Premature withdrawal

With NATO’s New Secretary General making his first official visit to Kosovo, speculation about possible troop withdrawals ignores the present security challenges.

By Mirjana Kosic

In his first address to the media as NATO’s new Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen presented a list of the Alliance’s forthcoming priorities and objectives, with the future of NATO’s presence in Kosovo identified as being one of the most pertinent.

In stating that the NATO-led troops in Kosovo (KFOR) could be significantly reduced or even completely withdrawn by the end of his four-year term, Rasmussen became the first representative of the Alliance to specify such a timeframe. Even though Rasmussen emphasised that a complete withdrawal could only be made possible through “achievements in the field”, Goran Bogdanovic, Serbia’s minister for Kosovo and Metohija, said he did not believe that such positive achievements have actually occurred, adding that Rasmussen’s somewhat overly optimistic statement is actually tailored to satisfy those countries that have already recognised Kosovo‘s independence.

Bogdanovic instead reiterated that Serbs in Kosovo presently do not enjoy freedom of movement and that KFOR is the only force that local Serbs can trust for protection. Such a warning proved to be highly warranted, as only a week later an elderly Serb couple were found dead in their home in the village of Partes, near Gnjilane. Even though the Kosovo Police Service (KPS) claim that there is no indication that the murder was ethnically-motivated, the remaining Serbs are highly alarmed and suspicious about the objectivity of the investigation, particularly as many crimes against Serbs remain unresolved, in spite of the presence and continued promises of impartial protection by EULEX.

On the other hand, Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, Hajdredin Kuci, confidently stated that there is no reason for concern about the announced reduction of KFOR troops, as ”NATO will continue to be present in Kosovo until we become a part of this alliance”, adding that the ”KSF will be increasing their protective measures nation-wide in accordance with the decrease of NATO forces in Kosovo”.

Serbia’s relations with NATO have been further complicated by the latter’s support to the recently-established Kosovo Security Force (KSF). Though described by NATO as a “lightly-armed formation”, initially tasked with dealing with crisis situations, civil protection and de-mining operations, the Serbian authorities believe that the 2,500-strong KSF, trained and armed by NATO, is a “direct threat to Serbia’s national security and a direct threat to peace and stability in the region of the Western Balkans” and the potential basis of a future Kosovo army. As Bogdanovic re-asserted, the “Kosovo Security Forces (KSF) are unacceptable to us… [as they] consist of former Kosovo Liberation Army members and have been committing malfeasances…which explains why Serbs cannot trust them”.
Despite the stated commitment at the latest NATO Summit that, unless otherwise stipulated by the UN Security Council, “KFOR shall remain in Kosovo and cooperate with all important factors with the aim of providing support to development of a stable, democratic, multiethnic and peaceful Kosovo”, the apparent urgency of the new Secretary General does not send a reassuring message that such objectives will be achieved as a precondition for the withdrawal of troops.

Already on August 13th, Rasmussen will pay his first official visit to Pristina, where he will be received by Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu and will meet prime minister, Hashim Thaci, defense minister, Fehmi Mujota and several local politicians. Rasmussen will undoubtedly be reassured by the Kosovo authorities regarding the future security prospects in Kosovo, however, in order to gain a more objective picture of the real situation, the new Secretary General should also meet with Serb authorities and representatives of minority groups to discuss the major security challenges and threats from different perspectives.

Pressed by the urgent need to reinforce its current troop numbers in Afghanistan, there is a danger that NATO’s premeditated decision regarding Kosovo could clear the space for continued low-scale violence, uncontrolled losses of human lives and the enforced displacement of populations which will have irreparable long-term consequences. Rasmussen’s visit to Kosovo should, therefore, not serve as a justification for accelerating the process of deeming KFOR’s mission ‘successfully’ completed, but rather as an opportunity for seeking new and better solutions for sustainable peace and stability throughout the entire region.

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