Party squabbles over who should lead Kosovo's final status talks are dogging run-up to crucial discussions.
By Arben Qirezi and Artan Mustafa in Pristina (BCR No 559, 09-Jun-05)
Kosovo's UN chief, Soren Jessen-Petersen, has helped set up a mechanism called the Kosovo Forum, to help the protectorate’s Albanians hammer out a joint platform before final status talks open.
The forum, established on June 7, comprises Ibrahim Rugova, the president of Kosovo and leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, Bajram Kosumi, the prime minister and vice-chairman of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, Kole Berisha, of the LDK, Hashim Thaci, from the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, and Veton Surroi from ORA.
The UNMIK chief's initiative follows a UN Security Council meeting, which entrusted Kai Aide, the special envoy of the Secretary General Koffi Annan with reviewing the so-called "standards".
This is a checklist of criteria that the international community has said Kosovo must meet before status talks can begin. Aide is to begin the review in mid-June.
Six years into the UN administration, therefore, the international community seems set to begin final status talks, pending the results of Aide's standards review.
The final status talks will involve Kosovo, Serbia, and the Contact Group of countries, which brings together the US, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy.
Western countries have made it clear that a return to Kosovo's pre-1999 status, as a province of Serbia, is not an option. They will also not countenance partition or joining Kosovo to a neighbouring state.
All the main parties representing Kosovo Albanians are demanding the entity’s independence, rejecting any form of re-integration with Serbia. The Serbian parties, for their part, have settled on the slogan of "less than independence and more than autonomy".
A number of NGOs and international groups, such as the International Commission for the Balkans and the International Crisis Group, ICG, have put forward a third solution, based on "conditional independence", meaning independence subject to certain conditions.
Although the Albanian side appears united over its main goals, deep divisions remain over tactics and over who should lead the negotiations.
The departure of the former prime minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, to The Hague in March, to answer war crimes charges, has weakened the ruling coalition. Since then it has faced fierce accusations from the opposition of involvement in illegal activities.
While most Kosovars welcomed Jessen-Petersen's move to set up a consultative forum, there have been differing reactions from the political leaders.
The PDK wants the body to have a decision-making role, while the ruling coalition does not want it to override Kosovo's elected institutions.
UNMIK postponed the establishment of the forum several times in order to try to achieve a consensus over its role.
"The primary aim of the Forum is to create a platform for negotiations," said UNMIK spokesperson Hua Jiang. "We can't just say to the people, 'Come on into discussions', without being prepared."
Final agreement on setting up the forum emerged only this week, after a meeting under Jessen-Petersen's auspices.
As a result, it was agreed that the body would meet every two or three weeks to discuss standards implementation, decentralisation and dialogue with Belgrade.
Even after the apparent agreement, however, problems remain over the forum and its remit.
The biggest question concerns the future place of Kosovo's opposition parties in the final status talks. "There are fundamental disagreements on the negotiations team," said Surroi. The main opposition parties want an equal role in the talks alongside the governing parties.
Some international observers agree, saying Thaci, the main opposition leader, must be given a prominent role. They fear Thaci's PDK may obstruct the final status talks, if he is not part of the negotiating team.
"The opposition and governing parties have to be together on final status discussions," said Alex Anderson, of the ICG.
"The idea of the opposition leading the negotiations is a right one."
The question is whether the governing parties will agree to this. Nexhat Daci, president of the Kosovo assembly and a senior official with the LDK, has no problem over the concept.
Daci, in fact, launched the idea of a joint role of government and opposition parties in the final status talks, after Haradinaj was indicted.
But Daci's party leader, Rugova, is less enthusiastic. It remains to be seen whether popular pressure for a united front will force him into accepting a major role for the opposition in the talks.
Civil groups and independent observers fear the Kosovo Albanian side is wasting time and energy over these internal squabbles at the expense of the big issue. Shkelzen Maliqi, a political analyst, said the creation of the forum offered the Albanian parties a valuable chance to make sure they were not outmanoeuvred in the status talks.
"Political forces must now work fast on their negotiating platform, instead of waiting for international initiatives," he said.
Arben Qirezi is an IWPR Kosovo Editor and Artan Mustafa is a journalist for the Kosovan daily Ekspress.