Former KFOR commander: There is no danger in Kosovo, NATO troops are ready to avoid any attack
How much can the Ukraine conflict affect the Western Balkans? How is the security situation in the Balkans, is there a risk of new conflicts? The former commander of KFOR, General Erhard Bühler answers DW’s questions.
German wave: Mr. General Bühler, there are still many unresolved issues in the Western Balkans: Serbia does not recognize the state of Kosovo, Republika Srpska often mentions secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria is blocking North Macedonia on the way to starting EU membership negotiations, meanwhile that Montenegro has entered a kind of permanent crisis of power, there have also been accusations of mixing factors from outside. As a former commander of KFOR in Kosovo, are you afraid of another so-called powder keg in the Balkans?
Erhard Buehler: No, I’m not afraid and I don’t see any acute danger for such a scenario. But you rightly mentioned many problems and open issues, which still exist in the Western Balkans. In this context, I also have my concerns about how things will develop in the medium and long term, especially now from the perspective of the crisis in Ukraine and the increasing influence of some foreign countries in this region.
DW: This is exactly what I wanted to ask you: Can Russian aggression in Ukraine have consequences for the Western Balkans as well, because it is known that Serbia and in particular the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina are among Russia’s closest partners, and Russia can certainly interested in the opening of new centers of crisis?
Erhard Buehler: As I said, I do not see an acute risk of new conflicts there. But in the past we have experienced that under the shadow of big conflicts, frozen conflicts suddenly erupt. Here we also have to take into account the close relations between Russia and Serbia, so I think that not only Germany but all of Europe should take care of the Western Balkans much more intensively. Germany is doing a lot in this direction and it has clear positions, which have been expressed by the chancellor, the foreign minister and the entire government. But this is not enough. We must also convince our European partners that it is in our strategic interest to offer BP a clear European perspective. In this context, I have to say that for me the last summit of the European Union was a big disappointment, because on the one hand it is said that BP has a clear perspective of EU membership, while on the other hand no concrete steps are being taken for years. I hope that in the coming weeks and months agreements will be reached and that after this summit very soon we will have concrete measures to bring BP closer to the EU.
DW: The last EU summit was a big disappointment not only for you but for all BP countries, because there was no concrete result at this summit. How much can this affect the fading of the European idea among the peoples of the Balkans, because the so-called perspective of membership was given almost 20 years ago, but this was not accompanied by important concrete steps?
Erhard Buehler: I have been dealing with the Western Balkans almost as long as the first promises were made. I have often been on various missions there and this is exactly my impression. Take Kosovo as an example: European representatives have come and gone and have always given promises. The liberalization of visas has also been promised, and when we talk about the liberalization of visas, we must know that this does not mean freedom of access to the labor market, but only freedom of movement for three months in the territory of the EU, while after three months they must leave again. Liberalization of visas is therefore only the first step, which has been done with many, many other countries, but not with Kosovo. In Kosovo and in other countries, I see great enthusiasm for the EU, especially among the younger generations. But inaction can backfire on this idea. This may add to the frustration and strengthening of nationalisms in these countries, which may result in the eruption of latent and frozen conflicts.
DW: How can one explain the reluctance of France and some other countries to liberalize visas for citizens of Kosovo, when it is known that Kosovo has met all the required conditions?
Erhard Buehler: I can’t explain this either, and nobody has said publicly what are the causes of this hesitation. There is also another problem, that of the non-recognition of Kosovo by five EU countries and four NATO countries. This non-recognition of Kosovo by these countries can perhaps be explained by the internal political problems or the problems these countries have with their minorities. But on the issue of visa liberalization, there is really no explanation.
DW: Mr. General, after you mentioned NATO: How realistic are Kosovo’s demands for rapprochement and membership in NATO?
Bühler: This is a long way and it depends on the transformation of the Kosovo Security Forces (FSK) and its development towards an army, which is also foreseen by the laws of Kosovo. A lot of strategic work needs to be done here.
As for the KSF, it has become an excellent force, but it needs to be put on the right conceptual foundations, have the right military strategy and become compatible with NATO forces. A few more steps must be taken here, first of all regarding multilateral functioning. But I think that Kosovo could soon be integrated into the Partnership for Peace program. But even here, the main problem is that all member countries must agree with this decision, that is, the four NATO countries, which have not yet recognized Kosovo. Here too, a greater commitment is required to convince these countries that the membership of the Western Balkans and Kosovo in NATO is in our strategic interest.
