Kosovo votes to form fully-fledged army in move that heightens tensions with Serbia

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Posted on: The Telegraph | December 14th, 2018
Author: Nick Squires

Kosovo voted to form a fully-fledged army on Friday, angering neighbouring Serbia and ratcheting up tensions along one of the Balkans’ key fault lines.

Kosovo’s parliament gave its approval to converting the country’s current lightly-armed security force, which until now has dealt with civil defence and emergency response, into a 5,000-strong standing army backed by 3,000 reservists.

The vote was approved by 105 out of 120 MPs, with 11 ethnic Serb deputies boycotting the motion.

Serbia is deeply opposed to the move, saying that it threatens peace in the region, and last week warned that it might take military action in response.

That is seen as unlikely because it would drag Serbia into a confrontation with 4,600 Nato-led peacekeepers in Kosovo, including 600 American troops.

But the vote deepened animosity between the two countries, 20 years after Kosovo’s Albanians rose up against Belgrade and a decade after Kosovo’s declaration of independence.

Serbia fears that the beefed-up military force could be used by Kosovo to reassert its control over the northern part of the country, which is inhabited by ethnic Serbs.

Belgrade also objects to the move because it sees the formation of an army as a symbol of statehood by a nation that it does not recognise.

“It’s been a long time coming but it’s very controversial. This is a huge move on the part of Kosovo, and Serbia has long resisted it,” James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans expert from the London School of Economics, told The Telegraph.

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“Belgrade is worried that this is part of a hidden plan by Kosovo to try to take back control of northern Kosovo, which is inhabited by Kosovo Serbs and is not fully under the authority of Pristina.”

Kosovo may be smaller than Yorkshire but it lies at the heart of the Balkan jigsaw and is bordered by Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania.

An estimated 5-8% of Kosovo’s population are ethnic Serbs, many of whom live in four municipalities in the north of the country, close to the border with Serbia.

Relations are so fraught between Kosovo and Serbia that last week Ana Brnabic, Serbia’s prime minister, warned of a potential military intervention, saying it was “currently one of the options on the table.”

That was largely meant for domestic consumption in order to assuage Serb nationalists, analysts said.

“The general view is that Serbia would be nuts to act militarily. The results would be utterly catastrophic,” said Prof Ker-Lindsay. “But I’m more worried about relations between the two countries than I have been for a long time.”

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In Kosovo’s north, ethnic Serb politicians said the formation of an army represented a serious threat to the status quo.

“It is unacceptable for us and we absolutely reject it,” said political leader Goran Rakic. The vote «showed clearly that Pristina does not want peace,” said Mr Rakic, although he urged Serbs in Kosovo to show «restraint and not respond to provocations.»

The transition from lightly-armed security force to fully-fledged army will not happen overnight – it will take years to train troops, buy military hardware and set up a defence ministry.

Long-standing tensions came to a head last month after Kosovo decided to impose a 100% tax on Serbian imports.

That move was apparently in retaliation for Belgrade lobbying to block Kosovo from joining Interpol.

The EU and Nato had both urged Kosovo not to create an army.

Reacting to the vote, Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, said the move was “ill-timed” while Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, also expressed regret over the decision.

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