By Ms. Nora Ljubojevic, Analyst, IB Consultancy, The Netherlands
Security Situation Overview
Landlocked within the Western Balkan Peninsula, the Serbian state borders friendly and rival neighbors with which it has developed interdependencies over the decades. The importance of the country lies mostly on its geostrategic location in an area where power is contested daily by the US, China, and Russia.
Serbia has established solid ties with multiple partners, among others, the US, and European member states, aspiring to access the EU after being granted candidate status and maintaining intense negotiation talks for years. It is nevertheless not pursuing NATO membership, as it considers that clearly taking sides in the international arena would limit its business opportunities, military neutrality, and sovereignty. However, Serbia cooperates with the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) and deepened its cooperation with NATO since 2006, joining the Partnership for Peace programme, the Partnership Interoperability Initiative, engaging with NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre and currently transitioning towards the new Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (ITPP). Additionally, it has safely destroyed 1.4 million landmines and ammunition as part of the NATO Trust Fund projects. While there is expectation that the country will scale back military ties with Russia as a result of its invasion of Ukraine, the reality is that its relationship with Russia has more to do with long-standing cultural ties and with striking mutually beneficial energy deals, with China standing out as the actual hindrance to Western influence in the region. China is already supplying security equipment (CH-92A drones incorporating FT-8C missiles, Huawei surveillance systems, recent delivery of FK-3 air defense surface-to-air missile system) and both countries will sign a Free Trade Agreement by the end of 2022 worth $8-10 billion a year, with China opening factories throughout the country and being involved in multiple infrastructure projects (e.g., tunnels, the Belgrade-South Adriatic highway, vaccine production facilities).
Major security threats lay on the existence of an undetermined number of underground landmines, unexploded ordnance (UXO) and cluster munitions dating back to WWII and the Balkan wars period which are activated during flooding and forest fires as seen in 2014, 2019 and 2021, and the presence of criminal networks. On a socioeconomic standpoint, the country suffers from constant depopulation due to a prolonged massive brain drain and low birth rates caused by the precarious economic situation, which risks discouraging foreign investments as less qualified workers are available within the country, costing the state a net annual loss of 1.2 billion euros per year as estimated in a research study.
In the CBRNe domain, Serbia has ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological and Toxin Weapons convention, the Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism and the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty.
It is neither a party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), nor to the Wassenaar Arrangement, Zangger Committee, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Concerning the latter, although Serbia actively participated in the creation of that convention, the Ministry of Defense considers that the country would need to acquire modern military equipment first to replace its relatively old, stockpiled cluster munitions.
The national point of contact for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1540 is the first counsellor of the Department for Arms Control, within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Domestically, Serbia adopted the Law on Radiation and Nuclear Safety and Security in 2019 allowing the Directorate for Radiation Protection to conduct inspections, which amended the previous Act on Protection against ionizing radiation and on nuclear security. The act created the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Security Directorate (SRBATOM), whose goal is to protect the population by continuously monitoring the presence of radionuclides in the environment (e.g., soil, river and drinking water, milk, animal feed) and which shares its data from the system of timely notification of radiation incidents with the European data exchange network EURDEP. However, there are no available annual reports on the level of exposure of the population to such radiation since 2018.
In 2018, Serbia adopted its National Action Plan for 2018-2022 for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which extends the mandate of the existing working Group for improvement of its implementation. Also in 2018, the country adopted a National Action Plan to reduce the risks associated with harmful effects of CBRN materials. It also passed a law on the ratification of the convention on the marking of plastic explosives for the purpose of their detection. Concerning the management of emergencies, it also has a Law on Emergency Situations, adopted in 2009, defining the system of protection and rescue of citizens according to the Hyogo Framework for Action. The 2021 National Disaster Risk Management Program, a program financed by the World Bank, UNDP, the EU Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) Funds and the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (among others) stresses the lack of specialized vehicles, equipment, and limited resources allocated to the rescue and firefighting services responding to chemical accidents in road, rail, and river transport.
Overview of CBRNe and IED Stakeholders
It is important to note that Serbia’s administrative reform process and legal amendments in this domain are largely owing to its EU negotiation process, with Serbia aligning its legislation to the EU acquis (e.g., the EU Seveso III Directive) as stated in the negotiation chapter 27.
On a civilian level, the Law on Emergency Situations set up a Sector for Emergency Management and is recognized as a single body within the Ministry of Interior (MoI) which integrates all emergency services from the MOI, Ministry of Defense (MOD) and the Ministry of Environment. It is the decision-making authority in the area of disaster management. The Sector aims at fostering intersectoral partnership and is divided among the Department for Prevention, the Department for Fire and Rescue Units, the Department for Risk Management, the Department for Civil Protection, and the National Training Centre, which are present at a local level.
