Ministry of defence Republic of Serbia

Interview of the Minister of Defence, Aleksandar Vulin for the Magazine “Odbrana”

                                                                                             FOR STRONG AND SATISFIED ARMED FORCES

Less than two weeks after the appointment as the Minister, Aleksandar Vulin clearly defines the priorities of his mandate – betterment of economic position of the members of the system of defence and the reaffirmation of the social role of the Serbian Armed Forces. Defence policy, as the new Minister of Defence says, will ­not change, and our country will remain military nonaligned. Independent decision making on the matters of defence comes at a price, but Serbia will not give it up.­
In his first interview since assuming duty, Minister Vulin speaks about the perception of a complex system that has been assigned to him, about the relation between the politics and profession, professional challenges and personal experience regarding the duty that is in front of him.
In the first days upon your appointment as the Minister of Defence your statements were characterised by several strong messages directed primarily to the members of Serbian Armed Forces. One gets the impression that by stressing the sense of duty and honour you desired to say: “I am one of you!”.
- This is not an ordinary Armed Force. These are the Serbian Armed Forces! This is the military that has always stood with its people, on the side of the people, on the righteous side of the world. Both in the First and the Second World War and during NATO Aggression, regardless of different names and ideologies, it always demonstrated incredible courage. For Serbian people, the military is not “just” the military, an institution, a part of the state system. The military is a way of living, a relation towards the world. Being in defence system is a great honour in itself. Leading it – it is a huge responsibility. And, when you get such a chance you have to put your entire being into it, all your energy and knowledge in order to rise to the challenge.
During the visit to the Training Centre in Valjevo you surprised the public by explaining the reasons why at the time you had not served military service.
- I am glad for having had an opportunity to tell that precisely to the children who are serving voluntary military service. I did not want to answer the questions of my political opponents nor those of false analysts. I am not interested in that. However, I am interested in the opinions of those children and of their parents. I want to know the opinion of each member of the Serbian Armed Forces. And that is why I felt the need to tell it to them, since they should know. You know, when you grow up with the idea that one day you will wear a uniform, that just like your father, grandfather, great grandfather, you will stand under the flag of your county bearing arms… Just like in that verse of “Bijelo Dugme”: And you just as beautiful as the Army under the flags…” And then a day comes when they tell you that you handicap cannot be overcome…
One should say that you quite emotionally experience your memories of that period of your youth.
I even objected, went to MMA, but it could not have been helped, just like it cannot be helped today. My dioptre at the time was slightly more than seven, and today it is much higher and if our doctors do not come up with some good operation, I am afraid that the condition will be even more serious. It is a great disappointment in yourself that you feel of course. I am a Serb, and for Serbs, someone who did not serve military service… You know it. And when you face it, it gets difficult. I really envy those children because they can serve their country in their uniforms. They should know that the man leading their Ministry is not someone who would hide from military service. During NATO Aggression in 1999, I volunteered in Yugoslav Armed Forces demanding that they assigned me a wartime posting, even as a simple infantryman, which had been my desire even when I reported myself in the draft board to serve military service. Then I was told that they needed volunteers ­from Air Defence and Engineer branches, not infantry. I admit, I did not tell them that I was not fit for service. I just wanted to be where it was the most difficult at any cost. They sent me back.
What do you consider to be the first challenge on your new duty?
- The first challenge is to find a way to improve the position of the members of the military and how to ensure that the military feels its extraordinariness in the time of austerity measures. I wish that the members of the military felt special and appreciated by the entire society. This is my first and last challenge. That is my work. Of course, there is also modern armament, materiel, equipment…But a man operating the materiel has to be satisfied or at least more satisfied than he is now.
It is not unusual that the economic status of the members of the military is placed at the forefront at the beginning of mandate of a new Minister. However, you have been singled out by the sentence that you said during the visit to the General Staff that “the entire society should pay attention to the opinion and positions of the Serbian Armed Forces”. How do you intend to achieve that?
- The positions of the military have to be heard. The military needs to be louder. This truly is a civilian society and it should remain as such. And surely civilians should control the military, but the military has its specific qualities and values that it cherishes; unconditional value of freedom, territorial integrity and dignity of one country. The military is the keeper of what is the best. The system of values does not possess solely military but civilian component as well. The military has the capacity to contribute to development of civilian protection carrying out training, but the most important is that it can restore a certain system of values that has been abandoned. We must feel that the Serbian Armed Forces influence everyday life of every citizen. It should reassure and encourage by saying: These are the values that will never change in Serbian people! We have to give an opportunity to the military to send a message about itself. We should appreciate the position of its general, and to know how a soldier thinks. Whether he is satisfied or dissatisfied, what it is that he needs…
