Kosovo: Security Situation

– in the House of Commons at 6:58 pm on 8 February 2023.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stuart Anderson.)

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:00, 8 February 2023

After five years in this place, I have finally managed to secure my first Adjournment debate. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Kosovo, I am pleased that it is a debate about security in Kosovo.

Last July, I went to Kosovo with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, alongside Martin Vickers and my hon. Friend Luke Pollard, who are both in their place, my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty and Harriett Baldwin. We had high-level discussions with the Prime Minister, the President’s office and KFOR about the security situation. The situation has since worsened, which is why we need this debate.

I share the Republic of Kosovo’s concern that Serbia is attempting to incite violence in Kosovo—a serious threat to peace and stability in the region and beyond. Those attempts come after Serbia has already destabilised and created tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, through the “Republika Srpska” entity, and in Montenegro. Because there have never been sufficient repercussions from the international community, Serbia has increasingly been threatening and engaging in staged acts of violence to destabilise Kosovo—so much so that its progressively more destructive approach has become normalised by the formulaic language of “both sides”, which must be decisively rejected.

Serbs in Kosovo are treated with respect. We need to ensure that relations between the two communities—Kosovan Serbs and Kosovan Albanians—and other minorities are harmonious and normalised if we are to have a secure and stable Kosovo and a solution to what is increasingly becoming a crisis. However, in the best-case scenario, Serbia is intentionally trying to destabilise Kosovo to prevent progress of the dialogue, especially in the context of the newly proposed EU plan, supported by France and Germany, for the normalisation of relations. In the worst-case scenario, the deliberate escalation is reminiscent of Serbia’s modus operandi of starting wars in the 1990s. It is indeed a bad omen and a materialisation of what the current regime in Belgrade, many of whom served under Milošević, have been trumpeting for years now.

From my perspective, Kosovo has been willing to compromise, including on IDs, vehicle registration plates and the postponement of elections. Left without any bargaining chips or means to block progress on dialogue, Serbia has decided to artificially create a crisis in Kosovo.

On 9 December last year, Serbian Prime Minister Brnabić announced that Serbia was requesting the return of its military and police to Kosovo. That request was rejected by KFOR. In parallel, violence was instigated in the northern enclaves: in less than 24 hours, citizens started being terrorised by random detonations of stun grenades, journalists were attacked, Kosovan police were shot at multiple times and a police officer was hospitalised. That came after weeks of intimidation of citizens in the north, including by burning cars whose plates had been converted to official Kosovan registration plates.

On 10 December, Serbia instructed criminal groups in the north of Kosovo to set up barricades. That is now a commonplace measure whenever Belgrade wants to increase tensions in Kosovo, but what is different this time is that Serbian President Vučić is no longer feigning ignorance as to who is behind them. Not only does he openly admit to being in control of the barricades, but he is now legitimising them and leveraging them as a political tool for destabilisation. On the same day, after attacks on citizens, police officers and journalists, a European Union rule of law mission reconnaissance patrol was attacked by a stun grenade.

The following day, on 11 December, an official request was submitted for the redeployment of Serbian troops to Kosovo. It was eerily reminiscent of Russia’s tactics of invading a sovereign state under the pretence of protecting its “endangered community”. The Republic of Kosovo authorities purposely did not move to dismantle the barricades, in order not to raise tensions, and asked for support from the KFOR mission.

I could go through each day of the past two months in turn—you can see me turning through pages of infractions and escalations by the Serbian Government, Mr Deputy Speaker—but I do not think we have time, so I will skip ahead. I might share one or two more reflections on the subject later if there is time, but I first want to reflect on the Yorkshire contribution to Kosovan security.

ASD Lighting, which is based in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, is working with the Kosovan Government to provide assistance with state-of-the-art technology that will provide much-needed additional security measures to the disputed border areas with neighbouring Serbia. It is looking to improve infrastructure countrywide with energy-saving and security solutions. A delegation from various Kosovan Government Departments visited ASD Lighting in December to assess the capabilities and solutions that it could offer. This has been followed up by a visit by ASD’s personnel to Pristina and also to some of the disputed border region, in order to provide advice and guidance on the technology and solutions required to provide increased security measures. I ask the UK Government and, in particular, the new Department for Business and Trade to support that move, and to assist ASD. I thank my constituent Brian Deane, who has been working with ASD and has been a significant contributor to cultural life in Kosovo for many years. He is a brilliant ambassador for Yorkshire in Kosovo and for Kosovo in Yorkshire, alongside a former Member of Parliament for Keighley, John Grogan.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. As he may know, a security training firm in Northern Ireland, consisting of former officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, had a contract to train police officers in Kosovo, which was funded by European money. It is clear that the job has not yet been completed, that there must be further training of the first line of defence in Kosovo—the policing sector—to make improvements throughout the region, and that the Government should offer any help that they can for that purpose. Will the hon. Gentleman make representations on behalf of his constituency firm and mine?