To address the use and safe disposal of explosive ordnance (EODs), improvised explosive devices (IED) and landmines, Serbia established the Mine Action Centre (SMAC), a separate civilian public organization once part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. SMAC is actively conducting surveys of locations likely contaminated by cluster munitions, landmines, or other unexploded ordnance (UXO), and develops projects for humanitarian demining sometimes in cooperation with international partners such as the US, and the Republic of Korea. The Government of the Republic of Serbia adopts its work plan, alongside an Annual Report on its performance.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) is responsible for assessing the risk of chemical accidents, approving a Safety Report and Accident Protection Plan. In 2019, the MEP was preparing a Law on the Control of Major Accident Hazards involving dangerous Substances, which mostly refers to the accidental release of chemicals after earthquakes or floods. According to the EU Commission, the country has given priority to chemical accident risks by performing a full risk analysis, but still needs to strengthen capacities on a local scale through training using the same methodology and approach, and on a government scale via formal agreements between administrations. The logistical aspect, that is to say, the need for a presence of pre-deployed chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear units on a national and regional scale without leaving areas uncovered remains an issue according to the EU. The country has 110 Seveso facilities – establishments that handle, manufacture, use or store dangerous substances.
The Vinča Institute of Nuclear Sciences, a civilian scientific research institute, conducts chemical and radiological quality control of the surface, ground and wastewater, and designs measures for radiation protection.
From a military standpoint, the main CBRN defense stakeholder lies within the Ministry of Defense, most concretely within the Serbian Armed Forces (SAF). The SAF CBRN units, most notably the 246th CBRN battalion or Atomic-Biological-Chemical Defense Battalion (ABHO in Serbian), are exclusively located in the Kruševac garrison, almost 200 km far from Belgrade. The structure of the 246th ABHO Battalion consists of a command, a command platoon, three ABHO companies and a protection against nuclear and chemical accidents platoon. The CBRN battalion handles remediation tasks and, if requested by the Ministry of Defense, can assist the state bodies that coordinate all agencies in a CBRN accident area and support governmental forces from the civilian branch in case they are unable to successfully respond to a CBRN disaster. However, this can be a lengthy process, which added to the fact of its remote location can be a major hurdle for a timely and effective intervention. The shortage of CBRN personnel and equipment on an army level has been painfully noticed by defense officials, who note that there used to be a CBRN section in every battalion up until the reforms in 2005-2007.
Belonging to the Army and located in Krusevac is also the Center for ABHO Defense, also known as ABHO Center or CBRN Centre, a unit of the Training Command that instructs national and foreign CBRN military and police staff on an individual and team (company, battalion, brigade) basis tailored to the needs of institutions. It also provides support in the implementation of international obligations in the CBRN field and tests CBRN equipment. The Technical overhaul institute in Cacak is an institution that repairs chemical and galvanic protection as well as measuring devices.
The Military Medical Academy (MMA), is a medical, educational, and scientific-research institution operating inside the Belgrade Defense University and the Defense Ministry, collaborating in the field of healthcare with military and civil medical institutions worldwide. It counts on a Nuclear Medicine Research, and Institute of Radiology.
Regarding software packages to live monitor the state of the environment, all SAF units use the HeSPRO software for rapid assessment of a chemical incident, whereas the NBC Analysis software is solely used by the CBRN Staff Training Centre in Kruševac. The JRODOS, a software developed at Karlsruher Institute of Technology, was installed in SRBATM as the regulatory body in the field of radiation and nuclear safety and security.
Defense spending skyrocketed in 2019, jumping from a USD 795 million defense budget in 2018 to a USD 1.14bn and 1.09bn budget in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The military expenditure as a percentage of the GDP has dramatically declined since 2000 until its lowest in 2018 (1.6%), only to bounce back in 2019 (2.2%) and 2020 (2.1%). Arms imports experienced a significant leap from 3 million to 133 million in 2020 and exports increased from 2 million in 2017 to 33 million in 2020. It is difficult to break down purchasing records according to products and/or to the identity of suppliers and clients albeit, according to European and American sources, a large percentage of Serbian imports come from Russia and China, and Greece remains a customer of its defense exports. Relevant companies in the CBRN sector include Milan Blagojevic Namenska – producing chemicals and gun-powders, among others – the Trayal Corporation and the Prva Iskra Baric – producing protective devices and explosives – and the Yumco Vranje company – which is a manufacturer of personal protection equipment.
Concerning CBRN material, the Serbian CBRN Centre possesses a radiological and chemical laboratory and protection, detection, dosimetry, and decontamination equipment aimed at CBRN threats.
On a national scale, the Military Medical Training Center of the Military Medical Academy’s (MMA), part of the Military Health Department of the Defense Ministry, is intended for educating and training professional military officers and military medical reserve officers. In its structure there is a Military Police Department. Concerning the Sector for Emergency Management, it has so far trained 80 municipalities and has 52 municipalities certified.
