by Clifford Bond and Robert Hand, Helsinki Commission Staff
In early December 2008, Helsinki Commission staff visited Kosovo to review the changing mandates of a wide range of international actors in Kosovo. The visit coincided with the European Union’s deployment of a Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, known as EULEX, which took place successfully but revealed the potential for regional instability.
The Commission staff delegation met with a variety of international and local actors in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. It traveled to the Visoki Decani, a monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church where it met with church representatives, and to the nearby town of Peja/Pec where it met with field representatives of the International Civilian Office (ICO) and the OSCE. The delegation also visited both sides of the divided northern city of Mitrovica where it visited displacement camps and the rebuilt neighborhood for the city’s Romani population in addition to other meetings.
The International Community
Kosovo asserted its independent statehood in February 2008, in the context of the plan put forward by former Finnish President, UN official and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari. In so doing, Kosovo’s leadership pledged to implement the plan in full, which means accepting international supervision and providing decentralized authority and numerous rights and privileges to the Serb and, to a lesser extent, other minority communities. The Ahtisaari plan, however, assumes agreement by all parties, but Serbia, backed by Russia at the United Nations, refuses to accept the loss of what it considers still to be its province. The United States and most European countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but a few European Union members remain either reluctant or strongly against doing so, either due to ties with Serbia or fear of separatist movements within their own borders. Spain was frequently singled out as the one country that not only opposes Kosovo’s independence but seems intent on undermining its recognition by others. Combined with the widespread need for consensus decision-making, most of the international community’s field missions must, to one degree or another, act neutrally on questions of status, to the detriment of their effectiveness and the enormous frustration of Kosovar Albanians who desire that Kosovo’s independence be respected.
The EULEX deployment brought these differing perspectives to the fore. In order to obtain an EU-wide agreement, a UN blessing and the acquiescence of Belgrade and local Serbs under Belgrade’s control, a compromise effort known as the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s “6-point plan” was put forward that prompted angry protest among the Kosovar Albanian majority and an official rejection from Pristina. Posters throughout the city proclaimed EULEX to be “Made in Serbia”. After several delays and despite continued ambiguity regarding which government was the actual host, the Mission deployed on December 9 throughout Kosovo, not just in areas under Pristina’s control. That the deployment proceeded smoothly and peacefully was viewed as a success, although ambiguities purposefully placed in its mandate to allow both Albanians and Serbs to maintain their positions, as well as the lack of political oversight and coordination among EULEX’s three areas of responsibility (police, courts and customs), likely mean that EULEX will face additional tests of its resolve in the future. For now, the most noteworthy result of the deployment is the anticipated end of inefficient UNMiK operations, which have come to symbolize the holding pattern in which Kosovo has found itself since 1999.
The deployment could also signal a more cooperative tone among Kosovo’s Serbs. In northern Mitrovica and contiguous areas bordering Serbia, there are signs that Belgrade may no longer support more militant and corrupt Kosovo Serb leaders. In the enclaves to the south, where the majority of Kosovo Serbs live, there may also be more room for local accommodation and inter-ethnic cooperation, with questions of status put to the side. Following Serbian elections in May that strengthened pro-democratic and pro-European forces in society, Belgrade seems to want at least more transparency and accountability in the “parallel institutions” it has so far financed, and it may try to reduce its subsidies. It also seems to want to avoid violence, especially any violence that could be blamed on the Serb side. It is unclear how far it will push to assert control and responsibility in light of UNMiK’s dwindling role, or whether it will allow EULEX and eventually the ICO to fill the void. Unfortunately, divisions within the European Union almost invite continued Serbian intransigence. Without being given a clear choice between trying to hold onto Kosovo and achieving European integration, the Serbian Government still plays the “Kosovo card,” which garners popular support at home without any apparent repercussions.
The situation on the Kosovar Albanian side is a bit clearer. Despite internal political posturing, there is really little difference within this community when it comes to defending Kosovo’s independence. The deliberations that led the EULEX deployment pushed the Kosovo government about as far as it could go. While the achievement of independence has so far made the Ahtisaari plan worth embracing, many of its provisions relating to Serb communities have been no easy sell, especially in the many localities where nationalism and intolerance continue to prevail. When governments of European countries which have recognized Kosovo’s independence nevertheless treat it as something less than an independent and sovereign state, the Kosovars are naturally outraged and increasingly distrustful. This could be countered somewhat by the establishment of embassies in the capitals of those countries who have thus far recognized Kosovo, particularly in Europe, staffed by competent diplomats in order to ensure that the Kosovo point-of-view is made clear to policy-makers. The United States should also counter European diplomatic tendencies to placate traditional regional powers and treat the new states of Europe as second-class states.
In the meantime, as those in government may try to adhere to their Ahtisaari commitments, those in opposition have also been able to capitalize on the situation. This poses a challenge to Kosovo’s shaky democratic institutions, which are still very much in transition. Some have expressed concern that the further development of democratic capacities could be thwarted by the need to meet unpopular international demands.
While EULEX moves forward and UNMiK winds down, other international players need to find their role. As one analyst commented, the international community has lost the coherence of its structure and has become a confusing maze to local parties.
