Kosovo – “a struggle over who gets the north”

An interview with Gerard Gallucci, the former UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, in which he discusses the impending International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence and its implications for the future of the disputed territory, particularly the north of Kosovo.

1) In your opinion, what will be the ruling of the International Court of Justice in the Hague?

I am not a legal expert but I would guess that the ICJ decision will be somewhat ambiguous. On one hand, it is hard to see how the ICJ could rule against states recognizing Kosovo’s declaration of independence since the recognition of one state by another is a sovereign right and not subject to international law.  On the other, the international presence in Kosovo – the UN and NATO – only entered in 1999 under a UN umbrella, UNSCR 1244. It is this international presence that allowed the Kosovo Albanians the space to make their declaration without any real opposition. The ICJ would be setting a precedent unwelcome by any state with possible separatist movements if they simply threw UNSCR 1244 out the window.

2) What will happen on the diplomatic front after the decision of the Court? What are your expectations?

Whatever the Court says, both Pristina and Belgrade will immediately begin a public relations and diplomatic effort to convince everyone that the decision supports them. Serbia will probably focus its diplomatic efforts on the UN General Assembly and trying to prevent too many more recognitions. The aim would be to maintain a majority within the General Assembly for a resolution calling for further negotiations. On the Pristina side, the Quint countries – with the US perhaps in the lead – will push for more recognition. They will also press Belgrade to give up the fight or suffer delay on EU membership. This pressure may become quite brutal, in diplomatic terms. Already this month, in the debate on Kosovo in the Security Council, the US was quite undiplomatic in its direct criticism of President Tadic for asking for the special session.

3) It is known that for a long time now you have been warning about the  possibility of the violent integration of the North Kosovo. How could Serbia prevent this without any presence of the military and police in Kosovo?

It is known that for a long time now you have been warning about the  possibility of the violent integration of the North Kosovo. How could Serbia prevent this without any presence of the military and police in Kosovo?

It is not up to Serbia to prevent violence and renewed ethnic conflict in Kosovo, it is up to the international community. Under UNSCR 1244, this is the responsibility of the UN and NATO. In November 2008, the UN agreed to transfer its responsibility for maintaining law and order to EULEX. In return, EULEX was supposed to do its job in a status neutral manner. Instead, EULEX (and the ICO) more frequently supported Pristina’s efforts to bully the Kosovo Serbs into accepting its rule. In the south, EULEX allowed and supported Pristina’s actions to intimidate Serbs and to cut off their electricity and telephones to force them to participate in elections. In the north, EULEX supported provocative moves by the Albanians to “return” to north Mitrovica and to open offices and the court. It may have been premature for the UN to surrender its responsibilities to EULEX.

4) Recently, you have accused the Americans of inciting and contributing to tensions,  and of  even being ready to accept the violent integration of the North. Is there still a danger of this?

The US government believes it is a sovereign right of the Kosovo government to extend its rule throughout its territory, including the north. But recent comments by the American ambassador in Pristina and in the Security Council go beyond giving simple diplomatic support. They appear to give a “green light” to Kosovo institutions and to Albanian provocateurs to take unilateral actions in the north that can only be seen as efforts to create instability and force the northern Serbs to surrender to Pristina or leave. It may be that the US and others of the Quint will allow further provocations to foreclose any possibility of further negotiations. So, yes the danger remains.

5) Your report that UNMIK and KFOR used excessive force in demonstrations in the north on 17th March 2008 had almost cost you your job at the time. What was crucial so that your resignation at the UN headquarters in New York was rejected?

That is not a question for me to answer. As far as I was concerned, we in UNMIK Mitrovica were simply trying to help keep the peace. That is what the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and UN peacekeeping missions are supposed to do.

6) Now that you’re retired, you can openly tell us what happened in those days on the line Prishtina-New York.

I’m not sure much remains to be said. Simply put, UNMIK HQ in Pristina was by early 2008 already working closely with the Quint efforts to support the Kosovo institutions that had declared independence. UNMIK HQ also thought that we in Mitrovica were warning of the dangers of provocative actions – including “retaking” the court – because we were “pro-Serb.” We in Mitrovica Region tried our best to get our information through. In the end, that did not prevent the actions that day in March that I saw then, and still see, as a debacle.

