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Ensuring Democratic Progress and Human Security: KFOR and election security northern Kosovo

NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) must prepare to protect the integrity of elections in Kosovo. This activity should be framed as a human security task.

Introduction: The need for support in Kosovo

As international pressure mounts on Kosovo to hold elections in the country’s Serbian majority North,  democratic values are at the forefront of international discourse. The likely and forthcoming election in Northern Kosovo presents an opportunity for KFOR to implement its existing security-focused mandate in accordance with the fundamental principles of NATO and the UN’s human security approach.

Tensions and controversy have persisted since the ethnic Serb-Kosovars, who make up a majority in the north but a fraction of the overall Kosovar population, resigned en masse from state institutions in the region in November 2022, citing breaches of EU-mediated agreements between Serbia and Kosovo. Ethnic Albania-Kosovars replaced them following a municipal election in April 2023; the turnout was just 3.47%, which the Serb-Kosovars boycotted. Violent protests by the Serb-Kosovar community ensued in May 2023, with continued resignations of Serb-Kosovars from further state institutions in August 2023, inflaming levels of communal animosity and making prospects of an election rerun precarious. In September 2023 an armed attack in the village of Banjska on Kosovo police left four dead (a local police sergeant and three of the attackers). The deputy head of the Serbian List (the political grouping which represents most of the ethnic Serb-Kosovars) later admitted to organising and taking part in the incident. In October 2023 the Serbian List – backed by Serbian President Vucic – said it was ready to participate in new municipal elections in Northern Kosovo. By December 2023 reports emerged that ethnic Serb-Kosovars will attempt to follow the electoral commission’s procedure to trigger new municipal elections.

NATO can safeguard elections in Kosovo by deterring the threat of violence in coordination with the Kosovo Police and the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), providing a visible presence near polling centres to reassure and protect the local population – both Albanian-Kosovars and Serb-Kosovars – and secure the right to vote in a peaceful electoral process. Military planners should frame the support and measure its subsequent impact through the lens of NATO’s human security policy.  In doing so, NATO progresses its portfolio of human security-related activities and deepens its expertise in democracy support expertise.

Outcomes from Election Safeguarding: The Human Security Imperative in Northern Kosovo

Northern Kosovo has a complex history marked by ethnic tensions and contemporary geopolitical influences. It requires a comprehensive approach to security, particularly as it approaches flashpoints such as elections. The specified tasking of safeguarding elections should be framed as a complementary human security activity for KFOR, which will contribute towards the following outcomes:

Protecting the Democratic Process

Free and fair elections are the foundation of democracy, enabling citizens to express their will peacefully. However, in regions like Northern Kosovo electoral processes will be susceptible to disruption including violence. Like military forces in the Central African Republic, Nigeria, NATO itself in Afghanistan in 2005 and the forthcoming Mexico election, KFOR can help to ensure a secure environment on election day by guarding near polling stations and access routes, escorting administrative staff, and ensuring freedom of movement for residents to participate with a reduced risk of violence or fear from coercion.

Preventing Conflict, Instability and Displacement

A continued and enhanced show of force from KFOR will seek to deter violence before and after the election, safeguarding citizens and officials – such as beekeeper and ethnic Albanian-Kosovar Mayor Lulzim Hetemiwho has sought to sleeping in his office due to safety concerns. KFOR’s enhanced presence will also counter longer-term tactics aimed to displace target minority groups from electoral boundaries, known as “forceful displacement”, a hybrid form of electoral manipulation through de facto ethnic cleansing.

Strengthening Governance and Rule of Law 

Upholding the rule of law and good governance is a fundamental requirement of security sector governance and reform (SSG/R) for the long-term stability of Kosovo. By providing military support to maintain security, local authorities can prioritise time to develop institutions and capacity, such as Kosovo’s Ombuds Institution which should be instrumental for investigating technical electoral disputes. Strengthening SSG/R would also degrade susceptibility to corruption, building integrity in the region.

Supporting Economic and Social Development

A more stable political environment is indispensable for economic and social development. By setting the conditions for a secure election, KFOR would support the implementation of EU Foreign Policy chief Joseph Borrell and US Ambassador to Kosovo Jeffrey Hovenier’s calls for elections. Finding stability in Northern Kosovo and between Belgrade and Pristina is a “key part” of Kosovo’s road to further EU integration.

Transitional Justice

The nature of electoral systems and the legal frameworks are crucial for the consolidation of transitional justice processes. Key transitional justice components in Northern Kosovo which an election may support would include, in particular; the equitable redistribution of power and wealth and institutional reform, as well as setting the conditions for accountability and reconciliation efforts. As I have written about before for the Wavell Room, a human security model in the Balkans with an understanding of transitional justice at its heart will create better structures for lasting peace in the region.

