15 February, 2023
By Oliver Hegglin – Junior Fellow
The break-away Serbian territory of Kosovo has been prone to potential outbreaks of violence between the majority ethnic Albanian and minority ethnic Serbian population. To prevent a spark from turning into a fire, the Kosovo Force (KFOR), maintains a presence across Kosovo. While the occasional flare-up is the norm that gains little international attention, events at the end of 2022 increased tensions between the ethnic groups to a rarely seen level.
KFOR was established in June 1999, following NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign over Yugoslavia to force an end to the then-war in Kosovo, and has been there since. The northern municipalities are inhabited primarily by most of the 50,000 ethnic-Serbians in Kosovo, whereas the remainder of the nearly two million inhabitants are ethnic-Albanian. Kosovo is of sentimental importance for Serbia due to its historical significance as the location of the 1389 battle of Kosovo that resulted in some 500 years of Ottoman rule and which forced Christian Serbs to flee the territory. Only in 1912 did Serbia regain control of Kosovo, which for centuries was home to several significant Serbian cultural sites, until 2008, when Kosovo declared independence. Serbia, however, along with more than 110 of the 193 UN member states, have not recognized this independence and Kosovo is not a UN member.
What KFOR is and does
Initially, KFOR’s tasks were to prevent a relapse into conflict, ensure public safety, demilitarize the Kosovo Liberation Army, enable international humanitarian efforts, and coordinate with the international civil presence. However, over the course of 20 years, Kosovo developed and KFOR’s size was gradually reduced from the initial 50,000 to the current approximately 3,500 personnel from 28 contributing countries. It’s mission statement constitutes four points:
- “Contribute to a safe and secure environment;
- Support and coordinate the international humanitarian effort and civil presence;
- Support the development of a stable, democratic, multi-ethnic, and peaceful Kosovo; and
- Support the development of the Kosovo Security Force.”
United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1244, which gives KFOR its mandate, calls for a “political solution” in its first operative paragraph, for which KFOR plays a supporting role. In the fifth operative clause, the UN “decides on the deployment in Kosovo, under United Nations auspices, of international civil and security presences, with appropriate equipment and personnel as required, and welcomes the agreement of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to such presences.” Further paragraphs list the responsibilities of the international security presence which KFOR would become. UNSCR 1244 was adopted on June 10, 1999. The first KFOR elements entered Kosovo two days later on June 12.
In addition to UNSCR 1244, KFOR is dictated by the Military Technical Agreement (MTA) “between the International Security Force (“KFOR”) and the Governments of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Serbia”. This agreement, in which KFOR is first named, arranges for the phased withdrawal of Yugoslav and Serbian forces from Kosovo with the synchronized entry of KFOR. It authorized KFOR to take whatever action necessary to establish security within Kosovo in order to carry out its mission. It puts in the hands of the KFOR commander the power to consent to the entry of Serbian forces into Kosovo, something Serbia otherwise agrees to not do. This is significant to understanding KFOR today, as what is now the Republic of Serbia agreed to the presence of KFOR and to its responsibility to establish a safe and secure environment within Kosovo.
What KFOR isn’t and doesn’t do
KFOR’s mandate is clear, yet both media and populations worldwide more often than not presume that KFOR exists to defend Kosovo and is directed against Serbia. This is not the case. In no way is KFOR responsible for the external defense of Kosovo. It is responsible for its internal security to prevent conflicts between the ethnic groups from erupting.
KFOR is also only in Kosovo with the explicit consent of Serbia. There being a United Nations Resolution, consent of the host state is mandatory, and even after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the UN considers Kosovo to be an autonomous province within Serbia. While Serbia may have initially been against KFOR, given the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia to force an end to the war in Kosovo, today Serbia sees KFOR as a necessary presence in order to ensure the safety of the Serbian minority from the government in Pristina.
Timeline of Recent Actions
Bouts of violence and increased tensions between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo have been the norm since 1999. However, during the last weeks of 2022, the severity of tensions increased to an abnormal height, prompting KFOR and the wider international community to take additional measures to prevent conflict. Actions by both the governments in Belgrade and Pristina would indicate their dependence and support of KFOR as not just a security guarantor in Kosovo, but also as a mediator.
The recent events can be divided into two phases. The first concerns a months-long stand-off between Pristina and Kosovo’s ethnic-Serbian community in the north over the implementation of Kosovar-issued license plates first announced in July 2022, then pushed back to 2023. Protests followed the initial announcement, and in November, ethnic-Serbian judges and some 600 police officers in the northern municipalities resigned in anticipation of this implementation, forcing Pristina to replace them with ethnic-Albanian officers, causing further unrest. On November 23 however, the dispute over license-plates ended with a deal between Belgrade and Pristina. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić went as far as to praise KFOR for the professionalism in handling that turbulent time, as KFOR had been in close contact with the leadership in Pristina and Belgrade, also with other international partners, to ensure security and stability in Kosovo.
