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Strengthening the presence of neighboring countries in KFOR: A threat or an investment for the future of the region?

Photo: Flickr / KFOR Kosovo

It has been more than 20 years since the first contingents of NATO forces arrived in Kosovo as part of the KFOR mission. Although the structure and composition of the mission have changed over time, KFOR remains the only legitimate military force in Kosovo, and NATO officials say there will be no change in its mandate.

Who and how many soldiers are in their trips at KFOR is sometimes a topic for Serbian media and politicians. Thus, the composition of this mission (again) came into the public spotlight in Serbia after the announcement that Croatia would triple the number of its member in this mission in the next two years. The media, as well as government officials, failed to tell the public that this would mean that Croatia would increase the number of its troops from 38 to 150 in the next two years, out of a total of 3400 members of that mission from 27 countries.

In the last few years, the trend of the presence of the countries of the region in the mission has noticeably strengthened, although the total number of members of the mission is decreasing. For example, at the beginning, this mission had bout 50,000 members from 39 partner member states. Already in 2008,  that number dropped to around 17,500, while today KFOR has slightly less than 3,400 soldiers from 27 different countries.

When it comes to the number of mission members from the countries of the region, Hungary has the largest mission with 387 members, and in addition, in November, for the first time, Major Genera Ferenc Kajári will be the head of KFOR. According to Kajári, the Hungarian officers will, among others, be in the position of political advisor to the commander and head of the legal advisory team.

With the appointment of Ferenc Kajári, one state from the region takes the position of KFOR commander for the first time. The previous practices, according to which officers of Western European NATO members were at the head of the mission, was interrupted.

After Hungary, Slovenia has the most members in KFOR, 219. But Slovenia, unlike other countries in the region, plans to reduce the strike force, personnel and work to support the contingent in KFOR. As announced by the Chief of the General Staff of the Slovenian Army, Major General Robert Glavaš, the reduction of Slovenian forces will happen gradually.

“The reduction of forces for KFOR primarily follows from Slovenia’s desire and ambition for a more active approach and increased contribution to the declared NATO and EU response forces”, Glavaš said in an interview with the Balkan Security Network. 

As for other countries in the region, the Albanian contingent consists of 29 soldiers, the Montenegrin contingent 2, while North Macedonia, which last joined the mission as a new NATO member, has 44.

Nikola Lunić, Executive Director of Belgrade Council for Strategic Policy (CfSP) explains for EWB that many countries around the world are trying to engage part of their capacity to participate in peacekeeping operations, but with acceptable financial aspects.

“Assessing on the one side their national interest, and on the other the level of security challenges in a region, it is logical that over time the national contingents are decreasing. It is the same with the KFOR mission, which strives to adapt to such a situation, creating smaller, but more flexible deterrent forces”, says Lunić.

According to Lunić, the countries from the region are more interested in KFOR, because the security of the Western Balkans directly affects their security.

“Actors from the region are much more interested in the stability of the Western Balkans because it directly affects their national security. On the other hand, by participating in the KFOR, they ensure a transparent commitment to collective security and participation with acceptable financial costs”, says Lunić.

He adds that the fact that many countries in the region do not have the capabilities to logistically support their contingents in overseas peacekeeping operations should not be overlooked, but their proximity to Kosovo allows them to support their units in KFOR.

Asked whether filling the KFOR mission with forces from the region is bad for the stability and integrity of the mission, Lunić said that many politicians in the region project their personal perception of bilateral relations on members of international organizations.

“Many politicians in the region project their personal perception of bilateral relations burdened by the experiences of the wars of the 1990s on members of international organizations that have a declared and transparent mission. Although mistrust is understandable, political vocabulary should be the first to emerge from the vicious circle of life in the past and focus on the future, economic prosperity and regional connectivity”, Lunić says.

He adds that “filling” the KFOR mission with forces from the region is a good initial investment for the future of the region.

“I think that young people should be given a chance to enjoy democratic freedoms and the richness of multiculturalism, and not to be retarded by intolerance, violence and lack of vision of development. That is why I am convinced that filling the KFOR mission with forces from the region is good for the initial investment in the future of the region”, believes Lunić.

The mandate is clear, the stay in Kosovo is certain in the future

Before the meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said in May that one of the great powers would soon begin an official request for the withdrawal of KFOR and UNMIK forces from Kosovo. Despite the fact that structurally this mission has undergone significant changes, NATO officials assure that there is no reason for Belgrade’s headache and because KFOR stays in Kosovo with an unchangeable mandate.

“The NATO-led peacekeeping mission has remained unchanged since June 12, 1999, in support of international efforts to build peace and stability in Kosovo. The mission’s commitment reflects the character of KFOR, which is essential for maintaining a secure environment and guaranteeing freedom of movement to all communities in Kosovo, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244/1999”, says Lunić.

He adds that the mission has not lost its significance.

“If we want to analyze the importance of this peacekeeping mission, we should evaluate all security challenges and threats in Kosovo, both for a democratic and sustainable society and for each individual. Bearing in mind that security challenges are present and that tensions escalate from time to time, KFOR has not lost its significance in the current negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina. I would even dare to say that maintaining peace and stability in Kosovo is a necessary precondition for reaching a mutually acceptable agreement on the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina”, Lunić says.

He explains that the KFOR mission is not limited by time frames, but exclusively by the situation on the ground.

“I think that all actors in the region would be happy if the KFOR mission was shut down because that would mean that peace and stability were ensured for a long time. Unfortunately, that is not the case now and the presence of the KFOR in Kosovo is to be expected. Until the agreement on the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, we can expect stabilization of relations and a limited level of trust, which could lead to a plan for the gradual withdrawal of the KFOR mission from Kosovo,” Lunić concluded.

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