Kosovar President Hashim Thaci says there is "no turning back" from his plan to transform the Balkan country's lightly armed security force into a national army, brushing off strongly voiced concern from NATO and the United States.
The security force "will be transformed into a Kosovo army," Thaci told RFE/RL on March 8, seeming to dismiss warnings from the U.S. Embassy and the Western military alliance against making the change without amending the constitution.
The plan is vehemently opposed by Belgrade and by ethnic Serbs in the northern part of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia that broke away in a 1998-99 war and declared independence in 2008.
Frustrated by resistance from ethnic Serbs in parliament to plans for a constitutional amendment to turn the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) into an army, Thaci introduced legislation on March 7 that would make the change without altering the constitution.
He called it a "normal step of a sovereign and independent state."
But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he had spoken to Thaci and Kosovar Prime Minister Isa Mustafa "to convey the serious concerns of NATO Allies" about plans to transform the KSF "into an armed force, without a constitutional change."
"I made clear that unilateral steps such as these are unhelpful, and I urged the Kosovo authorities to remain in close contact with Belgrade," Stoltenberg said in a statement on March 8.
He warned that, if Kosovo goes ahead with the change, "NATO will have to review its level of commitment, particularly in terms of capacity-building."
NATO advises, trains, and has been helping to build up the security force.
The United States also said it was "concerned" and warned: "Adoption of the current proposed law would force us to re-evaluate our bilateral cooperation with and longstanding assistance to Kosovo's security forces."
"We support the gradual, transparent transformation of the Kosovo Security Force into a multiethnic force in line with NATO standards," the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo said in a statement. "However, this transformation should be done in accordance with the Kosovo Constitution and through an inclusive and representative political process that reflects Kosovo’s multiethnic democracy."
'No Turning Back'
Speaking to RFE/RL, Thaci said the proposed change was "not a unilateral step and if anyone thinks this step should be coordinated with Serbia, that will not happen. Belgrade cannot decide for Kosovo, Kosovo has its own institutions, it’s a sovereign and independent country.”
He said that Kosovo has been waiting for ethnic Serb lawmakers to vote on the change for three years and accused them of dragging their feet.
"Therefore, there is no turning back. The KSF will be transformed into a Kosovo army," Thaci said.
A vote is expected in the coming days. Ethnic Serb deputies, who number just 11 in the 120-member chamber but whose support would be needed to change the constitution, said they would boycott the session.
Strained since the 1998-99 war and Kosovo's independence declaration, relations between Pristina and Belgrade have been particularly tense and could worsen further if Kosovo goes ahead with the plan.
Kosovo's independence has been recognized by 114 countries but not by Belgrade or by Russia, which supports Serbia on many geopolitical issues.
"Serbia will never agree with the formation of Kosovo's army," Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told a rally on March 7. Vucic is a candidate for president in an April 2 election.
Kosovo's existing security force, which was created in 2009, has about 4,000 lightly armed regular forces and 2,500 reservists.
Thaci's plan would increase regular forces to 5,000 and reserves to 3,000, and it would retain international military forces deployed in Kosovo to ensure its protection.
Some 4,500 troops from 31 countries have been deployed in Kosovo since June 1999, after NATO's 78-day air campaign to stop Serbia's crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists.
Serbia has about 50,000 people in its regular military, not including reserves.
With reporting by AP, dpa, and Reuters