Peacekeeping in Kosovo 'The Situation is Still Tense'

Major General Erhard Bühler leads NATO's peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR). In an interview with SPIEGEL, the German armed forces commander discusses the critical situation in northern Kosovo, the EU's responsibility in the region and when he thinks the time will be to finally begin pulling troops out.
KFOR soldiers look at the road blockade near Mitrovica in early August.

KFOR soldiers look at the road blockade near Mitrovica in early August.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Bühler, in late July there were clashes along the border  between Kosovo and Serbia, during which NATO soldiers came under fire. Are your soldiers safe?

Bühler: The situation is still tense. As long as there is no agreement between Serbia and Kosovo over how the border should be controlled and customs duties ought to be collected, our soldiers will secure the border crossings -- at least until the end of September. In return the government in Belgrade has already declared it would dismantle the Serbian roadblocks. However, they obviously need some time to enforce this agreement among their compatriots in northern Kosovo.

SPIEGEL: Criminals and smugglers control northern Kosovo. Does Belgrade even have an influence on the Serbs there in the north?

Bühler: Northern Kosovo is actually an area where the law can hardly be enforced. The government in Kosovo  has no control over the region. And Belgrade has limited influence on the nationalistic, radical Serbs in Kosovo.

SPIEGEL: You recently mediated talks between the Serbs and the Kosovars, but that isn't actually your job as a soldier. Shouldn't European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton have stepped in?

Bühler: KFOR was at the scene and able to intervene overnight. Mrs. Ashton was informed and included at all times. But the real problem remains: Who controls northern Kosovo? Who governs the borders and customs? Only the European Union can lead these negotiations.

SPIEGEL: Five EU members do not recognize Kosovo's independence. How will the EU negotiate this?

Bühler: That is certainly a problem. The uncertain political parameters impede a solution to the conflict.

SPIEGEL: In northern Kosovo the Serbs live as they would in Serbia. They use their own currency and refuse to buy bread baked by Kosovar Albanians. Can there even be a peaceful solution?

Bühler: I was just in southern Kosovo, and Serbs live there too. But there the two ethnic groups are now working very closely together. There Serbs establish themselves as mayors to achieve their interests.

SPIEGEL: Would it help for the north to secede?

Bühler: That is a political question I can't get mixed up in, but there are enough politicians, including those in the EU, who would not approve such a solution.

SPIEGEL: Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to meet with the Serbian President Boris Tadic in Belgrade on Tuesday. What do you hope can be achieved?

Bühler: The chancellor's visit will help. Serbia has a great interest in easing the situation. They don't want to endanger the negotiations on their EU candidacy status.

SPIEGEL: German Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière visited you in March and declared he wanted to signal that it's possible for military missions to end. Did the minister miscalculate?

Bühler: No. If we can overcome the current crisis, then we can further reduce our troops again next year. But we can't pull out too early. There should then be no fewer than 2,500 soldiers. Otherwise it would certainly not be beneficial for stability here in the Balkans.

Interview conducted by Ulrike Demmer
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