The International Civilian Office is perhaps the most important, yet vulnerable, of the current players. A creation of the Ahtisaari plan, it is by definition not status neutral, and has a relatively strong mandate to supervise post-status Kosovo. Serb opposition to cooperation with the ICO makes this difficult, but the hesitancy of the status-neutral players to cooperate, coordinate and support the ICO will severely weaken its effectiveness to Kosovo’s long-term detriment.
The OSCE Mission in Kosovo, the organization’s largest, is facing even more difficult times. Once known for its solid monitoring of events throughout Kosovo and for developing democratic capacity, the early threat of Belgrade and Moscow to close the Mission cast a shadow over its future and a considerable portion of its personnel have moved to the ICO or otherwise left the OSCE in Kosovo. Mission leadership has also been controversial; while this may have stabilized with a new Head of Mission, the OSCE lost some serious ground. Most interlocutors felt that the Mission is a bit oversized, and needs to focus on core areas such as promoting free media, human rights and inter-ethnic dialogue, where the OSCE has genuine expertise and credibility.
KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, seems to be the one constant of the international presence that garners unquestioned respect and seems prepared to handle whatever instability may lie ahead. It is the acknowledged last resort for providing security, but its presence helps ensure a security baseline that will deter provocations and enhance confidence at the local level. KFOR representatives seem confident that lessons were learned from the violence of 2004 and that greater flexibility across lines of operations, more consistent rules for engagement and an unwillingness to let the particulars of status from getting in its way will be effective in keeping the peace in Kosovo.
A Need for Dialogue
Many of the problems which exist among both the Kosovar Albanian majority and the Kosovo Serb minority could be resolved through greater dialogue, both within Kosovo and between Belgrade and Pristina. There is some effort to achieve this through civic organizations and religious institutions, as well as business contacts. There is also some interaction in technical areas such as regarding missing persons from the 1998-99 conflict, or in the reconstruction of churches and other religious sites damaged or destroyed in the March 2004 riots. Unfortunately, a suitable venue for direct contact between Belgrade and Pristina needs to be found. Pristina is ready, at least in principle, but Belgrade is not.
One area where the Kosovo authorities could act more swiftly, without precondition, and likely to their own long-term benefit, is the resolution of outstanding property claims. The resolution of property claims is a major hindrance to the return of displaced persons, and it holds up legal usage of property even when a return is unlikely. In some cases at least, displaced Serbs and others may only wish to get their property back so they can sell it. While there may be solid reasons for wanting to encourage displaced persons to return to Kosovo -- and some efforts to do this were underway in December – ultimately each individual needs only the opportunity to make a free choice. To do this, those with outstanding property claims need to have their cases resolved. The issue of property claims came up repeatedly in meetings, and seems a greater issue than security and freedom of movement at present. Some hope the EULEX deployment could provide a second chance for property restitutions and returns.
Both sides, but especially some Kosovo leaders who formerly fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), could probably also help facilitate the resolution of more missing persons cases, of which just under 2,000 remain. While there has been success in bringing government representatives and surviving family members together under international auspices, local efforts to help locate grave sites appear to be half-hearted, at best. It is unlikely that progress in this area will enhance community reconciliation efforts in any major way, but a positive signal to do more could lead to a broadening of dialogue on other issues. Ultimately, this remains a humanitarian issue that deserves additional effort no matter what.
At present, Kosovo authorities seem committed to implementing the Ahtsaari plan in its entirety. Relevant laws have been passed, and those involved in developing local self-government seem committed to implementation. The real test, of course, will come when the Kosovo Serbs decide to respond and engage and are able to do so without worry of retribution from Belgrade. One local analyst noted that developing the necessary trust between the two sides will be a process, and should be taken one step at a time rather than pushed.
The Plight of Roma in the North
A continual concern to the Helsinki Commission has been the plight of displaced Roma in northern Mitrovica, most of whom fled their original neighborhood, or mahalla, which was destroyed in 1999. Growing criticism of the conditions in the camps, particularly the health hazards caused by lead contamination, finally convinced the international community in 2005 first to establish a temporary relocation facility that was safer and to make a concentrated effort to rebuild housing where the original mahalla in the south was located. Romani families resisted the move, due to warranted lack of trust in the international community and a lack of awareness of how severe the health threat really was. Local Serbian leaders as well as Romani community leaders living elsewhere in Europe, however, originally also did much to discourage the move, both benefiting from a situation in which successful returns did not take place.
Commission staff visited the last of the original camps, Cesmin Lug, as well as the new camp adjacent to it, a former KFOR base known as Osterode. They also visited the original mahalla, which had additional apartment buildings and some private houses constructed since the last Commission visit in May 2007. Despite the availability of housing, residents of the camps continue to resist moving, despite continued concerns about health conditions. Local Serbian leaders, who now want the land where Osterode is located, seem no longer to be discouraging the move, and Roma living abroad likewise seem to have less influence on the situation. Security for Roma in the south, once a concern, seems less so now. Those who remain in the camps seem primarily motivated by a continued distrust of the international community as well as lingering hopes for a better offer. The inability of the local economy to provide income, particularly in the south, also plays a significant role, as does the desire to keep children in Serb-run schools, despite being segregated into separate classes. Meanwhile, there is increasing pressure from foreign governments to prioritize the resettling of Kosovo Roma they intend to deport, rather than those displaced in Kosovo and living in camps. It is clear that, while there has been some progress on this issue, a limited set of additional options will need to be considered to resolve the situation, including the possibility of permanent resettlement in the north.