Comment: Mixed Signals from Belgrade

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo needs cooperation, not interference, if vital issues are to be resolved.

Comment: Mixed Signals from Belgrade

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo needs cooperation, not interference, if vital issues are to be resolved.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger once famously asked, "When you want to talk to Europe, whom do you call?" Lately, we in the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, have often felt the same way about Belgrade.


Before his tragic murder, Serbia's prime minister Zoran Djindjic had brought the Kosovo issue back onto Belgrade's political agenda. His death on March 12 then prompted an understandable shift toward urgent domestic issues.


As Serbia's attention returns to Kosovo, it seems that the hiatus has left the various members of Belgrade's Kosovo chorus confusingly out of harmony with one another.


Their statements also seem out of tune with the stated position of the international community and with day-to-day reality. Publicly, dramatic statements by one Serbian official give the impression of growing rancour between UNMIK and Belgrade.


One might easily have the impression of estrangement; yet on a working level, cooperation between Belgrade and Pristina on cross-boundary issues such as environmental protection, returns, customs and the fight against organised crime continues apace.


In fact, no one who cares about the welfare of Kosovo's people could see much humour in Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic's recent pronouncements toward UNMIK and Michael Steiner, the Special Representative of the Secretary General, SRSG.


But this is not our main problem. The deputy premier called for a meeting of the high-ranking working group which is charged with providing for "a continued and sustainable cooperative approach covering areas of mutual interest and common concern in order to secure a timely and regular consultation and coordination", according to the Common Document - an agreement between UNMI and the Serbian government on Kosovo's future.


In response to Covic's request, an agenda was agreed and the meeting was scheduled. Before it began, he had a private talk with the SRSG in which he asserted last-minute preconditions that deviated from the agenda already agreed. In particular, he demanded that UNMIK hand over Shefket Musliu, who is wanted for serious crimes on both sides of the boundary line.


The deputy premier had to know that this was impossible, because Musliu has been detained not by UNMIK but by KFOR. Indeed, this precondition appeared to be a Chinese wall thrown up to derail the meeting. When the SRSG signaled that he was not in a position to hand the suspect over even if he wanted to, Covic seized this pretext to refuse to attend a meeting he himself had requested.


Since then, UNMIK has been dismayed from calls by senior Belgrade officials - including Vladimir Bozovic, chief of the justice department of the Coordination Centre for Kosovo, CCK - for Musliu to be "extradited" to Serbia. This strikes us as a rather strange choice of words, given that this term is usually used to refer to removing a suspect from one sovereign state to another.


At the top of the agenda of the meeting scuppered by the Musliu precondition was Serbian recognition of Kosovo license plates. The Common Document recognises that anonymous license plates are essential to Kosovo Serbs' freedom of movement, and stipulates that UNMIK should therefore provide them for free - which it has done.


Last August, Belgrade agreed on a protocol promising to recognise these plates, as they wouldn't be any good to Kosovo Serbs unless they can also use them to drive in Serbia.


Unfortunately, Belgrade has repeatedly insisted on new preconditions on unrelated issues to justify failing to actually sign. Without this agreement, Kosovo Serbs effectively must choose between being able to drive in Serbia or in the protectorate.


Playing the spoiler may win political points in some circles in Serbia, but it strikes a terrible blow against Kosovo Serbs' ability to travel. In light of this course of action, rhetoric about UNMIK not doing enough to ensure Kosovo Serbs' freedom of movement seems strangely misplaced.


Along the same lines, Covic has complained that the Kosovo Protection Corps is a mono-ethnic organisation one day and called on Kosovo Serbs to boycott it the next.


Indeed, contrary to its own claims to have fulfilled all its obligations under the Common Document, Covic's CCK has failed to deliver not only on license plates, but also on the fundamental issue of parallel structures.


In the past month, some 3.5 million dinars have been found hidden under the seats of cars entering Kosovo from Serbia, ostensibly to pay pensions. This explanation raises more questions than it answers. Why should the Serbian government violate laws on bringing large quantities of cash into Kosovo? Why should pension money be hidden? And why, while we're at it, should Belgrade not pay pensions to all former workers in state industries, regardless of their ethnicity?


Actions by some members of the often constructive Coalition Povratak, KP, have similarly deepened bafflement among their partners in Kosovo. It accuses UNMIK of canceling an important meeting on returns when in fact the KP itself had made it impossible for UNMIK officials to attend by moving the meeting from legal premises to illegal ones.


There also appears to be some confusion between Covic, on the one hand, and other members of the Serbian government and the international community, on the other.


After his first meeting with Steiner in April, Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic said he came away with views that didn't correspond to what he'd been led to expect. And again from our perspective, Covic appears to be at odds with his own premier even on such fundamental questions as when to address the resolution of Kosovo's status.


After Steiner's recent address to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Permanent Council in Vienna, Covic accused him of having called for the early resolution of Kosovo's status - something the SRSG never said.


For its part, UNMIK has consistently said that the time is not yet ripe to address status. In fact, it was Zivkovic who has called for talks on status to begin immediately - echoing the position of Djindjic.


Covic has also claimed that the United States does not fully support UNMIK's plans to transfer all non-reserved competencies to Kosovo's provisional institutions by the end of the year. It's hard to understand this claim in light of Washington's own public statements. A recent opinion piece by the head of the US Office in Pristina, Reno Harnish, could not have been stronger or more comprehensive in its support for UNMIK policy - nowhere more so than with regard to the transfer of competencies.


The Serbian deputy prime minister similarly claimed that the European Union had wholeheartedly endorsed his policies toward Kosovo. Again, the reality is rather different. Serbian officials have recently claimed, inaccurately, that resolution UN 1244 describes Kosovo as a province of Serbia, whereas we know that the resolution leaves Kosovo's status open.


The statement of the Greek presidency of the EU in response to Covic's address to the OSCE Permanent Council stresses that Brussels stands behind 1244 and that any unilateral declarations on Kosovo's status are "counterproductive".


Furthermore, in reference to the high-ranking working group meeting that was cancelled, the EU statement says, "We regret this and believe that dialogue should take place without preconditions." It was, of course, Covic who imposed the preconditions.


After ensuring that the meeting could not take place, Covic said that Serbia would break off relations with UNMIK until Musliu was in its custody. Momcilo Trajkovic, a member of DOS, the Serbian ruling coalition, posed the rhetorical question, "Is it really possible that Belgrade will stop its cooperation with UNMIK over the Musliu case, when there are so many more important issues still open?"


Our message to Belgrade is this: cooperation yes, interference no. Some statements suggest that Belgrade has stopped cooperating with UNMIK but is no longer interfering either. The picture on the ground looks rather different in both respects.


Simon Haselock is director of UNMIK's public information division.


Serbia, Kosovo
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