Serbia Wary UN Begins Transfer of Kosovo Authority to EU

The agreement may be technical in nature, but Serbia views Monday's accord between the UN and the EU in Kosovo as being illegal. The EU mission has little legal backing, but it is insinuating itself into the newly independent country.

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A Kosovo-Albanian boy outside his home, which is outfitted with the window of a Serbian-made car.
REUTERS

A Kosovo-Albanian boy outside his home, which is outfitted with the window of a Serbian-made car.

The United Nations and the European Union both insist that it was a technical move. On Monday in Kosovo, the UN mission there, known as UNMIK, and the EU signed an agreement enabling the handover of office space and vehicles to the EU's mission known as EULEX. It is nothing to get worked up about, people close to the two missions insist.

Serbia and Russia, though, apparently didn't get the message. Both countries protested vehemently at what they see as an incremental increase in European Union responsibility in Kosovo despite the UN Security Council having thus far refused to give EULEX the green light.

Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic said the deal was illegal and reiterated that Belgrade "does not accept EULEX." He told reporters that "what they are signing now, we don't see as what Serbia has insisted on." Aleksandr Konuzin, Russia's ambassador to Serbia, promised Moscow would provide "energetic support" to Belgrade's resistance of the European Union mission. Konuzin also insisted that any change to UNMIK's mandate "must be approved by the UN Security Council."

UNMIK has been administering Kosovo since the end of the Serbia-Kosovo war in 1999. With Kosovo having declared independence from Serbia in February, however, the international community has been struggling to adapt. Europe offered to send legal and police support to help the fledgling country. Doing so, though, would require that the UN mission be officially amended, something Russia has been unwilling to agree to. Moscow has long supported Serbia's resistance to Kosovo independence.

Ironically, the agreement signed on Monday comes as a direct result of Russia's ongoing intransigence. In June, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave the go-ahead for structural changes to the UN mission, citing "a profoundly new reality in which UNMIK can no longer perform as effectively as in the past the vast majority of its tasks as an interim administration." He authorized a "reconfiguration" of UNMIK to work more closely with the European Union under the umbrella of international law.

Legal Limbo for the Europeans

"The Secretary-General recognized the situation on the ground in Kosovo. He asked for guidance from the Security Council, but he didn't get it. So now he is asking UNMIK and EULEX to proceed," an official close to the UNMIK mission told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Moving forward, though, promises to be difficult. The European Union had hoped that EULEX would be able to provide both justice and policing assistance for a newly independent Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in February. The idea was for UNMIK to transfer authority to EULEX. Moscow, though, continues to point to Security Council resolution 1244, which stipulates that only the UN may administer Kosovo on behalf of Serbia. And it has used its permanent council veto to block any changes.

The result has been a legal limbo for the Europeans. A number of helpers already in Pristina are preparing the groundwork for their mission, but the legal framework for their presence there is not yet in place. Those involved in the two missions hope that Ki-moon's order to reconfigure UNMIK could provide the necessary mandate.

"The new agreement, which is purely technical in nature, allows EULEX to deploy a lot of people, whereas before we didn't have that ability," an official close to EULEX told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We are still in discussions with UNMIK on how best to transfer authority, but we are trying to do it as unofficially as possible."

Some 2,200 Europeans are waiting to deploy to Kosovo, but the official said that EULEX already has 290 people stationed there, most of them in the capital Pristina. Many of them are already sitting with their local counterparts in the police and in the courts, but they have so far been able to do little other than familiarize themselves with local conditions. "They can't do much until the mission becomes operational," the official said.

'Cannot Be Ignored'

What the mission might look like once it does become operational, though, is still unclear. Belgrade continues to see EULEX as backing Kosovo independence and has refused to work with the EU body. Indeed, EULEX is unwelcome in northern Kosovo where ethnic Serbs are in the majority and have refused to cooperate with the government in Pristina. EU officials are eager to avoid a situation in which EULEX is responsible for one part of Kosovo and UNMIK for the rest.

For the moment, it doesn't look as though Serbia is budging. Serbia's minister in charge of Kosovo Oliver Ivanovic said on Monday, referring to the deal between UNMIK and EULEX: "As with every similar provocation, this technical move cannot be ignored, and the government will submit a protest to the Security Council. You can't go about it this way."

But a Friday announcement may indicate that Serbia is looking for a way out of the impasse. Belgrade said it was going to seek an opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of Kosovo's declaration of independence -- adding that it would abide by the court's decision. "I think this is the way forward that has to be supported by opponents and supporters of Kosovo's independence alike," said Serb Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic.

UNMIK has already begun preparing for a significant reduction in its responsibilities in Kosovo. Earlier this month, the mission began a 70 percent reduction in its staff with both the UN and Europe hopeful that EULEX will be able to eventually fill the gap. Officials are hoping that the changing of the guard will be complete "by late autumn."

Don't expect a ceremony, though. "People expect an official transfer with a ribbon cutting and all that, but EULEX will be able to work once they are all here," said the official close to UNMIK. "It's not perfect and it's not easy. But it is moving forward and there is room to look for space to find common ground."

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