The unresolved dispute between Serbia and Kosovo is one of the main points of conflict in the Western Balkans, a region that has witnessed ethnically motivated violence in the past. In the last decade, the prospect of EU accession and pressure from the West have kept the conflict within tolerable margins, but a plan to create a national army in Kosovo risks destabilizing the region once more.
Tensions are rising once again between Serbia and Kosovo — this time over Pristina's plans to create an army. Kosovo's parliament is scheduled to vote Dec. 14 over whether to transform the lightly armed, 4,000-strong Kosovo Security Force (KSF) into a national army. But Belgrade has warned that such a force could deploy its might against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, prompting denials from Pristina. NATO and Russia have also expressed concern about Kosovo's plan, and on Dec. 5, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic ominously noted her "hopes" that her country would not have to go to war in response to Pristina's moves.
A Troubled Relationship
Kosovo unilaterally seceded from Serbia in 2008. The United States and most members of the European Union recognize Kosovo's independence, but Serbia and major powers such as Russia and China do not. In 2009, Kosovo formed the KSF, which focuses primarily on civil protection and crisis response. Since then, the Kosovo government has presented several plans to transform it into a proper army, only to shelve the plans due to pressure from Western partners. In August, however, the U.S. ambassador to Kosovo said the White House supported transitioning the KSF "into a NATO-interoperable army." In October, Kosovo's parliament subsequently voted to bolster the KSF and convert it into a proper army within a decade. Two months on, lawmakers in Kosovo must confirm that decision.
Pristina's moves immediately triggered reactions in Serbia and further afield. On Dec. 4, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic met the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to Belgrade to solicit their support in his country's disputes with Pristina. A day later, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Pristina's push to create an army was "ill-timed, goes against the advice of many NATO allies, and may have serious repercussions for Kosovo's future Euro-Atlantic integration." Russia, for its part, described Pristina's moves as "destabilizing" and a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on Kosovo.
The announcement adds to the fraught relations between Pristina and Belgrade. Earlier this year, EU-sponsored negotiations between the two governments failed to foster a deal that would have normalized their bilateral ties. And just last month, Kosovo introduced a 100 percent tariff on imports from Serbia in retaliation for Belgrade's efforts to prevent Kosovo from joining international organizations.
Why It Matters
Brnabic's intimation of an armed conflict is mostly aimed at Serbia's domestic audience, as a military conflagration with its southern neighbor would summarily shut the door on Serbia's EU accession aspirations and generate a strong negative reaction from the West. Kosovo, for its part, depends on political and economic support from the West, which means that partners can still pressure Pristina to abort, or at least delay, its plans for an army.
But even if the parliament in Pristina does uphold the decision on Dec. 14, Kosovo's severe lack of financial resources means it may not be able to develop an effective army for years. 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.
In the past, pressure from external players has helped to defuse tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, fostering a modus vivendi between the two. But 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. A failure to reconcile could ultimately prolong the neighbors' unresolved conflict and lower their chances of normalizing relations.