Kosovo – beware triumphalism

The EU seems bent on using the leverage of the still-to-be-granted accession date to press Belgrade for more concessions, particularly concerning north Kosovo, thereby risking an escalation of tensions.

By Gerard M. Gallucci

After squeezing everything it could from Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, on Kosovo, the EU agreed last week to grant Serbia candidacy without a date to begin accession talks. To win that prize, Belgrade agreed to last minute deals with Pristina to informally recognize Kosovo as an independent entity and to work with it to transform the northern boundary into a functional border. These steps are, in the end, an inevitable bow to reality. Serbia has lost Kosovo – at least from the Ibar south – and nothing practical is gained pretending otherwise. The EU, however, seems bent on using the leverage of the still-to-be-granted accession date to press Belgrade for more concessions. Beware triumphalism.

It’s not clear how many Serbians focus on the meaning of candidacy without a date. The Tadic government will understandably highlight the fact that the decision in Brussels puts Serbia on the path into the EU. How long that path will be and when Serbians will begin seeing the practical benefits of being on it will perhaps be left to others to discuss. The government will continue to deny that it is giving, or will give, anything away on Kosovo. How this plays in the upcoming election remains to be seen.

However, it is clear that despite an expected election lull in talks between Belgrade and Pristina, the EU will continue its pressure on north Kosovo and for further concessions from Serbia. Various EU officials are making clear that to get a date for accession talks to begin – could be this year or whenever – Belgrade will have to reach deals on telecoms and energy and allow EULEX to establish “rule of law’ in north Kosovo.

Telecoms and energy are two big pieces of the set of property issues between Serbia and Kosovo that so far have been barely touched. Pristina has – with EU and EULEX assistance – either appropriated or dismantled energy and telecoms facilities south of the Ibar. These have included the telephone systems, the Obilić power stations and the coal mines. Ownership of these and former socially-owned or publicly-owned properties and the fate of funds gained through “privatization” is disputed between the two sides. Companies from some EU members have benefited directly from these seizures and privatizations. Energy and telecoms are not the only outstanding issues of this sort – they include Trepca and the former Jugopetrol – but backing Serbia down from maintaining its property claims would be a big win for Pristina and the EU. The same would be Belgrade’s agreement to allow Kosovo to have its own country code and international phone links.

The rule of law concessions sought by the EU include making the new border management system work – which means somehow making sure the northern Kosovo Serbs use the official crossings and remove their blockades – and somehow introducing a “Kosovo” court into the north. It may also include Belgrade finding a way to dismantle “parallel” local institutions – perhaps through not holding elections there, placing them under administration and even arresting leaders. Meanwhile, EULEX will continue testing the northern Serbs for “freedom of movement” and by closing alternative routes, and may yet take the Kosovo Albanian officials being flown to the northern Gates out of their container and into public sight. Whether springtime weather brings more direct action by Pristina, EULEX and KFOR cannot be ruled out as it would be wrong to assume the Quint would hold everything back just to help Tadic.

Quint haste and impatience over the north still runs the risk of provoking crisis. Belgrade cannot simply deliver the north, no matter how much Tadic or Nikolic might want to bring home the bigger prize of a date. If Tadic could have done it, he would have by now. Anything which smacks of a full-fledged northern border between Serbia and Kosovo – one which forces locals to pay customs to Pristina or subjects them to “control” by Kosovo Albanians – is likely to be rejected. Any effort to impose a Kosovo court with Kosovo Albanian judges and officials in north Mitrovica will likely provoke resistance. Whether it is Belgrade, EULEX or KFOR that seeks to force these, violence is possible.

It was unwise and petty of the EU to give Serbian candidacy without a date just to try to pry north Kosovo into the hands of Pristina. It would have been more mature to either withhold candidacy or to have given it with a date, and allow the remaining Kosovo issues to be resolved gradually as tensions decreased over the next few years. A dash of practical sense and continued focus on peacekeeping would have been nice.

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 policy paper, written by Gerard and entitled ‘The Ahtisaari Plan and North Kosovo’, please click here.

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

To learn more about both Serbia and Kosovo, please check out TransConflict’s new reading lists series by clicking here.

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