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An endgame in Kosovo

01 April 2007

After several months of predictably fruitless ‘negotiations’ between Serbia and the Kosovar Albanians, and a delay caused by parliamentary elections in Serbia, Martti Ahtisaari, the UN Special Envoy for Kosovo, released the text of his proposed solution for the future status of the province that has been under UN administration since 1999. A round of ‘further consultations’ with the parties was held in early March, then on 15 March the finalised text was submitted to the UN. It is now expected that the UN Security Council will consider the proposal and take action in April. However, much uncertainty surrounds the next steps.
Ahtisaari proposes a form of internationally-supervised independence for Kosovo. Kosovo will be self-governing, but its constitution will contain some binding provisions, laid down by the international community, that the Kosovo parliament will not be able to change. These will include clear guarantees for the protection of the non-Albanian communities, especially the Serbs, which amount to a substantial self-governing autonomy in vital fields such as education, health provision, the selection of local police chiefs, and the protection of historic monuments and churches. Serbian communities will have the right to maintain freely their links with each other and with Belgrade. For some years to come, the implementation of these provisions will be supervised by the international presence on the ground – a new International Civilian Office (ICO), with EU-led missions to oversee policing and the operation of the courts, and a continuing NATO military presence. The head of the ICO will have some significant powers: for example, to veto laws passed by the Kosovo parliament and to remove from positions of power any persons whose actions are found to be contravening the terms of the international settlement of Kosovo’s status.
Serbia long ago made clear that it is not ready to accept such a settlement. But the immediate concern is whether Russia will use its power of veto in the Security Council to block a new Resolution to replace UNSCR 1244, which regulated the situation after NATO’s intervention in 1999 and established the UN Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Russian representatives have maintained a studied ambiguity on this, voicing the apprehension that Kosovo might set a precedent for other secessionist regions such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transdniestria. Yet Russia already effectively controls these, and anyway the circumstances are completely different from Kosovo. So it seems likely that this is a pretext for other Russian aims, connected with the trend towards reasserting Russia’s international status. Some hard bargaining is ahead in the coming weeks if the US and the EU are to get the quick resolution they seek on Kosovo.
For the EU, a new UNSC resolution is essential to give a clear mandate for the EU’s future expanded role as lead actor in the new ICO and the major ESDP missions, committing over 1,000 personnel. Delay in passing the resolution is risky and damaging. There is a real danger of UNMIK drawing down prematurely: key personnel are already leaving the mission, and its authority is weakening daily. In the transition, the role of KFOR will be pivotal in maintaining stability. The next few weeks and months will be a time of great risk for the stability of the region: ‘getting it wrong’ over Kosovo could jeopardise the enormous resources and effort expended in the region in recent years. The EU is now facing the lead responsibility, and unity is the key condition for its effective engagement.
Although the primary focus of attention now is on how to reach the settlement, the EU also needs to focus on the challenges of implementing a settlement that possibly neither side has agreed to fully – or at all.
What could go wrong? If there is prolonged delay, or worse still, no UNSC resolution, then the Kosovar Albanians cannot be prevented from declaring independence. This would provoke the Serbian minority concentrated in Mitrovica in the north-east corner of Kosovo to declare independence and/or reunion with Serbia in turn. Preparations for this are said to be underway among former Serbian military and security personnel. What, realistically, could KFOR do to avert UNMIK’s ejection from the north? Then angry Albanians would retaliate, first of all from across the Ibar river which divides north from south Mitrovica, and then also possibly against the vulnerable scattered Serbian enclaves elsewhere. And, no doubt, the international presence would soon become a target of radical Albanians, such as the ‘Self-Determination’ movement, which rejects the Ahtisaari settlement and advocates immediate, unconditional independence. What incentive would Kosovar Albanian political leaders have to hold back KLA veterans, if they see the international community unable to prevent partition? Even in the best of circumstances, it has to be admitted that it will not be easy to implement the complex structures of decentralisation, designed largely to win over the Serbian minority communities against considerable Albanian reluctance.
If the price of a UN resolution with Russian assent is ambiguity on the terms of Kosovo’s ‘independence’, this could also open up space for divergence between the US and the EU, and among EU member states, in particular over the question of international recognition of Kosovo. Even if Russia can finally be brought on board, the key challenge of sustaining EU unity will remain.