The United States has backed Kosovo's moves toward establishing a regular army, but it tried to reassure those opposed to the action by insisting the process will take "many years.”
The U.S. ambassador to Pristina, Philip Kosnett, made the comments in an interview with RTK television on December 6, eight days before the Kosovar parliament is set to vote on whether to transform the Balkan country's lightly armed security force into a national army.
The U.S. comments came hours after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stressed that said Kosovo's plan was "ill-timed" and goes "against the advice of many NATO allies."
Belgrade and ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have vehemently opposed the creation of a Kosovar military, saying it would violate UN resolutions and be used against the country’s Serb minority -- a claim denied by officials in Pristina.
Kosnett said that "it is only natural for Kosovo as a sovereign, independent country to have a self-defense capability."
"Some people in neighboring countries have fixated on a certain date that is coming up very soon and have expressed concerns that the evolution of the [Kosovo Security Force, or KSF] into the Armed Forces could have negative implications for security," the ambassador said.
"What I will say about that is this is a process that will take many years. That Kosovo has every reason, every right to have a self–defense capability," he added.
"Whether they pass this law or change the patches on their shoulders of the personnel on a certain date, is not the most important thing," Kosnett insisted.
What is important is that it will be a "long, sustainable, and multiethnic" process that involves ethnic Serbs and members of other communities, he added.
Kosnett also called for dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, saying that "it is important for people in both countries to understand the perspective of the other side."
"Because when you are not communicating, all sorts of fears will rise to the surface and people always fear what they do not understand," the ambassador added.
Relations between Pristina and Belgrade have been tense since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Although more than 110 countries recognize Kosovo, Serbia does not.
Both Kosovo and Serbia have been told they must resolve their differences in order to make progress toward EU membership, but EU-sponsored normalization talks have been stop-and-go in recent months.
Stoltenberg said he had called Kosovar and Serbian leaders on December 6 to underline that both countries should "show calm and restraint, and avoid any provocative statements or actions."
Stoltenberg said in a statement that he had told Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj that Pristina’s plan to transform the KSF into an army was "ill-timed, goes against the advice of many NATO Allies, and can have negative repercussions on Kosovo's prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration."
"Should the mandate of the Kosovo Security Force evolve, NATO will have to examine the level of our engagement with the Kosovo Security Force." he warned.
Stoltenberg told Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic of "the need to deescalate current tensions" and reminded both leaders that the EU-mediated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina remains "the only way to bring durable peace and stability to the region."
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after NATO launched air strikes to stop the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces during a two-year counterinsurgency war.
Nearly two decades after the end of the conflict, the landlocked territory of 1.8 million people is still guarded by NATO troops.
The current KSF is a 2,500-strong force trained by NATO and tasked with crisis response, civil protection, and ordinance disposal.
Following his discussion with Stoltenberg, Haradinaj reiterated that his country remained committed to transform the force into a regular army, calling it a "sovereign decision of Kosovo."
The move "contains in itself the vision and will of the citizens of Kosovo to preserve and defend Western values," he wrote on Facebook.
The prime minister said the process would "provide a professional, multiethnic, and credible army serving all citizens of Kosovo.”
Meanwhile, Vucic said in a statement he had told Stoltenberg that Kosovo's plan represents a "danger" for the "survival" of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority.
Serbia has warned the formation of a Kosovar army could trigger an armed intervention in its former province.
In October, Kosovo's lawmakers gave preliminary approval to legislation expanding the size and competencies of its security force in a session that was boycotted by ethnic Serb representatives.
With reporting by AP