Kosovo – time for a new approach

TransConflict hereby presents the testimony of Gerard M. Gallucci, the former UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, for a hearing on the Balkans by the Sub-committee on Europe and Eurasia, part of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the US House of Representatives.

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

By Gerard M. Gallucci

Events over the last four months in northern Kosovo are unfortunate reminders of the potential for things to spiral out of control there, with consequences that could be felt throughout the Balkans.  On July 25, units of the Kosovo Special Police (sent from Pristina) attempted to seize control of the two northern crossing points with Serbia that had been until then manned by local Kosovo police and members of the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX).  In the next days, NATO troops (of its Kosovo Force – KFOR) and EULEX – both in Kosovo under a UN peacekeeping mandate – sought to support the action by transporting Kosovo police and customs officials to the two Gates.

The local Kosovo Serbs saw this as an effort to subject them to Kosovo Albanian control and to cut them off from Serbia.  They responded by peacefully resisting and raising barricades to block further such efforts by the Kosovo authorities or the international forces.  KFOR and EULEX reacted by confronting peaceful protests with armed force, using live fire on September 27, and repeatedly seeking to remove barricades and close off alternative roads using tear gas, pepper spray and heavy machinery.  US personnel have been on the frontline of these efforts, stepping outside their UN mandate without any apparent recognition by the Administration of their new role.

Let me clear about three things:

  • 1.  The NATO troops and EU police have been acting outside their UN peacekeeping mandate by trying to impose Kosovo customs in the north without any prior political agreement.  They are there to keep the peace while others seek to resolve the political differences.  Their actions have damaged international credibility and increased tensions dangerously.
  • 2.  The great majority of the local Kosovo Serbs in peaceful protest and on the barricades are not criminals or being forced to be there against their will.  They see the actions by Kosovo authorities and KFOR and EULEX as an attack upon their lives and community.
  • 3.  Nothing can be gained by the effort by the Quint countries – the US, UK, Germany, France and Italy – to impose Pristina’s authority through force.  The Serbs rebuild their barricades and use other means to get supplies.  The actions by NATO and the EU have only hardened their rejection of Pristina and made compromise more difficult.

I note that last week, one person (a Kosovo Serb) was killed and several others injured (including a local policeman) by gunfire in a sensitive mixed area of north Mitrovica.  Accounts differ as to what happened but it seems the gunfire came from Kosovo Albanians.

After 12 years of frozen conflict, it has become clear that an effort to find a practical accommodation for the north, while Kosovo status remains unresolved, is long overdue.  The local Kosovo Serbs have prevented, through peaceful means, what they see as an effort to impose on them Kosovo institutions that they reject.  The international peacekeepers have reached the limits of their ability to project political solutions that do not have the support of the local communities in the north.  It may therefore be a good time for all parties – Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs, Pristina and Belgrade and the internationals including the EU and the United States – to look for alternatives.

TransConflict (an NGO located in Belgrade which occasionally publishes my analysis) has posted a paper that looks at such a possible alternative:  status neutral implementation of the Ahtisaari Plan for Kosovo (developed at the request of the UN Secretary General in 2007).  It derives from an understanding that nothing positive can emerge as long as the two sides continue to see the situation in zero-sum terms, that for them to win, the other side must lose.  Rather, to avoid further conflict and open the door to focusing on achieving economic progress, each side must be willing to compromise and consider outcomes that recognize the fundamental interests of the other side, as well as their own.  Simply put, these are:

  • for the northern Serbs, to be allowed to live in their own communities without political interference in local matters from Kosovo central institutions and with continued linkages to Serbia.
  • for the Kosovo Albanians that the north remain part of Kosovo and function in significant ways as part of the Kosovo political system.

The paper provides a series of detailed recommendations – for the courts, the police, municipal competences, finance, inter-municipal co-operation, co-operation with Serbia and extended competences for north Mitrovica – that could facilitate implementation of the Ahtisaari Plan in north Kosovo.

But without outside help, Kosovo Serbs and Albanians are unlikely to be able to rise above their history and achieve compromise.  The northern Serbs would prefer outright partition and remaining part of Serbia.  The Albanians would prefer not to have a Serb majority in the north.

Unfortunately, the responsible internationals – the Quint and most especially the US – still support imposition of Pristina authority and institutions in the north.  Reportedly, US elements of KFOR are even now seeking to close all alternative roads along the boundary to force the northern Serbs to capitulate to Kosovo customs in the official crossings.  The rest of KFOR and EULEX appears to be simply waiting for Serbs to abandon their barricades in the coming cold.  (They refused a Serb offer to allow them through the barricades if they do not use this access to impose Kosovo customs officials on the boundary.)  The illegal and counterproductive efforts of KFOR and EULEX to seek to force the northern Kosovo Serbs to surrender have only increased distrust and strengthened the local resistance to any compromise.  The Serbs show no sign of being ready to take down their barricades.

Since 2008, Quint policy – strongly encouraged by the US – has been to bully and threaten Serbia and the Kosovo Serbs to accept the loss of Kosovo and to abandon the north to Pristina.  Some view this as one more bit of “punishment” for Serbia despite its new reality of democracy and eagerness to become fully part of Europe.   But pressure and use of force has not worked.  No Serbian leader – despite EU threats to deny the country EU membership unless it cooperates – can simply surrender Kosovo or end support to the north.  The northern Serbs see no alternative but to continue to resist.  The Kosovo Albanians see no reason to compromise when they have US support to continue demanding everything.  (The Europeans have been surprising willing to follow the US hardline, perhaps because they wish to avoid being left alone in the Balkans.)  This leaves the alternatives for the north the same they always have been:  continued frozen conflict or partition – both of which might lead to further ethnic conflict and/or flight – or some compromise solution.  As things now stand, north Kosovo may have to see more conflict before everyone looks to compromise.  It is a good time to look for other approaches to Kosovo than trying to force one side to lose everything.  If the United States cannot support an effort to achieve real compromise, then it should get out of the way and bring our soldiers home before they get further involved in one more conflict far from home.

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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