Brussels, 23 January 2008 – Questions relating to Kosovo’s future status will almost certainly be the key area of focus for diplomats dealing with the Balkans this year.

With a little help from European and U.S. pressure, Hashim Thaci, the former guerrilla leader who is now prime minister of Kosovo, has agreed to hold off on making an official declaration of independence from Serbia. Yet it is entirely conceivable he will do so soon after the second round in Serbia’s presidential election Feb. 3.

This could present a major dilemma for the European Union, which is poised to take over a significant degree of responsibility for Kosovo from the United Nations.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, simply stated a widely held view in EU capitals when he admitted last month that Kosovo’s independence is “unavoidable” in the long term. Nonetheless, four of the Union’s 27 countries — Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia and Romania — only wish to recognise independence if it is approved by the UN.

The prospect of having a UN Security Council resolution to that effect appears slim, however. Russia, one of the council’s five permanent members, is a staunch ally of Serbia and could well use its power of veto any resolution on Kosovo.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch is arguing that if the EU is serious about aiding Kosovo, then it will have to grapple with more than matters of sovereignty.

The organisation recently described Kosovo as a “human rights basket case, where political violence, impunity for common and political crimes, intimidation and discrimination are commonplace.”

“Issues of accountability and justice reform have not been given the priority they deserve,” Human Rights Watch spokesman Reed Brody told IPS. “In the new situation they are more important than ever.”

In 2006, the EU’s governments began preparing for a rule of law mission in Kosovo.

Brody urged the Union to address weaknesses in the Kosovo’s justice system. According to Human Rights Watch, these flaws have not been tackled by the UN, which has been administering Kosovo since 1999.

During that year, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation bombed Serbia, purportedly because its then president Slobodan Milosevic had authorised a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Human Rights Watch claims that both the UN administration and local judges have been loath to confront those who use political violence in Kosovo, especially in cases where suspects are regarded by some sections of the community as war heroes.

Another problem requiring urgent attention, said Brody, is the treatment of minorities in Kosovo, which is dominated by ethnic Albanians. Last year, eight Orthodox churches, places of worship for the minority Serb community, were vandalised.

Western governments have been criticised, too, for forcibly returning members of the Ashkali and Egyptian communities to Kosovo. Little aid is given to those sent back, Human Rights Watch has said, also raising concerns about discrimination faced by Roma gypsies.

In December last year, the EU’s heads of state and government took a separate decision to send a 1,800-strong police and security mission to Kosovo.

At the time, some leaders indicated that the mission could be deployed as early as February. But a number of logistical and technical issues still have to be resolved, and it is not clear if they will be when EU foreign ministers meet Jan. 28.

While the mission is theoretically being treated separately to that of Kosovo’s constitutional status, it is designed to help implement a blueprint for the breakaway province devised by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari. His plan recommended a form of supervised independence.

The mission has been denounced by the Serbian government. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has accused the EU of trying to set up a puppet state on Serbian soil.

Nicholas Whyte from Independent Diplomat, an organisation monitoring foreign policy issues, said it is vital that the mission goes ahead. “The important thing is that the EU sticks to its guns on this,” he said.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that Serbia has applied for EU membership. Senior figures in Belgrade have insisted they will not make any concessions on Kosovo in order to enter the Union. “Serbia will never trade Kosovo for speedier accession to the EU, and these things are not negotiable,” Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic has said.

Serbia’s presidential poll is expected to be a close race between the incumbent Boris Tadic and his hardline nationalist rival Tomislav Nikolic.

Tadic has described the election as “a referendum for or against Serbia in Europe.” His supporters are hoping that the EU will give a boost to his campaign by signing an accord deepening the political and economic ties between Brussels and Belgrade next week.

Yet some EU countries, most notably the Netherlands, are opposed to signing that stabilisation and association agreement because Belgrade has not handed over one of Europe’s most wanted men to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Belgrade claims it does not know the whereabouts of Ratko Mladic, the general accused of orchestrating the infamous 1995 massacre at Srebrenica in Bosnia in which many Muslims were killed.

“We would recommend that the EU should be extremely careful in not trying to shape the outcome of the Serbian election because there could be a backlash,” said Alain Délétroz from the International Crisis Group, which campaigns on conflict prevention issues.

It is crucial, he argued, that the EU insists on full cooperation with The Hague tribunal before it rewards Serbia. “Whenever the EU has lowered its standards with Serbia it has never ended up reinforcing democratic forces,” he said. (END/2008)

Source: IPS