Lawmakers in Kosovo will vote on December 14 on whether to create a full-fledged army, a move that has inflamed tensions with its former wartime foe Serbia.
The vote to convert Kosovo’s lightly armed emergency response force into a professional army is widely expected to pass.
The move has received support from all parties in the ethnic-Albanian majority Western Balkan nation except lawmakers who represent the country’s 120,000-strong ethnic-Serb minority. Those lawmakers have boycotted parliament sessions on the matter.
The United States has backed Kosovo’s move, but it attempted to reassure those opposed to the action by insisting the process will take “many years.”
The U.S. ambassador to Pristina, Philip Kosnett, said that “it is only natural for Kosovo as a sovereign, independent country to have a self-defense capability.”
Officials estimate it will take up to a decade for the current Kosovo Security Force (KSF) to become a combat-ready army.
However, the U.S. comments came hours after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stressed that Kosovo’s plan was “ill-timed” and goes “against the advice of many NATO allies.”
Belgrade and ethnic Serbs in the Kosovo have vehemently opposed the creation of a Kosovar military, saying it would violate UN resolutions and be used against the country’s Serb minority — a claim denied by officials in Pristina.
Nationalist Serbian newspapers have warned the move could set off a new conflict. The daily Informer stated that “War with Kosovo will start on December 15,” the day after parliament’s vote.
Serbian officials have downplayed the possibility of war, but Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on December 13 said that the “situation will be considerably worsened” if Kosovo goes ahead with the decision.
“We are not going to beat the war drums, but we will not allow anyone to purge and humiliate the Kosovo Serbs,” Vucic said.
Relations between Pristina and Belgrade have been tense since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Although more than 110 countries recognize Kosovo, Serbia does not.
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after NATO launched air strikes to stop the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces during a two-year counterinsurgency war.
Nearly two decades after the end of the conflict, the landlocked territory of 1.8 million people is still guarded by NATO troops.
The current KSF is a 2,500-strong force trained by NATO and tasked with crisis response, civil protection, and ordinance disposal.
Ahead of the vote, the KSF held exercises in the south while NATO-led peacekeepers deployed a convoy of combat vehicles in the north of Kosovo.
Many of Kosovo’s Serbs called it a provocation, but the NATO mission said it was a routine exercise.