World powers are set to discuss Kosovo’s decision to form an army at a UN Security Council session on Monday, with Belgrade and Moscow already expressing strong opposition to the move.
Before leaving for the UN meeting in New York, however, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said Pristina would stick by its decision.
“Whatever happens at the Security Council, despite the concerns of a certain individual or a country, the formation of the Kosovo army is an irreversible act,” he said.
Pristina relies on US support, after the US ambassador backed a “transparent, multi-ethnic, NATO-interoperable force,” calling it “Kosovo’s sovereign right.”
On Sunday, Thachi again said that the army would be comprised of many nationalities and would not threaten Kosovo Serbs. Out of some 5,000 troops, 5 percent of the soldiers are predicted to come from the Serbian minority.
However, many international partners of both Serbia and Kosovo fear a new armed conflict in the Balkans, around two decades after the end of the Kosovo War. In 1999, a NATO bombing of Serbia forced Slobodan Milosevic to pull out Serbia’s troops out of Kosovo, whose 1.8-million population is predominantly Albanian and Muslim.
NATO laments ‘ill-timed’ move
Serb deputies in Kosovo’s parliament boycotted Friday’s vote. The Serb opposition left the parliament unable to amend the constitution and officially proclaim the creation of a Kosovo military. However, Pristina authorities circumvented the obstacle by adopting a set of laws which keep the name of the pre-existing Kosovo Security Force, but massively expand its scope and mandate.
Serbia, which regards Kosovo as a breakaway province within its territory, threatened a military response if the army were to be used against Serb communities in Kosovo’s north.
Serbia’s traditional ally Russia slammed the move as a “direct and gross violation” of a UN resolution on Kosovo which had declared international peacekeepers to be the only valid military force. Russia said it expected the peacekeepers to respond to Kosovo’s military by “immediately taking comprehensive steps towards neutralizing and disarming it.”
UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres responded to the development “with concern” and urged restraint.
The EU expressed opposition to the move, saying that a Kosovo army should be created “through an inclusive and gradual process in accordance with the Kosovo constitution.”
Even with the US in favor of creating the Kosovo army, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the parliamentary vote was “ill-timed, goes against the advice of many NATO Allies, and may have serious repercussions for Kosovo’s future Euro-Atlantic integration.”
How did we get here?
The standoff between Belgrade and Pristina stems from a 1990s military conflict, when Albanians started an armed revolt in response to Serbian oppression. Serbia responded with a military crackdown.
In 1999, NATO launched a 78-day bombing forcing Milosevic to withdraw his troops. Thousands of ethnic Serbs left Kosovo alongside the Serbian army and police, and many others have been forced out by Albanians in a 2004 violent unrest. The Washington-led intervention made Kosovo Albanians staunch allies to the US.
Some 120,000 Serbs are believed to still be living on Kosovo territory, most of them congregated in four Serb-majority regions on Kosovo’s north.
Serbian population in Kosovo’s north flying Serbia flags off their balconies
Kosovo’s Albanian-dominated authorities declared independence from Serbia in 2008. However, the move was bitterly opposed by Belgrade with the backing of Russia. While most Western countries recognize Kosovo’s statehood, several EU member states oppose it to this day. China also rejects Kosovo’s secession.
Belgrade warns against ‘ethnic cleansing’
The Serbian diplomatic campaign has managed to keep Kosovo from becoming a UN member. In recent years, the EU has mediated talks on normalizing ties between Belgrade and Pristina, but the talks have largely stalled.
In November, Serbia successfully lobbied to prevent Kosovo from joining the Interpol. Angered by the move, Pristina slapped 100 percent tariffs on Serbian imports, ignoring a regional free trade accord. In response, the EU decried the move as a “clear violation” and called on Pristina to “immediately revoke these decisions.”
The move increases economic pressure on Serbian enclaves in the north. Days later, Kosovo security forces made a rare raid into Serbian-dominated areas to arrest four suspects for the murder of Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic.
With the move to create an army following in mid-December, Kosovo Serbs and Belgrade fear that Pristina may be preparing to claim the Serbian-majority north of Kosovo by force.
Serbia’s prime minister has warned that Belgrade could respond by deploying troops, saying that a military response “is unfortunately one of the options on the table.”
“We cannot stand by and watch someone do another ethnic cleansing,” Ana Brnabic said.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, a former guerilla leader, stressed that the army “belongs to all” and would “stand for freedom.”
“The army will never be used against our own people — whether in the south, in the north, or here at home, the Kosovo army will never be used against them,” he wrote on Twitter.