The Kosovar government, the UN and many international donors such as USAID are prioritising the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 16 in Kosovo. SDG 16 stresses the need for strong institutions that are built on respect for human rights, effective rule of law, and good governance at all levels, increasing state and human security. By protecting the electoral process, KFOR will be help promote the development of effective, accountable and transparent institutions, increasing resilience to the perpetuation of conflict, injustice, and human rights violations that affect the entire population, in particular marginalised groups. 

Protection of elections: Improved engagement and NATO’s development

From NATO’s perspective, there are moral, security, strategic and economic motives to foster durable democracy in Kosovo’s conflict-prone and weakened region. Through a “persistent engagement” approach in Kosovo, NATO is likely to deter domestic, regional and geopolitical spoilers to Kosovo, NATO and Serbia’s interests, as well as continuing to build long-term stability in a Kosovo, a NATO aspirational country.

KFOR in Mitrovica 2018. By Allions – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Electoral safeguarding in Kosovo will provide an opportunity for NATO to develop its capabilities in a broadly permissive environment. Moreover, from a strategic communications perspective, it positions the alliance as a guardian of democratic values and a promoter of human security, reinforcing NATO’s relevance in the contemporary complex operating environment.

From a civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) perspective, KFOR is well supported in Kosovo, and has good access. Protecting the election will generate further opportunities to engage with locals and work with other partners, such as key election observers OSCE’s ODIHR. KFOR could seek basic training in election day procedures from ODIHR or the UK’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) to enhance understanding of election day processes.

There are also opportunities for NATO to develop its own policies.

By actively engaging in the safeguarding of elections in Kosovo, KFOR positions itself as an actor in the Humanitarian-Development-Peace (HDP) nexus, or a to-be developed Security-Humanitarian-Development-Peace (S-HDP) Nexus. KFOR’s commitment to protecting the election strengthens governance and the rule of law which aligns with the developmental facet. The HDP nexus recognizes the interconnectedness of humanitarian assistance, development, and peacebuilding efforts to address complex crises comprehensively.

KFOR exercise in 2019.
By Allions – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

KFOR could seek to publicly frame or internally consider itself as an active participant in the (S-)HDP nexus. By leveraging its CIMIC capabilities to engage a more diverse range of partners, and sequencing complementary action with these actors, KFOR can develop a comprehensive election violence prevention strategy which will arise from the alignment of capacity-building, technical election assistance, security sector engagement, civic and voter education and consultation, and peace messaging. KFOR would continue to focus on its mandate to provide a secure environment and enable freedom of movement for all people in Kosovo, while extending its portfolio beyond traditional security roles; embracing a comprehensive approach which recognises the multifaceted nature of contemporary security challenges above and below the threshold of armed conflict.

KFOR’s involvement in electoral safeguarding not only bolsters its efficacy in addressing immediate security concerns but also positions NATO as a supporting partner in promoting sustainable development and peace in conflict-prone regions, exemplifying the evolving role of alliances in non-traditional military activities.

This does not need to mean a total evolution of the alliance – as mentioned previously ISAF/ Resolute Support had similar taskings in 2005 lasting well into the following decade – but it should be an evolution of how NATO’s human security policy is framed, allowing for human security to be key tenant of NATO’s strategy, planning, monitoring, evaluation, accountability, learning and sustainability (SPMEALS).

Conclusion

Kosovo represents a unique opportunity for the development of human security policy. KFOR already has money, mission and mandate (“the three Ms”), as well as access and capability.

Framing election protection as part of human security approach is a useful reconceptualisation which opens up multidimensional analytical frameworks aligned to UN language. The Nexus framework assesses, develops and implements integrated responses to a range of complex issues that require the combined inputs of the UN system, Governments, non-governmental entities, and the communities themselves.

Although the timing and sequencing of any election in an unstable environment must be carefully selected, Kosovo President Albin Kurti is under pressure to deliver. As Northern Kosovo approaches a critical election, KFOR must be ready to provide security support to protect the democratic process when requested. This proactive stance aligns with the three core human security freedoms; freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom to live in dignity in a region marked by historical tensions.

Cover photo: NATO.

Author profile picture
Luke James
Luke James is Defence Human Security Advisor interested in transitonal justice and conflict transformation. He has previously worked for the International Criminal Court, OSCE ODIHR, HALO Trust and the British Red Cross. Luke is a Deputy Director for an International Law NGO and a Reservist with Outreach Group.

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