The World from Berlin 'No Simple Solutions' in the Balkans

This week's violence in border areas between Kosovo and Serbia has cast a shadow over Serbia's prospects for accession talks to join the European Union. German editorialists argue the events show that both Belgrade and Pristina have a long way to go before true peace can be established in the region.

KFOR soldiers with the EU peacekeeping mission in Kosovo guard the main bridge in the divided town of Mitrovica on Thursday.
AFP

KFOR soldiers with the EU peacekeeping mission in Kosovo guard the main bridge in the divided town of Mitrovica on Thursday.


They came with axes, clubs, crowbars and Molotov cocktails. And when they were gone, the nearly 200 Serbians who attacked the Jarinje border post on Wednesday night left very little behind. Shots were also fired, and on Tuesday a Kosovar soldier died.

Now soldiers with the international KFOR peacekeeping troops have taken over control of two border areas between Serbia and Kosovo. On Thursday, KFOR took control of the burned-out border crossing at Jarinje as well as the Brnjak border crossing. The same day, shots were fired at KFOR troops, but for the most part the situation has quieted down.

Photo Gallery

9  Photos
Photo Gallery: Violence Erupts at Kosovo Border
For days, the atmosphere in the border area had been explosive. A customs dispute over imports between Serbia and Kosovo that took shape earlier this week triggered a massive outbreak of violence.

Kosovo Prime Minster Hashim Thaci promptly responded with heated political rhetoric, saying: "These violent acts were ordered, coordinated and led by the highest political structures of Serbia."

The Serbian government, however, rejected the allegations. Goran Bogdanovic, Serbia's minister for Kosovo, said: "This is an act of extremists and criminal groups. This is not an act of the people of the Leposavic municipality or the people of Kosovo and Metohija." Serbian President Boris Tadic called for an "immediate end" to the violence and urged Kosovo Serbs to remain calm. "The hooligans who cause violence are not defending Serbia or the Serbian citizens," he stated.

A Shadow over Prospects for EU Membership Talks

The timing of the latest outbreak of violence couldn't be any worse for Serbia, whose government is hoping to begin accession talks for European Union membership. In recent weeks, Serbia has extradited the last two major war crimes suspects sought by the UN tribunal in The Hague, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic. The arrests and extraditions have been viewed as a significant step by Serbia towards accession talks.

This week's violence, however, has cast a shadow over those prospects. The EU will next issue a status report on relations with Serbia in October.

Natasha Wunsch, a Balkans researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin, warns that the latest violence could damage those efforts. Still, she says the government is taking steps to defuse the situation, including statements made immediately after the incident condemning the violence. "The Serbian leadership is conscious of the fact that their EU ambitions only stand a chance if the country proves that it is ready to cooperate on the issue of Kosovo," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

It's a position Belgrade must also maintain, argues Dusan Reljic, a Balkans researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). "If the Serbian government remains committed to avoiding a further escalation in Kosovo, then the recent border dispute between Serbia and Kosovo will not have negative consequences for Belgrade," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But if the extremists push the government to change directions, Belgrade would forfeit its chances for accession talks," he said.

'Gravely Concerned'

On Thursday, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton said, "I remain gravely concerned about the continued tensions in the north of Kosovo, and reiterate my condemnation of all use of violence." She added that a "return to dialogue remains the only way for Belgrade and Pristina to resolve the underlying issues," and that "the EU expects to see rapid and substantive progress."

The EU is heavily involved in Kosovo through both the KFOR international peacekeeping troops and the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX), which is helping Kosovo authorities to establish its police, judiciary and customs authorities.

The current violence broke out as a result of Serbia's unilateral ban on imports from Kosovo. The Kosovars retaliated with a ban on Serbian imports. However, in both Brnjak and Jarinje, which are controlled by Serbs, the ban hadn't been observed. On Monday night, special forces with the Kosovo police seized both border crossings. Outraged Serbs reacted on Tuesday and Wednesday by attacking the border posts in violence that also resulted in the death of a Kosovar police officer.

On Friday, German editorialists look at the situation in Kosovo and Serbia and argue that if the two countries can't move forward at the negotiating table, it could bode poorly for Belgrade's chances of kick-starting EU accession talks. They find plenty of blame for the latest developments on both sides.

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"The images of burning border posts and heavily armed NATO soldiers make it all too clear that Serbia is still light-years away from joining the EU. ... The EU has made (Serbia's willingness to improve relations with Kosovo) into a precondition for granting Serbia the coveted status of an EU accession candidate. ... The EU will do anything to avoid repeating the mistake of allowing a country with unresolved border conflicts into the club -- see the example of Cyprus."

"Serbia's leadership is aware of that, and yet it is putting the issue of Kosovo above all that. At the same time, all the polls show that most Serbs are profoundly indifferent to the inhospitable territory. Even the most extremist nationalists hardly care any more about this supposed wound in the Serbian soul. One can believe President Tadic when he says that his EU aspirations are sincere. But why is he willing to put his country's future in Europe on the line over Kosovo?"

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Belgrade is still supporting the Serbian parallel state in northern Kosovo and has taken little action against the local Serbian mafia. The Serbian police could arrest the gangsters immediately and put an end to smuggling. The EU's EULEX mission could do that as well, however. But once again, the European civilian institutions have shown themselves to be too weak and spineless. Brussels has yet again yielded to Belgrade, it seems."

"If Serbia wants to get closer to the EU, then it needs to seek pragmatic solutions. In the long term it needs to make its peace with (Kosovo). It can not get around recognizing it as an independent state. Until then, the EU cannot accept Serbia as an accession candidate. The EU must finally step up the pressure."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The escalation does not follow some kind of natural laws, but is guided by concrete interests. Even if it was the angry Serbs who dominated the headlines recently, it was the actions of the Kosovar police that started everything. And they knew exactly what they were doing. With the recent extradition of two war criminals, the Serbian leadership has improved its image in Europe and cannot afford to get involved in a new conflict. That makes them vulnerable, at least from the Kosovars' perspective."

"The government in Pristina apparently thought they could exploit Serbia's moderate stance in order to create a fait accompli on the northern border of the former Serbian region. That impulse is understandable -- it is annoying for any government if it does not have part of its territory under control and smuggling gangs are able to operate there."

"But in the Balkans there are no simple solutions. By endangering the fragile peace through its police operation, (Kosovo) is acting irresponsibly and unfairly."

-- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff

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