Europe

Kosovo's army dreamers enrage their Serbian neighbours

Members of Kosovo's security forces parade a day before parliament's vote on whether to form a national army, in Pristina, Kosovo, December 13, 2018 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption As well as a main force of 4,000, Kosovo's Security Force has 2,000 reserves

If Kosovo is still committed to a Euro-Atlantic path, it has wandered dramatically off-piste in recent weeks.

First it raised a 100% tariff on imports from neighbouring Serbia. Now its MPs have voted to create an army.

Both these measures run counter to warnings, threats and pleas from both the European Union and Nato.

Friday's army vote was aimed at turning a lightly-armed emergency response force into Kosovo's own 5,000-strong professional military.

Two decades after the withdrawal of Serbian forces, Kosovo's security is still guaranteed by 4,000 Nato troops, known as Kfor.

Serbia's prime minister, Ana Brnabic, is so enraged by the vote she has even talked of a military response. Its president has sought backing from Russia and China.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ana Brnabic said before the vote she hoped the Serbian army would not have to be used "but it is one of the options on the table"

After the vote Ms Brnabic was more measured, promising that Serbia would "stay on its path of peace and prosperity".

Serbia views a Pristina-controlled military force as a threat to Kosovo's 120,000-strong ethnic-Serb minority.

It does not recognise Kosovo, which declared independence 10 years ago.

For Nato, the vote creates a problem.

"I regret that the decision to initiate a change of the Kosovo Security Force mandate was made despite the concerns expressed by Nato," said Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

He warned that the Western military alliance would have to "re-examine the level of Nato's engagement with the Kosovo Security Force".

What has gone wrong?

How different it all is from three months ago.

All the talk in the Western Balkans was of Serbia and Kosovo swapping territory to bring their long-running dispute to an end, following six years of negotiations brokered by Brussels.

This recent defiance is also a departure from Kosovo's long-established status as a pet project for Western powers.

Kosovo hosts the European Union's largest civilian mission, as well as Kfor. It also benefits from massive amounts of international aid.

So there was an element of biting the hand that has been feeding Kosovo for almost two decades, when Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj accused EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini of "strangling" the talks.

"She has transformed the dialogue on normalisation into a dialogue on territories. This has caused harm to our region," he said.

Image copyright PRESIDENCY OF KOSOVO/HANDOUT
Image caption Ms Mogherini's summer meeting with the Serb and Kosovo presidents might have looked awkward - but relations are a lot worse now

His outburst was less about any putative territory swap, which Mr Haradinaj has fiercely opposed, and more a response to repeated European Union rebukes about Kosovo's unilateral imposition of swingeing taxes on Serbian and Bosnian imports.

"[This] definitely goes against the spirit and letter of co-operation in the region," said Ms Mogherini on Monday.

"I would expect the government of Kosovo to revoke this decision. But I am still confident that the two sides can fruitfully continue the dialogue."

Others are less optimistic.

What will happen now?

"I am more worried about relations between Serbia and Kosovo than I have been for a long time," says James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans specialist at the London School of Economics.

"The dialogue hasn't been good for a few years, but there was a certain equilibrium. That's been thrown out and it's very difficult to see where this is going."

Kosovo's determination to turn its lightly armed security force into an army has made things only worse.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Kosovo has an ethnic Serb population of some 120,000, and Serbia sees a military force as a threat

Ahead of the vote Nato had already warned of "serious repercussions for Kosovo's future Euro-Atlantic integration", but that did not deter MPs from voting for the changes, with the exception of ethnic-Serb MPs, who boycotted the session.

One bright spot for Pristina is that the US, perhaps predictably out of step with Brussels and Nato, has endorsed the formation of an army.

Its ambassador to Kosovo, Philip Kosnett, reaffirmed US support for the changes, calling it "Kosovo's sovereign right". But he emphasised that the transition to a regular army would be a "gradual" process taking 10 years to complete.

Why form an army anyway?

There is considerable frustration in Pristina that the EU has not followed through on a commitment to allow citizens of Kosovo visa-free travel to the bloc's borderless Schengen zone.

Ten years on from its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, Kosovo is still lacking many of the signifiers of statehood. Upgrading the security force to an army would, at the very least, tick a box.

But James Ker-Lindsay believes that "lashing out" will prove counterproductive for Kosovo.

"This is not the way to work with the EU. You don't start challenging them and being confrontational," he warns.

He believes that their "protected existence", with 10 years of EU and US support, has left them disorientated. Now that a new phase with the EU has begun, new rules apply.

Long term, it seems unthinkable that Kosovo would turn its back on Brussels. But, for the moment at least, it is certainly offering a cold shoulder.

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