Deadlock in Kosovo risks Balkan instability

Posted in Europe | 12-Jun-08 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

Members of Kosovo's Albanian majority rally in support of an immediate declaration of independence in the province's capital, Pristina.

BERLIN: Whenever the European Union has sent the police or troops to trouble spots around the world, Russia has never objected. It always wanted a stronger Europe that could serve as a counterweight to the United States and weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance.

But on Kosovo, one of the leftover conflicts of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Russia has turned the tables on the EU. As a member of the United Nations Security Council, it has blocked Brussels from replacing the UN administration in Kosovo. The United Nations has been there since 1999, after NATO planes bombed Serbia to end the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians by Serb forces.

The EU contingent of nearly 1,200 police and judiciary officers was supposed to be in Kosovo by Sunday. That is when the Kosovo government will implement a Constitution confirming the independence from Serbia that it unilaterally declared in February. The problem is that Russia will not accept the change in the UN's role in Kosovo to make way for the EU.

"Russia has been unhelpful, to put it mildly," said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the secretary general of NATO, which has 16,500 troops in Kosovo. "In all my discussions with the Russians, they recognized that Kosovo was a sui generis case. Now they have changed position and say 'no, no, no, no - we are creating all kinds of precedents."'

NATO's fear is that if the issue is not resolved, and soon, it could lead to instability in a state that is not recognized by all EU and NATO countries and whose independence is bitterly opposed by Serbia and Russia.

Northern Mitrovica, for example, a part of Kosovo inhabited by ethnic Serbs, is under de facto control of Serbia, which provides basic amenities and subsidies. Indeed, this place has the makings of a frozen conflict. The population has no intentions of coming under the rule of the government in Pristina, no matter how much autonomy it is granted.

Belgrade and the local Serb authorities in northern Mitrovica have also made it clear that EU officials will not be allowed to operate there. This means that EU security forces will not be able to intervene if there is any trouble between the ethnic Serbs and the ethnic Albanians who live across the river in the south of the city. NATO says it does not want to play the role of local policeman.

"NATO should not and cannot at any given time police Kosovo," de Hoop Scheffer said. "It is important that under any circumstances there be enough police, and that goes for the whole of Kosovo. That is why it is crucial for the EU to come to a decent arrangement with the UN where at a certain stage the UN presence would be less visible and the EU would be more visible."

Russia, displeased that some European countries and the United States recognized Kosovo's independence, is blocking those arrangements. Its main objection, officially, is that Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia without a green light from the UN Security Council and without support from Serbia. But analysts say the Russian objections are based on the Kremlin's ambiguity toward a stronger EU.

"The Kosovo issue shows just how ambiguous Russia's attitude towards a stronger EU actually is," said Sabine Fischer, a Russia expert at the EU's Institute for Security Studies in Paris. "It wants a stronger EU as a counterweight to the U.S., but it is not willing to have that stronger Europe at the expense of Moscow having no veto over what the EU does. That is why it wants the EU mission in Kosovo under some kind of UN umbrella."

The EU, however, does not want to be subservient to the UN. In Kosovo the ethnic Albanians want an end to the UN's presence this Sunday, since it symbolizes their lack of independence.

"It is hard to see how the deadlock will be broken," said Nikolay Petrov, foreign policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. "Russia wants a say over the EU mission in Kosovo, but Russia has no voice in NATO or the EU. That is why it is insisting that the EU's role in Kosovo be under a UN mandate."

It is not for lack of trying by the Europeans or the United States to reach an agreement with Russia over Kosovo.

Two years ago, the UN's special envoy, the former Prime Minister Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, attempted to negotiate a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo. Those talks, which Russia agreed to, broke down in March 2007. While Kosovo's Albanians accepted Ahtisaari's proposals for an "internationally supervised independence" by the EU with NATO military protection, Kosovo's Serbs rejected them, and so did Serbia. Russia seized the opportunity. It said talks should continue until Kosovo and Serbia agree - a proposal that could hardly yield results given the obduracy in Belgrade and the growing impatience by Kosovo's Albanians to have their own state.

For the sake of appeasing Moscow, the EU, the United States and Russia appointed a "troika" last July to hold more talks between Kosovo and Serbia. Again, there were no results. The United States and the EU decided to recognize Kosovo's independence, believing that this region of the Balkans would explode if the status issue was not once and for all settled. Vladimir Putin, then the Russian president, accused the EU and the United States of acting illegally, claiming that Kosovo's independence had no international legal basis.

Several EU countries, including Spain, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus, agreed. They were afraid that their own ethnic minorities would use Kosovo as a precedent to gain more autonomy or even independence from the central government, despite reassurances from Brussels and Washington that Kosovo was a special case.

These divisions inside the EU and Russia's refusal to sign off on the end of the UN's role in Kosovo have seriously undermined the EU's security ambitions. More worrying, this unresolved dispute between Russia and the EU could bring back more instability to the Balkans. This is a region where the slightest misunderstanding or provocation can lead to violence. Is that what Russia really wants?