BELGRADE, Serbia, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- Serbia doesn't need to join NATO to advance its integration into Europe but EU membership is crucial, Switzerland's ambassador to the Balkan nation says.
Jean-Daniel Ruch said in an interview published Saturday by the Serbian daily Dnevnik that, like Switzerland, Serbia can eventually become fully integrated into the European economy without joining the Western military alliance.
However, he added, the country does need to continue putting its full efforts into joining the European Union, which Switzerland backs.
Ruch's comments came after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu this month asked Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic about Belgrade's commitment to its current policy of military neutrality.
Vucic assured Shoigu Serbia's intention is to remain neutral, with no desire to join either NATO or the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.
"Personally, I see no reason why you need to be in NATO," Ruch told Dnevnik. "You can stay neutral and become a member of the EU as did Austria, Finland, Ireland and Sweden.
"We have never felt the need to be in NATO. However, when it comes to the EU, the situation is quite different. Billion of goods are exchanged daily with the European Union. Switzerland, which has 8 million people, employs a million EU citizens."
Unlike membership in NATO, though, Serbian integration with the EU is essential, the Swiss envoy said.
"We are not EU members, but we believe that the European Union is good. The EU is a factor of peace, stability and economic growth."
Switzerland, Ruch added, is "totally economically integrated into the EU, because we need them and they need us. Because of this very special relationship with the European Union, we have signed bilateral agreements which are often re-negotiated, which is good for the Europeans, but is a complicated thing for us.
"Since we are the fourth-largest trade partner of the EU, we have a common interest that the contracts are signed. But Serbia is in a different position and I do not believe that the EU will find the same interest with you to sign such contracts as it has with Switzerland."
This month's reiteration of Serbian neutrality was acceptable to Moscow, Russian Ambassador to Serbia Aleksandr Chepurin told the Belgrade weekly NIN in a Nov. 21 interview.
"If your question is whether this satisfies the Russians -- the answer is yes," he said. "Yugoslavia was a neutral country for almost half a century. We think there is no sense in Serbia becoming a member of NATO."
Serbia has been a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program since 2006, which focuses on democratic, institutional and defense reforms. While not aspiring to membership, Belgrade is in discussions with NATO on deepening cooperation through the development of an "individual partnership action plan."
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a 2011 speech Serbia has made "good progress" in implementing "peaceful cooperation with its neighbors and with the European Union and NATO."
NATO intervened militarily in 1999 to end Serbian-Albanian violence in Kosovo, subsequently deploying the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force, and has since remained there under a United Nations mandate.