By Erich Rathfelder in Pristina
The faces one sees in Pristina these days are friendly and full of expectancy. Residents of the capital city of Kosovo, indeed people across the mostly ethnic-Albanian province, have let go of the tension that has dominated the past few months and are full of anticipation. Indeed, according to an oft-cited study published in the breakaway Serbian province, people in Kosovo are currently among the most optimistic in the entire world.
The burst of buoyancy comes after months of tension. First came the long negotiations over the Ahtisaari Plan, the United Nations-sponsored effort to settle the clash between Serbia and Kosovo through a process of "supervised independence." When Serbia, and permanent Security Council member Russia, vetoed the idea another round of doomed negotiations followed.
Now, though, the word on the street is that Kosovo is preparing to declare independence as early as this Sunday. And the feeling of optimism comes in large part from the widespread support for such a declaration within the European Union -- a position which is becoming increasingly clear as the big day approaches.
The Train Has Left the Station
Indeed, the choice of Sunday, Feb. 17 looks to be a strategic one. Foreign ministers from the 27 member states are meeting on Monday, a perfect opportunity to encourage international recognition. Signs point to major EU countries -- and a vast majority of all members -- immediately granting diplomatic recognition. The US likewise plans to support Kosovo immediately. The train of independence, it would appear, has already left the station.
One of those possibilities is the secession of Serbian-dominated areas of Kosovo from the province. But KFOR commanders have said such a move wouldn't be allowed, and Serbia would certainly have little chance in a military confrontation with NATO, the KFOR spokesman warns. Indeed, KFOR and the Serbian army have already come to an agreement, the spokesman says, under which the Serbian army will observe the five-kilometer corridor on the border with Kosovo arranged by KFOR. Diplomats in Pristina admit that it is difficult to know exactly how Serbia might react, but the assumption is that violence will be avoided.
There has even been some political movement in the last few days from the ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. The original threat -- that the Serbian areas would declare independence from Kosovo after the province declares independence from Serbia -- has been dropped. The reason, according to Oliver Ivanovic, an ethnic Serb politician from Kosovo, is that doing so would provide a tacit recognition of Kosovo's independence. Indeed, last Friday, a gathering of Serbian communities decided to boycott the institutions of the future state as well as the planned EU mission in Kosovo, exactly as the ethnic Serbs have already been doing.
The newly built, bright blue EU building sits on a hill and can be easily seen from downtown Pristina. The parking lot is still empty, and the guards at the entrance are still polite. The interior is dominated by an unobtrusive elegance, with works by local painters creating a soothing atmosphere. Once Kosovo has declared independence and once the final political and administrative hurdles have been overcome, the EU mission will officially move in.
Despite Serbian opposition, the EU-administered institutions plan to build an office in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica in addition to the headquarters in Pristina and keep a liaison office in Belgrade, according to the spokesperson of the preparation team.
It appears that the EU diplomats aren't terribly worried about the threats coming from ethnic Serbs and that they expect the situation to calm down after a time. The entire EU mission will be based on three pillars. First, there's the political unit, the so-called "International Civilian Office/ European Union Special Representative" (ICO/ EUSR) with its 275 employees. Next, there is the operational unit (EULEX) made up of 1,900 employees, primarily policemen, customs officials and legal advisers, who will actively cooperate in the organization of the state. Finally, there will be the liaison office to the EU Commission, with 80 employees, to help plan and implement long-term reforms.
Peter Feith will lead the International Civilian Office, which is administered by Europeans, although non-Europeans work there too. The Dutchman knows a lot about the Balkans and has already worked in the region with other organizations. An American diplomat will hold the deputy position, while the second and third pillars will be administered exclusively by Europeans.
Expecting a Calm Weekend
In contrast to the UN mission, which held government authority, the three pillars will have only advisory functions to prepare the country for closer relations with the EU. However, the ICO civilian office under Feith has the right to oversee the implementation of the Ahtisaari plan. Using this power, he will be able to unseat politicians who don't want to stick to the plan's stipulations.
The rights of minorities, particularly those of the ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, hold a central position in the Ahtisaari plan. The ICO spokeswoman is certain that everything will work out. The organization of the EU structures, she explains, do not require any more fundamental political approval from within the EU, because it was already agreed upon last December. Now, the issues are merely technical ones, which can be easily dealt with within existing channels of communication.
For now, in short, the institutions of the international community are playing it cool. Even should individual groups of ethnic Serbs commit terrorist attacks, it still wouldn't change much, German defense policy experts Ursula Mogg and Rainer Arnold told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Peace, they expect, will prevail.
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