover, but not to the magnitude seen today. Directly after the bombings, nearly 30 percent of Serbians were in favor of NATO membership; this figure has now plummeted to single digits. While the decline in support for NATO began after Kosovo's independence declaration, it sharply intensified after 2012," explained Cvijić.

"It's noteworthy that those who lived through the NATO bombings were more supportive of joining the Alliance compared to the younger generation who didn't. The root of this paradox lies in propaganda," he emphasized.

On Friday, Serbia's Defense Minister, Miloš Vucević, asserted, "The aim of the NATO aggression was undeniably to occupy and annex part of our territory — intentions that persist. They unabashedly urge us to reconcile with and accept this territorial loss," he remarked, alluding to the unrecognized independence of Kosovo by Belgrade.

Despite Serbia's declared "military neutrality," it engages in NATO exercises and partners with the Alliance. "The government-controlled media seldom prompts public discourse on Serbia’s NATO cooperation, leaving citizens in the dark. In essence, collaboration with the Alliance is shrouded in secrecy against the backdrop of an escalating propaganda war," the analyst observed.

He suggests that for Serbia to consider NATO membership, "political will, an end to anti-NATO rhetoric, and a pivotal shift in Belgrade's geopolitical stance are essential. My advice implies joining sanctions against Putin's Russia and moving away from a 'multi-front' strategy that doesn’t serve Serbia's best interests," Cvijić explains.

In conclusion, he asserts, "The 1999 bombings are not the sole reason for the aversion towards NATO and the West, although the collective memory of it poses a significant barrier. A responsible government, however, must prioritize the future over dwelling in the past," he concludes.

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