Kosovo’s imminent decision to create army pushes relations with Belgrade to the brink

Kosovo’s imminent decision to create army pushes relations with Belgrade to the brink
Pristina wants to turn the Kosovo Security Force (pictured) into a regular army, but until recently has been persuaded to hold off by its international partners.
By bne IntelliNews December 9, 2018

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg held phone conversations with political leaders in Serbia and Kosovo on December 6, days before MPs in Pristina are expected to vote in favour of the creation of a Kosovan army, a move Stoltenberg called “ill-timed”. 

The Nato chief’s intervention came as tensions between the two sides have spiked recently. Pristina imposed 100% import tariffs on goods from both Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in November, after intense Serbian lobbying led to Kosovo’s application to join Interpol being rejected. 

Kosovo expects that the country’s army will be officially established on December 14, when the parliament will hold a final vote on the transformation of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) into a regular army.

The KSF's main tasks now include conducting crisis response operations in Kosovo and abroad, and civil protection operations, but it is not a regular army.

The plans have angered Serbia, which has refused to recognise Kosovo, a former Serbian province, as a separate country in the decade since Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence in 2008. The Serbian authorities have repeatedly said that under the UN Resolution 1244, Nato-led KFOR is the only legal military formation in Kosovo.

The authorities in Belgrade refrained earlier from retaliating over the import tariff hike, but Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic warned on December 5 that setting up an army in Kosovo could trigger a military intervention.

President Aleksander Vucic also talked of the danger that forming the army by Kosovo will threaten lives of ethnic Serbs there, as well as peace and stability in the region, according to the statement published by his office following his conversation with Stoltenberg.

Nato leader steps in

Stoltenberg talked with both Vucic and Kosovan Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj on December 6, telling them that Serbia and Kosovo “should show calm and restraint, and avoid any provocative statements or actions”.

Stoltenberg said he told Haradinaj that the idea of forming an army is “ill-timed, goes against the advice of many Nato Allies, and can have negative repercussions on Kosovo's prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration.” 

He warned that while Nato will remain committed to security in Kosovo through Nato's KFOR peacekeeping mission, but if the mandate of the KSF evolves, Nato will have to examine the level of its engagement with the security force. 

With the Serbian president, Stoltenberg spoke about the need for a de-escalation of current tensions. 

“I reminded both that the EU-mediated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina remains the only way to bring durable peace and stability to the region,” Stoltenberg underlined.

Washington’s u-turn

Pristina has long sought to turn the KSF into a regular army, but previously has backed down from such plans after pressure from its western partners. This time, however, the US has said it supports Kosovo’s plans to create an army. 

The US ambassador in Kosovo Philip Kosnett first made the statement in August, with the Kosovan parliament holding an initial vote on the issue two months later. In a rare instance of lawmakers from the governing majority and opposition parties joining forces, MPs adopted three draft laws that pave the way for the country to set up a regular army on October 18.

Washington’s stance was reiterated by Kosnett after Stoltenberg’s statement. “We think that KSF’s evolution into Kosovo’s armed forces is a positive step and that it is only natural for Kosovo as a sovereign and independent country to have its own defence capability,” the ambassador said.

Although Brnabic warned that the creation of a Kosovan army could result in a renewed conflict should the army be used against the Serb minority in northern Kosovo, observers say this is unlikely.

“Brnabic's intimation of an armed conflict is mostly aimed at Serbia's domestic audience, as a military conflagration with its southern neighbour would summarily shut the door on Serbia's EU accession aspirations and generate a strong negative reaction from the West,” Stratfor analysts wrote in a December 6 comment on the situation. 

They also note that Kosovo remains dependent on political and economic support from the West, meaning there is still the possibility to persuade Pristina to either abandon or postpone its plans. In addition, Haradinaj has admitted that it could take 10 years to turn the KSF into a fully fledged army.

“Still, regardless of its actual capabilities, the symbolism of a national army would be strong, as it would represent another step in Kosovo's push to become a sovereign country. This, in turn, could rekindle Serbian nationalism and increase domestic pressure on Belgrade to react. Even without an armed conflict, prolonged political disputes would slow down Serbia's accession to the European Union and delay Kosovo's full international recognition,” Stratfor analysts added. 


Nonetheless, the always tense relationship between Belgrade and Pristina has worsened dramatically in recent weeks. A few months ago it appeared that the longstanding conflict could be approaching a resolution, possibly based on the controversial idea of a land swap — most likely an exchange of the mainly ethnic Albanian Presevo Valley in Serbia for mainly ethnic Serb northern Kosovo, an idea discussed by both Vucic and Kosovan President Hashim Thaci and backed by the US. However, this faced strong opposition both from influential external actors such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and domestic politicians including Haradinaj as well as opposition leaders. 

Since then, relations have been deteriorating. The dialogue between the two sides was suspended after Vucic cancelled a planned meeting with Thaci in early September, at which they were expected to discuss a possible land swap. In early November, Serbia held some of its largest ever military drills, ostensibly to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, but raising speculation they were at least partly intended to intimidate Pristina. This was followed swiftly by international police organisation Interpol’s rejection of Kosovo’s membership application for the third time, which Pristina blamed on the “fierce campaign” mounted by Serbia. 

Kosovo retaliated the following day by increasing its customs tariffs on products from Serbia and Bosnia to 100%, and has so far refused to lift the tariffs despite pressure from the EU, the US and other international observers. On December 3, Haradinaj said the tariffs will only be removed if Belgrade recognises Kosovo as an independent state.

Both the tariffs and the planned creation of the army have raised particular concerns in Belgrade about the fate of the Serb minority in northern Kosovo. The implications are wide-reaching; in one example of their broader consequences, the OSCE warned that Serbian speakers risk being unable to read newspapers in their own language as imports of newspapers from Serbia are subject to the tariffs thus restricting their distribution. Hundreds of ethnic Serbs from northern Kosovo rallied after the imposition of the tariffs, and the demonstrations were followed by the resignation of Serb mayors from the region. MPs from the Srpska List (Serbian List) occupied their office the parliament overnight in protest. 

Previously, international actors in particular the EU, since both Serbia and Kosovo aspire to membership in the union, have been able to bring pressure to bear on the governments in Belgrade and Pristina. Neither can progress towards EU integration without a normalisation of their relations, as highlighted in the recent European Parliament resolutions on several countries from the Western Balkans, which endorsed 2025 as a tentative accession date for Montenegro but failed to mention a specific date for Serbia, stressing instead the need to normalise relations with Kosovo.

However, with the US having spoken in favour of the Kosovan army, there are now mixed messages from the international community. “While the West continues to wield a great deal of leverage over Belgrade and Pristina, external powers might not be strong enough to check domestic political factors in both countries,” Stratfor analysts write. A failure to reconcile could ultimately prolong the neighbours' unresolved conflict and lower their chances of normalising relations.”