Reportage from Kosovo: what future?

(To Gian Pio Garramone)
07/10/21

A few days ago there was news of tensions on the northern border of Kosovo, after Pristina banned vehicles with Serbian registration plates from entering the country, with the deployment of road blocks together with special units of the Kosovo Police, at the border crossings of Jarinje and Bernjak. Belgrade's response was not long in coming with the counter-deployment of some units of the Army and Police, and flying over fighters in the area of ​​tensions.

Perhaps to younger readers the name Kosovo does not mean anything, and to the more mature ones it will probably remember some old news from the late nineties, which talked about the fighting in Kosovo. To tell the truth, it is right to remind all readers that there is still a multinational NATO mission in Kosovo, for 22 years, under Italian leadership since 2013.

To this day, Kosovo is one of those nations with partial recognition. Until the nineties it was together with Vojvodina one of the two autonomous provinces of Serbia, within Yugoslavia. At the end of the nineties, the reduction of autonomy by Slobodan Milošević and the strong Kosovar independence drive led to the last of the Balkan conflicts, which saw Serbian troops and the self-proclaimed Kosovar Liberation Army, better known as the UCK, oppose. The war ended with the deployment of a multinational force in June 1999. To date, following the self-proclaimed independence from Serbia, which took place on February 17, 2008, Kosovo is recognized by 113 states.

The NATO mission still in place has lasted for 22 years and has been under Italian leadership for the last eight, currently under the command of Major General Franco Federici.

But what is the mission mandate of the Kosovo Force better known as KFOR today, and above all what problems does Kosovo have?

A question arises spontaneously and it is: if NATO decided to demobilize, would there be, as in Afghanistan, an escalation of instability? It being understood that it is not NATO's intention to close the KFOR mission, if only to avoid other fools like the Afghan one.

Traveling around Kosovo, the feeling is that the embers are smoldering under the ashes. The fundamental problem of Kosovo is the perennial tension, only dormant but never completely resolved, between the Serbian and Albanian communities; but there are other problems such as Islamic radicalism and the passage of the land migration route.

The communities of ethnic Serbs and Kosovar Albanians live in apparent peace, where any pretext is good to flex their muscles, as evidenced by the tensions of recent days on the northern border.

In this corner of the Balkans there is no shortage of realities that remained stuck at the signing of the Rambouillet peace accords in 1999. Evident evidence of this stalemate are for example: the city of Mitrovica and the area of ​​the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Decane.

In Mitrovica the city is practically divided in two by the Ibar River, where the Albanian community lives south of the river and the Serbian community in the north. Northern Mitrovica has a parallel administration recognized by Belgrade but not by Pristina, which is also the case in other towns and villages with a Serb majority.

Walking through northern Mitrovica you can see Serbian flags waving along the main roads at every light pole, as if to convince the traveler that he is walking in Serbia and not in Kosovo! This obviously means that the souls of the population have not yet completely buried the hatchet.

The bridge keeps alive the memory of the fighting in the city, the Albanians would like to open it to traffic, but the Serbs are opposed. The stakes are symbolic, but they can determine sovereignty over Mitrovica.

To ensure the safety of the city and in particular of the bridge, and that no unilateral actions are taken on it, there are still the carabinieri of the MSU contingent within KFOR, under the command of Colonel Stefano Fedele.

Another first-rate place for Serbs is the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Visoki Decane, built in 1335, and since 2004 a "World Heritage Site". The monastery has never been damaged by the numerous wars that have plagued the area, it holds a real treasure among ancient icons, inlaid furniture, liturgical objects and manuscript books.

The monastery is one of the greatest treasure keepers of the entire Serbian cultural heritage.

Visoki Decane with the entire area that surrounds it, still needs the belting and fixed guard H24, by the Italian contingent of KFOR. It is the only case in all of Kosovo where the NATO military are the first responsible for security, because to date KFOR is only the third respondent in case of instability, after the Kosovo Police, and the men of EULEX.

Another Kosovar problem is that of Islamic radicalism. The country has a Muslim majority, even if walking through the streets of the main cities you would not think so, in fact the women are absolutely not veiled, on the contrary they dress and have a Western level of emancipation, and the men drink rakia (a local distillate similar to grappa).

