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Comment: UN Chief Faces Uphill Battle in Kosovo

Clock is ticking against UNMIK as popular disappointment rises with the international regime.
By Alex Anderson

When Soren Jessen-Petersen takes charge of the UN Mission in Kosovo in August, he will head an organisation in danger of becoming a hostage to a now resentful and impatient population.


Kosovo Albanians are exasperated with the international community for the protectorate’s five years of uncertain status and its broken economy; UNMIK may well end up being the proxy punch bag for that local anger.


For Jessen-Petersen to have a chance of deflecting a further collapse into violent action by Kosovo’s near 90 per cent Albanian majority, he will need to make two critical breakthroughs that eluded his recent predecessors: he must successfully engage with Kosovo society rather than just its elites, and he must wring the freedom of action he needs from the UN Secretariat in New York.


Jessen-Petersen will need to communicate effectively to convince the wider Kosovo Albanian society that the independence it demands has to be won through the consent of the international community. It needs to be made clear that independence is not simply a matter of expelling the foreign bodies and waving a flag in the resulting vacuum.


International acceptance is, after all, the path to all the worthwhile prizes of independence: those club memberships that will offer a chance of economic progress and the commitments from international institutions and partnerships that can help maintain a democratic culture in Kosovo. In this process, Ireland, with its gradual slipping of the bonds of foreign rule, should be Kosovo's model, not Chechnya.


But Jessen-Petersen will have his work cut out trying to get this message heard. UNMIK's political capital inside Kosovo is all but exhausted, and he does not bring any of his own to the job. Kosovo Albanians' initial reaction to his appointment was one of irritation at yet another new UNMIK chief “plucked from obscurity” whose name none of them had previously heard.


As summer progresses, patience is becoming scarcer in Kosovo and Jessen-Petersen is unlikely to enjoy the same honeymoon period as his four predecessors. In the wake of the March riots, economic decline has accelerated, as money liquidity dries up and unemployment rises.


On May 31, several dozen laid-off railway workers gave a measure of the rising temperature by invading their manager’s office and beating him to a pulp.


The non-meeting of minds since the deadly riots is such that both the Kosovo Albanians and international officialdom regard each other as in the doghouse or on probation. As if in a mirror image, each glowers with disgust at the other, demanding that they get their act together. When EU High Representative Javier Solana visited Pristina on June 7, he berated Kosovo leaders for the slow pace at which hundreds of Serb and Ashkali homes burned in the March disturbances are being repaired.


But Kosovo Albanians do not want to hear any more criticism from abroad. Seemingly daring the international administration to try removing them, the management of Kosovo’s public television RTK has reacted aggressively to rebuke of its news coverage in mid-March, which many saw as inflammatory and contributing directly to the violence.


More segments of society are radicalising against the international administration. On June 10, a group of Pristina youths demonstrated outside UNMIK headquarters. Mimicking football referees, they blew whistles and showed red cards, in a clear message to the authority that they felt its time was up.


Previously, anti-UNMIK demonstrations had been the monopoly of rural and provincial militants.


At least one of the posters on display compared UNMIK with the Serbian regime of the 1990s, a comparison that the newspaper Epoka e Re and the perhaps misnamed Council for Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms have been at pains to plant in Kosovo Albanian consciousness since UNMIK and KFOR started arresting accused rioters.


Within the senior management of the international authority there is awareness that their role has to change. As the burning of dozens of UNMIK cars in the mid-March riots made clear, it is no longer functioning as a pacifying mechanism – but rather has begun to attract violence.


Privately, UNMIK officials acknowledge that the split of governmental responsibility stipulated under the 2001 Constitutional Framework between their reserved powers and those devolved to Kosovo's provisional institutions of self-government, PISG, is now producing disjointed administration and locking UNMIK and the PISG into a perpetual tug-o-war. While it still lacks the full array of governing powers, deflecting popular frustration and anger onto UNMIK remains the easy escape option for the PISG.


With this in mind, several weeks ago, UNMIK floated for internal debate a plan to restructure itself as an assistance and monitoring mission in order to transfer much more real responsibility to Kosovo's provisional institutions, but to date this has been blocked by the UN Secretariat in New York.


Distant from the pressures of realities on the ground, and defending a conservative legalistic interpretation of its Kosovo mandate, the UN's Department for Peacekeeping Operations, DPKO, has developed destructive twin habits: an insensitivity to Kosovo's acute social, economic and institutional development needs and a desire to micro-manage UNMIK from the remoteness of New York.


Having often been kept in the dark by Harri Holkeri’s predecessor, Michael Steiner, the DPKO was able to regain much operational control over UNMIK under the former, and now appears loathe to cede its gains.


The Contact Group initiative of last autumn - proposing to begin a review of Kosovo’s final status from mid-2005 if Kosovo Albanians met standards on governance and treatment of minorities - was meant to help the UN by re-instilling a sense of purpose and offering relief from the tensions building in Kosovo at the prospect of open-ended UN rule.


But instead, the majority of Contact Group countries are now finding themselves at loggerheads with an intransigent UN Secretariat, which is digging in its heels against any transfer of powers or UNMIK restructuring before mid-2005.


Jessen-Petersen will thus not only be fighting an uphill battle for public opinion in Kosovo, but he will also have to fight and win battles with his own headquarters in New York to achieve for UNMIK the flexibility of action it needs to have chance to channel Kosovo's increasingly dangerous energy down constructive paths.


Alex Anderson is Kosovo Project Director at the International Crisis Group, www.crisisweb.org


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