Solving Kosovo’s Kosovo

Solving Mitrovica – Kosovo’s Kosovo – will require robust action by NATO and the EU, but also innovative thinking

Away from the limelight and with other world events getting the media’s attention, the situation in Kosovo has been getting worse and worse. And it all started so well with the EU managing to get a consensus for its ESDP mission and two-thirds of EU states backing the province’s independence.

Now, the Serbs, supported by Belgrade, have taken control over the rail lines and much else besides in the north. Pristina has no control over the northern border, and has established customs checkpoints south of the Ibar River. Belgrade and its proxies control the north, and that domination will be further cemented following the 11 May local and parliamentary elections in Serbia, which are to be held in the north as well.

As for the EU’s mission, it relied on the closure of the UN operation to establish itself. But with the UN Secretary-General not authorized to close down UNMIK, the EU is having to delay the arrival of its staff and procure kit on the open market. Months of delays can now be expected.

More fundamentally, the EU is unable to establish itself in the north and NATO appears unwilling to aggressively support the establishment of the mission, as well as the structures proposed in the UN plan.

In the run-up to NATO’s Bucharest summit, experts said the Alliance would be done for if its Afghan mission failed. But the same can be said for the EU. For what kind of ESDP can be expected if the EU cannot hack Kosovo? Europe therefore has to make a decision – either to accept partition (with potential consequences elsewhere, for example in Bosnia-Herzegovina) or deal with the situation. Waiting for things to get better – as the international community prefers to do in the Balkans – is unlikely to expand the number of options or solve the problem. 

Controlling in Mitrovica

If the international community, led by Europe, decides to do the latter then the EU and NATO need to take a collective in-take of breath and go for broke. First, they need to regain control over the north and pave the way for EU mission to move in. To do so, NATO will need to shut the northern border with Serbia, use KFOR to impose the Pristina government’s customs and border controls on the northern border, and take-over day-to-day policing north of the Ibar River in the short-term.

But this will not be enough. NATO will need to protect EU offices around the clock – like in Iraq – and use KFOR to take back the telecoms, power grid and other infrastructure elements not under the control of the relevant authorities.  Any violence against NATO has to be met firmly, but also intelligently. Civilians have to be protected and ethnic entrepreneurs singled out. The clumsy handling of the occupation of the Kosovska Mitrovica court on 16th 2008 March must be avoided at all costs.

The Mitrovica Condominium

Once control has been re-established, then the international community needs to develop a new plan for the north. This may include even further decentralization that what the UN plan envisaged or perhaps even some kind of a “condominium” of Kosovo and Serbia.

Condominiums, while rare, are not without precedent. Chandigarh is the joint undivided capital of two neighboring Indian states. Before 1956, Sudan was a condominium of Britain and Egypt. For more than 70 years, Vanuatu was under the joint undivided sovereignty of Britain and France. And for more than 700 years, Andorra was under the joint undivided sovereignty of French and Spanish “co-princes”. In 1999, an international arbitrator, appointed by the International Court of Justice ruled that the Bosnian municipality of Brcko would be a condominium of Bosnia’s Serb Republic and Muslim-Croat Federation, with its own local administration.

A Mitrovica Condominium should allow for a local administration with ties to the Kosovo state, but perhaps with Condominium Guarantee Powers – e.g. Kosovo, Serbia, Russia, the US, the UN and the EU – appointing a representative each to meet regularly and oversee progress.   

The four U’s

But to set up a condominium, the international community must insist on four conditions: the four U’s.  First, that NATO remains unique source of military authority throughout Kosovo, until a follow-on mission can be agreed by all parties. Second, that there must be unity of policing. That means no parallel police structures answering to Belgrade. If necessary, a Police Authority in North Mitrovica could be created to include Kosovar Serbs, EU, UN and KFOR, plus Kosovo Police representatives.

Third, there must be unity of border control with an emphasis on free trade. That means no internal customs points and an all-Kosovo border service, including the border with Serbia proper. But a premium must be on free trade between throughout Kosovo and Serbia. Finally, there must be budgetary unity. Belgrade must be transparent about the funds it sends to the Kosovo Serbs. EU will provide financial aid too, but conditioned on transparency to avoid duplication.

The international presence

Parallel with a process to agree on the north’s status – perhaps led by a new UN negotiator – should be preparations for a long-term international presence north of the Ibar under an international envoy, similar to the role of Pieter Feith, the EU Special Envoy based in Pristina.

This means solving the UN’s status and sorting out the UN-EU relationship. One idea is for UNMIK to maintain its role in the north and for the UN SRSG to act as a constitutional monarch under Resolution 1244 with the EU playing the active, day-to-day role. If the next SRSG was non-resident, perhaps situated in New York (much like Roberts Owen, the Brcko Arbitrator mentioned above) then all the better.

What remains clear is that unless Europe wakes up, decides what it wants and takes decisive action, more will be lost than a sliver of territory in Europe’s newest state.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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