DW: How do you assess the security situation in Kosovo, in particular in the north of Kosovo, and is the current contingent of KFOR able to defend Kosovo in case of an attack from outside?
Erhard Buehler: I see no danger of any attack from outside. KFOR is the guarantor of this and behind KFOR stands NATO. KFOR troops have been reduced a lot recently. This is how it should be, because there is no need for thousands and thousands of NATO soldiers to stay there. This would not be good for the image of Kosovo, and it would not be in line with the current security situation there. But in case of any attack from outside, NATO troops are ready to avoid this.
DW: Not only in Kosovo, but also in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in other countries of the region, the arming of Serbia with Russian and Chinese weapons has been viewed with concern. How do you see this issue?
Erhard Buehler: Arming an army is a legitimate right of each country, including Serbia. Serbia has not only bought Russian but also Western weapons. Some time ago, she also bought helicopters which were sent from Germany. But the decisive thing is the desire to use these weapons, and I do not see this danger. However, an aggressive rhetoric of the responsible politicians in Serbia, who threaten to use military forces, is very clearly visible. This causes fear in people and this aggressive rhetoric is then introduced into public debates, although I do not think that there is any purpose for the use of these weapons. However, everyone should avoid this aggressive rhetoric, which is aimed at internal political gains. This should not be used, but it is being used.
DW: This is precisely where the problem lies, because the combination of this aggressive rhetoric, which has recently been heard by the president of Serbia Vucic himself, as well as the purchase of weapons, causes fear in people and other countries in the region. You are not afraid of using these weapons?
Erhard Buehler: No, as you said, I’m not afraid. But the fact is that this incites fear among citizens. This exacerbates unresolved issues and does not contribute to reconciliation. Reconciliation must happen, because more than 20 years have passed since the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Reconciliation is in the interest of all Western Balkan countries, primarily Serbia. Reconciliation should therefore also be in the interest of Serbia, in the interest of the well-being of the people in Serbia. The lack of stability must not return to the Western Balkans, because this paves the way for extremist nationalists, which in extreme cases can result in new open conflicts.
DW: The indecision of the EU on concrete steps, such as the opening of negotiations for the membership of North Macedonia and Albania in the EU or the intensification of the dialogue and the solution of the problems between Kosovo and Serbia, certainly does not contribute to sustainable stability. Can Germany do even more in this regard?
Erhard Buehler: Germany is doing a lot, it was clearly defined during the trips of the Chancellor and the Foreign Minister to BP. Germany must try to convince the EU and NATO countries that its positions are correct, and it is doing so. It is in the strategic interest that BP is not forgotten and that it is gradually integrated into the EU. You mentioned Vei’s Macedonia: Bulgaria and many other countries should know that they have been admitted to the EU even though they have not met all the preconditions. But in these cases priority has been given to strategic interests and this is right.
DW: How do you evaluate the processes in The Hague against the former leaders of the former KLA, who are accused of war crimes? I am asking you because you were also the commander of KFOR and you probably had many important documents in your hands. During the time you were in Kosovo, did you have any knowledge of the crimes for which former president Thaçi and others are accused by the court in The Hague?
Erhard Buehler: No. During the time I was in command, the Swiss Dick Marty’s report was published (editorial explanation: The former leaders of the former KLA are accused in the Report of the MEP Dick Marty of crimes and trafficking in human organs). Of course, we have looked at all the archives and tried to find concrete evidence for these accusations, but we have not found any. We have found no evidence for these claims. I know three of them and I always proceed from the principle that each person is innocent until the final decision of the court. Of course, we have followed the entire debate on this issue and express regret for such a long extension of the processes. It is also unfortunate that the evidence was so little at the beginning of the process, that now the prosecution is being forced to do many other investigations after the publication of the first indictment.
General Erhard Bühler was born in 1956 in Aichach.
Among other things, he was the commander of the German troops in Kosovo and then the commander of KFOR.
From 2019 to April 2020, he was also commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Forces Command in Brunssum. He is regarded as one of the best connoisseurs of the security situation not only in the Balkans and Europe, but also beyond. Meanwhile, General Erhard Bühler has been elected President of the General Association of German-Albanian Associations in Germany.?/DW