Kosovo – now and in the future

Kosovo faces two fundamental challenges – its still unsettled status and the economy – that will continue to inhibit its progress towards becoming a self-sustaining, economically prosperous, and socially stable country.

By Gerard M. Gallucci

I was recently invited to a discussion about Kosovo with a group from the United States Government. They wanted to look at the challenges to making Kosovo a self-sustaining, economically prosperous, and socially stable country over the next five years and possible best outcomes. They asked what the international community might have done wrong and what it still might do to get things right. My presentation emphasized that the two fundamental challenges Kosovo faces – still unsettled status and the economy – are related and that progress on one probably requires progress on the other. This was the gist:

The unresolved status dispute allows Kosovo political leaders to avoid grappling with the real problems of sustainable economic growth and corruption. The obsession over Serbia and the north fostered by the leadership and encouraged by Pristina’s international supporters sustains agroup-think nationalism that distracts the population from issues that would otherwise demand attention – including job creation, development of clean and sustainable energy, achieving transparency in the delivery of government services – and prevents development of a vibrant, independent civil society. Focus is subsumed in the effort to project sovereignty and gain “control” of the north. But sustained economic development requires a clear sense of the future, outside investment, clarified property rights, an effective assault on corruption, and informed debate on economic policy. All these are clouded by the unresolved political status of Kosovo.

Economic issues were never tackled in the negotiations conducted by President Ahtisaari and figure little in the plan he developed. Pristina has tried to “resolve” these through seizing and “privatizing” former POEs and SOEs, leaving inevitable doubts about ownership and possible claims against anyone “buying” such assets. Negotiating a framework for settling property claims could have played a positive role in moving toward a status resolution by allowing Serbian companies a role in the Kosovo economy. This might have built a constituency for peace within Serbia. It would also have allowed development of a natural relationship between the developing Kosovo economy and the larger Serbian one. Settling property issues in a way that both sides would gain – for example, allowing Serbian energy and telephone companies to participate in the Kosovo market – could have given them a stake in an agreement over status. In 2008, Jugopetrol offered a deal to put aside issues of seized property for the right to enter the wholesale market in Kosovo. Neither the Quint nor Pristina showed interest and the possibility died on the vine. But business still could lead the way in showing the benefits of regional cooperation.

Unresolved property issues also relate to the question of returns and the explosive political issue of the north. Many people – Albanian, Serb and others – live without access to their homes or property. Reconciliation is more difficult when thousands of people live as IDPs. Also, northern Kosovo Serbs resist Pristina “rule of law” in part because they believe it would be used to impose the “return” of Albanians to north Mitrovica to change the ethnic balance there. A global approach to returns – assuring the property rights of all IDPs and allowing them to use the proceeds from sales to make a new life where they are – could turn a problem into part of a solution.

The central issue, however, remains status. While Kosovo independence was inevitable by 2007, President Ahtisaari did not have the free hand and support to hold real negotiations between the two sides. Rather, the Quint pre-judged the form of the outcome – independence on Pristina’s terms – and Ahtisaari was reduced to holding “proximity talks” rather than direct negotiations. It might have been more effective for the Contact Group to use its leverage with both sides to push them to sit in a room together without outsiders and stay their until they settled.

Instead, it seems the Quint actually worked against direct negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina. The US apparently prevented direct discussions in 2009 and 2010 about possible approaches including territory swaps. The Quint also erred in allowing, if not encouraging, Pristina to bully the Serbs (south and north) into “Kosova” rather than patiently building Kosovo as a model multi-ethnic society and drawing them in. Allowing Pristina to take down electricity and telecoms in the south to focus the Serbs there on accepting their situation was “quicker” but did not lead to good will or trust.

The Quint also was too much in a hurry to push aside the UN. It put all its eggs into the EULEX basket. Then it pushed EULEX to step outside its UNSC mandate to force the Serbs into the arms of Pristina, thus making it a damaged instrument for peace. Quint haste and reliance on force, its feeding of Pristina’s obsession over the north, have contributed to the current impasse and danger of violence.

The north cannot be “won” through force. That plays into hands of those in the north who may be quite comfortable with a continued frozen conflict (and some of whom may believe that real violence would set them free of Kosovo entirely). But northern resistance to Pristina institutions is near universal and not the creation of “radicals” or “criminals.” The northern Kosovo Serbs see Pristina “rule of law” as an end to their existence as a community and as individuals. They believe Albanians want them out and want their land. They are right and they will not surrender.

However, more and more northerners see that something must change, that maybe it’s time to look at some sort of arrangement. They do not want to be part of Kosovo but also know they cannot escape it. They lack leaders and political space. Continued pressures – from the Albanians and KFOR and EULEX – make it very difficult for anyone to step forward with new ideas. New interlocutors cannot be “bought.” USAID – and the Quint in general – would be better working with the “parallel” municipalities than “secretly” as agents of the Kosovo state.

Indeed, the Quint would be better off stepping back and restraining the Albanians than trying to force a one-sided “solution” on the north. Instead, everyone should start focusing on economic issues in ways that build support for an eventual status arrangement. Kosovo could build a bright economic future with its abundant resources – minerals and energy and people.

The ideal scenario for the next five years:

  • continued dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina on practical issues plus focus on full implementation of agreements rather than pre-emption (such EULEX enforcing Kosovo customs in the north prematurely);
  • patient outreach by the Quint to the northern Kosovo Serbs, including through working with their recognized local leaders (i.e., dropping the silliness about “parallel” and “illegal” structures);
  • an end to attempted use of force in the north and to Pristina provocations;
  • progress towards the EU for both Serbia and Kosovo;
  • focus by both Belgrade and Pristina on meeting the conditions for EU membership and on improving their economies;
  • Quint patience, allowing time and space for Serbia and Kosovo to find a way to address their differences between themselves;
  • working up to a dialogue – including with the northerners – on an acceptable form of local autonomy for 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. 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.

To keep up-to-date with the work of TransConflict, please click here. If you are interested in supporting TransConflict, please click here.


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