Vienna, 21 February 2008 – In his address at the Seventh Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaeck, highlighted the situation of the Roma communities in Kosovo.

“Mr. Chairman,

I mentioned Kosovo at the start of my speech. Last Sunday, the authorities in Kosovo
declared independence. I will remind all of you here what I remind my interlocutors when visiting Pristina and Belgrade: I am status neutral. The work I have done, and will continue to do, relates to the well-being of Kosovo’s communities and the needs to be undertaken regardless of status. Nonetheless, it is my hope that the atmosphere in Kosovo will stay calm.

Violence, provocations and efforts to make any of Kosovo’s communities feel unwelcome have no place. Last month, I visited Kosovo for five days, spending most of my time with the non-Albanian communities. I discussed with Kosovo Serbs and Roma their concerns for the present situation and their hopes for the future. Trust in the institutions of Kosovo by Kosovo Serbs and Roma is low. I believe it is correct to say that their fear of the unknown is palpable.

Regardless, many of them told me that despite the anxiety, they are committed to staying in Kosovo. There is a small, but growing sense of willingness amongst some Kosovo Serbs to engage Kosovo’s institutions. Many, however, told me that if the international presence in their enclaves and local communities was abolished, their communities would have to consider leaving their homes. This would be a terrible loss, not only for the individuals concerned, but for Kosovo’s multi-ethnic fabric and for the credibility of the international community.

There are two key actors in Kosovo who can affect whether Kosovo remains a multi-ethnic society or not: the local authorities and the international community. I cannot speak on behalf of the local authorities, though the Prime Minister and President assured me that they are committed to making sure that the lives, livelihoods and homes of Kosovo Serbs and others are protected. They were resolute in their arguing that Kosovo must remain a place for all communities. I appreciate their statements to this regard. It will be essential that they follow this up with concrete action. In order to assist in securing that this happens, it is of fundamental importance that the international community remain fully engaged.

I believe that it is essential that the OSCE continues to play a role in monitoring the situation in Kosovo, as well as helping communities build relations, especially at the local level, so that they can promote dialogue in order to improve their overall situation. In this sense, consideration must be given to how a lack of continuity of the OSCE can undermine the trust that many Kosovo Serbs in local communities have built with the local OSCE presence. A premature departure or downsizing of the OSCE presence, coupled with an inadequate build-up of a newly mandated international presence could contribute to a void of monitoring the situation. This could have a detrimental impact on whether people would stay or go.

If Kosovo’s Serb and smaller communities leave Kosovo in the coming period it will be a tragedy. If they leave, partially as a result of the international community’s and the OSCE’s failure to fully take account of the implications of failing to act or not acting in a timely fashion, it would be even more tragic. That is why it is essential that we find a way to prevent a void. It is not a question of politics, but a matter of whether people will stay in their homes or leave, or, more seriously, whether we are heading for a potential conflict or can strengthen our efforts of promoting peace.”

The full text of the address is available here.