European Western Balkans

Croatia’s strengthening of its KFOR presence sparked tensions in the region

Photo: Flickr / KFOR Kosovo

BELGRADE / PRISTINA – In the next two years, Croatia will triple the number of its members within the KFOR mission in Kosovo – which means that the number of members of the Croatian forces will increase from the current 38 to (up to) 150, out of a total of 3400 members from 27 countries.

“Up to 150 members of the Croatian Armed Forces with up to two helicopters of the Croatian Air Force will be sent to the KFOR peace support operation in Kosovo in 2021 and 2022, with the possibility of rotation”, stated the official decision adopted by the Croatian Parliament at the Government’s proposal in November last year.

This topic was brought up again recently during the visit of the Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gordan Grlić Radman, to Kosovo on 6 May.

“New scandal and serious provocations: Croats want to build a military camp in Kosovo” – this is how Serbian media reported the news about the visit of the head of Croatian diplomacy to Kosovo and the alleged announcement of the opening of a military camp of the Croatian army.

Grlić Radman paid an official visit to Kosovo and on that occasion was held a joint press conference with his Kosovo counterpart, Donika Gërvalla-Schwarz, and one of the topics was the issue and status of Croatian soldiers in Kosovo, within the KFOR mission.

After the press conference, the regional media reported that Grlić Radman had announced the opening and formation of a Croatian military camp in Kosovo. After the media reports, there were sharp reactions from the top officials in Serbia.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin stated that he “has no doubt that the head chief of Croatian diplomacy would like to be able to deploy occupation forces in Serbia, but he will need much more than he can think with Kurti”.

In his assessment that the announcement of the Croatian Foreign Minister is the most open threat to peace and stability in the region of the Western Balkans, also agreed to the director of the Office for Kosovo, Petar Petković.

What media and officials failed to explain is that the Croatian minister announced an increase in the military contingent in the KFOR force in Kosovo. This is not news, considering that the authorities in Zagreb have previously announced that they intend to increase the number of their soldiers in the international mission in Kosovo.

“Republic of Croatia recently made a decision to increase its military contingent as part of the NATO peacekeeping operation in Kosovo. Operation KFOR has a special significance for Croatia because it is located in our immediate neighbourhood, which may have special implication for the stability of the entire region”, Grlić Radman told.

At the moment, 38 Croatian soldiers and two helicopters are deployed in Kosovo.

Croatia increasingly present in KFOR, the mission itself shrinks over time

Although more than 20 years have passed since the first contingents of KFOR forces from North Macedonia arrived in Kosovo, the mission remains the only legitimate military force in Kosovo. The structure has changed over the years, but the mandate has remained unchanged.

Even though the mandate of this mission has not been disputed, the composition and number of forces have changed over the years.

Initially, the mission numbered about 50,000 members from 39 partner Member States. From 2008, the numbers dropped to around 17,500. Today, KFOR has just under 3,400 soldiers from 27 countries.

The announcement that Croatia could increase its presence in the KFOR mission is nothing new.

From 2008 until today, the number of Croatian forces within KFOR has been increasing. Thus, according to the decision of the Croatian Parliament in 2009, the first contingent with 20 members and two transport helicopters was sent. Already in 2015, a decision was made that in 2016 up to 35 members of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia can be sent.

The Balkan Security Network portal announced last year that Croatia plans to triple its military presence in Kosovo from 2021 if the government and parliament of that country accept the proposal to send a combat infantry company to KFOR for the first time.

On that occasion, military analyst Aleksandar Radić assessed for Danas that KFOR is a forgotten mission, which does not represent a great risk and for which there is no great interest among the leading powers, so a stronger presence of the countries in the region can be expected.

Radić explained that Croatia can always bring its plans under solidarity with the NATO alliance, and that it is politically correct, but that it is clear that they are noticeably trying to compete with Serbia for importance in the region.

“Unlike the arms race, which is more media-driven in the tabloids than is actually happening, the picture on the ground shows that Croatia is using the fact that it is in NATO to better establish itself in the former Yugoslavia and take as many forms of cooperation with the region. It was about education various courses, joint exercises, so now participation in KFOR”, Radić told.

Hungary and Slovenia have the largest number of people and missions, and in addition to Croatia, which is announcing an increase in its troops, so is North Macedonia, which plans to increase its presence from 44 to 180 soldiers in KFOR this year.

Unnamed NATO official commented on the statement of President Vučić that one major power would soon demand the withdrawal of KFOR international peacekeepers from Kosovo, adding that NATO remains committed to the stability of the Western Balkans.

“All decision in NATO, including those on KFOR, are made by consensus of all 30 member states”, NATO official told Radio Free Europe, noting that the NATO has contributed to stability for any years in Western Balkans.

President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić stated that a great power will soon start with an official request for KFOR nad UNMNIK to withdraw from Kosovo, estimating that it would be an “absolute catastrophe” for Serbia.

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