Serbia is offering expertise and training to allies and partners at its CBRN Training Centre in Kruševac, which was recognized as a Partnership Training and Education Centre in 2013 and which conducts also live agent trainings. Training is also available to national forces, with two 246th CBRN Battalion’s platoons as of 11 April 2022 engaging in an Operational Capabilities Concept programme before participating in multinational operations. The collective training was made up of tactical drills, protection, and evacuation measures, taking place in Caz Lazar barracks and at the Ravnjak military complex in Krusevac before moving onto tactical exercises at the Borovac range and at the South base. Restricted to nationals were also the 2021 Lightning Strike drills, where the SAF conducted their largest military exercise in years. The involvement of the 246thCBRN Battalion consisted of providing CBRN protection to Army units and monitoring lab stations collecting samples during operations at Mount Rtanj. Decontamination of motor and towing vehicles was carried out using the recently acquired M-09 decontamination platform.
Regarding mine action, the SMAC participated in the 18th International Symposium on Mine Action in May 2022, organized by the Ministry of Interior of Croatia together with demining companies from Southeast Europe to exchange opinions on the standardization of training opportunities. From 18 to 19th April 2022, the SMAC conducted risk education training of trainers for employees of the HBIS GROUP Serbia Iron&Steel ltd. Belgrade, as well as for employees of companies Konstruktel Belgrade and Comal group Belgrade in the SMAC premises in Grocka. Skills acquired were both theoretical and practical.
Programs and Joint Operations/Exercises in the field of CBRNe
Numerous meetings with international partners have stressed the importance of ramping up cooperation in the field of CBRN defense since 2016, namely with Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Germany, Greece, the UK, and Montenegro. CBRNe drills and capacity building activities involving international partners and the SAF take place on Serbian ground in the majority of the cases, with instructors ranging from SAF officers to doctors.
Most recently, on 14 June, the CBRN Center in Krusevac instructed the Hungarian 93rd CBRN battalion in chemical protection and management tasks. The CBRN Centre in Krusevac also hosted a five-day international course in April 2022, with participants from Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy, Cyprus, Hungary, Montenegro, and Serbia. The aim was to learn how to use and test the performance of protective equipment and decontamination tools against CBRN threats during the practical training at the Ravnjak and Car Lazar barracks.
In March 2022, the CBRN Centre in partnership with the Vinča Institute of Nuclear Science held a five-day international course in Biological Weapons and Toxicology attended by SAF and foreign members. Participants from abroad included Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Italy, Montenegro, North Macedonia, United States, and Slovenia, receiving training to detect, identify and implement protection measures with the support of a laboratory, conducting sampling and the application of protective agents for the decontamination of personnel and equipment. On an undetermined date, Danish Armed Forces also participated in safe storage of ammunition and ordnance disposal trainings.
Back in November 2021, Cyprus’ National Guard attended a course on the detection of toxic chemicals and the provision of first aid. In October 2021, the Center organized a course on detection, dosimetry, and protection against ionizing radiation, attended by SAF and foreign members from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Italy Cyprus, Hungary, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, and Spain wishing to learn how to work in conditions under ionizing radiation scenarios – performing measurement, identification, and protection tasks and an assessment of the effects on biological system.
On the receiving side of training, representatives of SRBATOM participated in an international emergency mock exercise in May 2022 in Albania alongside other states under the auspices of the EU Commission project EP&R in the Western Balkans Region. They used the JRODOS software to simulate the movement of radioactive material throughout the environment.
Serbia is facing up to the fact that it still lacks a CBRNe element effectively introduced into its defense and civilian infrastructure, being seemingly more active in the disposal of unexploded ordnance and in providing CBRN training to international units. It is expected that, if the country follows through its defense spending goals and desire to keep up with technological developments, more CBRN capabilities will be acquired in the short and medium term. However, from a public administration standpoint it is unclear if CBRNe threats will be properly addressed from an overarching framework that includes the Police and Fire Services and that increases the readiness and interoperability of its first responders and defense forces across the country.
Actual renewed conflict and in-fights in the region are highly unlikely, and the main sources of instability in the country stem from great power competition. Indeed, Serbia risks getting caught in the middle of Sino American rivalry, exemplified by its promise to the US not to use a Chinese 5g network while simultaneously being willing to establishing defense industry cooperation with China. Rumbling on in the background are the political discussions on how to make the country teeter over its foreign and security policy without alienating it.
About the Author:
Ms. Nora Ljubojevic is an Analyst at IB Consultancy. Her prior work experience includes the EU Delegation to the UN in New York, the Council of Europe, the Centre for European Policy in Belgrade and the Human Rights Foundation. She holds an MLitt. in Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews and a BA in Political Science from the Complutense University of Madrid.