Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Albanians Still Wary of Dialogue

Kosovo's Albanian leadership fears that talking direct to Belgrade could weaken their position.
By Alma Lama

Pristina's politicians fear upcoming talks with Serbia could see them abandoned by the international community and bullied into line by Belgrade.

Talks between Kosovo and Serbia are expected to take place some time over the summer, as announced at June's summit of EU leaders in Thessalonica, Greece.

But while EU nations have billed the upcoming discussions as a major move towards resolving tensions between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians, both parties in the talks are deeply apprehensive about where they will lead.

Pristina is particularly nervous.

All Kosovar Albanian politicians want independence from Belgrade. Only international pressure has forced them to hold talks with the Serbs.

They now fear they could be outgunned at the negotiating table.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior official from the Kosovar prime minister's office told IWPR that the Pristina delegation had not wanted to talk to Belgrade until the province's final status had been decided.

"Now we are entering the dialogue from an inferior position - Serbia is a state, Kosovo is not," said the official.

The lingering fear for the Pristina delegation is that the upcoming talks represent the thin end of the wedge of Serbia's desire to reassert its authority. They are worried that the western powers, which are impatient to settle the province's status, may use these negotiations to try to shoehorn Kosovo and Serbia into a loose confederation, along the lines of the current Serbia-Montenegro union.

Such a notion is anathema to most Kosovo Albanians.

The source in the prime minister's office acknowledged these concerns, saying that in the eyes of the people, the Kosovar delegation "would be seen as successful if the dialogue with Belgrade fails".

His comment echoes concerns voiced late in June by Kosovo prime minister Bajram Rexhepi, who told Austrian media that Albanians were wary of talking to the Serbs because they feared the international community would leave the two sides to resolve Kosovo's status between themselves.

Albanians believe direct talks would make it easier for the Serbs to dictate their own terms. Their suspicion that the EU is tilting its bias towards the Serbs has grown in recent months, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is the chief suspect.

This is partly because neither the EU, nor the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, has responded to Albanian calls to disband the municipal, education and healthcare bodies in northern Kosovo that continue to be run from Belgrade.

Underpinning their mistrust of Solana is the belief that he would not want to irritate Belgrade, as that would risk destabilising the Serbia-Montenegro union of which he is one of the chief architects.

Some Albanians also saw proof of Solana's soft stance towards Serbia at the Thessalonica summit, when he applauded Belgrade and Pristina's willingness to negotiate. Yet Serb officials had just snubbed an offer to have informal talks with some Kosovars at the summit, saying they would not "meet Albanians just for Steiner's sake".

Solana was later criticised by the president of the Kosovo assembly, Nexhat Daci, who accused him of pandering to Belgrade by failing to force a meeting on the spot.

Kosovars' pre-negotiation nerves have also been set on edge by the recent brief detention of guerrilla turned politician Hashim Thaci. Thaci was arrested in Budapest on July 1 by Hungarian authorities apparently acting on a Milosevic-era warrant. The former Kosovo Liberation Army leader was soon released without charge, but the apparent misunderstanding unnerved his colleagues in Pristina.

Rexhepi described the arrest as "a dangerous provocation that could lead to increased tensions in the region".

Speaking after the arrest, Jakup Krasniqi, a close associate of Thaci's in the Democratic Party of Kosovo, told IWPR, "I do not see why Albanians should enter into talks with Belgrade if their government reactivates or does not withdraw indictments against former KLA representatives".

Barely a week before his brief arrest in Budapest, Thaci had said he would be willing to travel to Belgrade for talks.

Remarks made by the deputy prime minister in Belgrade, Nebojsa Covic, suggest the Serbs may be trying every possible means to test this willingness. Covic has called for all members of the Kosovar delegation to be vetted by the Hague Tribunal, the EU and by Serbia's ministries of justice and internal affairs - a process that might rule Thaci out.

Although the venue for the talks has not been fixed, Serbian interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic indicated that the arrest warrant against Thaci could be waived if he entered the country as an official member of a delegation. But Mihajlovic also assured reporters that if Thaci were to enter the country in any other capacity, he would be instantly arrested.

Analysts say Pristina politicians may privately welcome Belgrade's call for more conditions to be met before it can talk to them - because the Albanians themselves are ill-prepared for dialogue.

Commenting in the Albanian daily Koha Ditore, Augustin Palokaj, a Brussels-based analyst, warned that the lack of serious experts in the Kosovar government could hinder the negotiations. He warned that many ministers in the province had been selected for political reasons rather than for their capabilities. As a result, Palokaj fears that international leaders may again end up making decisions on Kosovo's behalf at the talks.

UNMIK spokesman Simon Haselock told IWPR there was a danger that both sides would enter the talks with too much baggage, and end up focusing on emotive issues rather than on substance.

"If they concentrate on symbolism, they will fail," said Haselock.

Alma Lama is a regular IWPR contributor in Pristina.

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