A seminar addressing the latest security situation in Kosovo and the Western Balkans.
As a result of ongoing security measures in London, the public event on Kosovo was cancelled, but Major-General Fungo gave his speech to a closed group at the Institute and it is made available here for the public and those who could not attend.
Following recent security incidents, mounting concerns regarding regional destabilisation, and the imminent return of British forces to KFOR, this forum considered the latest developments in the Western Balkans and their implications for security and stability.
Major-General Giovanni Fungo, Commander KFOR, gave the keynote speech. This was followed by presentations by representatives from the Kosovar security community, as well as UK-based analysts and policy makers who considered different aspects of Kosovo’s security:
Topics covered included:
- Kosovo: an update and the way ahead
- Kosovo’s place in the world: between NATO and Russia?
- Justice and stability: prospects for enduring political settlements
- Violent Extremism in the Western Balkans
If you would like further details on this event, please contact Peter Quentin, Research Fellow (PeterQ@rusi.org).
Transcript of speech as delivered
Kosovo remains an extremely challenging operational environment, even eighteen years after the start of NATO operations in that area. There are many reasons that explain the challenges KFOR and the International Community are still facing – and we will have a close look at most of them – but in order to properly set the scene, let us start with a very easy question: What is Kosovo?
- A province of Southern Serbia, if we consider literally the United Nations Security council Resolution 1244 dated 12 June 1999? (A resolution which, by the way, has never been amended or revised since then).
- A geographical area under some sort of international supervision? Yes, that could be the right answer, if we place in perspective that very same resolution and we think about the role still played by UNMIK, EULEX, KFOR and other international actors active in Kosovo.
- What about an independent state? Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence back in 2008, and since then it has been recognized by 114 different states, Bangladesh being the latest. And of course there is a British embassy in Pristina.
All of these answers are correct, regardless of the fact that they portray Kosovo in very different and opposing ways. You will allow me to pose a second, important question. What is the Kosovo Force, or KFOR as we usually call it?
- The security guarantor of Kosovo Serbs, who feel threatened by their Kosovo-Albanian neighbours?
- An impartial peacekeeping force deployed under chapter VII of the UN Charter on the basis of UNSCR 1244?
- Or rather a NATO capacity building presence aimed at developing local capacities in view of their future Euro-Atlantic integration?
Once again, all these answers are to some extent correct and they depict a challenging framework, exactly as I was trying to convince you at the very beginning of my introduction.
We will now look at the current situation and in order to do it correctly, I will have to start with the big picture. Kosovo cannot be examined, as a matter of facts, without a short overview of the entire Western Balkans, of their current geopolitical dimension and the contradictions that characterized this region and still do today.
Kosovo, as a matter of fact, is the last product of the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, where ethnic confrontations still have a very fertile ground. Today renewed tensions shake the entire region, with Bosnia Herzegovina seriously questioning the delicate balance built with the Dayton peace agreement and the uneasy coexistence of three different entities. Nationalism and separatism are quite evident in the rhetoric of the Republika Srpska, with president Dodik strongly backed by Russia and to some extent by Serbia.
Serbia, apart from the many open issues with Pristina, is struggling with its aspirations to join the European Union against its still-evident, never-abandoned, anti-NATO sentiments. And the perception of becoming more and more encircled by NATO member states is being addressed through an aggressive re-armament programme – also sponsored by Russia, the sometimes perceived ‘Holy Mother Russia’ – and a worrying attitude vis-à-vis Croatia, a neighbour as well as an old ‘enemy’.
This strong, renewed Russian influence can be clearly felt across the whole Western Balkans:
- In Montenegro, where an alleged fail coup engulfs the aftermath of the recent elections and still threatens the now close accession to NATO of the small republic.
- In FYROM where more than two years of deep political crisis have not been overcome, yet, by the latest round of elections. And where three months of political stalemate actually failed to allow the formation of a government, with growing tensions across political parties and along ethnic lines and serious risks of spill over to and from its neighbouring countries.
The instability that characterizes the current situation in the Balkans, a few months ago made me think of Kosovo as a relatively calm and stable environment, paradoxically projecting stability throughout the region, thanks also to a significant international presence, KFOR in primis.