In this part of the Balkans the radicalism problem is present and concrete. For some segments of the population, radicalization can also be, or perhaps the only, source of livelihood for their families, in a country that does not offer huge job opportunities. The role of the various NGOs that send funds from the Gulf countries to the Balkans is fundamental. As evidence of this, there are the arrests in December 2015, made by the Italian police of four Kosovar citizens on charges of condoning terrorism. Kosovar radicalism also testified by the contribution given by foreign fighters al Jihad in Syria. Further proof is the translation, among other languages, of Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi's self-proclamation speech to Caliph into Albanian.

American intelligence sources have quantified the Balkan phenomenon, in about 400 foreign fighters, of Kosovar Albanian ethnicity arrived in Syria, out of eleven thousand foreigners, a useful number to form a battalion.

A large part of the arms trafficking also starts from the Balkans, which then ends up in the Middle East through the most different routes, many of which coincide with the land route also traveled by migrants.

Migrants travel the land route in the Kosovar portion to go to either Serbia or Montenegro. The small amount that stops does so for a utilitarian question, that is, to take a break from the long journey. If you ask for political asylum in Kosovo you can be welcomed and housed in special centers set up by the government of Pristina, for a maximum of one year. The reception capacity of Kosovo is around a thousand people, a figure that more or less coincides with those welcomed last year, but in reality there is no real estimate of the crossings, also because the local authorities do not care much about the phenomenon as it is passing through.

Also on the migrant front, the United States transferred many Afghan citizens to Kosovo, with military flights, who cooperated with NATO forces during the twenty years of mission in Afghanistan. Refugees waiting to complete the procedures to obtain documents, which allow them to enter the United States, are housed in two camps, one set up in the areas of the Bechtel-Enka construction company, near the city of Ferizaj and the remaining part housed in Bondsteel camp, a US Army base.

To date, the Italian share of the KFOR contingent counts 628 soldiers, 204 land vehicles and 1 aircraft.

The operational structures currently in place are less "combat" and more adherent to the civil community and local institutions. In fact, the mission mandate is mainly based on two cornerstones: SAFE (Safe and secure environment) and FOM (freedom of movement).

In other words, the task of the multinational contingent is to ensure a safe environment and guarantee freedom of movement throughout the territory of Kosovo, for all citizens, regardless of their ethnic origins, in accordance with Resolution 1244 of the Security Council of the United Nations.

The LMT crews are particular mission set-up - Liaison Monitoring Team, which move in the various municipalities. A sort of patrols similar to our local concept of the neighborhood policeman, with the task of meeting the population, maintaining contact with representatives of the various local communities, institutions, and providing the KFOR Headquarters with updated reports on the situation. We could define them as the eyes and ears of the commander general.

Does it still make sense to keep a multinational mission in place where Italy, together with the United States, makes the greatest contribution?

The KFOR mission alone costs Italy just over 80.000.000 Euros, not counting the additional mission costs of EULEX Kosovo, in which Italy participates.

All the commitment and professionalism deployed by our military, but more generally by all the coalition soldiers, currently has to deal with a substantial stalemate in the pacification operations.

Traveling around Kosovo and talking to people, you can touch the clear division between the Serbian community and the Kosovar Albanian community. The former feel discriminated against and complain of unequal treatment, for example as regards access to public office. The latter complain of constant provocative acts towards them.

The Serbian community continues to have its own separate schools and civic administration not recognized by Pristina.

Chatting with a local source, to my question "... but why can't you find an agreement and maybe give up those small disputed areas, so as to complete the peace process and find full international recognition?" the answer was "... why should we?", tangible proof that the two communities live in apparent peace, where every pretext is good to flex their muscles, as the tensions of recent days on the northern border demonstrate.

The NATO contingent remains the only guarantee that the embers in the ashes will not regain strength, but we must still deal with a substantial stalemate in the political dialogue, it being understood that the political decisions of the contenders are not in the mission mandate of the military of the Kosovo Force.

Above all, it would be time for the international community to realize that it is not enough to send a squad of soldiers, to give them a smoky and confused mission mandate, to spend a mountain of money to solve the problems of instability in the various areas of the world.

If it is not possible to be incisive and to produce clear and decisive political agreements to be put into practice in the short term, it will not be enough to sign a ceasefire that freezes the conflict, to restore peace and well-being. The various missions around the world teach, starting from the recent experience in Afghanistan.

For pacification, the military is not enough, but a global political vision is needed that is currently lacking in the international community. In the absence of a clear and resolving policy in the medium term of the problems post conflict we will continue to have missions with an end date: never!

Photo: author / KFOR