Kosovo Security Force
© Reuters / Laura Hasani
Kosovo Security Force
Kosovo has upset just about everyone (except the US) by creating its army, in a move that researchers see as revenge against both Serbia and the EU, and an attempt to better stake a claim for the breakaway region's sovereignty.

On Friday, the parliament of the breakaway Serbian region of Kosovo voted to create a 5,000-strong standing army. Belgrade has denounced the move, calling it the "most direct threat to peace and stability in the region." But even the EU, despite its support for Kosovo's self-proclaimed independence, was not entirely happy, and NATO has objected to it, calling it "ill-timed." Meanwhile, the UN Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General, Farhan Haq, told TASS that any effort to block the presence of the existing international peacekeeping force would violate UN Security Council resolution 1244. Out of the major international players, only the US cheered Pristina on.

Three researchers who studied the history, politics and conflicts of former Yugoslavia and the greater Balkans, have weighed in on why Kosovo chose to seemingly alienate its regional allies.


Claim to statehood


Between the 4,000-strong KFOR and about the same number of fighters in the paramilitary Kosovo Security Force, the creation of an official army might seem like an unnecessary excess to sink the already-limited budget money into - but it carries an important political implication.

Having an actual army of its own is, first and foremost, a token of statehood - one of the things every real, sovereign country (which Kosovo claims or aspires to be) has. So the move to create one could be a box ticked on the path to independence.

"An army is one of the obvious attributes of sovereignty and statehood. Kosovo has been moving to creating one since its inception," says historian Vladimir Putyatin, deputy head of the department of history of southern and western Slavic people at the Moscow State University.

Actual capabilities questionable

The Kosovo leadership appears to have great ambitions for the reformed fighting force. Whereas the Kosovo Security Force was only lightly armed, turning it into an army will allow for bigger guns.

"Judging by what Kosovan officials say... there are plans to create its own artillery, air defense force, even biological and chemical warfare protection troops - I believe this is a possibility," Putyatin said.

But all of these capabilities will be entirely at the mercy of the Kosovan army's main backer - the US, argues Pavel Kandel, an expert on ethnic conflict with the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"Pristina doesn't have money to support an army anyway. If the US wants to pay for weapons and training, then there will be an army, in 10 or so years. If they don't... it will be just a symbolic name change... Such a force is neither needed, nor able to fight a war, but it's fully-suited to create provocations."

One thing going for the Kosovan army is its experience, says Elena Guskova, the head of the Center for Research of the Modern Balkan Crisis at the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Kosovo Security Force, the likely basis for the new army, is itself rooted in the nationalistic Albanian paramilitary Kosovo Liberation Army. Having been active in the Kosovo War of the late 1990s, the force will be capable enough to interfere in any unsolved Albanian-related crises around the Balkans.
Kosovo Liberation Army
© Reuters/OP/FMS
FILE PHOTO: Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999
Call to rise for Albanians across the Balkans

Reorganizing former rebel militants into an official army could become just the validation Albanian minorities in other Balkan countries seek in order to rise up and follow the example of Kosovo in breaking away. And the Kosovan fighters' new status may embolden them to intervene.

"They could support the Albanians in Macedonia, in Montenegro, in the south of Serbia. It will be a serious military force, a force whose fighters were in the militias in the late 1990s, and have combat experience. Tension will grow, because Albanians in Montenegro have been waiting for Kosovo to be recognized, to rise up, and those in southern Serbia, as well," says Guskova.
map kosovo
Belgrade's talk of 'military option' is just that - talk

All three researchers agree that despite the Serbian prime minister's mention of a military response to the creation of the Kosovan army, it's extremely unlikely Belgrade will start a new war over this.

According to Putyatin, the statement was just a knee-jerk reaction to Kosovo's next step to sovereignty - which Belgrade simply has to oppose at every turn if it wants to keep claiming domain over the breakaway region.

Another reason it won't happen is that the current Serbian administration's entire police is geared towards dialogue with Kosovo, Kandel believes. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is ultimately aiming at EU membership, and has been preparing to trade away his claim over Kosovo for a chance at accession. A Kosovo with an army, however, might just be a threshold he won't be willing to cross.
He walked to the red line, raised his foot to test the water, and realized it's too hot - and is now stuck in that pose.
Danger to Kosovan Serbs

Belgrade says the Kosovan army is a threat to the 150,000-strong Serbian minority in the region, and the analysts believe the danger is real.

Guskova believes this is a move to fully Albanize the entire territory of Kosovo, that will ultimately lead to the dismantling of the Serbs' self-governing bodies, police and the Serbian University of Pristina.
It will be a fully Albanian territory, and the Serbs will be forced to either flee, or assimilate into the Albanian populace.
Putyatin believes that the army is as much a hit against the Serbs in Kosovo as any other step towards Kosovo's statehood: those who are still hoping to remain citizens of Serbia have just lost one of the threads that hope has been hanging by.

The army also creates a constant looming threat of provocation in Kosovo's north, exclusively inhabited by Serbs, says Kandel. This is something the KFOR is wary of as well, he believes, which is why their armored vehicles blocked the bridge in Mitrovica, connecting the north and the south, on the eve of Friday's vote.

Pristina can use such provocation to extort concessions from its supposed allies in Europe, Kandel says.

Revenge against the EU

One of the reasons to create an army - a move most international players have condemned as unnecessary escalation - is to spite the EU for being slow with fulfilling the promises it had given to Pristina. Just like the recently-introduced 100 percent tax on Serbian goods, it's a "revenge against the EU," which has been dragging its feet on granting Kosovo visa-free travel, which won't happen until at least 2020, Kandel says.

"With this ostentatious unruliness, Kosovan politicians want to show Brussels [the delay] will cost it."

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, has called Pristina's move "ill-timed" and detrimental to Kosovo's European and Atlantic integration - but those are just words, Guskova believes. In reality, NATO is interested in establishing a foothold in the region - which it will do as soon as its independence is validated.

Kandel believes what NATO says doesn't really matter - the decisions here are Washington's to make. Pristina waited for America's "go" to move ahead with creating an army, he argues, and for the US, this is another opportunity to get leverage in European affairs.

Safe across the Atlantic from the turbulence in Europe's south, the US is free to fuel conflict by supporting the Kosovan army - which, without its support, is likely to remain little more than a name. And whether Washington wants to do so depends on whether it's satisfied with how its relationship with the EU plays out, Kandel says.