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman: it cannot be an Adjournment debate without an intervention from him. What he has said reflects what we have seen in Kosovo, when we went there in July and generally: the high regard that the Kosovans have for the United Kingdom and the role that we played in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and since, in the security and stabilisation of Kosovo as a nation. I think we continue to do that. There are more opportunities for us to work jointly with Kosovo than I have seen in many other places I have visited. The Kosovans look to us first, and others afterwards.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that at the most recent Council of Europe meeting, I initiated a debate on Serbia and Kosovo to ensure that Kosovo was admitted as a full member of the Council? It is already a partial member, and we have promised the Kosovans all our help in completing the documentation that is required to give it full membership.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am aware of that, and I thank the hon. Member, and my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd—another member of the Council of Europe delegation, who was Minister for Europe at the time of the initial crisis and genocide in Kosovo, but who cannot be here this evening—for the work they have done to support Kosovo’s entry to the Council. It is hugely important for it to enter a multilateral, multinational organisation, which is part of its ambition. It sees the Council not as an end in itself, but as a stepping stone to greater things so that it can fully enter the community of nations.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

It was a good trip of Kosovo that my hon. Friend and I, along with others, made last year. Does he agree that the 25th anniversary of the support that the UK and our allies provided for Kosovo in 1999 will be an opportunity for the UK Government, and the Governments of our allies, to make the case for its full participation in multilateral arrangements, starting with full membership of the Council of Europe?

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is worth reflecting on the contribution of that UK Government to Kosovo: I am thinking particularly of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale, of Robin Cook, who is sadly no longer with us, and of Tony Blair, who is held in high regard in Kosovo. The 25th anniversary is a time for other countries to reflect on the progress that Kosovo has made, and to ensure that it enters all those multilateral organisations and is brought into our community as a fully fledged nation.

Serbia has still not condemned the Russian aggression in Ukraine. President Zelensky was here today, and we have a nation in Europe that cannot even condemn what is happening to his nation. Serbia is still acting aggressively to its neighbours—not just Kosovo—which risks peace and stability not only in the region, but far beyond as well. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is already following the situation closely, and is not hesitating to voice its support for Serbia openly in the event of an armed conflict, having militarised it heavily for years. Given how emboldened the Serbian authorities have become, it is concerning that further coddling of Serbia for the sake of stability could seriously backfire and lead to tensions spiralling out of control. The UK Government and the international community should condemn Serbia’s unilateral destabilisation attempts. They should urge the Serbian authorities to return to dialogue to normalise relations with mutual recognition at the centre, and resolve all issues peacefully. However, the west continues to allow Serbia’s transgression. The international community does not rebuke Serbia or compel its justice system to seek convictions for the deaths of thousands of victims in Kosovo—an example of something that the international community could do.

Kosovo needs guarantees similar to those given to Sweden and Finland, which would serve as a game changer, deterring possible threats to our collective security and putting the region on a fast track to stability. The UK position on the association of Serb majority communities should be welcomed. The UK should invest political weight in this position, sharing its views with the Quint countries and the EU mediator. Without a doubt, that would aid the normalisation process between Kosovo and Serbia and help prevent ethno-territorial solutions.

The stabilisation of community relations inside Kosovo is key to peace. The five non-recognising EU nations are also a concern and play a major role in the normalisation process that is foremost in the international consolidation of Kosovo. The UK has played a major role in consolidating Kosovo’s presence in international organisations and its gaining of new recognitions. The Government should use their influence, especially with the five non-recognising EU states, to unlock the normalisation process and the Euro-Atlantic path for Kosovo.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I thank Alex Sobel for successfully securing this debate. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine, I think he and others did a great job last week in securing the visit to Parliament of UK ambassador to Kosovo, Nicholas Abbott, who updated us on relations between the UK and Kosovo and the current situation there. Yesterday, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti wrote:

“We do accept the EU proposal for normalization of relations between Kosova and Serbia, and consider it a good basis for further discussion”.

Would the hon. Gentleman also be interested to hear the UK Government’s position on the most recent proposal for the normalisation of relations?

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That is a very live issue. For years now we have seen a dialogue based in Brussels. The current Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who has been to Parliament twice since I have been an MP, has a willingness to compromise and to go the extra mile, but that is not returned by President Vučić. The UK, working with others—particularly the French and German Governments —can apply pressure to Serbia to be an honest partner for peace and not to act as it has in undermining the process and, frankly, pulling the wool over the eyes of other Governments in Europe, including our own. That is the most useful thing that the UK Government and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office can do. If we can get to an agreement that both sides are able, frankly and honestly, to undertake, that is part of the path.

