Kosovar parliament passes bill to form army, likely roiling Serbia

Kosovo's parliament votes to create a 5,000-strong standing army, a week after Serbia's premier suggested the move could provoke military intervention by Belgrade.

While Serbian opposition is not surprising given the region's history, NATO is also cool to the idea

Ramush Haradinaj, prime minister of the Republic of Kosovo, left, smiles during Friday's session of parliament in Pristina. The 120-seat parliament of the republic voted to transform Kosovo's Security Forces into an official army. (Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA-EFE)

Kosovo's parliament voted on Friday to create a 5,000-strong standing army, a week after Serbia's premier suggested the move could provoke military intervention by Belgrade.

The move, coming 20 years after Kosovo Albanians' uprising against Serbian rule and a decade after independence, was lauded as "historic" by the United States, but NATO criticized it as unhelpful in efforts to ease tensions between Kosovo and Serbia.

Legislation to transform the lightly armed Kosovo Security Force, which was created mainly for crisis response, civil defence and removal of ordnance from the 1990s conflict, into an army was approved by 105 deputies in the 120-seat assembly.

Eleven minority Serb deputies boycotted the vote. Kosovo's constitution mandates the creation of a national army, but no action was taken for years while Pristina sought, in vain, to obtain the approval of Kosovo Serbs.

The move is also strongly opposed by Serbia, which has refused to recognize the independence of its former province and warned that a national Kosovo army could destabilize the Western Balkans.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic​ denounced the United States for supporting the creation of a Kosovo army and said Serbia has been "brought to the edge" by the decision.

Hashim Thaci, centre, the president of the Republic of Kosovo, inspects members of the Kosovo Security Force in Pristina on Thursday. (EPA-EFE)

Vucic, who visited Serbian troops near the border with Kosovo on Friday in an apparent sabre-rattling move, said Serbia would now have no choice but to "defend" itself.

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, said in a statement he regretted "the decision was made despite the concerns expressed by NATO."

"The North Atlantic Council will now have to re-examine the level of NATO's engagement with the Kosovo Security Force," he said.

Serbian threats

Though creating such an army could take years, Serbian politicians maintain it could be used to expel the remaining Serbs from Kosovo. That accusation is denied by Kosovo Albanian leaders, who rely on European Union and U.S. support for reforms and development of the small, impoverished Balkan country.

Seeking to reassure Serbia and the international community, Kosovo's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said the new army "will never be used against them." He added: "Serbia's army will now have a partner — Kosovo's army — in the partnership for peace process and it won't be a long time when we serve together."

President Hashim Thaci, the head of state, said the new army will be "multi-ethnic, professional and to serve all citizens, peace in Kosovo, the region and wherever in the world when asked."

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Friday said his country had been 'brought to the edge' by Kosovo's decision to form an army. (Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press)

He called on the return to dialogue for normalizing ties with Serbia.

On Dec. 5, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic suggested one possible response by Belgrade could be military intervention.

The NATO-led peacekeeping mission to Kosovo still has around 4,000 troops in the landlocked country.

Balkans analysts, however, said any action by Serbia's 28,000-strong army against Kosovo is highly unlikely given Belgrade's aspirations to join the EU and that Brnabic's remarks appeared to be designed to win favour with Serbian nationalists.

With the new law in place, Kosovo will set up a defence ministry, and the future army is to be comprised of 5,000 active soldiers and 3,000 reservists. Pristina government officials said the process would last at least 10 years.

Kosovo's independence came almost a decade after a NATO air war halted a two-year counter-insurgency war by Serbian security forces that included arrests, killings and expulsions of ethnic Albanian civilians.

With files from The Associated Press