Fears abound over stalled Kosovo status

Published on June 26, 2007, ISN Securtiy Watch

Category: Growing International Opposition to Imposed Solution

By Tim Judah for ISN Security Watch (26/06/07)

Motel Restaurant ODA E JUNIKUT (litscherFlickr)
Image: litscher, Flickr

As Kosovo status talks stall, western diplomats try to decide what to do next to avoid a descent into violence and a collapse of the Kosovo Albanian leadership.

Progress on resolving the future status of Kosovo has stalled. "We are nowhere," says a diplomat in Brussels close to the process.

More than 18 months after former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari was asked by the UN to begin work on finding a final status solution for Serbia's disputed southern province, all forward momentum is now blocked and the diplomats of the world's most powerful countries appear at a loss as to do what to do next.

Ever since the end of the war eight years ago, Kosovo has been under the jurisdiction of the UN. Of its 2 million people, some 90 percent are ethnic Albanians, who are solid in their determination that Kosovo should become an independent state.

Kosovo Serbs, who number perhaps 130,000, are solid in their determination that Kosovo should remain part of Serbia, as is Serbia's leadership.

Kosovo's current status is regulated by UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which states that Kosovo is part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to which Serbia is the legal successor state. However, the resolution also stipulates that full account be taken of the 1999 Rambouillet Accords, which spoke of a final settlement "recognizing the will of the people."

For much of last year, Ahtisaari oversaw desultory talks in Vienna between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians on the future of the province. When they could not, as was widely foreseen, reach agreement, he formulated a plan that was presented to the Security Council on 26 March.

The plan calls for "supervised independence." That is to say that while Kosovo would become an independent state, the current 17,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force would remain while the UN mission in Kosovo, known as UNMIK, would be replaced by two others. The biggest of these would be an EU police and justice mission, while the smaller would be a so called International Civilian Office (ICO) headed by an International Civilian Representative (ICR) who would exercise extremely strong powers in the new country.

For the moment though all of this remains theoretical. Western diplomats who worked on Kosovo had assumed that despite its reservations Russia would eventually trade Kosovo's independence for a gain elsewhere. However, until now, that has proved not to be the case.

Originally, Kosovo Albanians were led to believe by their leaders, who were egged on by western diplomats, that Kosovo would become independent by the end of last year. However, the presentation of the Ahtisaari plan was postponed because Serbia's leaders asked for time in which to hold a general election. After that, Kosovo Albanians told their leaders that the territory would be independent by the end of May this year. Then it was hoped that a deal would be done at the G-8 summit in early June. Now similar, if increasingly forlorn, hope is turning to the summit between US President George W Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kennebunkport on 1-2 July.

No Plan B

For some months before Ahtisaari presented his plan, Russia began to voice ever more vocal opposition to it. Putin and other Russian officials said that as Kosovo had only been a province of Serbia and not a Yugoslav republic it did not have a right to independence, and that if it did become independent, international law would be violated and a precedent set for frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union and beyond.

"I told my colleagues that this time the Russians were serious and they meant it," says a senior EU diplomat from a former communist country who talked to ISN Security Watch, "but they just said, 'we know what we are doing.'"

In the same vein, diplomats questioned by ISN Security Watch over the last year as to what Plan B would be in case Russia made plain it would not allow Kosovo to become independent, at least through a resolution of the Security Council expressing support for the Ahtisaari plan, have consistently replied that there was no Plan B. And indeed, it seems that there was not.

Last week, a new draft resolution on the future of Kosovo was circulated at the UN. It drew heavily on an idea proposed by France's new president Nicholas Sarkozy at the G8 summit. The draft suggests that there should be 120 more days of discussion after which the Ahtisaari plan would come into force "unless the Security Council expressly decides otherwise."

Russia instantly objected, and so it seems that this idea is now dead, or at least mortally wounded. It is now hoped that presidents Bush and Putin can break the deadlock at Kennebunkport.

However, there appears to be no reason why they should, especially as Bush told Albanians in Tirana on 10 June: "We need to get to moving […] and the end result is independence." By contrast, Russian officials say almost daily that they will only consent to something agreed between Serbs and Albanians, which is tantamount to a Serbian veto over the process.

