Walking the Kosovo tightrope

With Kosovo’s status under debate, the EU’s rule-of-law mission must remain neutral if it is to ensure stability in the region.

By Ian Bancroft

While the EU’s rule-of law mission remains largely ineffective in the north of Kosovo, protests by Kosovo Serbs over the issue of customs controls have raised further questions about EULEX’s position on Kosovo’s status. The newly-reconfigured UN Mission in Kosovo (Unmik) is still the only legitimate international presence for most Kosovo Serbs. But the EU’s capacity to deliver tangible solutions to the problems facing the north, particularly concerning the police, judiciary and customs, requires that EULEX remain neutral and work more closely with Unmik.

After months of diplomat wrangling that severely delayed EULEX’s deployment, a compromise was finally reached late last year whereby the mission would operate “under the overall authority of the United Nations and within the status-neutral framework of Security Council resolution 1244”. Such neutrality means, therefore, that EULEX can not implement the Ahtisaari plan, which was never endorsed by the UN security council, but must instead observe and uphold resolution 1244.

The issue of customs, however, threatens to further undermine EULEX’s claim to neutrality. In opposition to the mission’s “phased approach towards re-establishment of full customs control” at specified border crossings, Kosovo Serbs have recently staged several blockades of the administrative crossings at Brnjak and Jarinje; insisting that the collection of customs duties at the administrative boundary between Serbia and Kosovo would endorse Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

In the north, which remains de facto partitioned from the rest of Kosovo, status neutrality is key to successful policing, customs and judicial arrangements. The basis for such arrangements is contained within Ban Ki-moon’s six point-plan for Kosovo, which permits the creation of “additional local and district courts serving relevant Serb-majority areas” and stating that “Kosovo police service personnel operating in relevant Serb-majority areas should report to international police under the overall authority of my [the UN secretary general’s] special representative”. Only full implementation of Ban Ki-moon’s plan can provide a strong foundation for achieving a sustainable future for the north of Kosovo.

Unmik continues to have a vital role to play in co-ordinating the international organisations present in Kosovo, mediating between the conflicting parties and promoting “status neutral solutions to practical issues”. Fulfilling this, however, requires the constructive engagement with Unmik of both the Kosovo government and EULEX. As the latest report by Ban Ki-moon emphasises, the Kosovo authorities maintain “minimal contact” with the UN’s special representative for Kosovo, Lamberto Zannier, and feel that they have “no legal obligation to abide by” resolution 1244. Failure to uphold and respect Security Council resolutions, however, only serves to further undermine the international system and the role of the UN.

Serbia’s foreign minister, Vuk Jeremić, meanwhile, has called for an “end to the pressure” to recognise Kosovo. With the International Court of Justice (ICJ) considering the legality of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, Jeremić insists that the “legal process be allowed to run its course, free from political interference”. Jeremić also criticized Martti Ahtisaari, the chief architect of Kosovo’s independence, for receiving a “golden medal of independence” from the Kosovo government to mark the first anniversary of the Kosovo constitution; arguing that “when a negotiator finishes a process without a solution acceptable to both sides, and then one side decorates him, this is proof that he was not a neutral negotiator”.

Though Yves de Kermabon, the head of EULEX, is keen to stress that it is a purely technical mission, many technical areas have political connotations that undermine the mission’s claim of neutrality. EULEX must also work more closely with Unmik, the only legitimate international actor in the eyes of many Kosovo Serbs, in order to ensure full implementation of Ban Ki-moon’s six-point plan. Any efforts to unilaterally impose other measures in the north will do little to foster lasting stability in Kosovo and the wider region.

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