Many criticised the abolishment of conscription because it had been a direct physical and psychological link between the military and people. In past several months there were several public initiatives to revise that decision. What is your position regarding this issue?
- Many countries, such as Sweden, for example, reintroduced the conscription. Some have never abolished it. That is too complex an issue for me to state my opinion about it at this point, particularly not explicitly. It is not something that a Minister can decide. The entire society should think about it. The truth is that in last years, there was much debate about this topic and listening to media one could conclude that almost 100% of Serbs is in favour of reintroducing the compulsory military service. And then you call up the reserve to an exercise and you are faced with salvos of attacks. They say that “the society is being militarised”, and they ask “what war we are preparing for?!” and so on. Hence, we all need to thoroughly think this through. Yes, the fact is that by abolishing compulsory military service the ties between the military and society have grown thinner. It is not lost, and it will never be, but it has inevitably grown thin. It is these ties that I wish to strengthen so that the military again becomes a part of our everyday life.
In case of many ministers before you, аnd in your case as well, a part of public objected to the fact that you are not a man “of profession”. However, the appointment of retired Lieutenant General Aleksandar Živković as the State Secretary in the Ministry of Defence casts a different light on the new management of the system. What lies behind the decision to appoint a man of an enviable soldier’s biography to that position, which has so far mostly been reserved for politicians?
- The experts need to be consulted. Starting from the Chief of General Staff to the State Secretary, all of them must be experts. I am a politician. The Minister should be a politician. My job is to find ways to improve the position of the Armed Forces, to safeguard the fundamental guidelines of defence policy, while the experts should deal with their field of expertise. Do you really think that any politician who, in the previous years, found himself in this position knows about the Armed Forces better that Diković and Živković? It is impossible. That is precisely the word that I want to send and to show to the people within the system – the profession will be appreciated. It is up to me to provide better conditions, to ensure that the policy of military neutrality is pursued, that the laws are obeyed, the orders of the Supreme Commander executed in line with the Constitution. But the experts will tell me in which direction the military should be developed. With such people it cannot happen that we reform the Armed Forces, only to subsequently “cover ourselves” by strategic and doctrinal documents. Now, we are firstly going to figure out what it is that we want to do and where we want to arrive, and then to write a strategy and to make reforms. Now, that is the work that cannot be done by civilians, but by those who know the military better than they know their own selves. Hence the choice. We in our Armed Forces do not lack in people of high quality. We maybe lack in some things, but when it comes to high quality superior officers, that is not the case. Let us use it.
Soon after you moved in the Private Office, here in Birčaninova, the ambassadors of the most powerful military powers of the world knocked at your door. Were they interested whether there was going to be a discontinuity in defence policy?
- Serbia would be an irresponsible state if, as soon as it changed a Minister, it changed defence policy as well. We will continue pursuing the same policy, and if it is required to define it in one sentence then it would read – the policy of military nonalignment. That, of course, comes with some challenges. Being neutral is the most difficult and the most costly. But it is the most honourable. When you put yourself under protection of one of the powerful blocks or some military powerful states, the fact is that you do not have to worry about you security, but you, just the same, stop worrying about your own decisions, because you will not be the one making them. We have decided to worry about our own decisions and to make them ourselves, and for this to be possible, we have to have an army that is sufficiently strong deterring factor. Yes, it is the most expensive and the most difficult, but that is only the way we know to do it.
All the more so, your work in the Government will be more difficult since, as you have said, such position of the country in the international security framework is costly. Will Serbia in current economic circumstances be able to finance such defence policy?
- It will have to. As you know, by the end of the year we will have a significant increase of salaries of the members of defence system and I hope that we will manage to change some other things as well that will positively influence the economic position of our members.
Such as?
- I talked to departmental minister regarding the problem with which a part of our members are faced during the enrolment of their children in kindergartens. I asked that they, because of the specific nature of military profession and often absence from home, should be exempted from the rule that the children are ranked lower on the list if the other parent is not employed. This rule will quite soon enter into force. Thence, we are identifying problems and we are going to solve them each at the time.