Kosovo's lawmakers have given preliminary approval to legislation expanding the size and competencies of the country's security forces during a session that was boycotted by ethnic Serb representatives.
All parties in parliament, except deputies from the Serbian List that represents ethnic Serbs, on October 18 approved three draft laws to upgrade the mandate of the lightly armed Kosovo Security Force (KSF).
The draft laws were called a "threat to peace" by the Serbian defense minister and will need to pass in a second reading before they are sent to President Hashim Thaci for his signing.
"The three laws have one task, to protect the territorial integrity of Kosovo, to protect the citizens of all communities in Kosovo," Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said before the vote.
Many lawmakers described the proposed changes as a step toward creating a national army -- a move opposed by the ethnic Serb minority in the northern part of the country and neighboring Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo's 2008 independence.
Lawmaker Igor Simic of the Serbian List said the draft laws violate the UN Security Council's Resolution 1244 from 1999 and Kosovo's constitution.
In Belgrade, Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin said the creation of a Kosovar army would be "a threat to peace" aimed at "threatening Serbia and Serbs."
"There could be no other armed force in Kosovo except KFOR as long as the UN Security Council 1244 resolution [that ended the war] was in place," Vulin said.
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after NATO bombed to stop the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces during a two-year counterinsurgency war.
Nearly two decades after the end of the conflict, the landlocked Balkan territory of 1.8 million people is still guarded by 4,000 stationed NATO troops.
The current KSF is a 2,500-strong force trained by NATO and tasked with crisis response, civil protection, and ordinance disposal.
The laws passed on October 18 envision that the new security force will have 5,000 active soldiers and 3,000 reservists.
A NATO official said that any change "in the structure, mandate, and mission of the Kosovo Security Forces is for the Kosovo authorities to decide."
"NATO supports the Kosovo Security Force under its current mandate. Should this mandate evolve, the North Atlantic Council will have to reexamine the level of NATO's engagement in Kosovo. We cannot predict decisions by the North Atlantic Council," the official added.
After Kosovo's government in September approved the draft laws to transform the country's security forces, the U.S. Embassy in Pristina said it was "not consulted on the timing of this announcement" and will have to "analyze the draft laws to understand their purpose and effect."
It also said its recent efforts have been concentrated on normalizing relations between Kosovo and Serbia, which it considers "the most important step for progress in the near future."
A year ago, President Thaci withdrew draft legislation to broaden the responsibilities of the KSF.
Washington and the Western alliance had warned that they would reduce military cooperation if Kosovo converted its security forces into a regular army without changing the constitution.
Constitutional changes require the support of two-thirds of all 120 deputies in Kosovo’s parliament and two-thirds of the 20 seats reserved for non-Albanian communities, with ethnic Serbs holding 10 of them.