Kosovo: the way forward

Kai Eide summarises his impressions from working on the report on Kosovo's future that he produced this summer for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Holding the front line: NATO must maintain a sufficiently robust presence to deal effectively with potential unrest (© KFOR )

The international community was taken by surprise by the violence in Kosovo in March. It failed to read the mood of the population or to understand the depth of the dissatisfaction of the majority and the vulnerability of the minority. Worse still, it gave the impression of being in disarray, lacking strategy and internal cohesion. The UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) became the main target of criticism. But UNMIK was itself a victim of an international policy that lacked vision. The international presence was little more than a holding operation seeking to avoid the question of Kosovo's future status.

The Kosovo I found when I arrived in June was characterised by growing frustration. From the perspective of the Albanian majority, the cause of the violence was not primarily inter-ethnic conflict, but the lack of economic opportunities and the absence of a clear political way forward. As a young Albanian said: "You gave us freedom, but not a future." The Serbs, for their part, believed they were victims of a campaign to either drive them out of Kosovo or to reduce their presence to that of a scattered, rural population.

In the wake of the riots, a new and dynamic international strategy was urgently required, one which would also address the thorny issue of Kosovo's future status. Whereas until this point, the province's future status had been considered too dangerous even to discuss, it had now become too dangerous to ignore. The international community would have to come up with a comprehensive and integrated strategy for the period until the end of 2005, able to deal with the immediate challenges, to develop and manage an interim approach and finally to address the future-status question.

Some positive trends were, nevertheless, emerging in the summer as a result of clear messages from the international community. The Kosovo Albanians seemed to accept that they had done "too little, too late" to stem the violence and understood that the riots had damaged their reputation and cost them international support. Many also realised that a serious effort was necessary to reassure the international community and the Serbs of their intentions to preserve a multi-ethnic society. This required repairing the damage caused by the violence as well as developing meaningful local government. Agreement to begin such work had been reached, but the pace and level of commitment left much to be desired.

The Serbs require more autonomy in those areas in which they are concentrated as well as mechanisms to help protect and promote their identity. Such measures, if implemented, would help facilitate the return of those Serbs who fled during the riots and persuade their leadership to resume political dialogue. Many Serbs understood that they should not remain outside the political process when their Albanian counterparts were seen to be taking steps to accommodate their demands, since such an approach risked costing them international good will. It was, therefore, disappointing when Serb leaders urged Kosovo Serbs to boycott the October elections.

The timing of future-status discussions will never be ideal

To address the immediate challenges, it was critical to speed efforts in the areas of security, reconstruction and decentralisation so that Serbs and other minorities would have the confidence to return home. Insufficient progress would make it extremely difficult to repair the political damage caused by the March violence, for the international community to regain the credibility it had lost, for Albanian leaders to repair their image and for their Serb counterparts to return to the political process. Four months on, some progress has been made and the UN Secretary-General's new Special Representative (SRSG), Søren Jessen-Petersen, has launched a series of new initiatives. However, the pace of progress remains slow. (For more on Jessen-Petersen's plans for Kosovo, see an interview with him.)

In the interim, the international community has, on the one hand, increasingly to be seen to be transferring competencies and authority to Kosovo's own institutions - a key Albanian demand - and, on the other, it has to develop a more realistic and dynamic standards policy. An ambitious policy of transfer should, however, be accompanied by two further elements. First, the new SRSG should instigate a robust policy of sanctioning obstructionist behaviour, akin to that adopted by successive High Representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Second, he must develop and implement a more systematic approach to building local capacities. To date, with the exception of the Kosovo Police Service, capacity-building efforts have been sporadic and have failed to have much impact.

The "standards-before-status" approach that the international community adopted early in the peace process had come to lack credibility and needed to be replaced by a priority-based standards policy. Implementation of standards should in future be seen as part of a wider policy guiding efforts to bring Kosovo closer to European norms, even after the conclusion of future-status negotiations. Implementation of a highly ambitious and very detailed set of standards as a pre-requisite for status talks was rightly seen as unrealistic and unachievable. By treating the issue as part of the broader and longer-term agenda, it would be possible to focus efforts on a set of more immediate priorities, designed to assure minorities that they have a future in Kosovo. These priorities must be achievable and the results visible, leading to concrete progress on the ground and a better climate between the majority and minority populations. A priority-based standards policy would also help mobilise pressure on both Albanians and Serbs and send a more convincing message indicating what is expected of them. A series of standards reviews under the auspices of the SRSG and with Contact Group participation should take place before the scheduled mid-2005 review.

The timing of future-status discussions will never be ideal. However, given the reality that the international presence is likely to decline in the coming years and the fact that the economy is continuing to deteriorate - thereby adding to the level of frustration and dissatisfaction - raising the final-status question sooner rather than later seems to be the better option and is probably inevitable. The United Nations, together with key member states, should, therefore, initiate its own thinking as to how to take this process forward.

At the same time, the international community should intensify its dialogue with Belgrade. The Belgrade authorities feel that they have not been sufficiently included to date. That impression needs to be corrected as soon as possible, since Belgrade's support and participation will be a key to success at each and every stage of the process.

In the wake of the riots, UNMIK needed to be re-energised to bring its various components more closely together and help it focus on key priorities in a more organised way. However, a complete overhaul at that stage would have been counter-productive, probably leading to more internal discussion and confusion at a time when a concentrated effort on urgent priority issues of substance was required. A major restructuring of the international presence should, nevertheless, take place next year. With the future-status question looming, UNMIK should be looking to reduce its presence and to hand increasing responsibilities to the European Union.

The challenges that the international community faces in Kosovo, many of which have to be dealt with in parallel, will require an integrated, comprehensive strategic approach. This will have to be based on commitments from all major international organisations and countries involved. UNMIK will not be able to mobilise the strength and credibility required for carrying out its responsibilities without strong support from the international community at large.

A more concerted effort is, therefore, urgently required to ensure that the international community regains the initiative and maintains it throughout 2005. Such a coordinated strategy will have to include comprehensive and cohesive engagement from the European Union, politically as well as economically, including the formulation of a set of economic and political carrots and sticks. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe should play prominent roles in a more robust capacity-building effort. And NATO should ensure that it maintains a sufficiently robust presence to deal effectively with potential unrest in the run-up to, during and after future-status talks.

UNMIK will only be able to oversee this process in an efficient manner if it can count on constant and strong support from the Security Council and the Contact Group. The international community cannot afford to perform in a fragmented, uncoordinated and often competitive way. The stakes are too high and the challenges too demanding. We do not have much time, if we are to succeed in shaping and implementing such a comprehensive policy.

Read more: Kosovo, balkans
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