Today, June 5, Turkish NATO forces in Kosovo assume a one-year command of NATO’s Multinational Task Force South (MNTF-S), one of NATO’s five regional commands of Kosovo Force (KFOR), responsible for establishing and maintaining security in the disaffected Serbian province. NATO peacekeepers have been deployed in Kosovo since 1999 under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244.
Turkey currently maintains 800 soldiers in KFOR. MNTF-S consists of 4,000 troops from eight NATO member countries, most come from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Netherlands (Anadolu Ajansi, May 29). France has 2,800 troops in the northern part of the province. Prior to the handover, German officers commanded MNTF-S. Overall KFOR strength in Kosovo is 16,500, ensuring security for the province’s two million inhabitants, an estimated 88% of whom are ethnic Albanian.
Turkish Brigadier General Ugur Tarcın will command MNTF-S, which also includes Azerbaijani and Georgian teams. Ankara is to send an additional 300 soldiers to reinforce the contingent. In a collateral “hearts and minds” initiative, a Turkish medical unit within the battalion will also provide health services for Kosovar civilians. Turkey will hand over command of the Task Force to Austria in May 2008. At this year’s transfer ceremony Tarcin said, “We will be putting another stone to ensure and to improve security and stability. I believe that everyone knows how necessary a safe atmosphere is for the reconstruction and development of Kosovo.” It seems most unlikely that Belgrade will be pleased with the deployment, especially given the historic Turkish presence in the province.
Turkey has a longstanding presence in Kosovo, having ruled it for nearly six centuries following the battle of Kosovo in 1389, when Ottoman forces defeated the Serbian army of Prince Lazar. The current deployment suggests that NATO has concluded that Turkey, the sole Muslim member of the alliance, has a unique peacekeeping role to play in Muslim areas of NATO operations; last month Turkey also assumed command of NATO’s Kabul Command, part of its Afghan International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO largest ground operation in its history.
Ankara’s effort has a larger agenda and seeks greater international rewards. According to an announcement about the deployment of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), “The TSK is taking on this mission in a period which is significant for the future of Kosovo. This once again emphasizes the importance that Turkey attaches to the restoration of peace and stability in the Balkans. It also confirms that we will continue to meet our commitments regarding international security within the context of Turkey’s candidacy for the UN Security Council for the 2009-2010 term.”
The potential stumbling block to UN resolution of the province’s status is Security Council permanent member Russia, which has consistently supported Serbian objections to Kosovar independence. The Croatian press, however, has reported that a potential compromise among Russia, the European Union, and Washington may be accomplished if Washington is willing to be flexible (Jutarnji List, May 28). The newspaper, quoting sources “close to the Russian leadership,” stated, “If Moscow shows readiness to accept the plan…then Brussels and Washington, would in exchange, accept a two-year moratorium on Kosovo’s membership in the UN.” Other conditions proposed by Moscow include guarantees for the non-Albanians in Kosovo and the permanent stationing of Russian peacekeepers in the province. The deadlock and posturing over the province’s final disposition continues, however, as on June 1 Russian UN representative Vitaly Churkin rejected a new draft UN resolution from Britain supporting “internationally supervised independence,” stating, “The introduction of this updated version of the draft has not changed anything as far as we are concerned.”
U.S. President George W. Bush is about to hear a great deal about Kosovo firsthand. Following visits to the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, and Bulgaria after a Group of Eight (G-8) summit June 6-8 in Germany, Bush will visit Albania on June 10. Bush will be the first U.S. president to visit the small Balkan country. As a front-line border state with Kosovo, issues regarding the province will doubtless dominate the agenda. Presidential safety is also a prime concern on the trip; while security for the impending visit is tight, an unexplained explosion near the U.S. embassy in Tirana on May 16 and two munitions seizures on May 30, for which no groups have yet claimed responsibility, have increased security concerns. During the May 30 incidents Albanian security forces located a plastic bag containing several grams of explosives at Tirana University’s economics faculty near the U.S. embassy, and shortly afterwards, a package with an ounce of explosives was located in Mother Teresa Square, near Albanian President Alfred Moisiu’s offices (Focus news agency, May 31).
In light of Bush’s impending visit, on May 31 the Law and National Security Commission of Albania’s parliament implemented a law allowing U.S. security forces to accompany Bush despite current Albanian laws preventing foreign troops from entering Albanian territory (ATA, May 31). Albanian security officials remain concerned about the possibility of attacks by Islamic extremists in Albania and Kosovo, as Albania’s borders with Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro remain still largely unsecured. Earlier this year an Albanian newspaper reported that “Wahhabis” were operating in Albania (Shqip, February 6). In 1999 U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and President Bill Clinton both canceled visits to Albania because of threats from a local terrorist cell.
Relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest ebb in many years, yet cooperation is essential if the Kosovo issue is to be resolved. In the interim, Turkey is putting its peacekeepers where its rhetoric is, a point that should not be lost on policymakers in either Moscow or Washington.