Members of Kosovo Security Force (KSF) attending the ceremony to mark the 19th anniversary of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) Commander Adem Jashari's death. Pristina, Kosovo. | Photo: EPA/Valdrin Xhemaj

An army or a distraction?

The proposed army is part of a strategy to limit domestic dissent and cement the position of the elites who have allowed Kosovo to stagnate – if not degenerate – since 2008.

Since President Thaci announced his intention to create a Kosovo army, debate has raged as to whether Kosovo actually needs one. Recent events, such as the aggressive statements from Belgrade, the infamous “Kosovo is Serbia!” train, and the broader geopolitical context – particularly the increasingly assertive Russia and the election of NATO-sceptic Trump – have been offered as a rationale for the army. Beyond just these contemporary factors, an army is certainly a key characteristic of any independent state, and anyone familiar with events in Kosovo in the 1990s will understand that insecurity amongst the Albanian community is born from bitter experience.   

Those against the idea point to the fact that it has been condemned by the US and NATO, and that the move is a provocative act that raises tensions in the region. Additionally, the presence of some 4,200 NATO troops in Kosovo surely renders an invasion inconceivable. Thaci has warned, however, that Kosovo cannot depend exclusively on foreign military support. While this is true to an extent, in the highly unlikely event that NATO ever discontinues its support for Kosovo, a Kosovo army comprising 5,000 troops would clearly be no match for a full-scale armed invasion by Serbia.

The army has less to do with military or geopolitical logic and more to do with the motivations of those proposing it.

But these analyses miss the point. From a singularly strategic military perspective, of course a Kosovo national army is illogical; from the point of view of Thaci, proposing an army for Kosovo makes perfect sense, because the army has less to do with military or geopolitical logic and more to do with the motivations of those proposing it.

Patriotism and fear

Samuel Johnson famously stated “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Historically, nothing breeds patriotism as effectively as fear. For millennia governments have used the spectre of an external threat as a means by which domestic support is maintained. Fomenting a sense that the “enemy” is poised to strike enables governments to convince the populace that obedience to their rule is a matter of existential importance.

Fear of the “other” has, therefore, allowed regimes to deflect public attention away from their own failures onto external foes. The effective application of such a strategy creates a sense that to question the government in the midst of a “crisis” is “unpatriotic.” This ploy has been adopted by demagogues such as Robert Mugabe and Slobodan Milosevic, but can also been seen in Trump’s brand of populism. The chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year, yet such facts have less impact on society than well-crafted fear-mongering.  And fear-mongering breeds the patriotic fervour required to perpetuate regimes that can survive only if people support rather than question.

Kosovo’s corrupt elite

The jubilant crowds that took to the streets when Kosovo declared independence in February 2008 could hardly have imagined that Kosovo in 2017 would be so beset by unemployment, poor education, failing health care, and inadequate infrastructure. These problems are compounded by Kosovo’s limited international recognition and consequent inability to join the UN, the EU, and NATO. For the people of Kosovo, this lack of international recognition has had profoundly negative implications for their standard of living and ability to travel and work across Europe.

These problems are not unique to Kosovo of course; what does mark Kosovo out, however, is the fact that it has been the focus of sustained international attention for nearly 18 years. A vast assemblage of international organizations have expended enormous amounts of time, energy and investment in Kosovo, and yet the situation remains bleak. Why?

According to a number of international reports and commissions, development in Kosovo has been strangled by a corrupt elite who have used the institutions of the state and the influx of international funds for their own benefit. The corruption problem in Kosovo may be endemic, but it is certainly not solely the fault of the Kosovars. The elite could not have operated as effectively as it has without the tacit compliance – if not at times the active support – of certain powerful international actors.

An army or a distraction?

Given that an extensive network of local actors have colluded in immiserating Kosovo, is it any surprise that they now seek to deflect attention away from their misrule by cultivating patriotism on the back of fear? To avoid this issue being a test of one’s patriotism, it is worth considering two questions: first, is this the most pressing issue facing Kosovo? Second, who gains from public attention turning to national defence?

Regarding the first question, clearly the problems facing Kosovo will not be allayed by the creation of an army. Given the scale of these problems, the focus of Kosovo’s political leaders should surely be on tackling the root cause of so many of these problems, namely corruption. Of course, this is not possible because so many of these political leaders are themselves corrupt.

Elites throughout the region have long thrived by stoking fear precisely because it compels a compliant patriotism.

This of course leads into the second question. Many in the political elite, particularly President Thaci, have a vested interest in fomenting patriotism precisely because it diminishes dissent and obscures those more pressing problems caused by years of misrule. If attention is turned towards national security and the elite assume the mantle of “protectors of the nation,” then by definition their status is more secure.

This ploy can also be seen in Serbia today, where the looming presidential elections have seen various candidates peddle ridiculous conspiracies about the violent intentions of the Kosovo Albanians so as to narrow the terms of the debate. Indeed, elites throughout the region have long thrived by stoking fear precisely because it compels a compliant patriotism.

The army proposal is, therefore, part of a broader strategy that aims to limit domestic dissent by shifting public attention away from the source of Kosovo’s many ills. It is, ultimately, designed to maintain the status quo by cementing the position of those elites who, while looking after their own interests, allowed Kosovo to stagnate – if not degenerate – since 2008. The people of Kosovo, however, surely need change much more than they need continuity.

Dr. Aidan Hehir is a Reader (Associate Professor) in international relations at the University of Westminster (UK). He teaches at the RIT Kosovo Summer School, and his research interests include statebuilding and the laws governing the use of force.

20 March 2017 - 10:29

Aidan Hehir

20/03/2017 - 10:29

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosova. For 8 years, PI has been reporting on current affairs, published exclusive investigations and longform features & essays about Kosovo and the region.