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U.S., Serbia Sign Status-of-Forces Agreement; Ohio Welcomes State Partnership

By Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Sept. 15, 2006 – In a significant event in the diplomatic arena, an agreement signed here a week ago kicked off a partnership between the state of Ohio and the Republic of Serbia.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Maj. Gen. Gregory Wayt, adjutant general for Ohio, escorts Serbian President Boris Tadic past an honor guard and color guard during a Sept. 8 visit to discuss the Serbian military forces’ partnership with the Ohio National Guard. (Ohio National Guard photo)

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

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 Sept. 8 as Ohio Army and Air Guard members stood in formation to mark the historic occasion.

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

“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.

“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 Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

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

“President Tadic has played a leading role in the democratic transformation of Serbia since 2000,” Blum said 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 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 also has benefited from Hungary’s military skills, officials pointed out. “Our partnership with Hungary has gone on for 13 years,” Wayt said. “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, said he 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 Yugoslav 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.”

(Army Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is assigned to the National Guard Bureau.)

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