For the fourth time in a row, a German general will assume command of NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo. Kosovar officials expect him to create complete freedom of movement across the country.
After one year in charge of the NATO-led international peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR), Major General Erhard Drews said developments overall have been positive. That’s the impression the 59-year-old gave during his final press conference at the head of KFOR while stating that all border crossings in northern Kosovo were open and that barricades only remained on the main bridge over the Ibar River in Mitrovica.
“Our key task of establishing freedom of movement has been successful,” he said. “I am proud of that and would like to thank all the KFOR soldiers for this success.”
A year with plenty of setbacks
Not long ago, Drews’ evaluation of the situation was different. At the end of July, the major general called the security situation in Kosovo “not at all stable” and added that “even small incidents can lead to wide-spread confrontations through a spiral of provocations and reactions.”
There had been clashes between a group of Serbs and Kosovar police that ended with several injuries. At the end of June, two grenades were thrown at a KFOR base.
Drews’ critics – Albanians as well as Serbs – think his year at the head of KFOR saw too many setbacks. Tensions in the region led Germany and Austria to ready 700 troops as part of an Operational Reserve Force in case they were needed at the end of September. NATO has said there is still a possibility that the situation could deteriorate.
Pristina wants more support
Ahead of the change of command, Kosovo’s Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi expressed disappointment over KFOR soldiers’ lack of assertiveness. But he added that cooperation between Kosovar security forces and KFOR remain good.
“KFOR was and continues to be one of the best-regarded international institutions in Kosovo,” he said. “They are doing their job.”
Drews has received some criticism in the past for not completely establishing freedom of movement in northern Kosovo, Rexhepi said. The interior minister also said he wished KFOR gave more support to the EULEX mission and Kosovo’s police – particularly in arresting criminals in northern Kosovo and bringing them to court.
Northern Kosovo not only has parallel political structures, but also an illegal and armed Serbian police and intelligence forces that disrupt daily life in the region.
“These structures are behind the outbreaks of violence that occur from time to time,” Rexhepi said. “Even now they could create tension in northern Kosovo, though not throughout all of Kosovo.”
The Serbs in northern Kosovo tend to avoid official border crossing to Serbia and use “alternative paths.” Despite numerous attempts, KFOR soldiers have been unable to close these illegal crossing points. The Serbs in northern Kosovo have also accused KFOR troops of failing in their mission and emphasize that KFOR strongly supports Pristina.
Challenges for next KFOR head
The barricades on the bridge over the Ibar in Mitrovica are the general’s biggest failure, observers have said. That’s a fact that seems apparent to Drews. He has called the situation a “disgrace.”
“The barricade is a symbol of resistance,” he said. “It reminds everyone that the political process in Kosovo still has to move forward.”
Pushing the political process forward is not one of KFOR’s tasks. But a lack of willingness from Belgrade and Pristina to normalize relations will also hamper the efforts of the peacekeepers’ next leader, 56-year-old Major General Volker Halbauer. He’ll be the sixth German commander and the fourth in a row to lead the international force since it entered Kosovo in 1999.
The first major task of his year as commander will be ensuring security when Kosovo’s so-called “supervised independence” is officially lifted on September 10.