The Kosovo Parliament voted almost unanimously on December 14 to begin the process of upgrading the country’s existing NATO/KFOR-trained paramilitary force, the Kosovo Security Force (KSF), into a formal military organisation in a process expected to take up to 10 years.

The United States has actively supported the transformation process in the hopes of managing it closely, while the reaction from Serbia, widely expected to be vociferous, exceeded most expectations and the issue will likely become a noisy Russian-supported debate topic in the United Nations Security Council, with limited prospects as NATO remains divided on the issue.

Vote largely a gesture with little immediate impact

While the country’s ethnic Serb politicians boycotted, the full house of parliamentarians present for the December 14 formal vote saw 107 deputies in the 120-seat Kosovo parliament vote in favour of passing three draft laws to convert the existing 4,000-strong Kosovo Security Force, created in 2009, into a regular army.

At this point the change is largely a political gesture, changing the names of existing paramilitary and governmental structures used to manage the KSF.

The existing KSF will be gradually expanded and transformed into a professional army of 5,000 with a reserve of 3,000, called the Armed Forces of Kosovo, while the mandate to handle civil protection operations and crisis-response matters, as the lightly-armed KSF presently does, is not set to change in any significant way. In a decade the budget for the armed forces is set to reach approximately €100 million.

There are no plans for the introduction of heavier weapons than those currently used by the lightly-armed KSF, and for now, at least, ongoing training projects sponsored by NATO members continue, with a heavy US involvement.

Foreign reactions as expected

While a strong reaction from Belgrade was expected, the intensity of the reaction has surprised many observers. Belgrade labelled the vote the “most direct threat to peace and stability in the region,” and Serbia’s Prime Minister, Ana Brnabić, declared that Serbia would “stay on its path of peace and prosperity,” while ominously adding that armed intervention was “one of the options on the table.” Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said December 14 that Serbia will seek a special meeting of the UN Security Council to deal with the issue, which Belgrade and Moscow see as a violation of the UN resolution that ended Kosovo’s war of independence in 1999.

In view of strong US, French, German, and UK support for the transformation of the KSF into a small NATO-compatible military, action in the UN Security Council will not produce Belgrade’s desired results.

As an alliance, NATO has kept a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo since the war ended in 1999 but has at least four members that are unhappy with vocal demonstrations by Pristina of its independence, such as this vote, which some believe will actually increase tension in the region.

As the new laws were voted through, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared through Twitter that he “regretted” the decision and that “all sides must ensure” that it will “not further increase tensions in the region.”