By Prof. Dr İLTER TURAN
After the mayoral elections in Kosovan districts inhabited mainly by Serbs were won by persons of Albanian origin, mass protests broke out, generating fears that the NATO Peacekeeping Force might not be sufficient to quell them. In response to a request from NATO, Turkey decided to send a commando batallion to help KFOR maintain peace. Peacekeeping is always a challenging job in that you send an armed force to a troubled region that is supposed to perform its duties without resorting to the use of arms.
It seems that the Turkish Military has acquired some experience in this area by assuming responsibility in Afghanistan, Bosnia and also in Kosovo. Furthermore, Turkey’s has larger armed forces than most other NATO countries, a reality that directs allies to turn to Turkey when the need for additional military personnel for peacekeeping arises. Finally, it is also judged that Turkish military units tend to be better received in the Balkans than of those of other NATO member countries. In this particular instance, however, the Serbians might suspect that they are more favorably disposed toward the Kosovars.
The peacekeeping force will not perform ordinary police functions but protect major government facilities, power plants etc. Their presence will, nevertheless, constitute a deterrent to major outbreaks of violence and serve a reminder to Serbia that is thought to be behind inciting the Kosovan Serbs to engage in demonstrations. It will also remind the Serbs that they cannot send their own forces to another country whose independence is guaranteed by the presence of NATO forces on its soil. The Kosovan government has announced that it is willing to renew the elections that may well bring ethnically Serbian mayors to the few towns in which those of Serbian origin constitute the majority. I continue to suspect, however, that the strenuous intereactions that characterize the Albanian origin Kosovar-Serbian relations will continue for years to come.
What is the problem? Kosova that was an autonomous region under Yugoslavia and later Serbia when the former disintegrated, has always constituted an area where the rights of the 85-90 per cent Albanian majority has been contested by Serbia. There were protests and riots even under the Titoist regime when the government tried to suppress liberties that were designed to allow the region to maintain its Albanian identity. When the Serbian government turned to the same policies of suppression, in 1999 the province was extended UN protection. In 2008, as fighting broke out again between Serbia and Kosovo, the regional government claimed independence, a status which was found to be in conformity with international law by the International Court of Justice in 2010. Since then more than 100 countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence but Serbia and some its friends including Russia are not among them. NATO has extended support to the new country to help maintain its independence. Serbia, however, is constantly engaged in efforts to challenge Kosovo’s independence and frequently uses the small Serbian minority as an instrument to advance its own policy of not recognizing the departure of Kosovo from the Serbian state.
As is well known, the Western Balkan countries all of whom save Albania became independent as a result of the breakup of the Yugoslav state have highly checkered ethnic compositions. Such an environment, optimistically speaking, might be looked upon as a source of cultural richness, but more often it has served as a cause of irredentism, generating fears that neighbors might easily develop territorial claims. In fact, as is only too well known, ethno-religious differences constituted the background to the disaster that ensued in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to the interjection of peacekeeping forces into the region, two factors have proven important in supporting a willingness to address problems among countries through peaceful means and maintaining regional stability. First, save Serbia, Bosnia- Herzegovina and Kosovo, the rest have become members of the western alliance. Second, the countries of the Western Balkans are all considered to be potential members of the European Union. In fact, Croatia has already joined and Montenegro is on its way.
The problematical country in the region appears to be Serbia. As the dominant partner of the dissolved Yugoslav state, it maintains territorial claims in Bosnia and Kosovo. Although it has been invited to join NATO and move toward membership in the European Union, it has been rather ambivalent in joining the rest, preferring also to maintain close relations with Russia. It is thought that Russia fully backs Serbian territorial claims on its neighbors, and in return gets Serbian backing for its own adventures. Serbia’s position stands in the way of integrating the Western Balkans to the Western security and economic communities.
Turkey’s willingness to send a commando battalion to Kosovo, constitutes a subtle way of reminding the Russians that they do not approve of changing borders by force and despite its friendly disposition toward Russia, it is very much a member of NATO.
By Prof. Dr İLTER TURAN