Türkiye on Tuesday will formally assume the duty of heading the Kosovo Force (KFOR) of NATO. A major contributor to peacekeeping mission, Türkiye’s leadership comes amid rising tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the Balkan country.
The Turkish contingent will officially take over the command post of Kosovo Force (KFOR) on Tuesday as the NATO peacekeeping force remains in the Balkan country more than two decades after a war.
Türkiye’s leadership comes at a time of escalating tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, with killings and clashes in the country’s north.
KFOR, established under a United Nations Security Council resolution to maintain security and stability, was first deployed to the country on June 12, 1999. A total of 27 countries, including six non-NATO members, have soldiers in the force. Türkiye is the second major contributor to the mission, which has more than 4,500 military personnel distributed across Kosovo.
Türkiye will take over the leadership from Italy, which assumed KFOR leadership from Hungary in October 2022. Turkish Defense Ministry officials said that KFOR is one of the most important missions to secure peace and stability in the Balkans. Defense ministry sources say Türkiye is one of the main countries of the mission.
Türkiye has close relations with Kosovo due to cultural and historical ties and is one of the countries recognizing its independence, some nine years after the Kosovo War between ethnic Albanian forces and Serbian forces between 1998 and 1999. It has been part of international mechanisms established to support the fledgling country.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. The United States and most of the West recognize the declaration, but Serbia does not and continues to lay claim to the territory. Ethnic Serbs are Kosovo’s biggest minority group and are entitled to having 10 representatives serving as lawmakers in the country’s 120-seat parliament, as well as in governmental posts.
Defense Ministry sources said Türkiye would not cease support to KFOR. Last summer, Türkiye deployed additional troops to Kosovo upon the request of NATO Joint Force Command.
Both Serbia and Kosovo are under international pressure to resolve the latest in a long line of crises between Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian-dominated government and ethnic Serbs, who are a majority in the north.
Violence flared last summer after Kosovo authorities, backed by special police units, installed ethnic Albanian mayors in offices in northern municipalities. The mayors had been elected on a turnout of just 3.5% after Serbs boycotted local polls.
KFOR’s outgoing commander has called on both Kosovo and Serbia to return to the negotiating table to resolve their issues to prevent violence like the recent shootout between masked Serb gunmen and Kosovo police that left four people dead and sent tensions soaring in the region.
Maj. Gen. Angelo Michele Ristuccia urged both countries last Friday to “refrain from inflammatory and counterproductive rhetoric and help create the necessary conditions for lasting security in Kosovo and across the region.” Ristuccia told a news conference that KFOR fully supported European Union-facilitated dialogue to normalize their ties.
In February, the EU proposed a 10-point plan to end months of political crises. Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic approved at the time, but with some reservations that have not been resolved. “If the parties do not come back to the table … and do not find a common solution and do not negotiate for a political solution, I think this balance will become more fragile and volatile in the future,” Ristuccia said.
On Sept. 24, around 30 Serb gunmen killed a Kosovar police officer and then set up barricades in northern Kosovo before launching an hours-long gunbattle with Kosovo police. Three gunmen were killed.
After the crisis, NATO beefed up its peacekeeping presence in Kosovo by about 200 British troops. More are expected to be deployed from Romania and other allies if the situation requires, Ristuccia said.
NATO reported on Friday that the first contingent of 200 British soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment arrived in Kosovo. Romania will send some 100 extra troops to bolster KFOR. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also said Berlin would consider adding to their present number at KFOR next year. “These deployments are a prudent step to ensure KFOR has the forces it needs to fulfill its U.N. mandate to maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all people in Kosovo,” NATO said in a statement.
The EU-facilitated dialogue, which began in 2011, has yielded few results. Serbia and Kosovo have been at odds for decades. Their 1998-1999 war, which ended after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign forced Serbian forces to withdraw from Kosovo, left more than 10,000 people dead, mostly Kosovo Albanians.