The second bout of unrest began on December 10, when Kosovo-Serbs erected roadblocks in and around the flashpoint city of Mitrovica, following the arrest of a former Kosovo-Serb police officer. In line with UNSCR 1244 and the MTA, President Vučić also announced he would formally request permission from the KFOR force commander to deploy Serbian military and police into Kosovo, justifying this action by saying that KFOR had been unable to maintain ‘calm’ in the ethnic-Serbian north of Kosovo. At the same time, he acknowledged that he expects his request to be rejected which was indeed the case later in January under the reasoning that UNSCR 1244 provides KFOR with the mandate necessary to achieve its goal, eliminating the need for a Serbian uniformed presence in Kosovo.
Perhaps conscious of their own capabilities, Kosovo’s Prime Minister (PM) Albin Kurti asked KFOR at a press conference on December 11 to ensure “freedom of movement” in light of roadblocks popping up across the north. However, should KFOR not, then Pristina would do so itself. Pristina first addressing the issue of roadblocks to KFOR indicates that the Kosovar government recognizes the legitimacy and authority of the international Force as a capable security guarantor while knowing that having ethnic Albanian Kosovar forces clear the roadblocks in the Serbian north would likely further escalate tensions. KFOR clearing the roadblocks solves Pristina’s problem without further fueling tensions, something PM Kurti acknowledged, adding that his government “relies on KFOR to prevent Serbian forces from entering Kosovo.” Authorities determined the risk of war between Serbia and Kosovo to be “very low”, despite warmongering rhetoric, based on the belief that KFOR would not “allow a Serbian intervention”. From KFOR’s side, statements had been made that it had all the means necessary to fulfil its mandate to ensure security within Kosovo. In a show of force, the international security presence was gradually increased in the north, which likely served to send a message to all actors involved that KFOR would not allow escalation and conflict. To achieve this, regular exercises consisting of tactical simulations and logistic activities test the integration of assets and capabilities provided by KFOR contributing armed forces.
While KFOR permanently maintains “Liaison and Monitoring Teams”, which are imbedded in local communities as the “eyes and ears” of the Force, “additional troops and patrols” were deployed to the north on the week of December 19 to reinforce its presence in the area, claiming that KFOR had the “full capacity” to fulfil its mission of ensuring a “safe and secure environment”. Coordination with the different parties then permitted KFOR on December 21 to increase their presence at a crucial border crossing following reports of organized criminal groups within protestors.
Fears reached a new height, when on December 26, Serbia placed its army, which had been gathering on the border since November, on its highest alert level, fearing that Pristina was preparing to send its own forces to forcibly remove roadblocks in the north. The Serbian interior minister justified the step by saying that all measures necessary would be taken to protect the Serbian population in Kosovo. On the same day, KFOR’s Force Commander, Major General (MG) Angelo Michele Ristuccia, met with PM Kurti to discuss the developing security situation, and two days later on December 28, called on parties involved to “avoid any rhetoric or actions that can cause tensions and escalate the situation”.
On December 29, President Vučić announced that the roadblocks which ethnic Serbs had erected, would begin to be removed, a day after meeting them at a border-town in Serbia, a move KFOR welcomed, adding that the it remained “extremely vigilant and ready to intervene”. At the same time, the heightened readiness for the Serbian army was ended. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, praised the combined efforts of the EU, USA and KFOR in enabling this, urging progress on dialogue. On December 31, MG Ristuccia met with PM Kurti once more to reinforce the momentum on dialogue. On January 3, KFOR conducted further engineering operations to remove roadblocks in the north and on January 5, completed this mission, re-establishing freedom of movement in northern Kosovo.
Both the leadership in Pristina and Belgrade, as well as Albanian-Kosovars and Serbian-Kosovars, all see the Kosovo Force as necessary to protect their ethnic group from the other. To date, it can be confidently said that KFOR’s presence has been critical in maintaining stability on the ground and on the political level between Pristina and Belgrade, even while deeper engagement is desired. while KFOR plays this crucial role, other international institutions such as the European Union, under who’s facilitation KFOR is able to deter violence from erupting and ensure that the necessary conditions for dialogue between parties involved can exist, are also actively involved in the political process.
In this most recent spike of unrest in Kosovo, it is reasonable to assess that KFOR’s active and pre-emptive handling has likely served to oversee and control tensions between the ethnic groups. While the war in Kosovo ended well over two decades ago, the need of the Kosovo Force to maintain a presence is crucial to ensure safety and security for years to come for all Kosovars.
Image: Turkish KFOR soldiers in riot training (Source: Sgt. Joshua Dodds, 130th Public Affairs Detachment/DoD/Public Domain)