Kosovo violence flares; diplomats feel the heat

French NATO peacekeeping vehicles burn during clashes Monday with Serb protesters in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.
REUTERS/Marko Djurica
French NATO peacekeeping vehicles burn during clashes Monday with Serb protesters in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.

As the world focused on the fifth-year milestone in the Iraq war, feared troubles sparked this week in Kosovo, whose declaration of independence last month has angered Serbs and attracted support from more than 30 nations. After rioting and a police-protester clash on Monday in the northern city of Mitrovica, which ended in dozens of injuries and the death of a Ukrainian U.N. police officer, the U.N. force withdrew for two days.

That situation calmed, the heat turned up on the diplomatic front Wednesday, when three of Serbia’s neighbors announced that they would formally recognize the independence of Kosovo. Those expressions of support, wrote the London Times, will relieve nerves frayed by “the slow pace of international support for the world’s newest country. Support from Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary will bring the total number of states recognising the breakaway Serbian province to 33, far fewer than many in Kosovo had hoped for by this stage, more than a month after declaring self-rule.”

The Times reported, “A target for half of the 192 members of the United Nations General Assembly to accept Kosovo by September has been dropped quietly and replaced with a drive for ‘quality rather than quantity’ to show that the world’s most powerful democracies back the Balkan nation.” It added, “Kosovo’s main sponsors in Washington, Brussels and London are working behind the scenes to gather enough support to rebuff any attempt by Russia at the UN to reopen talks on the status of a territory that it regards as an integral part of its ally Serbia.”

In ‘quality,’ effort is on track
Pieter Feith, the European Union’s special representative to Kosovo, told the Times: “If you look at this as a numbers game — for instance, 50 per cent of the members of the UN General Assembly by September, when it convenes — this could be seen as falling short of what we had hoped. If you look at quality, I think we are well on track. You have all the G7 countries, and even before Canada and Japan recognised [this week] we had 65 per cent of the world’s GDP.”

Since 1999, Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). (The U.N. peacekeeping force there includes several hundred members of the Minnesota National Guard.) The violence in Mitrovica was widely feared; early support, such as that of the United States (which authorized military assistance to Kosovo on Wednesday as well), was intended to help stave it off.

In London, The Economist expressed concern that the violence in Mitrovica could be “a taste of the future.”

“When Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia on February 17th,” it pointed out, “the doomsters predicted political turbulence and spasms of violence. A month later their predictions may be coming true. On March 18th United Nations police stormed a courthouse that had been seized by Kosovo Serbs in the north of the divided city of Mitrovica. Scores were injured in the ensuing violence, a Ukrainian policeman was killed and UN vehicles were set alight. The UN personnel were withdrawn but NATO troops remained.

“The violence was about more than just a courthouse, of course. Veton Surroi, often seen as Kosovo’s de facto foreign minister (the new state does not have an official one yet), says it was really about who is in control of Kosovo as the different contenders for power are ‘fighting for turf.’ Kosovo has some 2 million people, 90 percent of whom are ethnically Albanian. About 120,000 Serbs remain, half of them in the north. The Albanians have long wanted full independence; Serbia insists that Kosovo must remain Serbian forever.”

A restored but ‘deceptive’ peace
The German Spiegel Online also expressed concern, even as the U.N. police force returned to Mitrovica, with NATO support.

“Peace has been restored in Mitrovica, but it’s deceptive,” it said on Wednesday. “And an end to the escalation of violence in Kosovo doesn’t appear likely in the long run. That much became clear on Monday. For hours, the ethnically divided city in northern Kosovo seemed to be in a state of war … .”

According to the Spiegel Online report, “Washington and Brussels are all too aware that any concessions to Belgrade would only serve to enrage Albanians, but also provoke them to take matters into their own hands. There is no lack of youths who would love nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of the legendary former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters. It’s a nightmare for the international community, which naively supported the independence of Kosovo in the hope it would stabilize the Balkans. According to the EU’s special envoy, Peter Feith, and Kosovo’s Albanian leaders, Belgrade is — yet again — the main culprit behind the unrest.”

Feith, the Times of London reported, “regards steering Kosovo towards the EU as his main role.” He “is aiming for membership of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to give the country extra credibility,” the paper said, quoting Feith as saying, “It is important to get Kosovo to become a member of the international financial institutions to help kickstart the economy. We are looking forward to a donors’ conference organised by the European Commission in June and around that same time … significant progress in Kosovo’s application to the World Bank.”

Feith’s other role, the Times said, “is to help to oversee the transition of support with policing and the judiciary from the UN to the EU,” adding that he pledged to extend the EU’s mission into Mitrovica, a Serb stronghold.

The transition to the EU is complex and messy, the Economist indicated. “When it declared independence Kosovo pledged to stick to a plan first drawn up by Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president. Under this, Serb-populated areas of Kosovo were to have extensive autonomy. Meanwhile the UN mission in Kosovo … would after 120 days hand over its authority to Kosovo’s government and to two new missions sent by the EU.

“Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister and an old Balkan hand, sums up the problem: ‘We don’t have a settlement, and the role of the UN remains to be defined.’ Over the past month diplomats and politicians have been left trying to work out what they are supposed to do, or how much power they can grab. … The EU says that it has begun its 120-day countdown. But the UN mission in Kosovo has been told nothing by its masters in New York and so has no plans to hand over authority.”

The worry, said the Economist, is this: “When calm returns after the Mitrovica clashes, Kosovo will be left with a frozen conflict in which, for now, power will lie with the Serbian authorities in Serb areas and it may be unclear who is in charge elsewhere.

“This, frets Mr Surroi [the de facto foreign minister], will ‘suck the political energy of Kosovo’s society’ and distort normal political life for years to come, in both Kosovo and Serbia. He calls it ‘a dangerous period, and one that requires an urgent response.’ “

Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com. 

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