BELGRADE (by our correspondent). The issue of Kosovo and Metohija (as Serbia defines the area) is always in the politics and diplomacy of the European and non-European Chancellery.

Report Difesa interviewed, exclusively for Italy, the Secretary of State in the Serbian Ministry of Defense, Nemanja Starovic.

The Secretary of State in the Serbian Ministry of Defense, Nemanja Starovic

Mr. Secretary of State, the political and security issues in the province of Kosovo and Metohija often come to the fore in newspapers and television reports in Italy too. What is the situation in the area today?

In comparison with certain days or times, we may say that situation is less tense, but we are continuously facing challenges, because we still remain in constant need of a permanent political solution. We are still in the process of finding the sustainable and systemic political solution, so it naturally creates significant security challenges.

We believe that all the problems we are facing now should be resolved by political means.

Therefore there is no need to securitize the political issues, it is wrong to even think there can be a military solution of any kind for the political challenges that we are facing right now.

If we have to assess the situation on the ground it is safe to say that we are very much concerned about the circumstances, especially in the North of Kosovo and Metohija, in the northern region, where the four municipalities mostly inhabited by the Serbian population are.

It is a long standing challenge, especially in the last two years since the political dynamic changed for the worse. Unfortunately, that coincides with the current interim Prime Minister of the temporary institutions of the Kosovo and Metohija Albin Kurti coming to power.

The first minister of the Kosovo Albin Kurti

The situation on the ground deteriorated since he made a series of unilateral moves that are outside of the scope of the political dialogue that is being conducted in Brussels.

We have had a very long series of unilateral moves. We identified more than 400 incidents against the people from the Serbian community; we identified more than 60 armed incursions of this special militarized mono-ethnic Albanian units of Kosovo Police that is in contrast, or directly against all the previous agreements which stipulate that the so-called Kosovo security forces cannot enter the Northern region of Kosovo and Metohija, but also that in the North we should have a multi-ethnic Police Force.

Instead of that, we have these armed incursions and also the permanent deployment of the special police units which are harassing and intimidating the local people and we believe that this creates a serious security challenge and is not sustainable in the long run.

We believe that the role of the KFOR mission is essential because the basic mandate of the KFOR mission provided by the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 is actually to provide a secure and safe environment for all the people who live in our southern Province.

Could the arrival of a new KFOR Commander, a Turkish General, make the situation more difficult? Given that Turkey as an Islamic country could be closer to Albanians?

We have had serious concerns regarding the fact that now, for the first time after 24 years since the KFOR mission is established, we have the Turkish who will take the lead command. It is not just that, but also the number of Turkish troupes who participate in the KFOR mission is increasing.

Major General Özkan Ulutaş

We have voiced our concerns to our Turkish counterpart but also to other counterparts from NATO alliance and NATO allied countries.

We have been given assurances that General Ulutaş will first and foremost act as a NATO General and only after that as a Turkish General.

We wish to believe that this will be the case. We have been given assurances on that matter. We will need to wait and see what will be the actual attitude.

Also, we have an additional problem because Turkey is a very important country in our region, if we speak about the Balkans as a wider region Turkey is definitely the largest, maybe the strongest country, with huge economy, huge population, historical heritage in the Balkans so we acknowledge all that and our overall aim is to enhance our cooperation with the Republic of Turkey in both economic and political fields, but this does not mean that we should not be vocal and present our concerns to the other side.

We are especially concerned about Turkey being very much proactive and supportive in the process of transformation of the so called Kosovo Security Forces into Kosovo Army.

Of course, it is not just Turkey, other countries are also involved on a bilateral level and we appreciate the fact that KFOR and even NATO alliance is not active in this process, because NATO consists of countries who are both recognizers and non-recognizers of the unilateral declaration of independence so NATO is preserving this neutral approach.

Certain NATO allied countries, with Turkey being active in the process are doing a lot to support that process.

We are not speaking just about the training, we have seen, it was publicized that a lot of commitment came from Turkey to Kosovo and Metohija, not only drones, but also some anti amour systems – very important and sophisticated military equipment so we have raised our concerns and we hope that it will not proceed in that manner in the future.

Overall speaking, we do not believe that militarization on the ground is the answer for the political challenges and when you have that kind of militarization the only responsible thing we need to do is provide answers to that.

Militarization will bring no good to anyone who is a stakeholder. We also must take note of the fact that transforming the so-called Kosovo Security Forces to Kosovo Army is even contrary to the very Constitution of Kosovo.

