Associated Press, January 16, 2011

Serbia looks to improve image with peacekeeping

BELGRADE, Serbia: …Serbia’s pro-Western government is bent on improving the army’s…image. Its primary tactic — participating in overseas peacekeeping missions…. At [an]army center on the outskirts of Belgrade…dozens of local and foreign instructors are teaching soldiers to be guardians of the peace in places like Chad, Cyprus, Lebanon and Somalia.

The trainers include advisers from the United States and other members of NATO — the military alliance that bombed Serbia in 1999….

Several dozen soldiers from Serbia already are serving in U.N. units in Congo, Chad, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Cyprus and Lebanon. The effort will be eventually expanded to 40-member platoons, to be followed by companies of 180 soldiers and even larger units.

„We are the first soldiers from our country. We hope that after this mission the image of Serbia will be better,“ said Staff Sgt. Alexander Beocanin, part of a seven-man Serb unit serving with the U.N. force on the divided island of Cyprus.

He and his colleagues patrol the U.N.-controlled buffer zone separating the Greek Cypriot south from the Turkish Cypriot north. The soldiers’ duties involve monitoring and observing the zone and preventing anyone from straying into it

….Beyond expanding its existing deployments, Serbia also hopes to deploy a battalion to join the 12,500-strong U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, which has monitored the border with Israel for the past 32 years.

….The focus on peacekeeping is part of President Boris Tadic’s effort to improve Serbia’s international standing. The country’s bid to join the European Union recently received a major boost when the bloc agreed to review Serbia’s candidacy.

Plans for international peacekeeping missions originated in 2003, as part of broad reform of the armed forces. Troop levels were slashed from nearly 100,000 to just 35,000, and a group of young officers was promoted to the senior ranks to replace…generals. …

Since then the military has established close contacts with the armed forces of Britain, Norway and the United States, which initiated a partnership between the Serbian army and the National Guard of Ohio — home to a large Serbian immigrant community.

As a result, the military has become the country’s most avid proponent of closer ties with NATO, despite the alliance’s bombing of Serbia a decade ago, said Daniel Sunter, editor of Belgrade-based Balkan Intelligence monthly.

…But it remains unlikely that Serbia will join most of its European neighbors in committing troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

„Despite the constant improvement in ties … membership in NATO still stirs too many passions and is therefore a distant prospect,“ said Mirjana Vasovic, a lecturer in political science at Belgrade University.

Tim Judah, a London-based Balkan analyst and author, said it was important for Serbia to be seen as „a security provider, rather than a security consumer.“

….Associated Press Writer Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.