May 12, 2014 | 09:15 GMT

5 mins read

Kosovo Struggles to Create an Army

Kosovo Struggles to Create an Army

Kosovo's plans to form an army are creating new tensions between the Albanian majority and the Serb minorities living in the north of the country, as well as between the governments of Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo will hold early parliamentary elections June 8, with the hope that the new parliament will be able to approve such a controversial move.

Since both Kosovo and Serbia are interested in improving their relationships with the European Union, intense negotiations over the creation of a Kosovar army will probably take place in the coming months. Some sporadic episodes of violence could take place in northern Kosovo, but neither Pristina nor Belgrade is interested in a significant escalation of hostilities.

On March 6, Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci proposed the creation of an army to "protect the sovereignty" of Kosovo. According to Thaci, the Kosovar army could have roughly 5,000 active members and some 3,000 reservists and should be fully operational by 2019. The goal of this force would be first to cooperate with the NATO-led Kosovo Force and then to replace it. Some 5,000 NATO soldiers are still deployed in Kosovo.

In 2009, with NATO assistance, Kosovo created a civil security force, which is tasked with responding to emergencies as well as civil protection. It has 2,500 men and 800 reservists. Kosovo would not be creating a military force from scratch but turning the civil security force into the Kosovo armed forces.

Kosovo says its plans have full backing from the international community. According to Thaci, the United States, NATO and the European Union pledged full support for Kosovo's decision. He also said Kosovo's military would be an integrated, inclusive and multiethnic force. So far NATO and the European Union have not issued official reactions to the announcement. When the idea to create a Kosovar army was first proposed in early 2013, NATO did not reject the plans outright but said it would study the project before making a decision. NATO has been gradually transferring responsibilities to Kosovo's police and other local authorities, but the alliance is still a key actor in maintaining stability in the country.

The plan to create a Kosovar army faces resistance from the Serb minority (about 100,000 people in a population of 1.8 million), most of whom live in northern Kosovo. The Serb minority is afraid that the new army would be dominated by Albanians and would reduce whatever autonomy the Serbs have left. The government of Serbia is also concerned about the creation of a Kosovar army and wants to make sure that it would not enter northern Kosovo. Serbian officials even suggested that Serbs in Kosovo should create their own armed forces.

In recent months, Serbia and Kosovo have made some progress in reducing bilateral tensions. Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo's independence, but in an EU-sponsored agreement, Belgrade gave up its de facto control of northern Kosovo in return for guaranteed rights for ethnic Serbs living there and the start of EU membership talks for Serbia. Serbia was given EU candidate status in 2012, and in December 2013 Brussels approved opening negotiations on Serbia's accession.

There is already some degree of inter-ethnic integration among Kosovo's security forces, but Albanians still mostly dominate the Kosovar police and civil security force. In April 2013, Kosovo and Serbia agreed that Serbian police units in northern Kosovo would be disbanded and integrated into the Kosovar police. Since then, most Serbian police stations operating in northern Kosovo were closed, and Belgrade stopped paying their salaries.

The goal is for these police to be gradually absorbed by the Kosovar police, while making sure that the ethnic composition of northern Kosovo is respected. The integration of Kosovo's Serb police officers, judges and prosecutors previously employed by the Serbian authorities is ongoing. But the situation remains tense and there is still resistance to the transition.

More Negotiations on the Way

Kosovo's parliament must approve the decision to establish the Kosovar armed forces, but it could not reach an agreement on the issue May 6, after Serb minority lawmakers nixed the vote by refusing to attend. According to Kosovo's Constitution, two-thirds of lawmakers have to vote, as well as two-thirds of minority deputies.

Since Kosovo will hold early elections June 8, there will not be any progress on the creation of the Kosovar army for at least one more month, and after that a new government will need to be put in place. This gives all the players (including Serbia and NATO) additional time to negotiate. Even after the elections, the next parliament will still struggle to pass the legislation, since it would require the support of Serbian lawmakers.

In the coming months, extensive negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo are likely. The new Serbian government, which was elected in April, campaigned heavily on joining the European Union. Belgrade has recently announced a series of economic reforms meant to adapt its economy to EU requirements. So Belgrade will probably ask the United States and the European Union to include the issue of the Kosovar army in the ongoing negotiations over the future of Kosovo.

Serbia will push for assurances that NATO will continue to supervise security deployments in northern Kosovo. NATO's troops in Kosovo will remain the main armed force in the region and will work alongside other security forces in a peacekeeping and support role. This should limit — but not completely eliminate — sectarian violence in northern Kosovo between Serb and Albanian communities.

This will probably lead to a scenario similar to the agreements reached on other issues: promises of bilateral cooperation at high levels and a very difficult and slow implementation on the ground. Pristina and Belgrade will probably agree on some multiethnic force that includes ethnic Serbians. We will likely see some resistance from Kosovo's Serbs, as we are currently seeing with the police integration. But violence over this issue will probably not be different from the sporadic episodes of violence that occur on a normal basis in Kosovo.

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