EU still struggling to unify, stabilise Kosovo a year on

15th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

The European Union is struggling to achieve its aim of unifying and stabilising Kosovo, even though a civil war has not broken out, as Serbia and other nations refuse to recognise the would-be state.

BRUSSELS - While Kosovo remains calm, events like those on February 10, when thousands of Serbs in the town of Mitrovica protested against the ethnic Albanian majority territory's new security force, show how quickly things can change.

"The situation in Kosovo has remained stable in the past year," EU special representative to the breakaway Serbian province Pieter Feith said Wednesday in an account of his short time in the job.

But he warned that political reactions to the pace of UN talks on Kosovo and rallies like that in Mitrovica "highlight the continued fragility of the situation on the ground."

Yet the EU, which has made stablising the volatile Balkans a key priority, has invested massively in Kosovo since it broke away on February 17, 2008 from Serbia, which is striving to join the bloc.

On the eve of that declaration, the EU gave the green light to the biggest civilian mission in its history, with some 3,000 police, legal and customs experts to take over from the United Nations which has run Kosovo since 1999.

But the EULEX mission only really started work in December after the United Nations finally endorsed it.

Concessions were granted to Belgrade which, supported by Moscow, has managed to ensure that Kosovo's status remains confused and hamper EULEX's work in majority Serb areas.

It means that the mission depends on the goodwill of the Serbs in these areas, and the courts there and Serbian police "do not want to cooperate" with EULEX or apply Kosovo's laws, said Dutch euro-deputy Joost Lagendijk.

But without a unified police force and justice system, the threat of partition can never be ruled out, nor can corruption be efficiently tackled, undermining economic development.

For the Serbs to cooperate with EULEX, Feith concedes, the Serbian government must encourage them and this is something Belgrade wants to avoid so as not to appear to be supporting Kosovo's independence ambitions.

"The problem is nobody really knows what Belgrade wants. Does it want to accept EULEX because it wants EU integration or is it ready to jeopardise (its EU) perspective?" said Lagendijk, a Balkans specialist.

European diplomats, he said, are also hesitant to push Belgrade too hard, at least publicly, out of fear of undermining the government and bolstering still-powerful nationalists.

"You can't blame the Serbs, they lost part of their territory," said a member of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana's entourage.

And the diplomats are even more cautious than usual in the face of Serbia's reluctance, given that Kosovo's independence has not been backed by all 27 EU member states.

Five of them -- Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain -- have refused to recognise either in solidarity with Serbia or to avoid setting a precedent for their own separatist regions.

Despite the difficulties, diplomats and analysts are reasonably optimistic about the long-term chances of bringing stability to Kosovo.

"It will take five to 10 years, it will be a slow process, the Kosovars will be impatient, but it will be such that there's no return to the situation we saw last year," said Lagendijk.

Jean-Yves Camus, at the French institute of international and strategic relations, said: "None of the doomsday scenarios happened, neither ethnic conflict nor mass population movements."

If stability improves, even slowly, the nations now refusing to recognise the independence of Kosovo will be obliged "at some time to adapt to the situation on the ground, and therefore recognise it," he said.


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