One of the strongest supporters of NATO expansion in the Balkans, US Senator John McCain has been visiting Belgrade to discuss further military cooperation, having earlier visited Slovenia and Croatia.
As a part of a large Western Balkan tour, US Senator John McCain on Monday met Serbia’s President-elect, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, to discuss further political and military cooperation between the two countries.
The US Senator thanked Serbia for its contribution to the fight against the Islamic State, ISIS, but also expressed concern about Russian actions in the region and attempts to topple the government in a country that is “a neighbour of Serbia”, referring to October’s alleged coup attempt in Montenegro.
McCain, chairman of the US Senate Committee on Armed Services, is a strong advocate of a strengthened NATO presence in the Western Balkans, supporting first Croatian and Albanian membership and, more lately, Montenegro’s membership of the military alliance.
A Vietnam-war veteran and a Republican presidential candidate in 2008, McCain has been a sharp critic of President Donald Trump’s policy toward Kremlin, which, before the recent US strikes on Syria, he considered “too friendly”.
After the meeting, Vucic said that he and McCain talked about peacekeeping operations, Serbia’s European path, mutual relations, military exercises and activities.
“We had eight joint exercises in 2016, six or seven were agreed in 2017 and over a hundred joint activities. This is a very fair cooperation,” Vucic said.
He also repeated that Serbia does not want to belong to any military alliance.
“Thanks to McCain for the visit, one of the most important people in the US, and thank him for showing concern for the Western Balkans. Thank him for being willing to hear something different in Serbia from other countries in the region,” Vucic said, adding that McCain is always welcome in Serbia.
Without actually mentioning NATO in Serbia, where most people strongly oppose the alliance, owing to memories of NATO’s air war in 1999 to stop Serbia’s then strongman Slobodan Milosevic, McCain said US support for Europe remained strong and he hoped for closer cooperation with Serbia to speed up its progression towards the Euro-Atlantic community.
Prior to the meeting with Vucic, McCain attended the joint exercise of the special anti-terrorist unit of the Serbian police, the US Special Operations Command Europe, SOCOM, and the Special Unit of the Army of Slovenia. McCain was hosted on this by the Serbian Interior Minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic.
Serbia maintains close military and security cooperation with Russia including organising joint exercises.
Although these exercises with Russia generate public attention, official data show that Serbia’s most significant military cooperation is with the US and NATO countries.
According to defence ministry data provided to BIRN in last August, Serbia had 127 joint military activities planned with the US in 2016.
McCain came to Belgrade a day after supporting words for Vucic came from one of NATO’s top officials, Admiral Michelle Howard, who heads NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy.
According to Reuters news agency, Howard said Vucic’s overwhelming victory in Serbia’s presidential election on April 2 could help stabilise the country.
Howard said the region remained an area of concern for the US military and NATO, which still has 4,500 troops in Kosovo after intervening in 1999 to stop Serbia’s killings of ethnic Albanians in a counter-insurgency campaign.,
“If Vucic makes good his vow to continue moving toward EU membership, Serbia would remain “balanced between Russian influence and the rest of south-east Europe”, Howard opined.
On his Balkan tour, which started on Saturday, McCain has also visited Slovenia and Croatia where he met top officials, discussed cooperation within NATO and expressed “appreciation for the countries’ contributions to international coalitions, from Kosovo to Afghanistan to the fight against ISIS”.
After visiting Belgrade, McCain is heading to Bosnia. He will also visit Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo to “reaffirm the Congress’s bipartisan commitment to US allies and partners, and discuss topics of importance in the region”.
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