7) When we talk about the issue of status today, are we actually talking about the status of the north of Kosovo?

Essentially, yes. There are still important issues to settle about how the Ahtisaari Plan will be implemented south of the Ibar. The ICO has not shown itself very interested in making sure that allowed linkages to Serbia and elements of local autonomy for the southern Serb enclaves are handled fairly. But in general, the struggle over Kosovo has become a struggle over who gets the north. The northern Serbs have held their ground and Belgrade retains effective control. Pristina still wants control and to be able to send its institutions, officials, special police and “returnees” there.

8) You wrote in one of your articles that partition is like an elephant in the room – with everyone pretending that it is not there, yet at the same time acting as if they are looking for alternative solution. Is there a better solution for Kosovo?

One can spill much ink over this but in the end, it could be quite simple. Allow the northern Serbs and the northern four municipalities (including North Mitrovica) to remain an autonomous region within the current boundaries of Kosovo but functioning as part of Serbia. This status would exist under UNSCR 1244 (or a new resolution if one could be agreed) with the applicable law and local institutions formally under an international umbrella and with internationals serving as a bridge to the rest of Kosovo. Easy to say, harder of course to gain agreement. But the division at the Ibar is a real one. Everyone can either learn to live with it or end up fighting over it. Living is better.

9) Does it seem to you that the countries supporting Kosovo independence are ready for any compromise?

There are probably divisions within the group of European countries that already recognize Kosovo and within the EU, five members still refuse to recognize. Some of these countries are probably more ready for compromise than others. Until now, among the Quint, the US and UK have been the chief hardliners against compromise with France and Italy perhaps more doubtful about the wisdom of trying to force a northern solution. My fear is that the hardliners may seek another round of pressure, including on the ground, before they lose control of the political dynamics. I find it disturbing that for many people in Pristina, it remains an idee fixe that the northern Serbs only resist independence because of Belgrade’s “interference” or the negative influence of the “radical” leaders. These people believe, as others did in March 2008, that a real show of force, or maybe some arrests, will break this hold and free the Serbs to accept the benefits of the new Kosovo. This is simply not accurate. (The Albanians know better but they are pleased enough to use whatever support they can get.)

10) What do you think could be a compromise formula?

In addition to the compromise over the north, an agreement to leave aside the question of final status. Each side can claim what they wish while working out the necessary practical arrangements to allow full and fair implementation of the Ahtisaari Plan in the south. It remains a good plan where the Serbs have no choice but to accept the reality around them and when there is a strong international commitment to ensure fair implementation. In return, without having to recognize Kosovo itself, Belgrade would stop resisting Kosovo’s acceptance into the international community.

11) Do you believe that actual negotiations could be attained, and if so, are there going to be talks about anything else but technical issues?

Talks on technical issues might be the best way to move into negotiations. If the technical modalities could be worked out for practical issues such as courts, police, telephones, electricity, linkages etc, then it might be easier in the end to agree on an overall political framework such as I have just suggested. But the possible outcomes over the next 12 months include not only a negotiated compromise but also continued stalemate within a frozen conflict as well as renewed violence leading to full partition or ethnic flight. The key may be the willingness of the Obama Administration to look for the same international consensus – including with Russia – that it has on issues such as Iran and North Korea.

12) What motivated you to stay involved in the Kosovo problem and to deal with it so long even though you were engaged in many different jobs?

It was not entirely my choice to leave Kosovo when I did and I dislike leaving a job before it is done. I also felt a responsibility for what happened on March 17, even though we were not the ones who made the decision to use force that day. I recall that somewhere in the Ukraine, there is a family without a father and husband because a peacekeeper died that day. And I remember too a young man who lost an eye that day and never got it back.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent the position of any organization. You can read more of Mr. Gallucci’s analysis of current developments in Kosovo and elsewhere by clicking here.

Parts of this interview were originally published in Politika and can be read on-line by clicking here. TransConflict, thanks to the courtesy of Gerard Gallucci, is pleased to present the entire transcript of the interview.

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