Sun, 24 Mar 2019

Kosovo received 24 armored, high-mobility, multipurpose vehicles, or Humvees, this week from the United States.

Consider them an early Christmas gift for Pristina ahead of a December 14 parliamentary vote on establishing an army.

Also consider them the latest sign that tensions are once again rising in the Balkans.

Kosovar lawmakers will hold a final vote to transform the lightly armed, 2,500-member, NATO-trained Kosovo Security Force into a national army of some 5,000 troops that the government says is needed to secure the country and wean it off international security support.

But the move has angered Serbia and comes after Kosovo upped crippling tariffs tenfold on goods from Serbia until Belgrade recognizes the country, and after reports suggest Serbia helped scupper attempts for its former federation to join Interpol.

Serbia, claiming 'continuous provocation,' says Pristina's moves will jeopardize regional stability and may leave it no choice but to react to protect minority Serbs in Kosovo.

Even if it may no longer be the powder keg it once was, the Balkan region arguably remains a crisis zone with a very short fuse.

'It is time to stop warning each other and start getting your act together on all sides -- not reactive, passive, or passive-aggressive but proactive, creative, and constructive,' warned Vedran Dzihic, co-director of the Center for Advanced Studies of Southeastern Europe.

A former province of Serbia, Kosovo declared independence in 2008 -- nearly a decade after the 1998-99 war that ended with NATO air strikes on Serbia that forced Belgrade to withdraw its troops from Kosovo to end a conflict that killed some 13,000 people.

Kosovo's 1.8 million population is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanians and about 5 percent Serbs, and it remains deeply divided.

Stark Warning

The depth of that rift was evident in January with the assassination of a perceived moderate Serbian politician in the northern Kosovar city of Mitrovica and reactions that included Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj's suggestion of involvement by 'institutions beyond Kosovo.'

SEE ALSO: Assassinated Serb Politician Symbolized Tensions Still Brewing In Northern Kosovo

Mitrovica is a divided city, a front line in the extended standoff between Belgrade and Pristina. Hardly a month goes by without an incident there, despite the presence of EU and NATO forces.

The prospect of a Kosovar army, which is also planned to have some 3,000 reservists, has predictably prompted a stark warning from Serbia's leadership.

'The irresponsible behavior of Pristina could lead to a catastrophe, because Serbia cannot peacefully watch the destruction of the Serbian people,' Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said in response to the situation.

Then, on the eve of the vote, Vucic pledged that Serbia would 'do its best to preserve peace and stability' but called the possible construction of a Kosovar army 'illegal.'

The diplomatic waves created by the upcoming vote have also rocked the international community's boat.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that, while it won't leave the country, the establishment of an official army in Kosovo could prompt it to 'reexamine the level of NATO's engagement in Kosovo.'

Serbia has been drumming up support from traditional Orthodox-ally Russia as well as China, meeting with their ambassadors in Belgrade.

A U.S. soldier, part of a NATO peace force, places barbed wire on his Humvee during a protest in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica. (file photo)

On the other side, U.S. Ambassador Philip S. Kosnett said in an interview with Kosovar state broadcaster RTK on December 6 that the evolution of the security force into an armed force 'is a positive step and that it is only natural for Kosovo as a sovereign and independent country to have its own defense capability.'

'A further escalation must be urgently prevented,' German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a speech in Paris on December 11 at a meeting on curbing the spread of small arms from the Balkans.

'The successes of the dialogue on normalization must be preserved,' he added.

'Gradual Transformation'

Kosovo Security Force Minister Rrustem Berisha has said the new laws, if approved as expected, foresee a 'gradual transformation' of the force into a professional army capable of protecting 'the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo.'

While that process could take up to a decade, according to government officials, Kosovars have been quick to warm to the concept.

Many see the transition as a natural step in the development of a country that has been recognized by more than 110 countries.

While the Humvees are a reminder of one of the Kosovo's main supporters, the United States, a flood of American flags hanging from windows in Pristina have reinforced the friendship in recent days.

The flags are said to have been put out to commemorate the Millennium Challenge Corporation for raising funds for Kosovo.

But on the capital's streets, many people see them as a statement with a broader meaning.

'What more can you say than Kosovo will be the 53rd state of the United States,' says Valdrin Ismaili. 'Without its support, we wouldn't be able to create our own army.'

Alan Crosby

Alan Crosby is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.

CrosbyA@rferl.org Subscribe via RSS

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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