Thursday, July 20, 2006

UNSC set to break Kosovo status quo

With talks between Belgrade and Pristina over Kosovo's final status set to fail, the UNSC is ready to make the decision itself by the year's end, a diplomat says.

By Ekrem Krasniqi in Brussels for ISN Security Watch (20/07/06)

If Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders and the authorities in Belgrade fail to reach an agreement over the status of Serbia's UN-administered province of Kosovo by the end of the year, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will make the decision on its own, an EU diplomat told ISN Security Watch.

And Kosovo's independence looks like a done deal, especially with Russia seemingly on board at the UNSC, though not without its own game plan.

UN-mediated Kosovo status talks between Belgrade and Pristina are expected to take place later this month, but EU diplomats in Brussels have said that if the two sides failed to reach an agreement, the UNSC would step in and make it for them.

"The Contact Group prefers an agreed solution," but if that does not happen, "then the Security Council will have to take up its responsibilities," a European diplomat told ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity.

UN special envoy for Kosovo talks, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, is trying to organize the first high-level meeting between Kosovo and Serb leaders in Vienna on 24 July, hoping to bring in Serbian President Boris Tadic, who has already agreed to attend, and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who has not net responded, and their counterparts from Kosovo, Fatmir Sejdiu and Agim Ceku.

The meeting in Vienna would open the second phase of the talks on the future of Kosovo.

Since the beginning of the year, negotiations on decentralization (the creation of more municipalities for the Serbian minority and the shift of power from the central government to municipal authorities), the economy (the privatization of Kosovo's enterprises, property rights, citizens savings, pensions, etc) and culture (ensuring the cultural heritage and religious sites of Serbs) failed to bring about any significant results.

But even if partial agreement could be reached on some of these issues, there is little chance that Pristina and Belgrade would agree on dueling status proposals, and there are not any new options on the table: Kosovo's ethnic Albanians will settle for nothing less than independence, while Belgrade insists that independence is not an option and is willing to go only as far as granting the province greater autonomy.

What is most likely to happen is that the Vienna meeting will serve only as a confirmation of the failed status talks, which will allow the "Kosovo File" to be sent directly to the UNSC to decide on how best to end the status quo.

The US and Britain are pushing for the independence, with US President George W Bush saying that the solution should reflect the demand of the majority, but must also respect the rights of the minorities.

Washington says the Kosovo status chapter must be closed as soon as possible, as the status quo can no longer be maintained and any further delays keep the economy in limbo and could lead to renewed unrest among ethnic Albanians.

Implications for Belgrade

But handing the decision over to the UNSC - which is likely to result in a declaration of independence for Kosovo later this year or early next year - could be problematic.

One question Western leaders will have to answer is how to sell Kosovo's independence to the Serbian people to avoid internal instability. This comes at a time when radicals are leading the polls with a 40 percent popularity rating. Declaring an independent Kosovo would certainly give radicals a further boost and could be the downfall of the current government.

The Serbian leadership is hoping to convince the UNSC to delay its decision by a few months, at least until after elections, which are tentatively planned for the end of this year.

Serbian President Tadic, a moderate who on several occasions has acknowledged that Kosovo was moving toward independence, said after meeting with top EU officials Tuesday in Brussels that he would prefer extraordinary elections in Serbia before Kosovo's status was decided.

But over all, what Belgrade really wants is a temporary solution for Kosovo, such as "essential autonomy" inside Serbia, and a postponement of final status for up to 20 years - an idea that already has been categorically rejected by Western governments.

The question of Russia

For the West, the political implications for Belgrade seem to hold less importance than Russia's demands, however. After all, elections will come and go in Serbia and regardless, Belgrade will have to make a touch decision between holding on to Kosovo and pursuing its path of Euro-Atlantic integration.

Russia, on the other hand, would use Kosovo independence to win the backing of Western governments for independence for Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Moldova's breakaway region of Transdneistria.