The Kosovo Constitution which they say they do respect does not provide for the option to have Kosovo Army.

Soldiers of new Kosovo Army

And how does Serbian population in Kosovo and Metohija experience this situation?

It is a very dire situation for them. Especially in the last two years, due to these unilateral actions that I have already mentioned, more than 400 violent incidents, many of them against children, minors, against Serbian orthodox church, healthcare institution, ambulance cars, and so on.

I will just give you a couple of examples, only since the beginnings of this year, we had six different instances where Serbian people had been shot and wounded by the Kosovo officials whether members of Kosovo Police or Kosovo Security Forces and in some of these instances there is not even a proper investigation to determine what happen. Fortunately, none of those people died.

The first of these incidents happened in early January. You know that the Serbian Orthodox church follow the Julian calendar not the Gregorian, and Orthodox Christmas is on January 7th.

And on the Christmas Eve on January 6th member of the Kosovo Security Force shoot an eleven years old Serbian boy in Kosovo.

And it was tragic to see this. That person named Azem Kurtaj was released to house arrest and then even the house arrest was lifted. Can you imagine anywhere in Europe a soldier shooting at an eleven year old child and walking free.

Azem Kurtaj

So, sadly, there is a lack of justice, there is no rule of law across the board for everyone living in Kosovo, and Serbian people are in the position of a second class citizens, that is the sentiment that you can hear from our compatriots living in Kosovo.

The situation is especially dire in the North Region, in four Serbian municipalities, since now, in the last two years, we have constant deployment of the special militarized units of Kosovo Police who are harassing and intimidating local people who feel like they are being subjected to some kind of military occupation and that is the overwhelming feeling of common people.

So you have these special police troopers who are now performing the role of the local police but they are neither trained nor equipped to perform those duties, they do not speak Serbian language, they are insulting, threatening, intimidating, beating local people on a daily basis. I do not believe this is sustainable.

Allow me to give you another example. There was a situation where two teenagers, a brother and a sister, riding a motorbike outside their village.

They had their safety helmets on. They were stopped by the special police troopers, they were heavily beaten, and then their mother came and approached the police to try to stop them – she saw her teenage kids being beaten and asked the police troopers “What are you doing, why are you beating my children?” The answer they gave her was: “We are a special police and our procedures provide that whenever is a person that is hiding the face, we treat this person as a terrorist”.

These children were wearing safety helmets. It is a law requirement that if you are riding a motorbike you need to have a helmet.

So no regular police no traffic police men would beat kids for wearing a safety helmet while riding motorbikes, but these special police troopers are doing exactly that. This is just one of the many, many examples to explain why the situation closely resembles a military style occupation and is not sustainable and how the situation for the common people in the north of Kosovo and Metohija is very, very dire.

 What does KFOR represent for Serbia?

First and foremost KFOR represents for us a credible partner force, they are deployed according to UN Security Council resolution 1244.

We have this so-called Kumanovo military technical agreement that followed the adoption of the Resolution 1244.

And we believe that KFOR needs to fully perform its mandate and their duties and the first duty is to create a safe and secure environment for all, and with that in mind recognize KFOR as the only legal and legitimate military force that is deployed on the ground.

We appreciate everything that KFOR has done so far in previous 24 years.

Italian soldiers in Kosovo

Their mandate is to protect civilian population and we also support this process of enhancing KFOR with additional troops, we thing it is a positive development, KFOR should have additional capacities to actually fulfill their own basic mission, but we think they should go one step further and not just enhance the numbers of the members of the KFOR mission troops but also to revert back to their basic mission.

What do I mean by that? We often hear from the official sources that KFOR – when there are security challenges in Kosovo, is only the so-called third responder, that the first response to a security incident or a challenge or a threat should be provided by the Kosovo Police, being the first responder, then by the EULEX mission as the second responder and only then KFOR is to be included as the third responder.

Eulex mission is the second responder in Kosovo

We acknowledge and understand that principle, but we wish to emphasize that the situation has changed dramatically, especially in the previous two years.

So when someone says that Kosovo police should be the first responder it made sense two years ago, but it does not make sense anymore, because it is not the same Kosovo police that we had previously.

Up until one year ago we had a multi-ethnic local police in the north, where 97% of the population was Serbian people and in accordance to that more than 90% of the police officers which made up the local police, were Serbian.