The five non-recognising states are a big issue that needs to be overcome. The EU needs to move forward and give more to Kosovo. Kosovo’s constructive commitment to the normalisation process should be translated into steps ahead, particularly in relation to those five non-recognising nations.

I have four asks of the UK Government, which I hope the Minister can respond to. The UK Government should support Kosovo in NATO Partnership for Peace membership by enhancing Kosovo and NATO relations. What has the UK’s Government role been so far in that? The UK Government should support Kosovan capability building, with a focus on military and information capabilities to oppose Russian influence in the region. We know about the listening station Niš, which is jointly operated by Russia and Serbia, and is a big issue, which we were briefed on by the KFOR and others when we were in Kosovo.

What is the Minister’s view on how we can curb Russian influence in Serbia? We need to support Kosovo’s military capability so that it can defend its territory and, at the same time, ensure that it is involved in NATO international peace operations. How can we enhance that role in Kosovo so that it can defend itself? For a more safe and secure environment in the Balkans, especially in Kosovo, can we ensure that KFOR has specialised units on the ground, because, as we see in Ukraine, wars are now hybrid, and we need a NATO force in Kosovo that is able to resist hybrid threats in case the worst happens.

I thank the House, and I think we will come back to this issue again and again, because after Ukraine, peace in the western Balkans is the most important issue for peace and stability in Europe.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Deputy Speaker

Order. I am acutely aware of the hon. Gentleman’s interest in these matters, but this is an Adjournment debate. Does he have the consent both of the Minister and of the Member in charge? I have had no indication that that is so.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes 7:15, 8 February 2023

That is the case, Mr Deputy Speaker. We advised the Speaker’s Office, and I thank Alex Sobel for allowing me an extra minute or two to add to his contribution, as we are the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on Kosovo. I am also the trade envoy to Kosovo and the western Balkan region. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the security situation. I have had the opportunity of meeting Prime Minister Kurti on four occasions, one of which was with the hon. Gentleman on the visit to Kosovo to which he referred. It is notable that Prime Minister Kurti is eager to extend our bilateral ties and the economic investment opportunities between our two countries, and I will certainly do all I can in my role as trade envoy to ensure that that happens.

Kosovo has a young, dynamic population, and that is evident when I visit businesses over there. We have great opportunities to secure the future of Kosovo after so many British and allied lives were lost during the conflict 30 or so years ago. This is an important part of the British contribution. I know that the Minister has visited the region in the relatively short period that he has been in office. That is very welcome and I look forward to hearing him give us a reassurance that he and his colleagues will continue with that working relationship. The hon. Member for Leeds North West mentioned Nick Abbott, our ambassador in Pristina, who was here last week. He does a splendid job, along with a very small team over in Kosovo, and it is vital that we ensure continued peace and prosperity for that country.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 7:17, 8 February 2023

I am grateful to Alex Sobel for securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to him for his work and his interest in the subject as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Kosovo. I am grateful for his comments, and I was particularly pleased to hear about Yorkshire’s contribution to the cultural life and development of Kosovo. I was also pleased to hear from Jim Shannon about the expertise from Northern Ireland that is being brought to bear in addressing the security challenges in Kosovo.

Kosovo is a vibrant country with democratic values and western European standards, but like other states in the western Balkans it contends with the challenging legacy of the conflict of the 1990s. Next week, Kosovo will celebrate the 15th anniversary of its independence, and I am very pleased—especially following his contribution today—that my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the western Balkans, will visit Pristina to take part in the celebrations. We wish him well with that visit. Fifteen years ago, the British ambassador was the first to present a letter in Pristina confirming our recognition of Kosovo, making the United Kingdom the first country to do so.

With the support of its partners, not least the UK, the Kosovo of 2022 has made significant progress in strengthening its economy, the rule of law, freedom of the press and its democracy. In the past year it has formally applied for both Council of Europe and European Union membership, and it is seeking to join NATO. I am grateful to my hon. Friend John Howell, who is no longer in his place, for his efforts in this area and for his contribution this evening. The UK supports Kosovo in its international integration ambitions, including through our support for modernisation and the reform of the judiciary and security forces. The United Kingdom’s bilateral relationship with Kosovo was, of course, forged in the most difficult of times, which will always provide a very firm basis for partnership. That partnership has gone from strength to strength in recent years.

