Kosovo – NATO moving towards another confrontation?

With KFOR’s extended deadline for the Serbs to remove the barricades in the north set to expire, there is a distinct possibility of violence should the use of force once again prevail over dialogue and status neutrality.

By Gerard Gallucci

The new Commander of NATO forces in Kosovo (KFOR) seems to be trying to walk a finer line than his predecessor, who tried to simply bully the Serbs into surrender. General Erhard Drews has continuously spoken of the desirability of resolving the current crisis in the north through political means. He has been meeting with northern leaders, with KFOR issuing press statements at an increased pace, to show KFOR’s efforts to look to dialogue to resolve issues. But the Commander also seems to be under orders to continue to press the northern Serbs by demanding they remove their barricades or NATO will do it for them. KFOR must feel somewhat ambivalent about being put in this situation as it has been giving, denying and then extending deadlines for the Serbs to remove those barricades. The new deadline, unless it is wisely dropped, is Tuesday 18th October.

All barricades mounted by the Serbs in the north remain as of Monday. The locals are concerned that anything can happen if KFOR seeks to act against them with force. Tensions in the north are high after almost three months of Albanian, KFOR and EULEX efforts to force the northerners to accept Kosovo customs. They view this effort as an attempt to separate them from Serbia and to push them into the hands of a government in Pristina that they believe means them ill. KFOR says it will act peacefully – “firmly, carefully and impartially, in full compliance with our mandate” – but the Serbs feel they have little reason to trust such assurances given NATO’s past and continuing efforts to force them to accept Kosovo customs, including last month’s use of live fire. They are also concerned about outsiders looking to provoke or mis-guided Serbs responding to the use of force by KFOR. They wonder if there may not be elements in the international community, or on the Albanian side, that would like to provoke violence in order to justify further repression in the north. They also remain concerned about the possibility that the Tadic government has made some deal to leave them to their fate. The situation is explosive. Nevertheless, the northern Serbs are holding peaceful demonstrations and seeking to ensure that nothing provocative happens from their side.

It may well be that – in light of Brussels’ focused pressure on President Tadic to surrender the north if he wants EU candidacy – the Quint believes this is a good time to mount another effort on the ground in the north. They may believe Tadic will ultimately accept anything they do there as long as he doesn’t appear to be blamed. The Quint may even have – or believe they have – a deal with Tadic to order the northerners to stand down and accept a “peaceful” push by KFOR to remove the barricades. (Members of the government have given contrary advice in this regard.) Indeed, it is possible that President Tadic might agree to Quint demands that he knows they cannot, ultimately, gain because the northern Serbs will not abandon their barricades simply on orders from him.

It may also be that the Quint hardliners don’t care about the actual results of an attempted use of force in the north, having run out of any other ideas anyway. But KFOR is in the middle of this dangerous situation. Anything it does to remove the barricades may ignite violence. General Drews might well prefer to work with the northern officials to gain their trust and find a way to allow freedom of movement for his forces and EULEX. But he and EULEX chief, Xavier de Marnhac, might have to be clearer on their commitment to act in a status neutral manner and not seek to introduce or enforce Kosovo customs officials and fees in the north without prior political agreement. And the US, Germany and UK would have to back-off from the use of force and allow everyone to begin looking for the broader political accommodation on the north that clearly seems overdue.

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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