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JUST IN: NATO Presence in Balkans Remains ‘Crucial,’ Kosovo Defense Minister Says
NATO presence in the Balkans remains crucial as Kosovo continues to be threatened by Serbian military troops, the country's minister of defense said Dec. 14, adding that the nation remains hopeful that it can one day join the alliance as a member.
NATO forces that have been stationed in Kosovo since 1999 still play a vitally important role for stability, Ejup Maqedonci, the Republic of Kosovo's defense minister, said at a talk hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Program.
“I think they are playing a crucial role currently. For us, it’s fundamental having NATO in the Balkan region because still there are threats. Still, there is influence from outside, from external actors in the Balkans that are aiming to destabilize and undermine Euro-Atlantic integration and democracy in the region. So, the presence of NATO is still required. And it’s still very important, until the time that all countries in Western Balkans, especially, become democratic countries,” he said.
About 4,500 NATO troops from 27 different countries are currently stationed in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has since dealt with military threats from Serbia, which objected to Kosovo’s independence on multiple grounds, including that there were Serbian majority villages and enclaves within the territory of Kosovo that would become minorities in an independent state. On Sept. 24, a battle broke out between Kosovo authorities and armed Serbians in northern Kosovo, and NATO sent additional forces in response, BBC reported.
The ongoing tensions should “be solved with dialogue.” That being said, the threat is still present and dangerous. The current number of NATO troops in Kosovo is “sufficient,” for now, Maqedonci said.
“If Serbia doesn't withdraw troops from the border line, and brigades deployed in the south, then still, the threat will exist for Kosovo, and not just for Kosovo, but also for other countries,” he said.
"Serbia ... keeps two hands on two different places, in Russia and the European Union. And we believe that they are waiting for the result of the war in Ukraine in order to make a decision on where they belong,” he added.
Kosovo has been struggling for years to mitigate threats coming from Serbian sources and in turn, Russian influences as well. The best solution to deter Serbian aggression is the acceptance of Kosovo into NATO and into the European Union, he said.
“That will allow us to be together with others, and to [conduct] joint force [operations] against these threats that are not just for Kosovo, but also for the other countries in the region,” Maqedonci said.
If Kosovo does not gain membership into NATO and the EU, Maqedonci fears that will only spur Serbia on further.
“I think that will really encourage Serbia to continue with its policy, hegemonic approach toward Kosovo, using malign elements and using hybrid threats,” he said. “So if we are not becoming part of the European Union and NATO, we will be all the time exposed to [threats] that are coming from Serbia. Due to the fact that they will see this as encouragement to continue thinking that Kosovo is part of Serbia, and continuing waiting for the moment in order to conduct maybe military offensive in order to regain us, the Kosova territory.”
The key to deterring Serbia is deepening international alliances and relationships, specifically with NATO and the United States, Maqedonci said.
“We are deepening our relations by conducting many activities together, including military purchases. We are very thankful to the United States for all the support that they gave to us in terms of training our people, educating our personnel, but also donating a lot to us,” he said.
Kosovo is now in a financial place where it can buy weapons systems from the United States, which is something it is actively pursuing, he said.
“We see the United States as a source of liberty, a source of democracy and the example, the leading country for democracies and the United States should keep this role and needs to continue with this approach,” Maqedonci said.