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Turkish Bayraktar drone sales to Kosovo spark anger in Serbia

As western influence in the Balkans wanes, Turkey's strategic importance in the region re-emerges
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti showcasing the country’s latest purchase of Bayraktar TB2 drones (Albin Kurti/Social Media)

Turkey’s decision to supply Kosovo with drones has sparked fury in Serbia which has called it “unacceptable".

Tensions between the two neighbours have been on the rise over the last year, culminating last month in violence in northern Kosovo - which has a large Serb minority - and the wounding of Nato soldiers and police officers.

Kosovo accused Belgrade of inciting tensions in the north of the country - that Serbia regards as its own territory - by backing militants attacking state institutions and seeking to undermine the country’s sovereignty. 

But it was Kosovo’s decision to publicise its new military capabilities that have drawn Serbia's ire this week. 

Over the weekend Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti, proudly showcased the country’s latest purchase of Bayraktar TB2 drones, a model most recently used in Ukraine against Russian targets to great effect. 

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Kosovo’s demonstration of its new defensive hardware was meant as a warning to its powerful neighbour that Pristina would defend itself, if need be, against attempts by Serbia to undermine the country’s borders, said Sidita Kushi, an assistant professor in political science at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.

“Against the backdrop of seemingly declining western support [for Kosovo] and multiple clashes between ethnic Serbs and Kosovo police and KFOR [a Nato-led international peacekeeping force] troops in the north, Kosovo’s population needs assurances regarding its future security,” she told Middle East Eye. 

Turkey has been more than willing to step into the role that the European Union and the US increasingly seem willing to vacate as they seek to entice Serbia away from Russia’s orbit.

'Within Kosovo's leadership, the ongoing appeasement of Serbia by the West has brought Turkey's strategic importance into sharp focus'

- Kosovo government source

A source close to the Kurti government speaking to MEE said that the Kosovo government in the past had chosen to maintain a public distance from the Turkish administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “despite the strong institutional relations".

There was a fear in Pristina that if there was a perception that Kosovo was too closely aligned with Erdogan it “might raise suspicions in the west,” the source said.

“However, it is essential for western leaders to recognise that Kurti is a pragmatic politician who understands realpolitik and adapts to changing circumstances. Within Kosovo's leadership, the ongoing appeasement of Serbia by the West has brought Turkey's strategic importance into sharp focus," added the source.

"As a result, Turkish influence in Kosovo is likely to strengthen considerably, leading to intensified bilateral ties, especially in the defence sector."

Serbia committed to ties with Turkey

Angered by the sale of drones to Kosovo, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said last month that his country had cancelled planned drone purchases from Turkey.

Nemanja Starovic, the state secretary at the Ministry of Defence in Serbia, told MEE that the Turkish ambassador to the country had been summoned following the latest drone purchases by Pristina.

Starovic added that his country wanted to “express serious concerns about the fact that certain Nato member states, including Turkey, actively support illegal militarisation on the ground by training and equipping the so-called Kosovo Security Force, aimed at transforming it into a full-fledged army.”

Starovic said the purchase would “influence bilateral relations".

'We are fully committed to the advancement of our ties with Ankara, as we are aware of the fact that Turkey is the largest country in the Balkans'

- Nemanja Starovic, Serbian Ministry of Defence 

“However, we are fully committed to the advancement of our ties with Ankara, as we are aware of the fact that Turkey is the largest country in the Balkans,” Starovic added.

“On top of that, in the previous several years, we have developed strong economic ties with Turkey for mutual benefit and that has definitely contributed to increased understanding on a political level,” he said, adding: “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vocal” over Kosovo’s weapons purchases. 

Despite Serbia’s facing little regional threats it has been on a buying spree of drones and other weapons. 

Earlier this year Vucic announced that the country would be purchasing loitering munitions from the UAE which would add to the country’s arsenal of Chinese drones. The country is also in the process of producing its own drones

“It does not seem likely that this incident will cause a serious rift,” noted Bojan Elek, the deputy director at Belgrade Centre for Security Policy. 