Some now believe that the diplomatic initiative to resolve the status of Kosovo will fizzle out until France is president of the Security Council in September. Others believe that Russia will not budge on the Kosovo issue until both parliamentary and presidential elections are over, the first being in December and the latter in March next year.

Fears of another war

In the meantime, western diplomats have begun scrambling for a workable Plan B. Time is of the essence now because as Karen Pierce, the UK's deputy permanent representative to the UN said last week: "One should bear in mind the ability of events on the ground, particularly in the Balkans, to overtake what we might want to do here in New York, if we don't address the concerns of the people of Kosovo."

Indeed, since all of Kosovo's elected leaders have promised that Kosovo would already be independent, the fear is that their credibility will collapse and, as what happened in the late 1990s, formerly fringe elements would move to claim the center ground.

An attempt to do this already seems to be under way. Addressing veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the former guerrilla army that battled the Serbs in 1998-99, Abdyl Mushkolaj, chairman of one of the main veteran's associations said last week that the officially disbanded KLA was only "on a ceasefire." Referring to the blood of fallen comrades, he said: "I have already said it a thousand times and I am reiterating it, that if the national issue is jeopardized - and it can only be jeopardized by Serbia - there is no doubt that there will be another war here.

On 30 June, a demonstration against the current situation is planned in Kosovo. If this, or future rallies, turn violent, as did demonstrations in February, then the signs are that this would suit Serbia because it would help to tarnish the Kosovo Albanian cause in the rest of the world.

Likewise, Russia would not suffer if violence broke out in the province as it withdrew its own troops in 2003. Indeed, there is a growing belief amongst western diplomats that if violence did break out, Russians such as Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, would positively relish the difficulties faced by western countries with troops or other personnel there on the ground because they were personally humiliated in 1999 when NATO went to war with Serbia over Kosovo and they were unable to prevent it. At that time, Lavrov was Russia's permanent representative at the UN. In other words, this would be sweet revenge.

So, in an effort to avoid a descent into violence and a collapse of the Kosovo Albanian leadership, western diplomats are trying to decide what to do next.

Seeking a way forward

Several issues have become clear over the last few weeks. The first is that if a resolution is tabled at the UN that would lead to Kosovo's independence, Russia would veto it. Secondly, a US threat to recognize Kosovo's independence bilaterally if its Albanians declared independence without waiting for a UN resolution, has gone into abeyance.

The reason for this is that EU diplomats have insisted that there can be no EU mission in Kosovo to replace the UN without a resolution. So far, the EU is united on the issue; however, beyond that a number of new questions have arisen. The first is whether the EU should support a two-tier resolution strategy, which is an evolution on the thinking behind the current draft.

The difference is however that the first resolution would not demand a new Security Council resolution to stop the Ahtisaari plan coming into force. It would replace the UN with the EU and ICO and foresee a review after a year or so at which it would be hoped Russia would then consent to Kosovo's sovereignty. While some in Brussels and especially in the Council of the EU are believed to favor this tack, others are against it. The former see this as an opportunity to give an impression of momentum to Kosovo's Albanians, while opponents see grave dangers in this approach.

The opponents argue that if the EU came to Kosovo to support what would in effect be a continuation of the status quo, the mission would risk failure as it would arrive in a sullen and hostile Kosovo as opposed to the friendly, post-independence one which was envisaged for it when it was planned.

However, these two ideas are actually only the main ones now being considered. Indeed, one frustrated EU diplomat told ISN Security Watch that he would happy if, among the 27 member states, there were only two ideas of how to proceed.

Borut Grgic, an adviser to Kosovo's premier Agim Ceku, says "patience" among Kosovo's Albanians is not the problem. The real problem is that the Kosovo Albanian leadership fear that "western consensus and direction are falling apart.

"There no longer seems to be a clear light at the end of the tunnel. I just hope that the Americans and Europeans remain firm like the Russians. We had Ahtisaari but now it seems like we are back to Square One with 27 different voices."

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