This week I am visiting Belgrade for the first time as NATO Secretary General, in the framework of NATO’s decade-long engagement in the Western Balkans. This visit, like the one I paid to Pristina on 23 January 2015 right after taking office as Secretary General, is also meant to acknowledge the continued positive security trend of recent years and encourage further progress in the process of political dialogue and reconciliation in the Western Balkans.
I am no stranger to this part of Europe, having spent part of my childhood in the former Yugoslavia as the son of a Norwegian diplomat. I know about the wider region’s dramatic history and the current challenges that it faces, from unemployment to illegal migration. But I am confident that a new and promising chapter has been finally opened for the benefit of all individuals and communities living here. A chapter that will bring long-lasting peace, security and stability for everybody, and for which the people in the Western Balkans can count on NATO’s support and commitment
NATO Allies want to help the Western Balkans to move forward. The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, facilitated by the European Union, remains a key part of that. The agreements on the Association/Community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo, on energy, and on telecommunications, reached this summer, are important stepping stones on the way to normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina. It is now crucial that these agreements are implemented quickly and in full. Regional leaders bear a special responsibility to cooperate and to ensure that Kosovo becomes a truly multi-ethnic society.
The remarkable normalisation of relations that we have witnessed since April 2013 has been the result of hard work and difficult negotiations in which all sides had to accept painful compromises for the sake of a better future. This has also shown to the world an increased maturity and responsibility, an ability to meet this historical challenge and jointly transform it into a real opportunity.
The Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union, signed in October, is an important step forward for Kosovo. It opens the door for more trade and greater prosperity, will encourage reform for better governance, marking another building block in Kosovo’s aspirations to normalise its status.
In this context, I have announced today that KFOR will fully relax the “air safety zone” that has been enforced since 1999. This decision was taken following Serbia’s continued commitment to the normalisation of Balkan airspace. This is a significant step forward. It shows that the region is on its way to being fully integrated into European airspace.
My visit to Belgrade will help to take forward NATO’s political dialogue with Serbia, which has been steadily improving since the country joined the Partnership for Peace in 2006. My aim is to encourage Serbia to play a constructive role in the Western Balkans and to use its influence to promote regional cooperation.
So recent developments in the region are encouraging. We see people from all communities determined to continue on the path of reconciliation and dialogue. What has been achieved so far should be a driver for the future. So I trust that the current political impasse will not endanger past gains, but that it will be resolved with wisdom by all political leaders.
The challenge now is to build a truly multi-ethnic society. To strengthen democracy and to the rule of law. Because this is the road to political stability and economic prosperity that will ultimately benefit the whole region. The future of the Western Balkans lies in Euro-Atlantic integration, in a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.
Today, the security situation throughout Kosovo – including in the North – is the most promising that we have seen since KFOR began operating according to its mandate in June 1999.
NATO has been in Kosovo since 1999; the Alliance has invested in the stability of the region throughout the years, and will remain here as long as necessary. Allies are committed to the security and stability of the Western Balkans as a whole, as your security is closely linked to the security of the whole Euro-Atlantic region. And for the Alliance, both Belgrade and Pristina have a critical role to play in this process.