They were part of the community, neighbours living there, but now it is not the case anymore, because we have this special militarized mono-ethnic Albanian Kosovo police and they are not sufficient to be a first responder, because they are more of a threat to local population than someone who can provide security.

Even the NATO Secretary General Mr. Stoltenberg recognized this and implicitly confirmed that a month or two ago when he had a meeting in Brussels, in the NATO Headquarters with Ms Vljosa Omani, the so-called President of Kosovo.

Vljosa Omani

At the press conference he reiterated the fact that the so-called Kosovo Security Forces or the Kosovo Army cannot enter the northern region without explicit approval of KFOR.

He also said that these special Kosovo police units should not take any action in the north of Kosovo without timely and meaningful consultation with KFOR.

By saying that, and we appreciate it, he implicitly recognized that the unilateral actions of Kosovo Police Special units without timely and meaningful consultation with KFOR mission are contributing more to destabilization then stabilization on the ground.

Did the Minister of Defense, Guido Crosetto, recently said that the issue of Kosovo and Metohija could be resolved with Serbia’s entry into the European Union? When can this happen?

Before answering this question I wish to emphasize that we appreciate very much both the political stance but also effective dealings of the Italian diplomacy, of Italian minister of defence Guido Crosetto, and we highly appreciate and value participation of Italian troops in the KFOR mission.

The minister of Defense with Jens Stoltenberg

We also appreciate very much the previous KFOR commander General Angelo Michele Ristuccia who in his public appearances and his statements also recognized that he fully understood what was going on on the ground.

General Angelo Michele Ristuccia

I remember his last interview before leaving the position he was referring to this tragic incident that we had in late May 2023 where many KFOR members were wounded, among them Italian soldiers.

I will try to interpret his statement where he said the main reason was the unilateral actions of Kosovo police and at the very end it was his soldiers who paid the price for these unilateral actions, acting without consulting, without coordinating with NATO KFOR mission.

We have a very good and very intense political dialogue with Italy and we also highly appreciate the continuous support of Italy for our aspirations to become part of the European Union. But we also recognize that it is each and every European Union member state that should have the same approach in order for us to be able to actually join the European Union at some point in time.

There was a lot a discussion, a lot of debate in the previous months both in Brussels and in certain European capitals about the prospects and possibilities for the countries of the Western Balkans to join the European Union by 2030.

We appreciate that, but we also must take note of the fact that we understand that in certain EU countries there is this phenomenon of the so-called enlargement fatigue, that one part of the people, maybe a significant part, feels that the previous expansion, previous enlargement did not bring the results that were expected.

But on the other hand, if there is this enlargement fatigue in certain EU countries and there is also this kind of accession fatigue here in the Western Balkans, since 20 years have passed since the Thessaloniki Summit between the EU and Western Balkans where certain promises were made and certain plans have been adopted, and the idea of the Western Balkans hastily joining the European Union came along, but unfortunately nothing has really changed, nothing happened in realistic terms.

We do remain committed to do everything which is our homework to do, regarding internal reforms, enhancing the rule of law, enhancing the independence of judiciary, we even amended our Constitution one year ago which was not an easy process.

We did this in order to provide the high level of independence of judiciary. Enlargement of the EU has two dimensions, one being a technical dimension, but there is an additional political dimension which cannot be neglected. With that in mind I think we are still waiting for the consensus to be achieved within EU about the actual need to enlarge in the Western Balkans.

It is not actually an enlargement, the borders of the European Union will not move to the south or to the east, it is more the encompassment of the European Union, finishing of the EU.

We need to wait for the consensus of the 27 States. We have seen in the history of enlargement that whenever there was will in the EU all the obstacles can be easily overcome.

Let me give you a few examples. I highly appreciate and value what the countries like Bulgaria and Romania accomplished in the previous decade and a half. Romania, our neighbour and a very friendly country has transformed so much that you cannot recognize Romania today and Romania from 15 years ago.

But that transformation, that positive change started when they joined the EU, not while they where in the “waiting room”.

If we have to compare Serbia or Montenegro today concerning economy, political system, judiciary, rule of law, with Bulgaria and Romania back in 2007, when they became members of EU, I think it is something beyond comparison.

Countries like Serbia or Montenegro, maybe some other countries in the Western Balkans, are today much more prepared to become full members of the EU than Bulgaria or Romania were at the time.