“Apart from the harsh tone, Serbia also announced it will give up on Turkey as a supplier and opt for Chinese drones, and this is probably the most serious consequence of the whole situation,” added Elek speaking to MEE. 

“Serbia has a principled stance regarding Kosovo and its elements of statehood, military included,” added Elek referring to Belgrade’s refusal to acknowledge Kosovo's independence.

Security beyond the West

Kosovo media has reported that as many as five drones may have been purchased in addition to other military equipment, including vehicles. 

The current tension between the two countries dates back to April when Kosovo Serbs boycotted local elections. As a result of the low turnout, ethnic Albanians took control of the local councils, which were predominantly Serb. 

The EU and the US demanded that Kosovo not implement the result of the democratic elections for fear of angering Serbia. When Kosovo authorities pushed ahead, the EU and the US sanctioned Pristina. 

In contrast, the US has largely avoided criticising Serbia following the recent violence. 

'Kosovo’s weapons purchases from Turkey are intended to be defensive in nature, in the context of Serbia’s historical aggression and recent provocations'

- Sidita Kushi, Bridgewater State University

Additionally, the Kosovo government made a point over the weekend to note that it has increased dramatically the number of soldiers as well as its military budget.

“These statements are also intended to show that Kosovo can build a security policy beyond its historical dependencies to Nato and the EU,” said Kushi.

Kosovo’s military budget of $137m still pales in comparison to Serbia’s which stands at $1.5bn.

“Kosovo’s weapons purchases from Turkey are intended to be defensive in nature, in the context of Serbia’s historical aggression and recent provocations,” said Kushi.

As the West has increasingly sought to bargain Kosovo’s security in their interactions with Serbia - this has posed a security dilemma for Pristina regarding who it can turn to for its defence needs. 

In turn, any steps that make “Kosovo feel more secure, such as new weapons purchases or a growing army, will inevitably make Serbia feel less secure… despite Kosovo’s clear defensive intentions” warns Kushi. 

But an increasingly independent-minded Kosovo, determined to pursue its own national interests and a growing weariness of perceived pro-Serbian leanings in policy making by western leaders has also made such weapons purchases a matter of survival for the country. 

Western efforts to tame Kosovo’s sovereignty 

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, following a war in 1998-99 in which the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), assisted by Nato, drove back Serbian forces who had embarked on a systematic campaign of brutality against Kosovar Albanians.

Almost 10,500 ethnic Albanians were killed or disappeared, up to 20,000 women were raped and more than 800,000 were forcibly expelled from their homes. 

“Kosovo’s western partners will need to reframe and reset their approach to the Balkans and begin to push back against Serbia’s destabilising role, not just strong-arm Kosovo into compliance,” added Kushi. 

Nato criticised Kosovo's drone purchase, suggesting that Pristina did not have primary authority over its airspace. 

'Kosovo's efforts to militarise can be seen as a response to Serbia's largest military expenditure in the region and  inability to confront its violent past'

- Gezim Visoka, Dublin City University

“I interpret the western response - including [Nato's] remarks about the purchase of drones and their assertion of sovereignty over Kosovo's airspace - as an attempt to restrain and limit Kosovo's efforts to increase its domestic sovereignty,” said Gezim Visoka, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Dublin City University. 

What is concerning, added Visoka, speaking to MEE, is the “US, EU, and Nato's desire to reassert Serbia as a significant player in Kosovo's internal affairs.

“Kosovo's efforts to militarise can be seen as a response to Serbia's largest military expenditure in the region, inability to confront its violent past, and failure to provide guarantees that atrocities won't be repeated against Kosovo and others in the region,” added Visoka. 

The increasing militarisation by Balkan states, warns Visoka, is “bad news” for the region because it's an indication that attempts to resolve matters diplomatically are failing. 

“Although the support or opposition to militarisation depends on the circumstances and the interests involved, it is not a problem if arms are bought from western allies; the problem arises when they are bought by other rising or rival powers,” noted Visoka.

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