Russian authorities have been quite vocal about the precedent Kosovo's independence could set.

At least for now, Britain and the US have maintained that a comparison cannot be drawn between Kosovo and Georgia and Moldova, but that could change as Kosovo's independence would require Russia's vote on the UNSC - a vote it is not likely to give without some assurance of a similar deal for South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transdneistria.

In Brussels, the ISN Security Watch's EU source echoed sentiments in London and Washington, saying that "all issues should be resolved according to their specifications," but he said he doubted Russia would move to bloc the UNSC vote on Kosovo's final status.

Russia's apparent readiness to accept Kosovo’s independence in light of the precedent it would set represents a marked change in Moscow's position.

Earlier, Russia had rejected the idea of independence for Kosovo as it feared it would strengthen the case for the independence of its Northern Caucasus republic of Chechnya.

But now, diplomats are cautiously optimistic that Russia will not abandon Contact Group statements saying that the solution for Kosovo "must be acceptable to Kosovo people” - a statement Western diplomats interpret as meaning "acceptable to the ethnic Albanian majority," or independence.

Observers also believe that with Russia on board - though it is not clear if Moscow's demands will be met - Kosovo independence is a done deal.

“The Russians believe that Kosovo’s independence will help their case in the three regions,” Nicholas Whyte from the International Crisis Group (ICG) told ISN Security Watch.

There have been diplomatic rumblings in Brussels that the UNSC was planning to "invite" member nations to recognize Kosovo's independence in the fall, though this has not been independently confirmed.

But if the West fails to agree on Russia's hoped-for concessions, complications could erupt at the UNSC, he suggested.

Since Moscow's change in position, the Serbian leadership has been lobbying other Contact Group members, including China, to vote against Kosovo independence. But so far, those lobbying efforts seem to have made little headway.

Regional implications

Since Montenegro's declaration of independence from the state union with Serbia in May, Bosnian Serbs have stepped up their calls for a similar right to self-determination - a call that has been categorically rejected by Western officials. The Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia split the country into two administrative entities, the Bosniak- and Croat-dominated Federation entity and the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity.

The Serbian government has repeatedly warned that a declaration of independence for Kosovo could threaten regional stability in the western Balkans.

But EU and US officials have remained adamant that whatever the solution for Kosovo, the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be changed.

Some also have warned of potential consequences for Serbia's internal borders, with Serbs in northern Kosovo threatening partition, which could in turn provoke the ethnic Albanian majority in the south of Serbia (Presevo Valley) to seek to join a newly independent Kosovo. Others warn that it could also incite new tensions in Macedonia (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), where the Albanian minority forms a quarter of the population.

The Contact Group has made it clear that an independent Kosovo could not join any parts or countries in the region, referring to northwestern Macedonia, southern Serbia and Albania.

EU boosts Kosovo independence hopes

On Monday, Kosovo's independence was boosted further when EU officials released a report to member states' foreign ministers signaled the bloc would begin to treat Kosovo as an independent state.

The report says Kosovo is to move toward the EU as an independent country from Serbia by building bilateral relations as Brussels does with other aspiring countries of the western Balkans region.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said the 25-nation bloc expected Kosovo authorities to work hard on meeting the criteria set for accession. They also said Brussels should be ready to grant to Kosovo all contractual relations for this purpose.

Once the final status has been decided the EU will take over the mandate of the United Nation's Mission (UNMIK) and is to supervise Kosovo's "limited" independence, while NATO will continue to run the security mission, but with reduced troop numbers.

As such, EU member states will assume the main role in Kosovo, with a European police mission that is expected to help local authorities provide security guarantees for minorities.

Ekrem Krasniqi is ISN Security Watch’s senior correspondent at the EU, UN, and NATO in Brussels, where he has been based since 1992. Has has worked for the Kosovo weekly magazine Zeri and the daily Zëri i Ditës. Krasniqi is the founder of DTT-NET.COM press agency and serves as the outlet’s editor-in-chief.

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