By Luke Bacigalupo
The parliament voted to greatly expand the powers and capability of the KSF in order to transform it into an armed force. Up to this time, the KSF’s responsibilities have mainly consisted of humanitarian aid, responding to natural disasters and search and rescue operations. The establishment of a national army has been a longstanding aim of Kosovo’s politicians. Many of them, including President Hashim Thaci and Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, fought against Serbian rule in 1990s and regard a robust defense against Serbia as an important component of Kosovo’s nationhood.
The Timing of the Announcement
Efforts to form an army have always come up short before because Kosovo’s constitution does not contain provisions for an army. Therefore, in order to create an army the constitution must be changed. This requires a two-thirds majority in the parliament, including a two-thirds majority among MPs who represent minority ethnicities. 10 seats in the parliament are reserved for the Serbian minority. These Serb MPs steadfastly refused to vote in favor of changing the constitution to create an army, arguing that an Albanian-dominated army would pose a threat to the Serbian community in Kosovo.
Bypassing the Constitution
In response to this impasse, Kosovo’s leaders decided to bypass the constitution by passing legislation to greatly increase the powers of the KSF. This will make the KSF into a de facto army without changing the constitution. They passed these laws in the normal procedure, with a simple majority. Serbian MPs boycotted the session. While the KSF was not declared an army in the constitution, politicians made their intentions clear. After the legislation was passed, Kadri Veseli, the speaker of the parliament, declared “From this moment, we officially have the army of Kosovo”.
The Serbian government expressed outrage that Kosovo’s government got around the Serbian MPs by not changing the constitution. President Aleksandar Vučić described Kosovo’s army as illegal, while Serbian politicians in both countries alike have warned that the creation of a Kosovo army has jeopardized peace and security in the region. The Serbian government called for a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the issue and has asked the UN to take on a larger role in Serbia-Kosovo relations. Kosovo is not a UN member, while China and Russia, both permanent members of the Security Council, do not recognize Kosovo.
Kosovo’s main international allies, including the EU and USA, have never supported the formation of a national army. The did not express any enthusiasm during previous bids to create an army, and they consistently warned Kosovo to stick to its constitution, which in practice meant no army due to Serbian MPs’ veto. In keeping with these previous positions, the American and European reaction to the recent law changes was muted. The U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Philip S. Kosnett, stated that he supported the new laws but warned that the government must continue to engage with minorities. NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg, meanwhile, publicly announced that he ‘regretted’ the law changes.
This new army will change the balance of power in the region. Kosovo will soon have a way of deterring foreign incursions that is independent of its allies, when previously its security has largely relied upon American and European support. A separate army could allow the country to act more independently in foreign policy and go against American and EU more often.
However, another motivation for the creation of the army is that it reinforces Kosovo’s status as an independent state. Acquiring the trappings of a state is probably more important to Kosovo’s leaders than the practical implications of having a national army. It makes their lack of international recognition look more and more detached from reality.
The formation of an army can also be regarded as part of a reaction to Serbia’s recent efforts to reverse other countries’ recognitions of Kosovo, as well as leading campaigns against Kosovo’s membership of international organization such as UNESCO. The recent imposition of 100% tariffs on Serbian goods is part of the same hard-line stance against Serbia. Kosovo has little support from its traditional allies for this approach. Instead, they remain committed resolving Kosovo and Serbia’s disagreements through the ongoing EU-facilitated dialogue. The imposition of tariffs on Serbia has merely led to condemnation from the EU for breaking the CEFTA trade agreement, just as the creation of an army was criticized by NATO. So, while a firm stance against Serbia is largely supported domestically, it may not be sustainable. Kosovo is a small, poor economy and it relies heavily on aid from its allies. More maverick policies aimed against Serbia might endanger this vital support.
The Serbian community in the north of Kosovo will be severely concerned by the formation of an army. The country’s four northernmost municipalities are adjacent to Serbia and overwhelmingly inhabited by Serbs. The area is not fully integrated into the governmental structures. Armed police have been deployed in the north several times in the past year, amid recent protests by the Serbian population. Serbs perceive these police operations in the north as Kosovo’s leaders seeking to show their strength over the Serbs; the heavy-handed tactics used by the armed police have fed this perception. The government, meanwhile, has long defended its right to deploy police in any part of Kosovo’s territory, including the north.
The possibility of the next intervention in north Kosovo being undertaken by the military rather than the police has heighten tensions. Once Kosovo’s government has an army, many Serbs will think it is only a matter of time before it is deployed to secure control of northern Kosovo. In a worst case scenario, this could lead to retaliatory military actionsfrom Serbia. Armed conflict is unlikely in the short term, but there is no question that the establishment of an army in Kosovo will make it more likely in the future.
Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia.