Perspectives | Army

Kosovo’s army’s uncertain path

By - 04.04.2017

Hashim Thaci’s game is more likely to trigger elections in Kosovo than to transform KSF into Kosovo’s army this year.

Hashim Thaci’s hair has grayed significantly since February 17, 2008 when, as Kosovo’s prime minister, he read the new state’s Declaration of Independence. But unlike his hair, his policymaking has not changed, especially when it comes to leading the way in crucial processes related to Kosovo’s statehood.

Nine years after the Declaration of Independence, now as president of the country, Thaci has taken it upon himself to undertake another key state-building process — establishing the army. Last month he announced his intention to bypass necessary Constitutional changes by transforming the mandate of the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF) into Kosovo’s army through passing a new law.

However, a series of arguments go against the president’s initiative to create an army through changes to the law, which is more likely to trigger early parliamentary elections in Kosovo, than to transform the KSF’s mandate. This is because Thaci threatened to resign in case the bill with which he claimed he would establish the army does not pass in the Assembly, further stating that all members of the political leadership that do not vote in favor of his initiative must ‘go home.’ The wording is significant as, according to his mandate, the president has the right to issue a motion of no confidence against the government, which can be passed by a simple majority vote in the Assembly.

But how did Thaci’s political game start this time? About a month ago, on March 7, he submitted a bill to Kosovo’s Assembly aimed at increasing the current capacities of the KSF, which currently has 2,500 active soldiers, and to reinforce the mission of these forces.

President Hashim Thaci has made moves to advance the formation of Kosovo’s army in recent weeks, bypassing Kosovo’s Constitution in the process. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Despite his claims that he is initiating the process for establishing the army, discussions regarding the transformation of the KSF began years earlier. Albeit not with the same intensity as with the current developments, just like with the independence process — which officially started in 2005 with talks between Kosovo and Serbia in Vienna mediated by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari — the process for establishing the army also started three years earlier, in 2014.

That year, following a recommendation in its comprehensive Kosovo Security Sector Review (KSSR), the government coalition of Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the Alliance of New Kosovo (AKR) had brought a proposal to amend Article 126 of the Constitution — the article that regulates the KSF’s mandate — to Kosovo’s Assembly for the first time. At the time, the aim was to transform KSF into Kosovo’s Armed Force (KAF) but the issue never proceeded to a vote.

If we analyze the president’s logic, in which he has explicitly compared the process of establishing the army to that of declaring Kosovo’s independence, it is clear that the latter seems to be fundamentally more complex, seeing that it requires votes from Serb representatives in Kosovo.

Nine years ago Kosovo declared its independence without Serbia’s consent, as Kosovo’s lead negotiator in Vienna, Thaci, accepted a framework agreement called the ‘Ahtisaari Plan,’ which guarantees a series of rights for Kosovar Serbs. In fact, according to the Kosovo Constitution, no constitutional changes can me made in Kosovo without two-thirds of all parliamentary votes from the 120 deputies, as well as two-thirds of minority votes from the 20 minority deputies, 10 of which are Serbs. Kosovo’s leadership has to date failed to convince the latter to vote in favor of constitutional changes to transform the KSF into KAF.

Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the KSF is a protector of Kosovo’s territory. And such a mandate is not even proposed for Kosovo’s army in the bill put forward by the president’s office.

Since he had been unable to do this, up until last week — when his rhetoric shifted — Thaci was insisting that he would enable the formation of Kosovo’s army through the law he introduced, without requiring constitutional changes, or a change to KSF’s name.

But where would the troops in Kosovo’s army established by Thaci’s law be able to operate? This is a question that Thaci failed to answer in a public debate organized by the Center for Security Policy on March 14.

According to Kosovo’s Constitution, the KSF currently serves as ‘a national security force’ and has a mandate to protect Kosovar citizens regardless of their ethnicity — nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the KSF is a protector of Kosovo’s territory. And such a mandate is not even proposed for Kosovo’s army in the bill put forward by the president’s office.

In a recent debate organized by Center for Security Policy, Thaci was unable to answer a question on whether an army formed through changes in the law would be able to operate in the whole of Kosovo. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Additionally, dilemmas regarding the recognition and the extent of Kosovo’s army within its territory are also raised by three international agreements, two of which Kosovo accepted in 1999 before declaring independence: U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244 and the Military Technical Agreement signed in Kumanova. These agreements recognize no other protective or military force in Kosovo besides NATO forces.

The third is the agreement that Thaci’s government signed in Brussels on April 19, 2013, which restricts KSF from operating in the north of Kosovo without NATO’s permission.

In public appearances in recent weeks Thaci has said that NATO’s role would not change after the transformation. This also implies that if KSF were to be transformed into an army in accordance with his plan, it would still need to ask permission from NATO, specifically the KFOR mission in Kosovo, for issues such as going to the north of Mitrovica, an area that is considered a destabilizing factor in Kosovo as far as security is concerned.

In one of the many public debates that Thaci has held, he himself raised the need to establish an army as a result of external threats, mentioning Serbia’s provocative train that departed Belgrade in January and headed towards Northern Mitrovica; he also mentioned internal issues with the northern part of Kosovo, by speaking about the wall that was built illegally by Serb representatives of the north, close to the Ibar bridge.

No money, no army

It seems as though Thaci’s new path will be made all the more difficult with the lack of U.S. and NATO support, which was not the case with the declaration of independence.

The submission of the KSF bill to the President of the Assembly, Kadri Veseli, in early March was not welcomed by the U.S. or NATO. One day after Thaci submitted the bill to the Assembly, the American government, through the Embassy in Prishtina, clearly stated that it “is concerned by Kosovo’s announced intention to change the mandate of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) without a constitutional amendment.” In a series of public appearances Ambassador Greg Delawie has restated that the U.S. want the transformation to occur slowly and with political inclusion, as well as in accordance with the Kosovo Constitution. He even went on to warn that the proposed law would “force [the U.S.] to re-evaluate [its] bilateral cooperation with and longstanding assistance to Kosovo’s security forces.”

Even officials from NATO labelled Thaci’s action as a “serious concern.” Its Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, told the media that he had warned Thaci and Prime Minister Isa Mustafa that “their unilateral actions would be helpful.”

Threats by U.S. and NATO officials for reviewing current support for the KSF should not be taken lightly as they are the two main sponsors of security forces in Kosovo.

U.S. supplies for KSF (2015)

  • EOD equipment (1).

  • Equipment for servicing and calibrating EOD equipment.

  • Medical equipment for trauma treatment.

  • Kit bag flyers.

  • Military bags.

  • EOD equipment (2).

  • Demining equipment.

  • Medicinal equipment for trauma treatment.

  • From NATO’s Trust Fund: Search and rescue equipment - $28,959.

According to annual reports published by the Ministry for the Kosovo Security Force, donations ranging from the hundreds of thousands up to millions of euros have been given by the U.S. government and NATO. In the past year alone, for instance, the U.S. government has supported KSF with search and rescue equipment, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) equipment, equipment for protection against hazardous chemical, nuclear and biological materials (HAZMAT), as well as communication equipment, all at a total value of over $10.8 million.

KSF also accepted 234,000 euros from NATO’s Trust Fund last year for building a new vehicle servicing annex, as well as for renovating the current servicing facilities at the KSF barracks.

All these sums, in addition to the provision of services such as training and KSF cadet education at the University of Iowa, as well as many other forms of aid, show how crucial the support of the U.S. and NATO is for KSF. This is especially so since these forces do not have sufficient funds to manage their current needs, let alone additional needs that will arise from an increase in capacity.

The state budget that has been allocated for KSF for this year is slightly more than 51 million euros, with security experts continuously stating that this budget alone cannot cover the transformation of KSF into an army. KSF has just 2,500 active members and 800 reserves compared to NATO’s 5,000 active soldiers and 3,000 reserves stationed in Kosovo. The exact number of weapons that the KSF possesses is unknown, but what is known is that they are of the Heckler and Colt type — a form of light weaponry that would be insufficient for a regular army.

Challenging the coalition

Besides not having the approval of KSF’s two main sponsors, the president’s initiative is not in accordance with the plan of the state executive, part of which is the party he founded and headed for 17 years, PDK. On January 13 — the day before the ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ train was sent towards Kosovo from Belgrade — Prime Minister Isa Mustafa had in fact accepted a recommendation by the Kosovo Security Council to proceed with implementing a number of recommendations from the government’s 2014 Kosovo Security Sector Review (KSSR); the Kosovo Security Council’s recommendation included increasing the capacity of the KSF but stopped short of recommending proceeding with Constitutional changes to transform the KSF into an army.

Prime Minister Isa Mustafa accepted a Kosovo Security Council recommendation to begin increasing the KSF’s capacity back in January. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

In the recommendation letter, which K2.0 has obtained a copy of, the immediate drafting of a National Security Strategy, is recommended, in place of a National Defence strategy. The latter had been put on hold until after the formation of an army back in 2014, when it was anticipated that such a move could be imminent.

“The delay [in transforming the KSF into KAF] also creates obstacles for drafting the National Defence Strategy in which the threats that Kosovo faces would be defined, which then in turn would further define the needs of the KSF/KAF (Kosovo Armed Forces),” reads the letter sent by Kosovo Security Council. However, the very same recommendation highlights that any transition from KSF to KAF “must be done only after a genuine analysis of the threats that Kosovo faces.”

The 2014 KSSR analysis clearly shows that “gradual transformation” of the KSF is required to advance Kosovo’s security sector, and that when it happens its mission should be “to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo.” The analysis is also clear that Kosovo’s security institutions should adhere to the principles of the Constitution and the laws in force, as well as to international legal documents.

Almost a month has passed since the KSF transformation bill was proceeded by the Assembly for consideration by the government. However, a decision on the government’s official stance is yet to be made. Line ministries, including the ministries of European Integration, for KSF and of Finance and Economy, have given their formal opinions, but according to an article by Besnik Krasniqi in Koha Ditore, published on March 31, 2017, Isa Mustafa will not take any action because of the lack of support from the U.S. regarding KSF’s transformation through law.

Kosovo’s government has stayed silent on whether it will support the law put forward by Thaci for transforming the KSF into Kosovo’s army. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Mustafa has said during a LDK rally in Prizren that his party supports the establishment of the army in accordance with the Constitution, although he has not issued a formal response as to what he will do regarding Thaci’s proposed law. Nevertheless, Koha’s article reported that Mustafa could pass the opinions of the ministries back to the Assembly without the government’s approval.

While LDK is still quiet on this subject, opposition parties have publicly expressed their support for the army, despite the dilemmas for transforming the Kosovo Security Forces through law. LDK’s possible opposition to Thaci’s bill could easily be seen as political suicide, with the party already accused by the president of being responsible for the failure to establish the army in 2014; at the time LDK did not support the process of Constitutional changes that was proposed, but the government also failed to secure the support of Serb deputies, whose votes are needed to make constitutional changes.

Thaci referred to this failure during a press conference on the day he submitted his bill to the Assembly, stating that KSF could have easily been transformed back in 2014. He said that the failure happened because of “political developments,” and added that the time had come to look past political differences between Albanian political parties in Kosovo, and to stand by one another, in order to establish the Kosovo army. If Thaci’s KSF bill is brought to the Assembly and LDK continues to hold this stance, it will be labelled as guilty of not transforming and establishing the Kosovo army for a second time.

Meanwhile, warnings of early parliamentary elections seem to be serious. Political parties have already started to make their polls public and to incorporate the word ‘election’ within their discourse.

In retreat?

In recent days, Thaci’s vocabulary regarding the issue of army formulation has begun to change, following intervention by some of Kosovo’s key strategic partners — U.S. representatives — who have made it clear that KSF cannot become an army without the approval of Kosovo Serbs. During a visit to Prishtina on March 29, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Brian Yee called on Kosovar leaders not to approve the bill that would create a regular army from the current Kosovo Security Force.

There is no force that can block the establishment of Kosovo’s Armed Forces."

Hashim Thaci

“We’d like the government to take a step back and withdraw the bill,” Yee said in an interview for RTK last Wednesday.

A day after he met with Yee, in an interview for Radio Free Europe, when asked whether the government should withdraw the proposed bill, Thaci said: “the time that remains is sufficient for open talks with the Serb community.” With this he implied that he will initiate talks to convince Serbs to vote in favor of constitutional changes in the Assembly, regardless of the fact that he had labelled these attempts as ‘just about a failure’ throughout the past three years.

“There is no ‘never ever’ in politics! You cannot say a process can never happen. There is no force that can block the establishment of Kosovo’s Armed Forces,” he said, not referring to KSF’s current name, instead using the name that it would obtain only after the constitutional changes had been made.

Nevertheless, the path towards establishing an army without the support of the main sponsors of Kosovo’s independence, and the votes of Serb representatives in the Assembly, seems very uncertain. The only thing that is certain for now is that Thaci has strongly hinted at the prospect of early elections if the bill does not pass, at a time when Kosovo already has significant other issues to contend with; the Assembly is set to vote on issues such as border demarcation with Montenegro (a condition for visa liberalization), while war crimes indictments are about to be issued against Kosovar Albanians by the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office of the Specialist Chambers.

These are complex processes that Thaci was aware of long before he initiated his latest manoeuvre; while speculation abounds about his ultimate motivation, his timing suggests it is more than establishing Kosovo’s army.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.