This month, it is 20 years since the start of the KFOR mission in Kosovo. This is the Bundeswehr’s longest-standing deployment abroad. That’s probably what was meant when someone said recently that KFOR was a forgotten mission.
Fellow members of this house, we should not allow any German soldier deployed abroad to be forgotten.
Though maybe in the case of KFOR this alleged forgottenness might be considered a good sign – a sign that trouble is no longer an everyday occurrence there, that the security situation is now stable. As a result, the nature of the mission has changed a great deal over these two decades. At the end of last year, the Bundeswehr was able to withdraw from its camp in southern Kosovo; today it is present only in Pristina. By the way, it should be said that a Kosovar-German innovation and training park is being built up on the site of the former camp. IT, creative and cultural companies are to locate there, perhaps even a teaching hospital to train caregivers, nurses and doctors. I think that’s a very good illustration of where we are, 20 years on.
Certainly it becomes clear when we remind ourselves again of the situation back in 1999: 850,000 civilians had fled their homes, another 600,000 people had been displaced within Kosovo – and that in a country with 2,000,000 inhabitants. The police and courts were not functioning. On their first patrols the Bundeswehr soldiers passed rows of ruined and burnt-out houses.
Since then, the KFOR soldiers have established a secure environment in the country. They have supported the urgently needed work of the aid organisations and made it possible for displaced persons to return, not least by clearing large areas of mines. The fact that the majority of the Kosovar population has gained confidence in the newly-established multi-ethnic police force in this multi-ethnic country is not something that can be taken for granted. It is thanks above all to the efforts of the Bundeswehr soldiers who have helped bring stability to Kosovo over the past 20 years. They have not only ensured security, but also built up trust. Fellow members of this House, we all owe them our gratitude.
Yet despite all the progress, we have seen a worsening of relations over the past few months in particular, especially between Serbia and Kosovo. We have to recognise that there is a substantial possibility that these developments might escalate, even today, particularly in the predominantly Serbian northern Kosovo. That became clear again just last week. The Serbian Government put its armed forces on alert when the Kosovar police force carried out a raid on organised crime at various locations in Kosovo, including in the predominantly Serbian north. Throughout the police operation, the KFOR Commander was in constant contact with the Serbian side, the Kosovar police, EULEX and all others involved. Yet again, the mission thus helped to ease a difficult situation.
This shows that KFOR is and will remain a stabilising force. And perhaps even more importantly, KFOR enjoys the support of both sides – the Kosovar side, but also the Serbian side. Such support is worth its weight in gold, particularly in the current situation, when de-escalation and mediation are the priorities. And that is what’s at stake in the months ahead. As long as the difficult relationship between Kosovo and Serbia has not finally been resolved, there will continue to be tensions. That is why we are doing our utmost to ensure that the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia aims for a comprehensive agreement which will ultimately help ensure stability in the region.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was also the background to the Franco-German Western Balkans conference here in Berlin on 29 April. Over the coming weeks and months, we will continue to work with France to do everything we can to ensure that we achieve this goal at last.
Fellow members of this House, the Bundeswehr once had 6000 soldiers deployed to the KFOR mission. Thanks to the progress made over the years, we have been able to reduce the German presence repeatedly. With this mandate, too, we are again halving the ceiling, from 800 to 400. I think there’s a message there: we are reducing the Bundeswehr presence, because things are working on the ground. At the same time, the motion we are tabling today will ensure that the Bundeswehr can respond rapidly and flexibly to any unexpected deterioration in the security situation, something which might happen at any time, given the ongoing tensions.
So, if there is a lesson to be learnt from 20 years of KFOR, it is, I believe, this: perseverance and sustained civilian, political and, where necessary, military engagement pay off. They create stability, as we can see with this mission. We cannot put this stability or the mission’s success at risk. I therefore ask you to support the extension of the Mandate.