Kosovo – compromise over customs now

With the situation in the north having reached a dangerous stalemate, the need for a compromise – one that would help defuse tensions, and allow Belgrade and Pristina to resume negotiations on practical matters – grows ever more apparent.

By Gerard Gallucci

Over the last few days, it has become clear that the situation in the north has reached a dangerous stalemate. KFOR has tried by intimidation and stealth to remove the barricades mounted by local Kosovo Serbs to protest NATO and EULEX’s failure to remain status neutral. Both sides have tried dialogue and Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, has urged both to remain peaceful. The dispute, however, has come down to the Serb demand that KFOR and EULEX stop trying to impose Kosovo customs at the northern boundary by transporting Pristina’s officials there, and KFOR/EULEX’s refusal to accept any conditions on being allowed freedom of movement (FOM).

On October 23rd, the northern Kosovo Serb mayors and other officials met with president Tadic in Belgrade. Tadic went as far as he could to support the northerners, whilst also urging them to work with KFOR to reach a political solution and avoid extremism. He reportedly insisted that talks with KFOR and EULEX be continued and that they be given FOM provided they do not transport Kosovo customs officers. This, however, is exactly the problem – KFOR and EULEX appear unwilling and unable to agree to give up the imposition of Kosovo customs at the northern boundary. Tadic’s advice does not contain any useful policy proposal. He remains trapped by the strong pressure from the EU to end northern Serb resistance to Pristina, and his inability to simply order the northerners to surrender.

The northern Serb leadership has indicated that if KFOR and EULEX agree not to transport Kosovo officials to the boundary, they would bring down the barricades and then be ready to discuss matters further. This suggests openness to considering a broader formula on customs. However, KFOR and EULEX would face a serious political problem if they were to agree on a simple withdrawal of Kosovo customs from the two crossing points. They and the Kosovo government would lose credibility and could become the target of political reaction from frustrated Kosovo Albanians. (One tried to remove a barricade on the Mitrovica bridge with a bulldozer from the south.)  The Kosovo government might even fall. So KFOR and EULEX refuse the Serb demands and hunker down and reinforce while tension grows with each day.

I have written about a possible compromise on Kosovo customs in the north. Simply put, Kosovo customs officials (in multi-ethnic composition) would “assist” EULEX at the two Gates in recording commercial shipments into Kosovo. Customs fees would be collected in south Mitrovica for those goods going south. The crossing points would remain under the UNSCR 1244 flag and EULEX control. This is essentially the situation that existed previously. The key would be for the northern Serbs and KFOR/EULEX to agree to implement this arrangement without any need to withdraw Kosovo customs officials as a pre-condition to opening the roads, whilst also recognizing that no further effort should be made to enforce Kosovo customs per se in the north.

This ought not to be too much of a compromise for either side. Both are probably tired of the current face-off and both must be concerned about the prospects of violence should tensions continue to simmer. President Tadic might do himself a favor by focusing on something more useful than mutual encouragement to just keep talking. ‘Talk about what?’ is the pressing question. The Quint needs to reflect on the position KFOR finds itself in and seek to make the best of the mess created by Pristina’s July gamble that it could just seize the north. Both sides now should be talking about a compromise that allows everyone to relax, and Pristina and Belgrade to return to implementing and making further practical arrangements.

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.

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