Kosovo – what next from Pristina and friends?

A continued frozen conflict over north Kosovo is not the best option. It would have been better for the EU to break itself free of the German/US axis and broker a real compromise approach.

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

The EU has labored “mightily” – conducting several rounds of so-called negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina – and left Kosovo exactly where it’s been for the last several years, in a mess. The problem remains what it has been – the Quint offers Belgrade nothing but surrender. Through the weeks of EU-led talks, the Pristina authorities never budged from their position that Serbia abandon the north and turn it over to them. Kosovo Prime Minister Thaci claimed full US support for this maximalist agenda and there’s no evidence he was wrong. Belgrade stepped forward apparently ready to negotiate an arrangement for local autonomy for Serbs – that could have been, with a little flexibility, accommodated largely within the Ahtisaari Plan – but was left talking to itself.

It’s actually time to stop talking about the “Quint,” the five NATO members – France, Italy, Germany, the UK and US – of the former Contact Group (which included Russia). Italy has been playing no apparent role while France and the UK seem to have been standing on the sidelines with their fingers crossed. The main players have been the US and Germany acting through Brussels and using the prospect of EU accession as leverage over Belgrade. As of now, EU Foreign Policy Chief Ashton continues to front for Berlin and Washington. They are still pushing Belgrade to accept the “proposal” the EU offered and still seem to expect Serbia ultimately to agree in order to avoid becoming “isolated” from Europe. Leaving Serbia out of Europe in order to give the Kosovo Albanians 100% of that they demand is bad EU policy. But it suits Germany – which does not want Serbia in the EU anyway – and allows the US to remain off the hook to deliver the Albanians into a compromise settlement.

Having the US and Germany in the lead on Kosovo is potentially dangerous. Their NATO troops patrol the north. The Germans, Americans, Austrians and a few others led the 2011 effort to blockade the north and force the Serbs there to accept Kosovo authority. Now Pristina is talking ominously of new “strategic” efforts to assume control north of the Ibar in “coordination” with its international supporters – meaning EULEX and KFOR (NATO). On the ground, there’s been another explosion and an apparent act of arson. The north Kosovo Serbs have reportedly stepped up their vigilance in the face of increased patrols in sensitive areas by Pristina’s special police (ROSU). The fire reportedly took place at the site of Albanian construction in the Brdjani area of north Mitrovica. This has been the scene of uncoordinated Albanian “returns” since EULEX and NATO pushed aside the UN in 2009. With winter gone, the construction season is beginning. While Kosovo south of the Ibar remains unfriendly for Serb returns, Pristina’s efforts to “return” Albanians to the north – whether they actually ever lived there or not – is simply an effort to gain territory and provoke the other side.

Unfortunately, more provocations from Pristina is what we can probably now expect: renewed efforts to inject its ROSU and customs officials into the north, more “returns” and various complaints and warnings. Despite hints of “Storm 2.0,” Pristina will not invade the north. Rather it will seek to stir Serb reactions to its “legitimate” exercises of authority and thereby prompt EULEX and KFOR intervention. With Germans and Americans in the lead in the north, KFOR and EULEX may indeed provide cover for exercises in “extending sovereignty” and allowing “returns.” This means the next phase could be renewed conflict.

A continued frozen conflict over north Kosovo is not the best option. It would have been better for the EU to break itself free of the German/US axis and broker a real compromise approach. This is still possible. But barring a change in the EU’s offer to Belgrade, a frozen conflict is better than a hot one. It would be entirely unfortunate if the “Quint” allowed Pristina and its allies to once again flirt with the use of force in the north.

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.

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

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