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Breaking the Kosovo Stalemate: Europe's Responsibility

Panel Presentation by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Crisis Group Forum, Brussels, 1 October 2007


Significance of Kosovo for Europe

The starting point for any discussion of the Kosovo issue is that this is Europe's biggest immediate foreign policy problem, and most critical security challenge. How it is handled has major implications for its relations both with the US and Russia, for internal EU unity, and for the stability of the whole European region.

In the security strategy it adopted in December 2003, the EU acknowledged a new breakdown in the territories of the old Yugoslavia would threaten its own stability not least by submitting it to great pressure from refugees and organised crime networks. If Kosovo explodes because the independence issue is mishandled, the regional risks would include that:

  • eight years' worth of international resources and prestige dedicated to managing the crisis would be lost;
  • the genie of ethnic conflict would be let loose again with consequences that could include, for a start, the 60 per cent of Kosovo Serbs who live in enclaves south of the Ibar losing their homes;
  • Belgrade might reactivate the goal of reabsorbing the Republika Srpska portion of Bosnia;
  • Serbian paramilitaries could try to expel Albanians from the Presevo valley;
  • Macedonia's Albanians might take up arms to maximise the territory they control and associate with Kosovo;
  • and Montenegro's Albanians might try to unite with Kosovo.

My task in this Panel Pat Cox, Joost Lagendijk from the Parliament and Leopold Maurer from the Commission will have their own perspectives is to give you Crisis Group's views on the current state of play and the best way forward. My starting point will be the analysis and recommendations in the report we issued on 21 August, Breaking the Kosovo Stalemate: Europe's Responsibility.

Basic Messages of Crisis Group's August Report

  • We cannot expect any agreed result to emerge from the UNSC (because Russia's blocking stance will be maintained) or from the US/EU/Russia Troika talks set to run from August to 10 December (because the positions of Pristina and Belgrade are simply too far apart).
  • The status quo is untenable: the situation is just too volatile for this to become a 'frozen conflict'.
  • The EU and U.S. must accordingly themselves plan to shoulder the burden of implementing UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's plan for Kosovo's supervised independence, which remains, despite all its problems of acceptance by Serbia and Russia, the only game in town.
  • The risk of European inaction is considerable events on the ground will overtake the capacity to do nothing; the international community's investment and credibility in Kosovo will be lost; Kosovo will fragment, causing violence and population displacement and destabilising neighbouring territories; and all of this will oblige the EU/NATO to react anyway, but from a much reduced position of influence.
  • The mechanism of implementing the Ahtisaari plan without UNSC authority should be for Pristina to declare independence on the basis of the Ahtisaari plan (including its 120 day transition period); for this to happen around the turn of the year (i.e. following the exhaustion of the Troika process); for it to happen in coordination with the U.S., EU and NATO, with all or most member states recognizing the new country; with the EU despatching its political and rule of law oversight missions in response to Pristina's invitation; and UNMIK handing over its responsibilities and making an orderly withdrawal due to the new circumstances.
  • Full EU unity in recognising Kosovo and dispatching the missions is very desirable, but may not be achievable, in which case dissenting member states should not prevent willing member states from using EU mechanisms to provide essential support to Kosovo, by way of EU integration assistance and rule of law oversight. However, even if this minimum is blocked, a coalition of willing states should not be deterred from recreating the projected political and rule of law oversight missions from their own resources.
  • The EU should hang tough with Serbia, making clear that its relationship with, and ultimate membership of, the EU will depend upon resolution of the Kosovo issue.

Current State of Play

Troika

While there is no more sign than there was two months ago that its activity will produce any actual agreement, the U.S./EU/Russian Troika has been acting vigorously in developing a series of meetings with Pristina and Belgrade. The Troika's announced methodology is to pressure both sides to produce new proposals (varying from the Ahtisaari plan), not to table them itself, so we have possible alternatives such as partition or a confederation of Serbia and Kosovo (along the lines of the Serbia-Montenegro Union) not being formally proposed but floating in the ether.

The trouble is that the more vigorous the Troika becomes in trying to close the ground between the two sides, the more Kosovo's belief in a future defined by the Ahtisaari plan will be weakened, the greater the risk that the atmosphere in Kosovo will sour, from a sense of having been betrayed by the international community. There is a real danger that by its EU and US members becoming overambitious, the Troika will undo a lot of progress made in shifting mindsets in Pristina (in favour of the Ahtisaari plan).

