Kosovo – referendum, barricades and EU plans

Ahead of a referendum in the north on attitudes towards Pristina, there are growing signs that a number of actors – particularly KFOR and the EU – are beginning to grasp the realities of the north, including the need to treat the local leaders as legitimate interlocutors.

By Gerard M. Gallucci

The snows are piled deep throughout the Balkans leaving many stranded and dealing with the cold and electricity shortages. Scores have died including an entire family – minus a young survivor – in an avalanche in southern Kosovo. Kosovo issues, however, seem not to be taking any winter leave, with a vote due this week in the north on attitudes towards Pristina, continued focus on the Kosovo Serb barricades and EU consideration of the continued role of EULEX.

The northern Kosovo Serbs says that they are ready for their “referendum” to be held February 14-15. It will reportedly ask for a “yes” or “no” response to a single question – “do you accept the institutions of the so-called Republic of Kosovo?” Much has been made of this vote – essentially a poll unlikely to produce much surprise and with no legal or operational result. Now, the UN has jumped into the fray – reportedly saying the vote is contrary to law and that UNMIK will have no role in it. The Kosovo police, however, plan no special measures and KFOR’s concerns seem more about the vote provoking violence against Kosovo Serbs south of the Ibar.

Against the general backdrop of EU and German pressures on Belgrade over Kosovo, the International Crisis Group braved the snow and cold to travel through the north to look at the barricades there. ICG found official crossing points open but unused, with travel continuing across the boundary through alternative routes. ICG’s conclusion: “Trying to use issues like freedom of movement – or the rule of law – as tools to change locals’ minds about sovereignty issues, rather than as ends in themselves, just damages the tool. The dispute isn’t a technicality and cannot be resolved as though it were.”

Meanwhile, the Pristina newspaper Zëri reports that UNMIK appears to have negotiated a “gentleman’s agreement” to allow EULEX access through the barricades. UNMIK reportedly told the paper that it was “actively engaged” in discussing “unconditional freedom of movement” in the north with “northern Serbs, as well as officials in Belgrade” alongside KFOR and EULEX efforts to do the same. No details but perhaps the “gentleman’s agreement” allows EULEX to travel on the assumption they would not be conveying Kosovo Customs to the boundary crossings? In its trip report, however, ICG reported that the northerners are still watching the roads.

There is further reporting on the EU’s plans for “reformatting” the EULEX mission later this year “taking into account the progress made by Kosovo authorities in the rule of law and the needs of changing the mission.” This would be in-line with plans announced by the Quint last month to move toward ending “supervised independence” of Kosovo. A spokesman for prime minister Thaci told Balkan Insight that “we expect that in regions like in Mitrovica and Prizren, no EULEX police officers will be stationed due to the good performance of the police…[and] the same goes for customs.” Such changes would seem to take EULEX out of its peacekeeping role in the north – where it has taken the UN’s place on crucial rule of law issues including the police, courts and customs.

So far there is no indication that the EU will consult with the UN on its plans, or that the UN is considering how it may have to take back the responsibility for rule of law it transferred to EULEX in November 2008. When asked for comment, a senior UNMIK official replied that the mission will “report to the Secretary General and Security Council on any such plans/actions, analyzing their potential implications – both in terms of the provisions of UNSCR 1244 and the Secretary General’s six-point plans, as well as the hitherto critical international oversight of the rule of law sector.”

Finally, it is worth looking closely at comments by KFOR Commander, General Erhard Drews. Under Drews, KFOR has backed away from its confrontational approach to imposing Kosovo institutions in the north and has recently said it considers the local leaders there legitimate interlocutors. In talking about Belgrade’s influence over the northerners on the referendum, Drews reportedly explained that the interests of northern Kosovo Serbs “do not coincide with Belgrade’s interests any longer.” He noted that “compromises Belgrade was making did not suit northern Kosovo Serbs.” This seems accurate and a long overdue recognition by the Quint internationals. Pressure on Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, over EU candidacy cannot change reality on the ground in the north. Therefore it must aim at something different.

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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