But I was considering Kosovo from a static point of view, basically looking at the status quo that was artificially created and then maintained by a Security Council Resolution that proved to have failed in adapting to a changing (and challenging), dynamic environment:
- The same Kosovo that is sometimes blamed for being a failing/failed state;
- The same Kosovo that is clearly undergoing an important economic and social development;
- The same Kosovo that has started its long path towards the European Union, signing an extremely important Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) but failing to obtain visa liberalization for the Schengen area;
- The same Kosovo that is somehow divided by the Ibar River and the famous Austerlitz Bridge, that is sometimes described as the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox religion or whose landscape is the more and more characterized by a growing number of mosques and minarets.
Without a sound assessment of the complexity of this Kosovo and all its contradictions, you would not have the right tools to understand the war that is currently being fought in Kosovo. Yes, a war. A complex, challenging, war of symbols.
Unfortunately you will not find the expression ‘war of symbols’ in any manual or book, so I will do my best to explain what we are currently facing in Kosovo
Let us take the Christ the Saviour church example:
- an unfinished Orthodox church in the very town centre of Pristina, built under the Milosevic regime, close to the old Mosque and to the brand new Catholic Cathedral;
- ‘fake news’ hinted at a possible desecration conducted by Kosovo Albanians;
- a bishop in great pomp leading a small group of monks armed with brooms, paint and brushes;
- a grey bureaucrat from the spatial environment office of the municipality bringing papers full of stamps declaring whatever renovation work as illegal;
- a Serb politician denouncing these crimes as a proof of the incapacity of the institutions in Kosovo to join UNESCO;
- a group of students from Pristina University protesting in front of the church, faced by thirty policemen wearing full gear;
- the dean of the university claiming the Church was illegally built on a piece of land owned by the university itself;
- the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Belgrade remembering that ‘Kosovo is our Jerusalem’;
- the international community calling for restrain from both parties;
- tensions increasing across communities (and countries);
- Intelligence(?) hinting at the possibility of a bombing attack against the church;
- and then, all of sudden, as if by magic, the focus on this church vanishes, to be immediately redirected onto a new, more pressing and challenging symbol.
We have experienced a series of such symbols over the past six months, like the wall in Mitrovica North, the famous ‘propaganda train’, Bridge 167, the Trepca Mines, or a memory plaque in the vicinity of Malisevo. I will not bother you with details about these other symbols, do not worry.
What I want, instead, is to better characterise this war of symbols. Imagine a stovetop kettle, like the one that each of you has for preparing tea. As soon as you put it on the stove, the temperature of the water will start to increase; at the very beginning quite slowly, and then the more and more quickly. At a certain point, you should be familiar with this, the steam whistle will indicate to you that the water is boiling and you can go ahead with the preparation of your tea. If you do not hear the whistle in time, troubles might then occur.
The same happens with the war of symbols. If you are not carefully listening for the whistle, you may have serious troubles, eventually setting everything on fire. The example of the kettle fits perfectly for those who live south of the Ibar River. Although, of course, if you are living in Northern Kosovo you would use a Samovar instead.
This war of symbols is therefore characterised by high pressure, medium tempo and low intensity. It works with highly symbolic issues, it makes use and it spreads through all sort of new media and it is strictly connected with politics and harsh political rhetoric. It is strongly anchored on local culture, habits and small history, and this proves something difficult for a full understanding of different perceptions and reactions.
To balance the effects of this war and to stabilize this tiny portion of the Bakans you have KFOR; a relatively small peacekeeping force, the size of a good, solid brigade with a sizeable tactical reserve, a large two-star headquarters, working at the tactical and to some extent at the operational level at the same time. There are three main reference documents, unchanged since 1999 in-spite of the progress, achievements and significant developments on the ground:
- The well-known UNSCR 1244
- The ‘Military Technical Agreement’ (or MTA), signed by General Jackson and the representatives of the old Yugoslav Army
- The ‘Undertaking on Demilitarization and Transformation of the UÇK’, signed again by General Jackson and Hashim Thaci, the former UÇK commander and nowadays President of the Republic of Kosovo.
To enforce the provisions of these documents, KFOR operates along three main lines of operations:
- Contribute to a safe and secure environment and the freedom of movement for all communities
- Assist and advise the Kosovo Security Organizations
- Support, within means and capabilities, the International Community
Security across the country is guaranteed through three layers of responsibility, the Kosovo Police being the first responder, EULEX (the EU rule of law mission established in 2008) being the second responder and KFOR the third and last one.
KFOR maintains certain responsibilities with regard to border monitoring duties, in particular along the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) between Serbia and Kosovo, as well as for the protection of certain sites of particular value, notably the Visoki Monastery in Decane.
