Kosovo – war or peace?

A peace initiative by Kosovo Serbs in the north opens the door to backing away from further confrontation, and seems to suggest that they are prepared to enter a dialogue on the future of the north.

By Gerard M. Gallucci

The Russian aid convoy finally was allowed to enter north Kosovo on December 16th after a compromise over the EULEX demand to accompany the trucks.  As the local Kosovo Serbs were still preventing EULEX from travelling by road to the Jarinje crossing point – they believed that EULEX was seeking to bring Kosovo Albanian police with them – the EULEX vehicles traveled from south Kosovo north through Serbia and then around back to Kosovo.  It is not known if they had any Kosovo customs officials in the trunk.

The absurd lengths that EULEX went through to not commit itself to acting according to its status neutral UN mandate suggests that the crisis in the north is not yet over.  EULEX chief de Marnhac justified EULEX’s demand that it “control” the entry of the Russian vehicles as a matter of “rule of law.”  EULEX (and KFOR) cite this principle without specifying which rule of law they believe they are enforcing.  Their insistence on subjecting the north to Pristina’s “rule of law” – bringing Kosovo Albanian police and customs officials to the boundary – is at the root of the dispute that has kept the locals on the barricades since July.  Russia’s Ambassador to Serbia correctly noted that EULEX had exceeded its UNSCR 1244 mandate for political purposes.

Meanwhile, the northerners have presented KFOR and EULEX with a proposal for a “time out for peace” while broader issues are settled through dialogue including them.  Everyone would commit to not undertake unilateral actions.  The barricades would come down while the local Kosovo police (KPS) man the crossing points under KFOR and UNMIK supervision.  KFOR would mount checkpoints around Mitrovica to prevent unilateral moves while EULEX would operate normally from there south.  All this would leave time for filling in the details of the agreement to have both Serbian and Kosovo officials on the Gates.  So far, however, there has been little comment from the internationals, with KFOR saying it is a “political matter” and EULEX only that it is “looking” at the proposal.

At the core of the proposed peace plan is the northerners continued distrust of EULEX.  They remain opposed to an EULEX presence at the northern Gates as long as it seeks to impose Kosovo authority and customs there.  EULEX efforts to do so are without question beyond the UN mandate for rule of law passed to them in November 2008.  Perhaps Russia will now insist that the UN take back that responsibility?

The peace initiative opens the door to backing away from confrontation and it seems to suggest the northerners themselves are prepared to enter a dialogue on the future of the north.  The government in Pristina continues to insist that the northern mayors are “illegal”, but they have demonstrated they are the leaders on the ground and capable of acting responsibly.  Chancellor Merkel will visit Kosovo this week.  She should meet with representatives of the northern Kosovo Serbs – perhaps visit them on the barricades – and hear their side to judge for herself if they are all “criminals.”

The open question remains the US.  Left to themselves, the Europeans might well decide on an approach looking to peacefully implement issues agreed between Pristina and Belgrade while discussing further issues.  But if anyone simply wishes to out-wait the northerners – leave it to winter to drive them off the barricades – or look for a good moment to again use force, it would be the US. Pristina’s insistence on its plans for incorporating the north suggests at the least that its US patron is encouraging them to not compromise.  So, the danger of war remains.  Merry Christmas?

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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