For the first time since independence in 2008 there is a sense in Kosovo that the international community is choosing sides with NATO supporting the Kosovo government and the EU critical of it. The public perception may be false – as both NATO and EU are working closely together to assure security after the 25 July attempt by the Kosovo special police to take control of two custom posts with Serbia and the consequent burning of one of those posts by Serb protestors – but if this public perception persists tensions will rise, and it will become much more difficult for either party to mediate. One Kosovo police has already been killed.
KFOR is now firmly in control of the two disputed Northern customs points and supporting operations of the Kosovo police. Traffic is opened only for small vehicles and limited goods. The Kosovo Serbs remain firm that they want to go back to the pre 25 July situation when Serbs manned the posts and are maintaining roadblocks impeding KFOR movement. The Kosovo Albanians are adamant that they will keep control of the gates which have not only a political but also financial importance as the absence of Kosovo customs meant a loss of €30-40 million annually.
Until now most Kosovo Serbs saw KFOR as a peacekeeping force which could help protect them in case of attack. But KFOR command has expressly said that Kosovo officials are the only legitimate authority it will cooperate with and transfer power to. Last week after they helped transport and supply Kosovo police to the disputed customs gates, for the Serbs KFOR became an occupying force, supporting the imposition of customs as a forcible separation from their homeland Serbia. KFOR has become – in their eyes – a legitimate target; today Kosovo Serbs are setting up roadblocks but tomorrow extremists may up the ante. Many of these hardliners have of course been benefiting from smuggling opportunities for years – often cooperating with Kosovo Albanians.
To avoid a deterioration of the situation on the ground, KFOR should maintain control of the two customs points until a political agreement on customs is made between Kosovo and Serbia. Officials from the EU Rule of Law mission (EULEX) should be deployed to carry out customs duties. As Crisis Group recommended in a March report on the North, Dual Sovereignty in Practice, collected funds should be put in an escrow account awaiting a political agreement on their disbursement, which should eventually allow a significant part to finance projects in the North – as Pristina has long agreed in principle.
While KFOR was taking the lead, the EU, without a permanent special representative on the ground, was regularly putting out statements. Initially EU High Representative Catherine Ashton on 26 July “expressed the EU´s concern over the escalation of tensions in northern Kosovo”. The spokesperson for the EU rule of law mission added “EULEX was not involved in any way in the operation” and “unilateral actions by one side or the other are not helpful.”Ashton again on the 28th expressed her strong concern about the continued tensions in the North.
None of this was received favorably in Pristina. Support for the EU in Kosovo has been decreasing for months since EULEX was unable to deploy effectively throughout northern Kosovo, and in Brussels there has been little progress in starting a visa dialogue that would eventually lead to a liberalization of the EU visa regime for Kosovars. Last week criticism of the EU reached a new high when Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister Kuqi virtually threatened the EU mission, claiming “EULEX will either be in the whole of Kosovo or nowhere.”
Yet the best way out of this current conflict is a resumption of the EU dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia on technical issues including customs stamps and border management. EU and US officials agree that return to dialogue is necessary. The Representative in charge of the dialogue arrived in the region Monday. Kosovo Albanians and Serbs will have to drop their preconditions and get back to talks.
But if dialogue is going to work it needs to be more robust and content filled. In close to one year of preparation and talks Kosovo and Serbia in July just made their first agreements on civil registry, acceptance of academic diplomas, and freedom of movement for travel with ID cards and Kosovo license plates. Talks scheduled for end of July on customs stamps were postponed until September because the sides were judged to be too far apart to reach a new breakthrough. This delay sparked Kosovo’s embargo on Serbian goods and inflammatory police action on 25 July to create realities on the ground to give them a stronger hand in the September talks.
Talks should resume immediately and at a much more sustained pace to deal with customs, border control, telecommunication, electricity, representation in international forums, as well as the more sensitive issues such as addressing organized crime, the rule of law in the north, and the status and security of Orthodox cultural heritage in Kosovo. A quick agreement on customs is needed now, with Serbia accepting Kosovo customs stamps, Kosovo or EULEX management of the northern customs points and a process on how to distribute the customs revenue.
But sooner rather than later the talks will need to go beyond technical matters. Status is the heart of the problem between Kosovo and Serbia. Unless the two find a formula to resolve the status problem, and establish full diplomatic relations, events like those witnessed last week will continue and the EU and NATO will be dangerously pulled in to address on the ground what they fail to tackle at the negotiations table.