Wednesday, 3 August 2011

International reaction to violence on the Kosovo-Serbia border

After last week's clashes in northern Kosovo which left a Kosovan policeman dead and NATO/KFOR peacekeepers under fire, additional peacekeeping forces were sent to the region on Tuesday (2 August) to relieve those that had been involved since the start of the crisis. NATO has stressed that this does not represent a reaction to the escalation of the crisis which began when Kosovan police attempted to take over two border crossings, and ethnic Serbs subsequently attacked a border post on 28 July.

In addition, Kosovo has imposed a de facto trade embargo on Serbia. The timing, if not the nature, of this development is surprising for it has been three years since the Serbian government in Belgrade banned imports from Kosovo as a consequence of Pristina's unilateral declaration of independence.

The Belgrade government and the Serb minority in northern Kosovo have never recognised the independent government of Kosovo. On 31 July a declaration of the Serbian government criticised the actions of the authorities in Pristina. Since then, Belgrade has been sure to signal its commitment to the peaceful resolution of the present crisis through dialogue; President Tadic has stated that, in light of the recent history of the Balkans, that the preservation of regional stability is the priority.

Nonetheless, elements of the minority Serb population in northern Kosovo have perceived a provocation to violence in the activities of the Kosovan government. 60,000 Serbs live in the north; among this population there is little acceptance of the region's control by Pristina. Accordingly, the authorities there exercise little effective control in the north of the territory that is defined by their Republic's Constitution. With this, and an associated measure of pragmatism in mind, the international players that have recognised Kosovo's independence over the last three years have encouraged it to pursue an incremental strategy in this respect.

Nonetheless, recognising the more conciliatory and cooperative stance adopted by the present Belgrade government towards the international community, external actors have signalled their general disapproval of the Pristina's actions. The EU High Representative on foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, indicated the EU's disapproval, and the US State Department criticised Pristina for not coordinating its actions with the international community. At the UN, the Secretary-General called for restraint and dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina facilitated by the EU. China—the only power to abstain at the formulation of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999), which mandated the international presence in Serbia/Kosovo, and one which was highly critical of the NATO action in 1999—expressed its regret over the Pristina administration's activities which it blamed for the increasing tensions.

Internationally, then, there seems to exist the recognition that the present crisis has been brought on by the provocation of the Pristina government led by Hashim Thaci. This, however, will not affect the international community's line on Kosovo. The UN General Assembly and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) have emphasised the inviolability of Kosovo's territorial integrity since its independence, and this will continue to guide practice.

In 2010, in its advisory opinion, the ICJ stated that Pristina's declaration of independence in 2008 did not violate international law; eighty states including, crucially, most EU members have recognised the Republic of Kosovo. Pristina's challenge to the status quo has been heavily criticised by the international actors but, nonetheless, there is little that the Serbian government can do to avoid its present bind. Having extradited the war criminals, Mladic and Hazdic, to the Hague Tribunal, President Tadic has sought to bring Serbia's EU accession closer. But with the main international players recognising the personality and territorial disposition of Kosovo, the status of the Serb enclave—and the issue of territorial cession and the unsavoury precedent that it could set for other parts of the Balkans—will have to be addressed. The resolution of territorial disputes is a longstanding condition of EU membership and the recent provocation by Pristina will cause a headache in Belgrade, where the government appears convinced of a need to move away from its own past and towards the EU.

Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC, Dallas Morning News, Spiegel, United Nations

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