GJILAN, Kosovo — With its blast walls, barbed wire and jungle green observation towers, this camp in eastern Kosovo looks like a military base. But it isn’t — yet.
The camp is a training base for the Newborn Rapid Reaction Brigade, part of the small, lightly armed Kosovo Security Force (KSF), which is tasked mainly with disaster response and de-mining. But in recent weeks President Hashim Thaçi has launched a push to transform the force into a fully fledged army, despite opposition to his plan from neighboring Serbia and Kosovo’s Western allies.
After intense Western pressure, Thaçi appears to have backed down for now. But the issue remains a live and divisive one, with the potential to stoke tension between members of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority, and to exacerbate strained relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
Right now, 4,500 NATO peacekeepers are the only military force in Kosovo — a legacy of the alliance’s 1999 bombing campaign to end Serb repression of ethnic Albanians. Thaçi says it’s high time the country of 1.8 million people had an army of its own, nine years after declaring independence from Serbia.
“This process cannot be stopped any more,” Thaçi, a former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) which fought against Serb forces in the war, told POLITICO in his office in Pristina. “We are an independent and sovereign country and we cannot allow Belgrade or anybody else for that matter to have a veto right over the issues of sovereignty and integrity of Kosovo, such as the issue of an army. We are not asking anything more or less than other states, that is simply to have our own army.”
However, analysts question how effective any army fielded by one of the poorest countries in Europe could be and suggest Thaçi may be using the issue to bolster the Democratic Party of Kosovo, which he has controlled since its creation, and force an early parliamentary election.
Thaçi’s move comes at a time of heightened tension in the Balkans, especially between Kosovo and Serbia, which aspires to join the EU but is also increasing ties with Moscow. Tempers flared in January after Belgrade sent a train to the city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo emblazoned with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in some 20 languages. It was halted before arriving at the border, but the incident prompted officials on both sides to ramp up military rhetoric. The January arrest and continued detention of another KLA leader, Ramush Haradinaj, in France on a Serbian warrant has also stoked ire at Belgrade. And a new court to try war crimes allegedly perpetrated by the guerrilla forces, expected to issue its first indictments in June, is also viewed with resentment.
At a summit last month, EU leaders described the situation in the region as “fragile.”
Thaçi’s initiative has been popular at home, given that almost 90 percent of the population backs the creation of an army. But it put him on a collision course with the Western allies who helped transform him from a guerilla leader into a statesman and shepherded Kosovo from a United Nations protectorate to an independent state, now recognized by more than 100 countries — although not by Serbia or its major ally Russia.
In an unusually blunt warning, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance could be forced to “review its level of commitment” to Kosovo if he went ahead with his plans.
Western countries which recognize Kosovo do not object to the establishment of an army per se, and helped to draft a plan to transform the KSF three years ago. But they have been alarmed by the way Thaçi proposed to go about things.
Kosovo’s Western allies believe an army should be created through a constitutional amendment. That would require the approval of two-thirds of all MPs — and two-thirds of the 20 MPs who represent ethnic minorities, 10 of whom of are Serbs.
But Thaçi proposed circumventing that requirement, effectively denying ethnic minorities a veto. He planned to change the law governing the KSF to upgrade its capacities change its mandate from a civilian force to a military one.
He even threatened to resign if the parliament did not vote on the issue, saying he did not “want to lead a country that does not vote in favor of the establishment of its own army.”
But the United States, one of Kosovo’s most important patrons, warned that any changes to the mandate without the agreement of the Serb minority “would force us to re-evaluate our … longstanding assistance to Kosovo’s security forces.”
But most Serbs in Kosovo perceive the proposed new army — which would be dominated by ethnic Albanians — as a threat, says Kosovo Serb MP Nenad Rašić.
“The wounds are still fresh and we need more time for them to heal,” he said in Gračanica, a predominantly ethnic Serb enclave 10 kilometers from the capital.
Thaçi insisted the future army, which would have 5,000 soldiers and 3,000 reservists, would be a multi-ethnic force including Serbs, and that it would not pose a threat to security in the region. He said he hoped that soldiers from the Kosovan and Serbian armies could even become partners in international peacekeeping missions.
“We are not establishing an army to declare wars. It will be in the service of its citizens, Kosovo citizens, and protect the dignity of their lives,” he said. “Kosovo will become an exporter of security and stability.”
Analysts say Thaçi is pursuing the army now because he is trying to boost the popularity of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, or PDK, which he led until becoming president, and to force an end to a fraught coalition with its longtime rival, the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK. The army issue could force early parliamentary elections, which would likely increase the number of MPs from the PDK and could result in them wresting the prime minister’s post from the LDK.
“Given the political environment in Kosovo one suspects that the whole army talk is a solo act of the president, who really wants attention and wants to send the party that he still controls into new elections to gain the majority of the votes in the future government,” said Lumir Abdixhiku, director of Riinvest Institute, a think tank in Prishtina.
The current plans for the army give it lean capacities with no tanks or heavy artillery, raising questions about its effectiveness. The Serbian military has 50,000 personnel, not including reservists.
“You’d have to go through so many hoops to get to the point that a Kosovo army would actually be useful that it is inconceivable it would be used,” says Aidan Hehir, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Westminster, who says the army initiative is a form of “political theater.”
“These big projects wrapped in Kosovo flag serve some purpose in terms of demonstrating Kosovo’s sovereignty and all that but ultimately not useful to the people.”
Back at the Newborn base, its name a nod to Kosovo’s status as a young country, a group of new recruits do sprinting drills and another practice martial arts, while a third group marches 10 kilometers in full uniform around the track, carrying 20 kilos of equipment and cradling assault rifles.
Captain Besnik Selimi says he is ready to be in a fully-fledged army after attending training courses in Denmark, Macedonia, the United States — and even a course on NATO standards in Warsaw.
“I just want serve my country, whatever the mission is, I’m ready to fulfill it,” said Selimi.