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NEWS | Sept. 15, 2006

U.S., Serbia sign Status-of-Forces Agreement; Ohio welcomes state partnership

By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell National Guard Bureau

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The weekend’s biggest college football game, No. 1 Ohio State at No. 2 Texas on Sept. 9, was the talk of the town here on Sept. 8. But an airport near the Ohio State campus was the site that Friday for another significant event in the diplomatic arena that kicked off a partnership between the state of Ohio and the Republic of Serbia.

It heralded the promise of a new State Partnership Program between the Ohio National Guard and Serbia’s military forces that, officials said, could lead to improved security and economic growth for the Serbian people and pave the way for Serbia’s entrance into NATO and the European Union.

Serbian President Boris Tadic, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and U.S. Senator George Voinovich, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced the new partnership as Ohio Army and Air Guard members stood in formation to mark the historic occasion.

It is a logical alliance, Taft pointed out, because 20,000 people of Serbian descent live in Ohio.

“This is a new page in our history. The State Partnership Program between Ohio and Serbia is a first step,” said Tadic who has been Serbia’s president since 2004. Serbia used to be part of Yugoslavia. Maj. Gen. Zdravko Ponos, acting chief of the Serbian General Staff, accompanied Tadic on his visit to Ohio.

“Right now I am expecting that the generals are going to find a practical solution for our cooperation in the field of security between two very important institutions, the National Guard of Ohio and the armed forces of Serbia,” added Tadic who previously served as Serbia’s minister of defense. “But I see some new perspectives. For example, when you have cooperation in the defense and security fields, you can expect more in the economy.”

Military cooperation will foster closer ties between the United States and Serbia that could lead to increased U.S. economic investment, Tadic predicted in Washington before traveling to Ohio. “Without cooperation in the defense sector, we are not going to have cooperation in the economy on the high level,” he said.

Tadic signed a Status-of-Forces Agreement with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sept. 7. That agreement will permit regular military exchanges and exercises between the U.S. and Serbia and opens the door to the partnership with Ohio, explained LTG H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Maj. Gen. Gregory Wayt, the Ohio Guard’s adjutant general, said he would visit Serbia later in September to begin planning the exchanges and exercises with that country’s military leaders.

“President Tadic has played a leading role in the democratic transformation of Serbia since 2000,” said Blum during a Sept. 7 dinner that he hosted for the Serbian president at the Guard Bureau chief’s official home at Fort McNair in Washington.

“Serbia is key to the future of democratic freedoms and principles in the Balkan region. President Tadic has advocated Serbia’s strategic goal of joining in the European and Euro-Atlantic community of nations. He has led Serbia to become a strong regional partner and to achieve an inspiring transition to a stable democracy,” Blum said. “By virtue of his visit with us this week, President Tadic is clearly demonstrating his continuing interest in and support for the transformation of the Serbian military and defense establishment in accordance with NATO values and principles.”

The Guard established the State Partnership Program in 1993 at the request of the Department of Defense so that states could work with eastern European countries that had been members of the Soviet bloc. It is the Guard’s primary program for promoting security, cooperation and international goodwill with the Defense Department’s combatant commanders. States are now engaged with many other countries in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

National Guard Soldiers and Airmen apply their military and civilian skills to build democratic principles within the partnered countries, enhance the professionalism of the noncommissioned officer and officer corps, encourage economic development and promote regional cooperation and stability.

The Ohio Guard has maintained a partnership with Hungary, Serbia’s northern neighbor, since 1993, and officials believe Ohio helped Hungary become one of three countries admitted to NATO in January 1999. The Ohio National Guard has also benefited from Hungary’s military skills, officials pointed out.

“Our partnership with Hungary has gone on for 13 years,” said Wayt. “The biggest thing we have learned is that we all learn from each other.”

Voinovich, who was governor when Ohio and Hungary formed their partnership, believes that Ohio can work with Serbia in the same way.

“I believe that our National Guard being in Hungary helped prepare them for their entrance into NATO and the European Union. My dream is that Serbia and all of the countries in the former Yugoslavia will become members of NATO and the European Union; and for the first time become really a part of Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance that is so very, very important to the United States in that part of the world,” said Voinovich who is half Serbian. “So I think that the fact that we’re going over there is going to really help us develop the kind of relationship that we need with the Serbian military.”

Although the U.S. and Serbia were allies during both world wars, Voinovich said there is still lingering unhappiness among the Serbian people toward this country because NATO, including the U.S., bombed Belgrade, now the Serbian capital, in 1999 during the campaign to prevent Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic from using ethnic cleansing tactics against people in the province of Kosovo.

“I believe that this partnership begins a new chapter in the relationship between the United States of America and Serbia,” Voinovich said.

“Mr. President, the United States and Serbia have been friends in two world wars, and I know that after the Kosovo situation, many people in Serbia were wondering about the United States of America,” Voinovich told Tadic. “And I want you to know that the people of Ohio and the people of the United States of America love our Serbian brothers and sisters.”

Ohio State’s football players defeated Texas 24-7 on Sept. 9 on a football field in Austin to convincingly retain the nation’s No. 1 ranking. Other people in Ohio hope to forge mutually beneficial ties with a democratic Serbia to advance security and stability in southeast Europe, one of the most challenging environments in the international arena.



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