But back in that time there was a very strong political support, a strong political and geopolitical outlook on the need to enlarge EU to Romania and Bulgaria. Unfortunately, we are still lacking such political and geopolitical impetus to move Western Balkans to membership.

I hope it will be reached in due time.

Does the Italian and international press always blame your country when tensions arise? How do you respond to these accusations?

You know, there is a lot of inertia, a lot of bias and prejudice that stems from previous times. We are aware that our position is not ideal, and too many people when analyzing or reporting about recent event in the Balkans, they try to just look at the situation through the lens of the 1990s, the previous times that passed 25 or 30 years ago. And that is definitely not an advantage to us.

Having in mind those bias and prejudices it is not easy for us sometimes even to present some hard cold facts.

It is often questioned and other stakeholders have a much easier job. It is a challenge for us, that is why we are trying to be very serious, very responsible and to communicate only things we can fully prove, and that are rock solid, to put it like that.

I also believe that when you compare the situation with the one of 30 years ago, nowadays you have much more access, much more possibility to look for the real information, for things happening anywhere in the world because back in the 1990s, for example, for a common person it was mostly the information you get from watching TV and reading newspapers, but today whoever wishes to explore what is going on has so many options, through the internet and other means, to reach the real information.

With that in mind people have options and we do our best to provide information from our side knowing that is not an easy job.

In 2024, it will be 25 years since the end of the 1999 war. How can peace be preserved and a political solution reached?

It is a long standing political conflict, but is not the only long standing political conflict in the world, we see them all around, but just by saying that we have a conflict without a full solution for 25 years should not serve as a justification for anyone to try to solve it in a manner that would be violent, that it would be too hasty in any way.

I think that dialogue is the only alternative, even if engaging in dialogue is not easy, it requires a lot of energy, a lot of effort, a lot of concessions, a lot of compromises, but I do not see any other alternative. If not dialogue, then what? I think that the dialogue is the only way.

NATO soldiers in Kosovo (1999)

I also believe that we should not be bound by some artificial time frame, or time constrains, saying “We have to solve this in one month, or in three months”, because we have such a long standing political conflicts and it is not just twenty five years.

If you look on a wider scale at the relations between Serbian and Albanian people we talk about at least 150 years back in time and different phases of that conflict that someone tried to resolve but that was never fully resolved.

It takes time, but also we should not waste time, but use it as efficiently as possible, to have series of small steps that will lead us to the normalization.

Not just between Belgrade and Pristina, but also between Serbian and Albanian people. So it is also a historical process and needs to be dealt with full diligence, but also with certain type of strategic patience.

I will have the opportunity to visit your Peacekeeping Operations Centre. How important are the peacekeeping missions in which your country participates?

We attach great importance to our participation in peacekeeping operations. As a matter of fact, I can assure you that Republic of Serbia is the largest contributor to the peacekeeping operation both run by the United Nation and the European Union in the region of the Western Balkans.

But on top of that when you asses that on per capita terms I think that, right now, we are the third largest contributor in the European continent, we have hundreds of our personnel being deployed in EU and UN led peacekeeping operations.

Serbian soldiers in UNIFIL mission

For example the largest number of our personnel is currently in the South of Lebanon in the UN lead Peacekeeping Operation.

We believe that is our duty, our obligation to contribute to preservation of peace worldwide, but on top of that it is also a kind of a professional challenge for our personnel, for people in the Serbian Armed Forces to prove their worth in that kind of operations.

In 2009, an agreement was signed between Italy and Serbia for the training of personnel at the Military Bodies of the Ministries of Defense of the two countries. With what results?

We attach great value to our cooperation with the Ministry of Defence of Italy and Italian Armed Forces. Overall, I think we can asses the cooperation very positively and the field where we have the best results is the field of military education, so I am glad to say that in previous twenty years more than one hundred and fifty of our personnel attended various courses and levels of education at military education institutions in Italy.

It is a significant number and it really contributed to raising our own capabilities regarding Serbian army force.

As of today we have very significant number of personnel who are currently attending various modes of military education. We are also open for the possibility that is provided in our agreement for us to educate members of the Italian personnel.

On top of participating in various courses in Italy we also appreciate the fact that we have been provided with Italian language courses for our officers here in Serbia, in Belgrade, and there is a huge interest for this among our officers because the knowledge gained will allow them to participate in courses in Italy.

The institutions that are a part of the NATO framework as well, but especially the ones that are part of the Italian military education sector.

In cooperation with Benedetta “Bina” La Corte