Kosovo status talks in trouble

Statements from European diplomats indicate that the singularity of purpose the international community brought to the Kosovo crisis at the launch of status negotiations five months ago may be ebbing away.

The bridge over Ibar in Mitrovica has become a symbol of the divided communities in Kosovo
The bridge over Ibar in Mitrovica has become a symbol of the divided communities in Kosovo

When talks over the province's future political status opened in Vienna in February, the six leading nations designated by the UN to steer international policy in the western Balkans - the US, Russia, UK, France, Germany and Italy - all pledged to achieve a negotiated settlement in the course of 2006.

Marti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president appointed as the UN's chief negotiator, went so far as to note that his contract would expire in November this year, and that he planned to finish the job before it ended.

But fundamental disagreements between the two sides are taking a heavy toll.

Serbia insists that Kosovo remains part of its territory, as enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 1244 after NATO's intervention on the side of Kosovo Albanians and the retreat of Serb forces.

At the same time, leaders of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, accounting for 90 per cent of the province's population, call full independence the only possible option.

A sluggish pace of negotiation, hints of divergence between Russia and the five other Contact Group nations, and mounting troubles for Serbia 's wobbly minority government all point to a possibility that the oft-cited 2006 deadline could slip.

In place of continued public expressions of certainty over the talks, some European diplomats have begun saying openly that progress in Vienna is worryingly slow. Their statements raise concerns that the familiar ambiguity in international purpose toward the Balkans that has frequently dogged the countries of the former Yugoslavia since 1989 may be creeping back in, as regards Kosovo.

Among those speaking up are Ahtisaari's fellow leaders in Finland , currently at the helm of the European Union's rotating presidency.

Matti Vanhanen, the Finnish prime minister, told journalists in Helsinki that the time frame for finalising Kosovo's status is uncertain. "The end of this autumn remains the time limit, but we are not sure this can happen," he said.

Finland 's foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja, likewise said that it remains unclear whether the status of Kosovo will be finalised during Finland 's presidency of the EU, which ends on December 31.

"After meeting various international factors, I got an impression that the process may be postponed until sometime next year," Tuomioja told reporters.

Such concerns are especially resonant because the talks have so far steered clear of the most divisive issue of political status, focusing instead on practical issues such as decentralisation of governmental powers in the province, protection of religious sites and economy. Despite this, no major progress has been achieved.

"We are not at the beginning. We are not at the end. We are at the end of the beginning," said one European diplomat close to the talks.

In attempt to speed up the process, Ahtisaari is expected to bring together leaders of Serbia and Kosovo in Vienna during the last week of July. Their meeting will mark the formal beginning of specific discussions on status.

US officials are among the most adamant that a settlement can still be reached this year. Nicholas Burns, US undersecretary of state, recently visited Brussels carrying a message that "2006 must be the year of decision for Kosovo".

Burns also pledged to raise the US 's diplomatic involvement in the Kosovo issue - an effort to be bolstered by Condoleeza Rice, the US secretary of states, in meetings with Serbia 's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, and president, Boris Tadic.

Yet some Europeans describe such American expressions of optimism as a matter of policy, rather than genuine predictions for the difficult talks ahead.

"Various statements that 2006 should be decisive for Kosovo are helping to keep up the pressure," another European diplomat told Balkan Insight. "But I would not be surprised if we enter 2007 without an agreement on Kosovo."

One potential stumbling block for western diplomats, who hint that Kosovo is likely to become independent, is the position of Russia . Russia 's status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council makes it a key factor.

Soren Jessen-Petersen, the Danish diplomat who last month resigned as head of the UN's mission in Kosovo, said before leaving Pristina that "Russian officials believe that the process of resolving the status of Kosovo should be given time.

"The Russian Federation is not against the results of the status talks, but against rushing the resolution of the negotiation process."

A western diplomat in Brussels said that while Moscow continues to support the basic ground rules agreed before the negotiations, Russia's diplomats emphasise that the "settlement needs to be negotiated" genuinely, not imposed or forced by international pressure.

Another potential pitfall is the unstable political scene in Belgrade , where Serbia 's minority government faces heavy pressure from the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, the largest single force in the parliament.

Any call for early elections would deprive Serbia 's negotiators of the democratic backing they require at the talks in Vienna .

"Nothing is definite because everything is in the air. Elections in Serbia are a serious factor," said Tim Judah, the Balkans writer and analyst.

Feeling is already widespread in Brussels that a series of major setbacks for Serbia is fuelling anti-European sentiments and boosting the fortunes of the SRS.

A first blow fell on May 3, when Brussels suspended pre-accession talks with Serbia after Belgrade failed to deliver General Ratko Mladic to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague .

Then in May, Montenegro voted to secede from its state union with Serbia , triggering another bout of soul-searching for beleaguered Serbs.

Despite such obstacles, some diplomats continue to express confidence in Ahtisaari, the UN's negotiator.

Anne-Marie Lizin, president of Belgium 's Senate, met with Ahtisaari in early July and insists that status process can end during this year, as promised to Kosovars.

"Marti Ahtisaari is a man devoted to his job. He is determined to get the job done, and he is aware of people's expectations," said Lizin.

Others are more sceptical, including one western diplomat, who quipped, "Ahtisaari has an incredibly complicated job. Some even call it 'Mission Impossible'."

A more telling signal may already have come from the negotiator himself. Having earlier signalled his intention to wrap up the negotiations before his contract expires, on a recent visit to Brussels , he mentioned to journalists that the contract "can be renewed".

Gjeraqina Tuhina is the Brussels correspondent for Radio Television Kosovo. Balkan Insight is BIRN's online publication.