Kosovo: the end of the beginning

James Walston
23 October 2005

The diplomatic wheels are slowly grinding into life in relation to Kosovo, the Balkans’ last major territorial quarrel. Today, 24 October, the United Nations Security Council considers the report of the Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide recommending talks between the state of Serbia & Montenegro and representatives of the Kosovo Albanian government in Pristina. If the council accepts the report and its proposals, for “final status” negotiations, Kosovo – six years after the 1999 war which led to the withdrawal of Serbian forces (and many Serbian refugees in their wake) – will at last be released from a constitutional deep freeze.

The impact of the diplomatic maneouvres is already being felt in Kosovo itself. The signs around the Pristina headquarters of the UN mission in Kosovo (Unmik) may still be reminiscent of a “spaghetti western” – visitors are instructed “No loaded weapons beyond this point” and “No longbarrelled weapons inside the building” – but the atmosphere started to change perceptibly even before Kai Eide’s report was sent to UN secretary-general on 7 October.

Although elections in October 2004 saw an administration dominated by Kosovo Albanian politicians come to office, under the constitutional framework established in February 2002, it is Unmik that has effectively ruled Kosovo since 1999. Thus it is Unmik and the UN secretary-general’s special representative (SRSG), the international community’s pro-consul, that has received most of the blame for lack of progress or when things go wrong – as with the unexpectedly violent riots of March 2004 when Serb buildings and properties were attacked and nineteen people (ten of them Kosovo Albanians) were killed.

The riots reflected deep local frustration at the lack of political progress since the agreement that ended the Nato air war of 1999, when UN Security Council Resolution 1244 reaffirmed Kosovo’s status as a province of Serbia even when its Albanian majority of around 90% were in favour of independence. The slow “unfreezing” is likely to start with the Security Council appointing former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari – fresh from his success in brokering the Aceh peace agreement in Indonesia’s northwest region – to chair the negotiations.

openDemocracy articles on Kosovo include:

Scarlett MccGwire, “In Kosovo, statehood is the solvent for war” (June 2001)

Scarlett MccGwire, “Kosovo: time for a clear decision” (June 2002)

John Dyer, “No going home to Kosovo” (October 2005)

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Between violence and politics

The position of the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians are far apart on Kosovo’s future, but demographic and diplomatic realities make “conditional independence” the most probable outcome of the talks. This means that the UN will move from a position of political and executive responsibility to one of administrative oversight.

In that case, the process of Unmik withdrawal will see the Kosovar government assume more powers. The current SRSG, Søren Jessen-Petersen, has already sanctioned the formation of Kosovar ministries of the interior and justice before the end of 2005. Both are major symbols of sovereignty and have already been welcomed by the Albanian Kosovars. At the same time, there is no timeline at present for the creation of two other key ministries for a sovereign state – foreign affairs and defence.

This combination of progress and stasis emphasises a problem for Kosovo; that “independence” is not a sudden “on/off” switch but a process – and that the real problems are likely to start when the switch is mostly “on”. A few days ago, Ardian Gjini – a PISG minister and close collaborator of former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj (whose trial in The Hague for war crimes connected to his role in the Kosovo Liberation Army [KLA] is scheduled to begin in January 2007) – told me that “Kosovo will have UN membership by the end of 2006”.

My group of visiting American students joked that Kosovo does not yet have even the primary symbol of nationhood – a flag – but Ardian Gjini was not worried. He is also a former KLA fighter but his weapons today are diplomacy, politics and negotiation; and for all the corruption in both Kosovar and international organisations in Kosovo, politics not violence is the name of the game for almost everyone.

What kind of independence?

The concern for today’s SRSG and tomorrow’s chief negotiator in Kosovo is to ensure that this remains the case. The wild card is Hashim Thaci, former commander of the KLA, leading negotiator at the Rambouillet negotiations that preceded the 1999 war, and now head of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK). His position as an opponent of the PISG gives him two options: first, to stay out of the final-status negotiations so that he can resist their inevitable compromises by claiming to stay true to the ideal principles of Kosovar independence (but also miss out on both policy and influence in the new government); second, to take part in the negotiations, become part of the “conditionally independent” Kosovar government (and thus win posts, resources, and influence).

Beyond Hashem Thaci and the other former fighters who have exchanged the AK-47 for the parliamentary motion are “hard men”, militants who are quite prepared to return to violence. Over the summer they have made their presence felt with continuous minor attacks on UN vehicles; many of these – the small bomb set off at 2am with a warning in an empty parking-lot – are for propaganda purposes, but they could become more significant in the absence of a political solution.

There are three further potential obstacles to political and constitutional progress in Kosovo. The first is the succession to Ibrahim Rugova, the president of Kosovo; he was diagnosed with lung cancer in September and clearly the chances of him continuing as a political leader for very long are slight. Rugova began the Kosovar Albanians’ march to independence and though his political authority was waning even before the diagnosis, there is no obvious candidate to follow him. A fight on this issue in the middle of delicate negotiations could have destructive effects on the Kosovar position and on the negotiations as a whole.

The second obstacle is the structural elements of “conditional independence” itself. A senior official in the SRSG’s office put it this way to me: “There can be ‘independence if’ or ‘independence but’”. “Independence if” would entail little change from today’s situation: the international community would give Kosovo independence if and when it fulfils certain conditions (in the jargon of the last eighteen months, “standards before status”).

“Independence but” would entail a series of compromises: a Kosovo army (surrounded by a continued Nato/KFOR presence), plus guarantees for Serb enclaves and historic sites. Most Kosovar Albanian politicians and people could live with that outcome, especially if it resolves present uncertainties, such as who owns property or nationalised industries and whether the Pristina government can take out loans and make international agreements.

The third obstacle is the position of Belgrade and the Kosovar Serbs; neither side is publicly prepared to accept the “loss” of Kosovo in any negotiations. This is not just because of Kosovo’s symbolic place in the Serbian imagination, but because of the consequences of full or conditional Kosovo independence on Bosnia, and on Serbia’s state partner Montenegro.

There are many, interlinked difficulties ahead. But stagnation is not an option. On 24 October 2005, Kosovo may at last have reached “the end of the beginning”.

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