Monday, March 28, 2005

Kosovo loses patience with UN mission as the economy flags


WHEN three armour-piercing bullets struck communications equipment on the roof of the United Nations headquarters in Kosovo’s regional capital earlier this month, staff there took it as a warning.

Once seen as the province’s saviour from the hated regime of ex-president Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbs, the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) - which since 1999 has been the area’s de facto government - seems to have lost the public’s goodwill.

In a recent poll carried out by the UN Development Programme, 75 per cent of Kosovars said they are dissatisfied with the UN mission.

Only days before the attack on the UN HQ, Ramush Haradinaj, Kosovo’s popular prime minister, resigned and surrendered to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague. Aside from a failed bomb attack on president Ibrahim Rugova’s motorcade, an expected violent backlash did not materialise.

But western staff and military officials in Kosovo and Europe warn that the security situation could "significantly deteriorate" between now and mid-summer, as frustration with the UN seethes just below the surface.

Colonel Yves Kermorvant, a spokesman for K-FOR, the 19,000-strong NATO peacekeeping force in the province, assured journalists last week that "the security situation in Kosovo is excellent".

Soren Jessen-Petersen, effectively the UN’s pro-consul in Kosovo, was less optimistic.

"A series of security incidents highlight the essential volatility of the situation in Kosovo, and the readiness to resort to violence by those still bent on blocking progress," the Dane said. "Such lawlessness could still, in certain circumstances, communicate itself to broader sections of the public."

International officials in the former Yugoslav province say discussions have been held between the UN HQ in New York and the mission in Pristina about the feasibility of re-locating UNMIK’s headquarters to outside the capital, where it will be easier to evacuate if the security situation breaks down.

After the bombing of the UN HQ in Baghdad in 2003, security officials in New York are taking no chances. But senior UNMIK officials say that this would give the worst possible message to Kosovo’s population at a time when crucial progress is being made towards possible talks on the province’s future independence.

A cross-section of mostly employed, educated and politically moderate Kosovo Albanians questioned over the last ten days explained why the UN mission in Kosovo is so unpopular.

The personal popularity of Mr Jessen-Petersen is on the up because he is seen as straight-talking and is pushing forward the agenda on the province’s independence. But the mission itself is seen as untrustworthy, aloof, corrupt, subject to a separate set of laws from Kosovars, and responsible for the political limbo in which Kosovo has remained since 1999.

UN security council resolution 1244, which has mandated the UN and NATO’s presence in and administration of Kosovo from June 1999 onwards, specifies that the former Yugoslav province will remain part of Serbia and Montenegro until its final status is agreed.

The lack of political resolution has meant that the main, and justified bugbear of Kosovars is the parlous state of the economy, which means few jobs, low international investment, high crime, and unemployment running at between 30 per cent and 55 per cent.

Suspicious of state apparatuses, Albanians see most international and local institutions as corrupt, regardless of evidence.

But in the western Balkans, where perception is king, each incident can be blown out of all proportion by suspicious and violence-prone extremists of any ethnicity.

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