20 April 2007

Finesse or fudge on Kosovo's future

IRISH TIMES, Friday, January 26, 2007 1:25 AM


Kosovo, the final piece in the jigsaw that used to be Yugoslavia, will learn today what degree of independence it can have from Serbia. Daniel McLaughlin reports from Pristina on the prospects for this impoverished nation with a restive minority


Proposals for Kosovo unveiled by a UN envoy today will satisfy neither the region's ethnic Albanian majority nor the Serbs who are loath to let it go free. But their dissatisfaction will not be enough to scupper a plan fashioned in foreign capitals.


Martti Ahtisaari's long-awaited blueprint is expected to outline a Kosovo that, to Belgrade's chagrin, will be able to run its own foreign policy and join international organisations but which - to the annoyance of the Kosovo Albanians - will not expressly be declared independent from Serbia.


The former Finnish president will tread a fine diplomatic line that he hopes will safely lead him, and Kosovo, through a field of potentially disastrous outcomes.


The province of two million people, 90 per cent of whom are ethnic Albanian, has not been run by Belgrade since 1999, when Nato bombs forced Slobodan Milosevic to end a bloody crackdown on separatists and civilians and withdraw his forces.


Since then, Kosovo has been under UN control and its leaders have refused to publicly countenance anything but full independence; predictably, in this zero-sum game, Serbia has responded by declaring its implacable opposition to such a move.


Knowing that Kosovars would fight rather than return to Belgrade's fold, and keen to be seen supporting the cause of a mostly Muslim people, Washington and the European Union have long favoured independence for Kosovo.


However their enthusiasm has been dampened by the rise of Serbia's ultra-nationalist Radicals, who won this month's election by lambasting pro-Western parties for cosying up to the foreign powers who want to "steal" Kosovo, Serbia's historic heartland.


The spectre of Serbia slipping into ultra-nationalist hands and becoming a zone of instability and pro-Russian sentiment at the heart of the Balkans, made Brussels and the US look for ways of finessing their final decision on Kosovo.


Call it finesse or call it fudge, there will be plenty of it in Mr Ahtisaari's plan, which he delivers in Vienna today to the so-called Kosovo Contact Group comprising the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia.


The plan will probably allow Kosovo to join the Council of Europe, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other such institutions, but will place limits - at least temporarily - on the province's sovereignty.


Mr Ahtisaari will also stress the need for an international presence, probably the EU, to oversee the running of Kosovo. An international military force will also remain, largely to protect Serb enclaves that may be given a large degree of autonomy within Kosovo, a move that the Western powers hope will reduce the likelihood of a Serb exodus from the region.


"My settlement proposal focuses strongly on the protection of minority rights," Mr Ahtisaari said earlier this week. "It provides the foundation for a democratic and multi-ethnic Kosovo in which the rights and interests of all communities are firmly guaranteed and protected by institutions based on the rule of law.


"It also forces a strong international civilian and military presence within a broader future international engagement in Kosovo."


Fearing that the lack of a definitive declaration of independence could spark unrest, Kosovo's leaders are preparing their people to accept less than they wanted.


President Fatmir Sejdiu announced this week that security and the rule of law would be in foreign hands when Kosovo got its new status.


"This will be temporary and will remain during the transition period," he said, insisting that a further period of international oversight would benefit Kosovo.


"We consider it as help to Kosovo institutions in order to step up our efforts for integration" with the European Union and Nato, he added.


The UN delayed making its recommendations on Kosovo until after this month's Serbian elections, fearing a move towards Kosovo's independence would bolster the nationalist vote.


Today's report from Mr Ahtisaari, which Kosovars had hoped would serve as a de facto declaration of their sovereignty, is now being described as part of a long and drawn-out process in which Serbia has a role to play.


"Not all answers and all words will be included" in the report, says Torbjorn Sohlstrom, the Swedish diplomat who is the senior European Union official in Kosovo. "It will be an essential building block, but this is not the end of the process."


Mr Ahtisaari will present his proposals to Belgrade and Kosovo early next month. According to Serb media, officials from Belgrade and Kosovo will then be invited to two rounds of talks later in February to discuss their views. After that, the plan will be put before a vote to the UN Security Council.


It is not clear whether Serbia's main, broadly liberal parties will have formed a new government by then, so keeping the Radicals out of power.


Even if a new coalition has been created, its leaders will wash their hands of any decision to grant independence to Kosovo and are likely to demand maximum autonomy and protection for Serb enclaves in the region.


Visiting Kosovo this week, the political director of the British Foreign Office, John Sawers, dampened Serb hopes of using the talks to stall or derail the UN plan.


"I don't think there's going to be a fundamental renegotiation of the whole approach," he said. "I think it's going to be a consultation on how it will work and perhaps some fine-tuning." He also said Western governments "will keep working with the Russians" to convince them not to veto the proposals in the UN Security Council.


Backroom diplomatic dealing appeared to be working yesterday, when Moscow's ambassador to the UN said he saw "are all sorts of possibilities . . . if the parties get into a creative discussion of the settlement."


Kosovo is already on the road to some form of independence and the West's support for that may result from stark reasoning: that a weary Serbia will not take up arms to keep Kosovo, while Kosovars would fight to resist a return to Belgrade's rule.


But how will this tiny, impoverished nation survive, with few natural resources, little tourist potential, decrepit infrastructure and a restive Serb minority and potentially troublesome neighbours? Mr Ahtisaari can say what he likes today - uncertainty will linger over Kosovo for years to come.