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

UN Prays for Big Hitter to Replace Holkeri

Former United Nations chief in Kosovo was seen by many of his colleagues as ineffective and lacklustre.
By Marcus Tanner

In the Kosovo capital, Pristina, there is a palpable sense of nervousness among the community of United Nations officials over the sudden departure of the UN chief, Harri Holkeri.


“It’s not the fact that he’s going – it’s the way that he’s going,” one high-ranking official complained.


For all the smooth official statements maintaining that Holkeri stepped down this week “on doctor’s orders”, UN officials barely maintain the pretence that the former Finnish prime minister is leaving only for health reasons.


They fear it looks as if he was pushed and worry that the episode has lowered the mission’s standing internationally, not to mention in watchful Serb and Albanian eyes.


Holkeri’s brief term in office - he arrived last August - was distinguished, especially in recent months, by one setback after another.


First came two days of Albanian riots on March 17-18, during which rampaging mobs burned Serb houses and churches while confused UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, forces looked on.


Holkeri, who at first insisted that the damage consisted only of “a few Serbian Orthodox churches being burned”, was soon forced on the back foot after a Serbian outcry. Lurching in the other direction, he then claimed the violence constituted “severe crimes against humanity”.


On the ground he often cut an unimpressive figure. On a visit to the Serb enclave of Gracanica shortly after the riots, to confer with Kosovo Serbian bishop Artemije of Prizren-Raska, Holkeri emerged from the monastery to make a listless, barely audible speech to a group of homeless Serbs, standing in the biting wind.


What they wanted was concrete guidance about what would come next, but the UN chief said only he had “learned a lot about Kosovo’s history” from the bishop, repeating his remark about a crime against humanity. Walking swiftly through the crowd without addressing anyone personally, he disappeared into an official car and sped off.


The riots were not the end of Holkeri’s travails. On April 17, three UN policeman (a Jordanian and two Americans) were killed in a strange shoot-out. Though the incident had no clear connection to events in Kosovo, it undercut UN morale.


But it wasn’t just the UN mission’s reputation as a guardian of peace that sagged during Holkeri’s term – the economy also took a number of knocks during his stewardship. Privatisation – the great hope of most of Kosovo’s largely jobless population – ran into the sands. The head of the privatisation body, Maria Fucci, was fired on April 10, but the fact that no replacement for this key post has yet been appointed has added to a sense that Kosovo is adrift.


Some UN insiders complain that Holkeri’s ineffective image contributed to a sense of a mission in freefall. “He was plain lazy,” one told me scornfully.


Others maintain his regime reflected - but did not create - problems that were properly located at UN headquarters in New York.


One UN insider said he was unpleasantly surprised at the difference between Kosovo mission communiques to New York and what publicly emerged from New York in the former’s name following a bureaucratic re-write.


“What Pristina says goes through a filter of French bureaucrats on the Security Council,” he said, “and they twist everything in a pro-Serbian direction, sometimes to the point where it is just unrecognisable.”


The same official complained of Security Council bureaucracy’s “micro-management” of the Kosovo mission, to the point where some local UN staff felt disempowered. “UNMIK has become a fearful and defensive organisation,” a former staffer said.


Another UN veteran, who has worked in Kosovo since 1999, said Kosovo Albanians were too quick to blame the UN, including Holkeri, for every failing. He criticised what he felt was a “clannish, patriarchal culture” that stifled talent, crushed initiative and was obsessed with revenge. “There was more readiness to forgive even a place like Rwanda, only a year after the genocide,” he said. “Here it is revenge... revenge – I’m tired of it.”


While local Serbs, Albanians and UN officials debate who was to blame for the Kosovo mission’s recent failings, the organisation is now under pressure to find a more energetic candidate who can steer the mission towards its probable conclusion.


Though the March riots are widely said to have delayed the long-waited “final status” decision, UN staff say the delay cannot go on forever, meaning that Kosovo’s next governor-general is likely to be its last.


Committed staffers want a tough guy with nerves, who can face down Albanian nationalists in Kosovo and Serbian nationalists in Belgrade. Chris Patten of Britain and Wolfgang Petritsch, former UN boss in Bosnia, are two names spoken of in wistful terms.


But Derek Chappell – the former UN police spokesman in Kosovo who was abruptly removed after the March events for what some claim was too much plain speaking – said it would be a mistake to pin too many expectations on the next chief.


“Everyone is waiting for final status to be determined but it is not going to be determined alone by the next special representative of the Secretary-General. UNMIK is just the caretaker,” he said.


But a more powerful figure, he added, can still be an important factor, “Next year is going to be crucial and whoever comes has got to have the political weight behind them to deal with an issue like final status.”


Chappell says many UN staff would like to see a real player for once, like British Labourite Robin Cook or even ex-US president Bill Clinton.


“Why not? We need someone with the weight of a major power behind them. Such figures could call on the respect of the Albanians. They might not go down well with Kosovo Serbs but their weight would impress the Serbian government in Belgrade,” he said.


Marcus Tanner is IWPR Balkan editor/trainer.


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