Thursday, October 13, 2005

Awaiting Kosovo status talks,Serbia still unprepared

Belgrade-Serbia-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made a recommendation to the U.N. Security Council last week that it should allow the talks on Kosovo's status to begin, with two options at the negotiating table -- independence or autonomy. Annan's decision was based on a report by his special envoy for Kosovo, Kai Eide, who had described the situation in the province as "grim," but recommended the talks nevertheless.

As things stand now, the future status talks are expected to begin by the end of the year at the latest. In the second half of October, permanent members of the Security Council will say what they think about the talks, but hardly anyone expects them to reject Annan's proposal. After that, the U.N. secretary general will appoint a special envoy for the talks and set the date for their start. Finish diplomat Marti Ahtisaari, who played an important role in the talks that ended the 1999 NATO airstrikes against the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and let international peacekeepers into Kosovo, is Annan's likeliest choice.

Eide conceded in his report that the international standards
Kosovo should have met in order for the future status talks to begin remain
unfulfilled, and suggested that "an ambitious decentralization plan" be implemented,
envisaging enhanced competences for Kosovo Serbs in the areas such as "police,
justice, education, culture, media and the economy." Eide believes that NATO
presence in the province will have to continue, and that "a High Representative or a
similar arrangement should be considered, firmly anchored in the EU, and with the
continued involvement from the broader international community."

The starting positions

The two sides are entering the talks with diametrically opposed demands. Kosovo
Albanians insist on independence, and the Serb side wants the province to remain
within Serbia. The preparations for the talks are developing accordingly. The
Albanians appear more determined in their appearance, having already appointed a
negotiating team headed by Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova. There have been hints
that the Kosovo Assembly might pass a resolution on independence even before the
talks actually begin, and ask the United Nations to recognize the province's

However, UNMIK chief Soren Jessen-Petersen responded by warning
local Albanian political leaders that such a resolution would undermine relations with the international community, and it is quite possible that this plan will now be
abandoned. The Serbian side, on the other hand, hasn't made any actual progress. It
hasn't set up a negotiating team yet, and no clear platform for the talks has been
unveiled. Belgrade has clearly opted for a "wait and see" policy, and making
occasional statements to criticize international moves.

"Coordinating Center for Kosovo president" Sanda Raskovic- Ivic recently said the appointment of Ahtisaari wouldn't be a good idea, because he is a member of the International Commission for the Balkans, which has recently publicized a fourstage plan for an independent Kosovo. There was no official reaction from the government however, which probably concluded it couldn't do much about this anyway. Describing Eide's report as fair, Belgrade criticized the special envoy for having recommended the status talks even though Kosovo is yet to meet the democratic standards and minority rights are clearly not respected in the province. Adviser to Serbian President Boris Tadic Leon Kojen believes that the report makes it very clear that Belgrade will find it very difficult to defend the vital national and state interests at the negotiating table.

The Coordinating Center leader, Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, close to Serbian Premier Vojislav Kostunica, said she was surprised at Eide's decision. This, however, was nothing more than yet another tardy reaction that can't change anything. The "standards before status" strategy was virtually abandoned early this year, but the ruling political elite in Serbia simply didn't like the change and refused to adjust their actions. Premier Kostunica's government reacts very slowly to international initiatives related to Kosovo, flirting with ultranationalists in fear that any letup would be detrimental to the already poor image of the governing coalition.

With the talks just around the corner, the realistic expectation is that even uninformed voters will soon realize that the Serbian authorities cannot fulfill their campaign promises on Kosovo. The odds are that conditional independence for the province will be tabled as the option Kostunica will have to discuss. In theory, he can refuse any solution that allows for an independent Kosovo, but it will automatically hamper the EU stabilization and associating talks that officially began on Oct. 10.

The only thing the Serbian side can do is to step up the preparations for the talks, which is not going to be easy. Belgrade has been passive for years, without a single initiative that could stand a chance of being accepted by the international community and Pristina. It still abides by a rather vague strategy called "more than autonomy, but less than independence." The ruling parties are unable to reach consensus, nor can they offer a realistic assessment of what Serbia can get under the circumstances. The roles the Kosovo Serbs and Belgrade will play in the talks haven't been differentiated either.

The authorities in Belgrade aspire to keep the entire process under their full control, marginalizing the negotiating position of Kosovo Serbs. On the other hand, the international community wants to see the impact of local Serbs enhanced both in
Kosovo politics and at the negotiating table. Kosovo Albanians have shown no
willingness whatsoever to discuss the status of the province with Belgrade.

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