Building on our defence partnership, for the first time our troops are now working side by side on an operational deployment outside the region. Building on our economic partnership, for the first time Kosovo is able to access financial support from the UK’s export credit agency, which now has substantial capacity for western Balkan countries and can support projects in a range of sectors, including infrastructure and energy. And building on our security partnership, for the first time we have sanctioned individuals linked with organised crime and corruption in Kosovo.

In December, we cemented all this into an annual formal institutional dialogue, the UK-Kosovo Partnership Council, which I was delighted to open in person during my visit to Pristina. During that visit, I met both Prime Minister Albin Kurti, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. In conversations that ranged from energy security to foreign policy, I gained a first-hand understanding of their deep affection and respect for the UK.

As I said at the outset, we must recognise the significant challenges that Kosovo faces, some of which are common to most new and developing states and some of which are particular challenges in the western Balkan region. These include the challenges of serious and organised crime and corruption, which the Government of Kosovo promised to tackle upon assuming office. We also work very closely with Kosovo’s Government, media and civil society to strengthen resilience to hybrid threats such as disinformation and cyber-attacks.

Of course, there are other challenges that are unique to Kosovo. Unfortunately, 15 years after independence, Kosovo is still not recognised by many countries. In 1999, NATO intervened to prevent a humanitarian disaster. Today, KFOR is NATO’s largest overseas mission and remains the ultimate guarantor of Kosovo’s security. I was pleased to meet British members of KFOR, and they are doing great work to build security in Kosovo. The UK commitment to KFOR remains strong, including by providing its strategic reserve capability. Many of those reserve forces were most recently on the ground in Kosovo for an exercise from September to November 2022.

A unique challenge facing Kosovo is the absence of a normal relationship with its neighbour Serbia, which does not recognise its independence and still asserts a territorial claim to Kosovo. This is a major obstacle to Kosovo’s integration into the international system. The EU-led dialogue on normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, which began in 2011, is the primary vehicle for seeking to address these issues. We are confident that a comprehensive and sustainable agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is possible, but it will take political will and political courage. The progress we have seen over the last year on several dialogue agreements, including on energy and car number plates, shows that progress is possible.

Through the dialogue, Kosovo has committed itself to the establishment of an association of Serbian-majority municipalities, and it is for the parties to agree the association’s form and the timing of its establishment. We encourage both Governments to make progress. Such a body is not only an international commitment but provides an opportunity for Kosovan Serbs to be an integral part of Kosovo.

We have heard much in recent weeks about efforts led by the EU, including proposals put forward by France and Germany to kick-start the process of real dialogue and to move beyond the cycle of rhetoric and tension that risks spilling into more violence. This Government welcome all steps that can help to deliver a long-term solution, including the present initiative.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

The 25th anniversary provides a real opportunity for the Government to step forward. I am concerned that, notwithstanding Kosovans’ huge amount of good will towards the UK, we are not always as present in Kosovo as we ought to be to make the required progress. Will the Minister look at that again ahead of the anniversary?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

We will continue to inject political and diplomatic energy. I recently visited Kosovo, and others will do so in the near future.

We will continue to support the EU-led dialogue both politically and practically. We absolutely agree with our international partners that the priority should be to reach a position where time and resource can be focused on co-operation and real benefits for the lives of ordinary citizens. It is strongly in the interests of both countries, the wider region and, indeed, the whole continent that Serbia and Kosovo move beyond division.

Over the past year, we have repeatedly seen tension fuelled by sudden action and inflammatory rhetoric. We therefore welcome the steps taken by both sides to de-escalate tensions, but we want to avoid an endless cycle of crisis management. Our embassies in both Pristina and Belgrade are active and working in close co-ordination with our Quint partners to encourage all parties to focus on the longer-term benefits of normalisation. The Prime Minister’s special envoy to the western Balkans, Lord Peach, was in Pristina and Belgrade in January, urging progress and exploring opportunities for UK support, and I did the same thing during my visit to both countries in December. I have been encouraged in recent days by commitments from the Kosovan Government to work towards the establishment of the association of Serbian majority municipalities, as part of Prime Minister Kurti’s acceptance of the wider EU proposal for the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Positive movement here has the potential to unlock progress on a wider relationship, with a very direct benefit for citizens,

In conclusion, 24 years after the conflict and 15 years after Kosovo’s independence, it is high time to move beyond the legacy of conflict and look towards the future. We remain unwavering in our support for Kosovo’s indisputable independence and its right to security. We look to the region to promote peace and security for all countries in the western Balkans. At the same time, we look to the Kosovan Government to look after the interests of all their citizens, and to work constructively and pragmatically for the normalisation of relations with Serbia and for improvement to the everyday lives of all citizens.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.