Kosovo’s president has backed away from a controversial pledge to push through a law turning the country's security force into a national army, telling RFE/RL that he will consult with ethnic minorities and make the change through constitutional amendments.
Creating a regular army for the Balkan country "should be a gradual, inclusive process with the engagement of all communities, including the Serbian one,” President Hashim Thaci said in an interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service on March 30.
“We fully agree that this process should occur through constitutional changes,” he said.
Thaci had drawn sharp criticism from the United States and NATO when he sent a draft law to parliament in early March in a bid to legislate the creation of the army without changing the constitution.
It was an effort to bypass lawmakers from Kosovo's substantial Serbian minority, whose support would be needed for a constitutional amendment but not a for a regular law.
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.
Washington and the Western alliance have warned that they would reduce military cooperation if Kosovo converted its lightly armed, NATO-trained security forces into a regular army without changing the constitution and consulting all groups.
Thaci initially indicated he would push ahead with the plan for a law despite the criticism.
But in the RFE/RL interview -- which came a day after a senior U.S. diplomat said in Pristina that Kosovo should take "a step back and take the law off the table" -- he pledged to consult with minority groups.
“We want them to be more active so we can have multiethnic armed forces, in accordance with NATO standards,” Thaci said.
He said he would lead the talks.
At the same time, he said he was not ready to wait indefinitely for support from ethnic Serbian members of parliament, who have opposed the plan.
"If Serbs refuse the constitutional changes on the army forever, then Kosovo has its right to create the army based on the law," Thaci warned. "That agenda will not stop."
"We want to create a Kosovo army so we become an integrated part of NATO, and not an isolated country," he said, insisting that nobody can prevent Kosovo from reaching that goal.
"That is an inalienable right of Kosovo’s citizens and of an independent and sovereign state," Thaci said."We now have to coordinate the steps so that the process is inclusive."
"I want to believe that Serbs have understood that our idea of the army is not against anyone, but it is in the interest of all citizens," he said.
Thaci also said the creation of a regular army would not represent a threat to the region.
"We have excellent relations with neighbors and we are in an important process of normalization of relations with Serbia," he said. "The creation of an army will actually help the political dialogue with Serbia."
Thaci’s comments come a day after a U.S. official urged leaders in Kosovo to consult with ethnic minorities on the plan instead of unilaterally implementing the law that would create a regular army.
"We would like the government to make a step back and take the law off the table," Hoyt Brian Yee, a deputy assistant secretary of state, said in an interview with public broadcaster RTK during a visit to Pristina.
"The transformation should be made with constitutional amendments," Yee said.
Kosovo is recognized as an independent nation by 114 countries including the United States and major European powers, but not by Serbia or Russia.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who is running for president in an April 2 election, told a rally on March 7 that "Serbia will never agree with the formation" of a Kosovar army.
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 international military forces deployed in Kosovo to ensure its protection would remain.
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.