WASHINGTON - Hanging from the walls of restaurants in Belgrade, Serbia, are the flags of the state of Ohio. Other restaurants advertise when they will re-broadcast the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns football games.
As you walk through the streets, you see children wearing red-and-white Ohio State sweatshirts.
What's up with this? Since when did Ohio become so important in Serbia?
The answer lies with the military. The Ohio National Guard is the state partner of the Serbian military. The military-to-military contacts between the two organizations have blossomed into a cultural phenomenon in Serbia.
"We are very lucky to get Ohio as a state partner," said Serbian Army Col. Milan Mojsilovic, deputy commander of Serbia's Joint Command. Mojsilovic briefed staff and reporters traveling with Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited Serbia last month.
The Serbia-Ohio military-to-military relationship began in September 2006. "The relationship between Serbia and Ohio is very close," Mojsilovic said through an interpreter. "Maybe it is because soldiers everywhere speak the same language."
The Ohioans work on activities that help to professionalize the Serbian military. Serbian soldiers have traveled to Ohio, and Ohio soldiers and airmen have worked in Serbia. The Buckeye State servicemembers and Serbs have worked together on peacekeeping exercises, unit level exchanges, staff development, setting up an NCO academy and military planning assistance. The whole program in fiscal 2008 cost roughly $400,000, said Air Force Capt. Matt Zelnick, a member of the Ohio Air National Guard and coordinator of the program.
"We work with U.S. Army Europe and U.S. Air Forces in Europe in setting up the exercises," said Zelnick, who also served six months in the U.S. embassy in Belgrade as the on-site coordinator. "We work humanitarian exercises and some regional exercises as well."
The servicemembers do not get into politics, Zelnick said. "We are able to relate to the Serbs on a military level without getting involved in the whole Kosovo question," he said.
That may be part of the attraction of the Ohio Guard to the Serbs, a U.S. embassy official said. The Serbs are able to separate the Ohio personnel from U.S. policy on Kosovo â€“ America was one of the first nations to recognize Kosovo's independence in February, though the Serbian government still considers Kosovo to be one of the country's provinces.
Some 26 events featured Ohio Guard and Serbian interaction over the past year, and that number will grow in 2009, Zelnick said. The events run the gamut from military doctrine development to unit exchanges to peacekeeping logistics.
"We want to expand cooperation in NCO education and training," Mojsilovic said. "We also want to expand joint exercises of units and development of joint security programs."
Other things -- such as troop exchanges, seminars and educational opportunities -- also are important to the burgeoning military relationship, he said.
The Guard participates in 56 other partnership programs. For example, the New York Guard has a partnership with the South African military, and the Oregon Guard works with Bangladesh.
"These are designed to facilitate long-term cooperation between the United States and partner countries," said Air Force Col. Cathy Rodriguez, director of the international affairs division at the National Guard Bureau. "Guardsmen certainly stay with units longer than active duty personnel, so it was a good fit."
The program began in the early 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Guard helped the newly independent states and former members of the Warsaw Pact figure out the correct way that militaries act in democracies. The program continued and has expanded to Asia, Africa and South America.
"[The Ohio National Guard is] really just entering our third full year of the program," Zelnick said. "We are looking forward to building on some of the events we've held in the past."