Kosovo – Quint brinksmanship

By refusing to act within their UN peacekeeping mandate, but instead trying to change the facts on the ground through the use of force, EULEX and KFOR are pushing north Kosovo to the brink.

By Gerard M. Gallucci

In the early morning hours of November 24, NATO troops from its Kosovo force (KFOR) again tried to change facts on the ground through stealth and use of force.  They drove a group of local Kosovo Serbs off a road barricade they had been peacefully manning, and then set-up barbed wire to stop the Serbs from retaking the barricade.  Sirens and social media alerted the locals and hundreds of them went to the barricade.  They reportedly removed the barbed wire and as they sought to reinforce the barricade, clashed with KFOR troops from Hungary and Portugal.  The Serbs reportedly threw stones and used trucks to back the soldiers off, while KFOR used teargas before backing off.  Neither side used firearms but KFOR reported 21 of its soldiers were injured, including one seriously by a truck.  KFOR broke off the effort and the Serbs rebuilt their barricade.  Meanwhile, a grenade was reportedly thrown near the North Mitrovica University and shots were heard in the area.  (No injuries were reported in those incidents.)

NATO has tried three or four times in the past weeks to remove barricades in the dead of night.  This latest came two days after the recent talks between Belgrade and Pristina failed to resolve the issue of the northern crossing points, and just days before the EU is to decide whether or not to grant Serbia member candidacy on December 9.  The EU continues to threaten Serbia with not receiving a favorable outcome unless it allows Kosovo customs on the boundary and begins ending support for the northern Kosovo Serbs and their barricades.  The effect of the EU pressures has led to some apparent loss of interest in getting candidacy.

The Quint seems to be on the verge of losing its leverage with Serbia.  There is nothing else Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, can do to please them.  What they are asking – that he give up north Kosovo – he cannot deliver.  They more they press for the impossible, the more Serbs get ready to be left without the EU.  Diminishing returns.  And if Brussels denies Serbia candidacy next month, its leverage over the near term drops pretty much to zero.

So, why does NATO try once again to resolve the northern crisis on the ground through the use of force?  Perhaps because the people making Kosovo policy just now – the US Embassy in Pristina? – still believe a determined show of force will work?  Or perhaps – because the Quint refuses to believe Belgrade does not control the northern Serbs – as part of an all-out effort to use all available pressures to push Tadic to order the northern Serbs to desist?  Perhaps because they thought they’d catch the Serbs sleeping and would be able to finally show Pristina its internationals are making progress?  Maybe just to muddy the waters and provoke the Serbs into doing something that would make them look bad or perhaps justify further repressive actions by KFOR and EULEX?  Or maybe, to provide a good excuse to keep another potential EU member outside looking in rather than inside and adding to its already enormous problems?

The violence of last night actually helps no one.  The injuries reported by KFOR are unfortunate.  The locals might be more careful (though they claim to have seen the injured KFOR soldier hit by a KFOR vehicle).  But it is the Quint that has put things on the brink by refusing to act within their UN peacekeeping mandate.  All they need to do is accept the northern Kosovo Serb request that they not use freedom of movement to take Kosovo officials to the boundary crossings to begin enforcing Kosovo customs.  The Serb request is that KFOR and EULEX act as status neutral peacekeepers, i.e., that they act within the mandate provided by UNSCR 1244.

To again be clear, KFOR and EULEX actions to enforce Kosovo customs are illegal.  Everything they do to further Pristina’s political agenda is illegal.  Their efforts to remove barricades provoke a legitimate, peaceful response.  The use of force in the dead of night invites zealous responses.  Things can get out of hand.  And the fault of that can be placed squarely on KFOR’s doorstep.

Does Kosovo have to go over the brink for the Quint to look at compromise solutions for north Kosovo?

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.

To read TransConflict’s recently-released policy paper, entitled ‘The Ahtisaari Plan and North Kosovo’, please click here.

To read other articles by Gerard for TransConflict, please click here.

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