Kosovo: Serbs Urged to Defy Belgrade

New UN chief tries to prise Kosovo Serbs out of Belgrade's clutches.

Kosovo: Serbs Urged to Defy Belgrade

New UN chief tries to prise Kosovo Serbs out of Belgrade's clutches.

Wednesday, 10 April, 2002

The UN's new administrator in Kosovo, Michael Steiner, is locked in a struggle to persuade the country's Serb minority to lessen their reliance on Belgrade and engage independently in the Kosovan political process.

Intensive haggling over ministerial appointments marked Steiner's meeting in Belgrade last week with Serbia's deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic and Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica. Behind it all was Belgrade's yearning to be able to exert influence over the protectorate's newly formed government.

Covic has been disconcerted to find Steiner adopting a far sterner approach than Hans Haekkerup, the previous head of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK. At an earlier meeting, Steiner declared, "The rules of the game are clear: Pristina is not Belgrade. I do not interfere in Belgrade's affairs and Belgrade shouldn't interfere in 's affairs."

In negotiations to put together a Kosovo administration, the Albanian majority had agreed to let Serbs run the ministry of agriculture and forestry. Serbs said this was not good enough. They demanded two other government posts, the energy ministry and that dealing with Serbs who fled after the 1999 conflict.

At last week's meeting in Belgrade, Steiner offered a compromise. He suggested that in addition to the agriculture ministry, Serbs should head a government post which would liaise with other ministries on the repatriation of Serbs. He also offered the minority a position in a UNMIK office dealing with this process.

Belgrade is considering the UNMIK compromise. Analysts said this might be Steiner's last offer.

Earlier in the year, Haekkerup and Nebojsa Covic had signed an agreement called the Common Document that defined fields of cooperation between UNMIK and Belgrade.

But latter was unhappy about the choice of Bajram Rexhepi as prime minister of Kosovo, accusing him of having committed war crimes against Serb civilians in the region during May 1999. UNMIK said there was no evidence for this.

In a recent letter, co-signed by 12 members of the Kosovo Serb Povratak coalition, Covic rejected the agriculture ministry offer and complained that Steiner had brokered the deal with Albanian parties before consulting him.

In addition to the energy ministry and the ministry for returning exiles, Covic demanded four deputy minister posts as a condition for Povratak 's participation in government.

The international community had been pleased that Belgrade had played a crucial role in persuading Kosovo Serbs to participate in elections for a parliamentary assembly elections last November, but the mood turned to irritation when Covic used his grip on Povratak to frustrate formation of an administration.

UNMIK saw Covic's intervention as an abuse of the provisions of the Common Document. Significantly, ten members of the Serb coalition declined to sign a letter outlining his demands.

Rada Trajkovic, leader of a Povratak caucus at Gracanica in the suburbs of Pristina, said colleagues of hers in northern Mitrovica defying the Kosovo government's authority are effectively criminals. Covic was furious at Trajkovic. He told a meeting of Serbs near Gracanica that the Povratak deputy had a duty to pursue the "state interests" of Serbia.

Serb hard-liners also protested at the recent decision by UNMIK to open a community office in northern Mitrovica. They claimed this would threaten Belgrade's influence in the divided town. Both Kostunica and Covic joined this protest.

In a speech to a regional conference last month, Charles Brayshow, deputy UN administrator, said that if Serbs do not accept UNMIK's terms for joining Kosovar institutions they might loose privileges granted to them by the constitutional framework for the Provisional Self-Governing Institutions, PISG.

Even if Belgrade accepts Steiner's offer this time, there could be more trouble in the run up to local elections set for September 21. Belgrade is then likely to press again for greater influence in Kosovo, as a condition for participation of Kosovo Serbs.

Covic's next move will depend on whether Kosovo Serbs decide to put the interest of their own community above the "higher state interests" of Serbia.

Arben Qirezi is a regular IWPR contributor.

Serbia, Kosovo
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