Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Understated envoy offers hope for future of Kosovo

Joachim Rucker, Kofi Annan's new envoy in Kosovo, personifies the United Nations secretary-general's understated approach toward the potentially explosive issue of Serbia's breakaway province.

The German diplomat stands to play a leading role in determining the future of Kosovo, the most volatile Balkan flashpoint following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. A bomb blast on Saturday heightened the divisions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs as the UN tries to broker a deal expected to give independence to Kosovo and autonomy to its Serb-dominated northern municipalities.

Mr Rucker conspicuously lacks the international stature of his colleague, Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president who is presiding over talks in Vienna between Serbian and Kosovo Albanian leaders.

Until his move to the Balkans in 2001, Mr Rucker spent eight years away from Germany's foreign service as mayor of Sindelfingen, a tidy Stuttgart suburb. But his relative obscurity belies a proven ability on the ground in Kosovo to achieve results.

Mr Ahtisaari's seven-month-old negotiation drive has been bogged down by enmity between pro-independence Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, who oppose such a move. By contrast, Mr Rucker, as the EU appointee in charge of Kosovo's struggling economy, has accelerated a previously moribund privatisation programme and transferred much of the province's economic capacity into local hands, potentially paving the way for independence.

In his first appearances after his appointment was announced in mid-August, Mr Rucker received a warm welcome from pro-independence leaders. Muhamet Hamiti, senior political adviser to Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu, praised the 55-year-old as "someone who has been on the ground, who does not have to start from scratch and who will need no learning period".

Mr Rucker offered further encouragement to leaders in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, by scolding Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, Serbia's top official for the province. After Ms Raskovic-Ivic floated the idea of partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines, he shot back in a BBC interview: "We cannot and will not accept partition as an option."

The comments appeared to have forced Belgrade's negotiators back to the drawing board, with Serb officials disowning Ms Raskovic-Ivic's proposal.

Such firm language won points from senior UN officials keen to keep the rival delegations corralled in Mr Ahtisaari's talks. But it may also signal the end of Mr Rucker's honeymoon in Kosovo as a technician who, in tackling privatisation, managed mostly to steer clear of the intrigues over Kosovo's political status.

Mr Rucker's predecessors often suffered awkward moments with Belgrade.

Mr Annan's previous envoy, Danish diplomat Soren Jessen-Petersen, was highly regarded in Pristina but fell out of favour with many in Belgrade for maintaining a close working relationship with Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo prime minister accused of war crimes.

Despite such difficulties, Mr Rucker said he intended to "switch off the lights" when he left Pristina, signalling the end of the UN's administration of Kosovo, now seven years old. To get there will require technical savvy and political muscle.

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