The force is a combination of kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities, bringing together light infantry forces and the Liaison and Monitoring Teams more focused on influence, atmospherics and civil-military cooperation.
The work of KFOR is heavily supported and very much dependant on the availability of proper information and adequate intelligence, and this is mainly done through capabilities deployed under the brand new ISR Battalion. An important, state-of-the-art project which groups together different capabilities, such as reconnaissance, surveillance, human intelligence, signal intelligence, image intelligence and – even more challenging – several nations under the same umbrella. An ambitious project, in this respect, that I am confident will bring fresh ideas and new concepts within NATO and even beyond.
The second line of operation sees KFOR in more of a supporting role, working alongside the Kosovo Police (KP), the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) and other relevant Kosovan institutions and bodies more-or-less involved in security and emergency management. I will not elaborate more on this aspect, though later on I will have to come back to the role of the KSF specifically.
And last, but not least, KFOR has long time partnerships with most of the International Organizations that are present and active throughout Kosovo: UNMIK, the EU, the OSCE, EULEX, UNDP, IOM and many others. This is part of NATO and KFOR’s overall comprehensive approach, implemented through the development of synergies as well as the exchange and/or sharing of appropriate information.
The Way ahead
The operating environment in Kosovo has changed significantly in the past eighteen years and will continue to do so in the future, with new challenges and new symbols, but also new opportunities. KFOR has constantly adapted its role and its structure in order to tackle all these issues in the most effective way and to continue to deliver security and stability across the region.
But a number of uncertainties and challenges are right in front of us:
- The presidential elections in Serbia, in two weeks’ time, and how they will be conducted in Kosovo
- The recently announced project for the transformation of the Kosovo Security Force, today a lightly armed civil protection corps, into the future army of Kosovo; challenging the remaining validity of UNSCR 1244 (and the MTA), while completing – from Pristina’s point of view, at least – its path toward complete sovereignty. Making, of course, Belgrade feel extremely nervous – to be polite – with the risk to further destabilize the whole region
- The likely return to the Balkans of those ‘foreign fighters’ who already are and will be fleeing from Iraq and Syria. Bearing in mind that Kosovo was able to generate the largest number of foreign fighters per capita in Europe
- The refugees/migrants crisis, still heavily affecting the region. Although Kosovo is not positioned along the main Balkan route, numbers might become particularly relevant for the limited capacities available in Kosovo. And of course this Balkan route is likely to become the easiest opportunity for those foreign fighters coming back to their homes.
- The growing and worrying Russian influence in the region, though not necessarily in Kosovo at this stage. That influence is negatively affecting the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of several Balkan countries, progressively shifting the delicate balance towards the East (and Turkey, in certain cases)
- Economic development that is constantly growing, although not at a sufficient pace, thus severely affecting unemployment – in particular within the younger generations
- And a deep social crisis, a problem (and a risk) currently not addressed by political elites and leaders, who seem to be more and more distant from their people and do not understand the latter’s requirements.
All these spices and different ingredients contribute to make our tea (or infusion, to be more precise) particularly intense and with stimulating properties. You just need to take your kettle, pour the water and taste it. At this stage, no big changes are foreseen to the KFOR mission, tasks and structure (numbers), although the possible creation of a Kosovo army might require, in the future, some adjustments to the way we will conduct business together.
KFOR is of course working to meet those conditions that will allow a gradual reduction of the force and the handover of several tasks to appropriate security organizations. While significant achievements were achieved in the past (just to give some figures, KFOR was able to scale down from 50,000 to 4,500 troops, protecting some 150 static sites in 1999 while only one today), progress is now more difficult to measure and full success is still a long way from being obtained. NATO and its member states will have to understand, in this respect, that KFOR’s presence in the Balkans will still be required for some time.
I did not volunteer to become the Commanding General of the Kosovo Force, but I like my job and I am proud of the commitment of all my troops, belonging to 31 different nations. Kosovo and the Western Balkans in general are extremely challenging, requiring a delicate balance of subtle diplomacy, solid motivation and firm strength.
KFOR, the longest NATO operation ever, has been able to project stability across the region, so far. The challenges that this war of symbols presents us, as well as the instability and the tensions we currently experience, can be transformed into opportunities to further proceed towards a virtuous, sustainable stabilization of Kosovo and the Western Balkans. We know that, we all work for that.