´Kosovo´s First Month´, crisisgroup

A month has passed since Kosovo declared independence on 17 February 2008. Much has gone well, but there is a real risk, as made most evident with the violence on 17 March around the courthouse in north Mitrovica,[1] that partition will harden at the Ibar River in the north, and Kosovo will become another frozen conflict. To seek to prevent this, more countries must recognise and embrace the new state, the international missions (European Union and NATO) must be more proactive and coordinate their operations and, most importantly, it must be demonstrated to Serbia, supported by Russia, that it will not be permitted to break up the new state.

Kosovo’s government has made positive gestures to the Serb minority and committed to protect minority rights, including through decentralisation of local government and preservation of cultural and religious heritage. Countries that have recognised Kosovo should now follow up with high-level visits, investments, trade agreements and assistance packages that will demonstrate independence is an irreversible reality and give the new state the confidence and wherewithal it needs to act responsibly.

Concerns that many had about the first month of independence – mass exodus from the enclaves, economic/energy boycotts or even military action by Serbia – have proven unfounded. Nor has there been widespread destabilising violence. But the global community’s so-far tepid embrace of the new republic, Belgrade’s efforts to expand its hold over Serb areas so as to advance a partition strategy and the failure of international bodies and Pristina to coordinate a counter-strategy suggest longer-term dangers remain very real. These include the perpetuation of a dispute that until it is accepted as settled by all parties leaves the post-Yugoslav peace project in much of the Western Balkans fragile; one of the regions most important states – Serbia – seriously at odds with neighbours and the West; Russia with a standing temptation to make mischief; the UN’s conflict resolution prestige wounded; and the European Union’s ability to punch at the political heavyweight level it strives for severely tested.

Kosovo’s independence ceremonies and celebrations were dignified and well organised. The new government reached out rhetorically to the Serbs and adopted state symbols, including a new flag, which showed sensitivity to the concerns of the international community. It pledged to implement the plan for conditional independence devised by the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Martti Ahtisaari, and invited the International Civilian Representative (ICR), the EU rule of law mission (EULEX) and NATO (KFOR) to assume major responsibilities for implementing that plan. Kosovo’s parliament has begun passing the Ahtisaari laws and is soon to finalise the new constitution.

The EU acted with remarkable unity, even in the face of some member states’ hesitancy to recognise Kosovo. On 18 February it took common note of the independence declaration and committed to play a leading role in helping the young state. Earlier it had authorised EULEX as its largest mission ever, as well as an EU special representative, and deployment has begun. EU High Representative Javier Solana, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer were the only senior officials to visit Kosovo in the first month of independence. On 28 February in Vienna, several EU member states and the U.S. took the lead to establish an International Steering Group to supervise Kosovo independence.

The reaction in Serbia was marked with street violence and government disunity. The rejectionist and racist anti-Albanian tone contrasted poorly with the inclusive and sober messages coming from Pristina and demonstrated again both how big a blow the loss of Kosovo is and the failure to break definitively with Milosevic-era attitudes. Commendably, Belgrade did not follow through on threats to cut electricity and impose an embargo, kept its army back and restrained extremists from escalating violence in Kosovo.

The Serbian government – a coalition primarily between President Tadic’s DS party and Prime Minister Kostunica’s DSS party – fell on 10 March, largely over differences on how to respond to EU states’ recognition of Kosovo and the deployment of EU missions. But Tadic and the DS have in effect acquiesced to Kostunica’s domination of Serbia’s Kosovo policy, including the refusal to cooperate with the new EU missions. Little change can be expected in this regard from the 11 May parliamentary elections.

Instead, Belgrade is likely to perpetuate a stand-off in Kosovo Serb areas. It facilitated violence in Kosovo on 19, 21 and 25 February, when Serbs attacked customs and border posts in the north (though Serbian riot police prevented a further attack by army reservists on 9 March). The consequences of its provocations were evident in the violent aftermath of the effort by UNMIK and KFOR to clear the regional court in north Mitrovica on 17 March of former employees who had occupied the building demanding that they be returned to their jobs. These consequences included scores of injuries to protestors and internationals alike.

Serbia is implementing a sophisticated policy to undermine Kosovo statehood by strengthening parallel institutions in Kosovo Serb areas, intimidating or buying off any inclined to cooperate with Pristina. Nationalist politicians in Belgrade hope at a minimum to secure partition into Albanian and Serbian entities, or to incite Kosovo Albanians to react violently and so do great damage to the international standing of their state-building project. The situation is made more complicated by Russia’s continued firm support of Serbia, efforts to discourage recognitions and resistance to UNMIK downsizing.

While Serbia has a strategy to divide Kosovo, the international community does not have a clearly defined and coordinated response. The 17 March UNMIK/KFOR operation appears to have been more an ad hoc reaction to provocation than part of a carefully choreographed plan. Legitimate questions have arisen as to whether its timing, tactics and potential consequences were fully considered in advance.

More broadly the EU and the UN are late in agreeing to a handover process and have stopped talking about transition. The UN is suggesting that it may remain beyond the first 120 days, at least in the north where the EU has been forced to pull back by the violence of the Serb response. NATO is concerned that it will be called on to assume more policing duties if Serb radicals backed by Belgrade continue to try to undermine UN and Kosovo Police Service (KPS) authority, especially along the border and in north Mitrovica. International political resolve is needed now to tell Serbia bluntly that it must accept Kosovo independence and move on.

Specifically in the next weeks:

Pristina/Belgrade/Brussels, 18 March 2008

[1] This briefing addresses those events – see especially pp. 11-12 below – but they were still unfolding at the time of going to press, and their causes and consequences will be analysed further in subsequent Crisis Group reporting.