EU

The public pronouncements of the EU over the last few weeks, including at the Viana do Castelo Gymnich meeting on 7 September, have all been variations on the theme of the need to be united on Kosovo come the 10 December expiry of the troika process. Behind the scenes, it seems that urge for unity is primarily focusing on the need to deploy at all costs the political and rule of law oversight missions. And in this context the EU appears to be relaxing its previous insistence on clear blue water between its incoming missions (designed to support Ahtisaari plan implementation) and the current Kosovo of 1244 and UNMIK.

The mechanics now being mulled backstage by officials for Kosovo's transition without benefit of a new UNSCR involve "a double hook" for EU mission deployment allowing member states to respond to invitations from both Pristina and the UN Secretary General for EU deployments to replace parts of UNMIK under a looser interpretation of 1244. This relies much on boldness from the Secretary General (which presently seems to have a reasonable chance of being forthcoming).

While it is hard to argue against anything that shifts responsibility for transition assistance and oversight from the UN to Europe, there is a risk in all of this that mission deployment becomes an end in itself, a lowest common denominator compromise upon which both Kosovo-recognizing and Kosovo-sceptic member states can agree, with the EU substituting mission deployment for clarity over Kosovo's status and a constructive vision for the territory's future and its route-map to EU integration. What we are looking at is a messy hybrid UNMIK/1244/EU/independent Kosovo, which could get stuck with this confused dispensation for a long time; any efforts by the UN Secretariat, Quint or EU to remould and interpret 1244 in the direction of the Ahtisaari plan will encounter a strong rearguard action from Russia and others.

'Doing Something for Serbia'

The contortions over the mission deployments and 1244 reflect a larger mindset in key places about the need in the context of the Kosovo negotiations to 'do something for Serbia' the more relaxed attitudes toward standards issues, especially in relation to the Mladic-Karadzic Hague Tribunal issue, are part of a recurring theme, based on assumptions that EU accession is irresistibly attractive and will ultimately lead to a choice of Europe over Kosovo, that Serbia is the best guarantor of stability in the Balkans and that being tough on it will only harm the development of democracy there.

All of these assumptions, however, are very questionable, and Crisis Group has long been concerned that we may be repeating mistakes of the past, playing into the hands of the nationalists and weakening the democrats. The more concessions that are offered, the more Kostunica will be shown to have been justified and reap the benefit at the polls, as will Seselj's Radical Party and Milosevic's SPS. Holding the line on standards and minimizing concessions will mean a refusalist Serbia in the short run, but in the long run the democrats will gain as the only ones able to portray themselves as able to bring Serbia out of its self-imposed isolation.

On the Ground in Kosovo

The focus at the moment is overwhelmingly on the 17 November elections, which should create a stronger Kosovo Albanian government with a fresh mandate, but will at the same time (not least because of the Serb boycott, which is likely to produce Albanian majorities in the two Serb-majority municipalities south of the Ibar, and real problems of governance in the north) increase the Albanian-Serb divide and tensions ahead of status resolution.

Pristina is rather calmer than had been expected at this stage and its leadership appears to be soft-peddling its rhetoric on making a UDI only Prime Minister Ceku (who has no political base) keeps banging a drum about declaring on 10 December, while the likely victors in the forthcoming 17 November elections and future government coalition partners Sejdiu and Thaci both say Kosovo should wait to coordinate its UDI with the US and EU. Privately, many Kosovo politicians consider that early Spring 2008 may be the moment for the declaration.

There is a risk, however, that they will miscalculate the message the EU will absorb from this, prompting an ill-advised further procrastination, which could blow up in popular frustration among Kosovo Albanians come next Spring (and reorientation of armed Kosovo Albanian groups towards creating a crisis on the ground).

Conclusion

So the basic message remains the same that we set out in our August report. There are no easy fixes available to the Kosovo situation; supervised independence is the only ultimate way forward, because all the alternatives are worse; the primary responsibility for achieving this lies with the EU member states; hard decisions about recognition are going to have to made; and they are going to have to be made soon.

In the European Security Strategy adopted in December 2003, the European Council rightly concluded that "the credibility of our foreign policy depends on the consolidation of our achievements [in the Balkans][We] should be ready to act before a crisis occurs".

Those are lines that should be engraved on plaques on the desks of everyone in the EU system currently wrestling with Kosovo's future.