Kosovo – the coming conflict over customs

Though Serbia and Kosovo have reached a compromise agreement on customs seals, Pristina’s efforts to impose its customs officers and fee collection at the northern boundary will likely became a further source of violence.

By Gerard Gallucci

Serbia and Kosovo agreed last week to a compromise agreement on customs seals to be used by Kosovo. Serbia preferred use of the seal which included “UNMIK.” Pristina refused to use that seal – inaccurately claiming this meant Serbia had “blocked” Kosovo exports – and wanted Serbia to accept a seal saying “Republic of Kosovo.” The two sides agreed, however, to accept a seal that simply said “Kosovo.” Given President Tadić’s eagerness to please the EU, all the recent pressure from KFOR and the Quint on Serbia probably was not necessary to gain this compromise.

In any case, the customs seal agreement is more-or-less status-neutral and potentially can allow a return to the open flow of goods and people. Despite concerns expressed by the northerners, this agreement should be allowed to function as long as it remains just a matter of the use of the seal.

But it’s not clear that the Quint will leave well enough alone. The Serbs see the agreement as just the first step in Pristina’s effort to introduce its customs officers and fee collection at the northern boundary. This would turn the crossing into the northern border of independent Kosovo. The Serbs – in Belgrade and the north – suspect this may have the support of KFOR and EULEX, which have been tightening the blockade of roads leading to Serbia and harassing the northerners in the supposed investigation of events surrounding Pristina’s unilateral use of its special police in July. Belgrade has made clear that the agreement on seals does not mean it will accept Kosovo customs at the northern Gates. The Minister for Kosovo, in a meeting with the KFOR commander, also reportedly urged him to ensure KFOR remains status-neutral and not try to implement decisions made in Pristina.

It is not at all unlikely that the Quint tries to push further. The Kosovo Albanian leadership no doubt feels that their efforts to force events has paid off and that continued efforts can finally get the internationals to crack the north for them. (Meanwhile, they will continue to encourage their young men to cross the Ibar and toss Molotov cocktails and elsewhere stone buses.) The US is eager to please the Albanians – and leave any eventual problems to the EU to clean up – and is probably feeling pretty good about its strategy of using NATO and its UN Security Council veto to brush aside UN Security Council 1244 and put Belgrade and the northern Serbs under continuing pressure. The US neutered the recent Security Council meeting, it “forced” Belgrade to agree to “recognizing” Kosovo customs and its Pristina Embassy probably is convinced that further bullying and force-protection by KFOR will allow Pristina to seize control of the crossing points. The US is probably just hoping for a chance to respond to any Serb protests with arrests and further crack-downs.

But it remains far from certain that the Quint can gain its objectives without seriously escalating the use of force and therefore prompting a violent reaction. So far, the resistance has been political and mostly peaceful. (Yes, a policeman died and some property burned but at who’s instigation still merits fuller examination.) But to put it bluntly, even cornered rats will strike back. And the actions by KFOR and EULEX – plus the effort by Merkel and the rest of the Quint to embarrass and bully Tadić into accepting the loss of the north – is leaving the Serbs no place to go but into the corner.

Before the US gets a “mission accomplished” banner for General Buhler to wave as he departs Kosovo, the folks in Brussels – the EU and NATO command – should breath deeply and step back. So far, the possibility of reaching a series of agreements on “practical matters” that helps clear the way for an eventual peaceful compromise of some sort over status remains open. (Belgrade even says the northern Serbs are ready to pay customs fees but not to Pristina.) But to push to settle everything now in favor of Pristina through continued pressure and the use of force on Serbia and the northern Serbs could lead to more violent outcomes. This would be a triumph of “anti-peacekeeping.”

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 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. Gerard is also a member of TransConflict’s advisory board. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent the position of any organization.

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