Kosovo Army bill enrages Russia as West rallies its disapproval

kosovo army

Tensions are rising between Kosovo and Western allies as Pristina persists to unilaterally create a standing army for Kosovo.

As of the 15th of March, the latest statements by 'The Quint'  (USA, UK,  German, French, and Italian representatives in the Kosovan capital), have taken a more hard-line stance towards Kosovo President Hashim Thaci's army ambitions.

Speaking to the daily Albanian language newspaper Zeri, cited by RTK2 via B92, the UK representative said: "We expect to be consulted. Any unilateral decision could jeopardize regional stability and undermine Kosovo's relations with its international partners". 

The German embassy took the middle ground and echoed the legal-based statements made by NATO and the US at the start of the controversy. The representative told the paper that the mandate for Kosovo Security Forces (KSF) should be reviewed and changed in accordance with the Kosovo constitution.  

Following these statements, Russia issued acomment in Kremlin-backed media outlet Sputnik on Thursday 18 March, condemning the proposal.

"We consider the intention of the authorities in Pristina to implement, in spite of the position of Belgrade and the Kosovo Serbs, the transformation of the Kosovo Security Force into full-fledged armed forces an absolutely irresponsible step, which we consider extremely dangerous for stability in the Balkans and the European continent as a whole," said Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova .

Evolution-of-response: The Rise of a Kosovo Army

The 7 March announcement of the intentions of a Kosovo army comes after a series of newly inflamed relations between Kosovo and Serbia. January 2017 saw Serb outrage after a train serving the new rail line to the Serb-dominated Northern Kosovo city of Mitrovico was seen decorated with the slogan 'Kosovo is Serbia', prompting the halting of its route and the deployment of ROSU units (the Kosovo Police Force).

The subdued reaction by the EU and NATO prompted the President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolic, to starkly remark: "If NATO has not fulfilled its role, then, as far as I'm concerned, they're not needed in the territory of Kosovo and Metohija...then they should step aside and we'll solve our problems ourselves."

The parliament of the Kosovo Republic submitted a draft resolution to transform Kosovo's light Kosovo Security Forces into the Kosovo Armed Forces. The resolution was delivered by Kosovo President Hashim Thaci on Tuesday 6 March.

The reaction of the international community immediately after the resolution was swift and negative. Within 24 hours, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told President Thaci he had "serious concerns" over the proposal. Thaci was encouraged to continue to have close contact with the Belgrade the administration in neighboring Serbia.

In a statement on the NATO website, Stoltenberg said, "The structure, mandate and mission of the KSF are a matter for local Kosovo institutions in accordance with their constitutional law. However, should the mandate of the KSF now evolve in the way proposed, NATO will have to review its level of commitment, particularly in terms of capacity-building."

The US embassy in Pristina also immediately commented on the situation, stating that, "the adoption of the current proposed law would force us to re-evaluate our bilateral cooperation with and longstanding assistance to Kosovo's security forces."  

Addressing the Constitutional Basis for an Army

Common to the US and NATO responses is the notion that any full military organisation by Kosovo would need to be part of an "inclusive and representative political process" (words from the US Embassy). Concerns about the creation of an armed forces "without a constitutional change", were also expressed by Stoltenberg.

In order to secure the vote, the 102-seat parliament would require the support of 11 Serbian deputies. Thaci said, “There will be no step back. The KSF will become an army, with or without them”.

In a later interview with Radio Free Europe, Thaci alluded to the legal realities by appearing to be in defiance of constitutional procedure and was in favor of side-stepping a parliamentary vote.   

“The constitutional requirement may be side-stepped by expanding the responsibilities of the present Security Force which would not require constitutional amendments”, he said.

However, Thaci later reversed his stance.

As a nod to Western criticism, on Friday 10 March, Thaci told local Kosovo media outlet RTK that “if this assembly does not vote in favour (of the army bill), I will immediately resign from my position".

He later added, "I think that any parliament that does not vote for (creation of) its own army should go home".

The Geopolitical Future of another Standing Army in the Balkans

Kosovo Map

Being land-locked, Kosovo is advantageously placed in the Balkan Peninsula and still serves as a connection between the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea.

The urgency of creating an Army in Kosovo was expressed in geopolitical terms by Thaci. According to the associated press he remarked during a news conference late on Wednesday 8 March that the "Western Balkans is endangered from the Russian military bases in Serbia, from Russia's MIG jets in Serbia and from the Russian military exercises in Serbia."

The InSerbia news network has reported that, if successful, a new Kosovo Army would benefit from existing NATO-KFOR military bases, while also arguing that the new army would also be given modern weaponry. The article continues with predicted takeovers of the British contingent of KFOR in Pondejevo, effectively controlling the North-Eastern Administrative Border with Serbia, as eventual administrative takeovers of the Albanian & Montenegro borders.

Such a scenario provokes anxiety in a part of Kosovo dominated by the Serbian ethnic minority, which makes up 4% of the total Kosovo population. As a counterpoint, earlier this year, Thaci conveyed alarm during a Deutsch Welle broadcast, declaring, "Serbia is in the process of applying Russia's Ukraine model."

He was referring to the infiltration of armed Serb individuals into Northern Kosovo. It is reminiscent of a reported tactic used by Russia in the ethnic-Russian dominated parts of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. 

The establishment of a Kosovo army is entangled with the controversy of recognizing the territory as being a fully-fledged legal state entity. In February 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia and was subsequently recognized by 114 countries. Locally, Kosovo's independence has not been recognized by Belgrade or Moscow, and the latter supports Belgrade on many geopolitical issues. 

Nation-states without Armies

Despite gaining recognition of its territorial independence by large swathes of the international community, Kosovo may still be beholden to a 1999 UN Resolution (UN Resolution 1244) that created the terms of armed presence in the territory. The resolution states that NATO-KFOR peacekeepers, the Serbian Army and the Serbian Military are the only military forces allowed in the province. A political commentator from The Economist believes that resolution 1244 is used more as a reference point for Serbia in negotiations, rather than being an active article.

One option is that Kosovo improves its armed capacity without creating a full-blown standing army and the politically-loaded terms it entails. Other nation-states have operated, and continue to operate with limited forces but no standing army. Countries that fall into this category include Iceland, Japan, Monaco, Haiti, Mauritius, Panama, and Vanuatu.

Currently the KSF has limited working capacity. It is made up of 4,000 regular forces with 2,500 reservists, protecting a population of around 1.9 million. The local force numbers closely match recent numbers of the NATO KFOR force, made up of 4,273 troops from 13 contributing members, as of 2017. The plan would increase the number of active duty lightly armed regular forces to 5,000 and reservists to 3,000 while retaining the current international force. 

Some members of the no-army list, unlike Kosovo, are at a politically privileged position by being members of collective defence alliances. Iceland is an active member of NATO and has benefited from defence agreements with the US from the 1950s into the 2000s, as well as neighbours Norway and Denmark. The US continues to help protect Iceland even amid the closing of military bases. 

In addition to strained relations between the Albanian majority and Serbian minority and an irate Serbia neighbouring Montenegro experienced an aborted Russian-backed coup in December 2016, while Montenegro's Albanian minority has grown restless. Kosovo is now in the precarious position of experiencing contested statehood matched with Russian-supported political adversaries. Whether it is a wise or necessary move for Kosovo to pursue an army in the interests of territorial integrity is a matter of judgement for the Kosovo parliament.