Kosovo on Thursday (18 October) took the first steps towards creating its own army, ten years after it declared independence, despite fierce opposition from the ethnic Serb minority and Serbia itself which called the move “a threat to peace”.
Since the end of the 1998-1999 war between Serbia’s armed forces and pro-independence ethnic Albanian guerillas, NATO-led international forces (KFOR) have been tasked with security in Kosovo.
More than 4,000 KFOR troops are currently deployed throughout the breakaway territory whose independence is recognised by more than 110 countries, but not by Serbia which still considers it to be its southern province.
The parliament in Pristina on Thursday passed three bills laying the groundwork for transforming the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) — an emergency force trained to respond to disasters — into a regular army.
The move is aimed at avoiding the need for a constitutional change to legally establish armed forces, a move that would require a two-thirds majority of both ethnic Albanian and the 20 non-Albanian MPs, half of whom are ethnic Serbs. Serb MPs have blocked any such initiative in the past.
Since it unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Kosovo has sought to establish its own army but those efforts have been met by bitter opposition from Serbia, which has a crucial influence on the Kosovan Serb minority and their MPs in the parliament.
In Belgrade, Serbian Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin said the creation of a Kosovo army would be “a threat to peace” aimed at “threatening Serbia and Serbs”.
“There could be no other armed force in Kosovo except KFOR as long as the UN Security Council 1244 resolution (that ended the war) was in place,” Vulin said.
NATO has made clear that it would prefer the KSF to be transformed into a regular army via constitutional changes.
It was unclear whether Pristina has received any support for the move from the United States or European Union, both of which have thus far insisted on the inclusion of all communities, and the relevant constitutional changes, in the process of establishing a Kosovo army.
About 100 lawmakers in the 120-seat parliament on Thursday supported the bills proposed by the government and referred them for another round of debate before the final adoption, expected next month.
The measures were opposed by Serb MPs who walked out of the parliamentary session in protest.
According to the government’s proposal the KSF would be transformed in coming years into a 5,000 strong army with 3,000 reservists.
The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina on normalising ties have been stalled for months but started generating attention — and concern — this summer after Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vučić signalled an openness to the idea of border changes.