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Kosovo: Germany's Steiner Considered Top Candidate For UN Post

  • Jolyon Naegele

The sudden resignation in late December of the United Nation's chief administrator in Kosovo, Hans Haekkerup, has unleashed a search for an immediate replacement. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele speaks with Germany's Michael Steiner, considered the leading candidate for the post.

Prague, 7 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is expected to speak with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan later today to plead his case for the appointment of his former foreign policy adviser, Michael Steiner, to be Annan's special representative and chief administrator in Kosovo.

Germany is a major contributor to the UN's budget, yet still has neither a permanent seat on the Security Council nor a significant UN post overseas. News reports suggest Steiner is the front-runner for the post. Norway, Spain, and Italy are pushing their own candidates, with Norway's Kai Eide likely to be the runner-up.

Kosovo has been under UN administration since shortly after the end of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in mid-1999, which forced Yugoslav troops to retreat from the province.

Steiner is not making any official comments on his candidacy. He told RFE/RL in a telephone interview today that he does not want to create the impression, "directly nor indirectly," that he is seeking the post.

"I will not comment, because it is up to Kofi Annan to take the decision. He comes only back [from vacation] today. [He] has to make his decision," Steiner said. "Today, the chancellor [Gerhard Schroeder] will call him. [German Foreign Minister Joschka] Fischer has called him. As far as I know, I think there is wide support for this idea."

Steiner appears to be trying to convince himself that being appointed as the UN's special representative of the secretary-general -- a post known among UN personnel in Kosovo by its initials, SRSG -- would be a genuine challenge rather than a step down.

"Now, the idea to do something practical, something which might result in changes in the reality on the ground, is something which I always liked to do," Steiner said. "I always did these things in the capital [Bonn and later Berlin] and then went somewhere in the field. So, I'm not saying that this is something which would disinterest me at all."

Steiner said one of the main challenges with international efforts to stabilize post-conflict societies, be they in Kosovo or elsewhere, is what he terms "sustainability" -- ensuring that the peace that has been fought for is preserved and strengthened.

"If something happens, if we have a war, or if we have a dispute or a conflict, then the international community rushes into something and once it is apparently solved, then the interest is gone," Steiner said. "The problem we have with all these conflicts -- in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, in [Northern] Ireland, and, of course, also, possibly, in the Balkans, is this non-existing sustainability."

Steiner says that before Haekkerup resigned, Schroeder and Fischer had offered him what he terms "a very nice embassy, a good, big embassy." He declined to identify the country, but he dismisses German press reports that it is Poland. He indicated that the country in question is a major international power.

Steiner says he would be happy to accept that posting. He refused to say whether he would prefer to be an ambassador or the UN's chief administrator for Kosovo.

"It's up to Kofi Annan, and he should decide what he wants. I have no -- I am not the demander at all. I mean, I will not lose my income [by being appointed to be SRSG in Pristina]," Steiner said.

Steiner dismissed news reports that there may be another German contender for the post of SRSG -- the former commander of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo, retired General Klaus Reinhardt.

"I think Reinhardt is speculation down there [in the Kosovo and Yugoslav news media].... I know that's not the issue. I think also for objective reasons, because this is a civilian [administration] now and there are the status questions coming in the forefront. It's rather political and diplomatic -- what you need to do -- it's not so much military. Reinhardt -- I know him well -- is fine, but I don't think that the German government, that the chancellor and Fischer would think that it is the status where the military side needs to be emphasized."

Steiner says the job of being the UN's chief representative goes beyond just administering Kosovo and its 2 million inhabitants. In his words, "Whoever will have this post must be someone who tries to look further than just Kosovo or the implementation [of UN Security Council Resolution 1244] within Kosovo."

"Kosovo is, of course, a nucleus, and it needs to be run. And it is a big machinery [bureaucracy] down there with 5,000 people. But I think the real issue is, of course, the inter-relationship down there between all these former republics or states," Steiner said. "And to do that there on the ground, [working] out from the nucleus, because [Resolution] 1244 is giving a mandate on status questions, and these status questions are related to other issues down there, too, [to work as the SRSG] might be really interesting, under the headline of 'Sustainability of Effort.'"

Steiner has spent much of the past decade involved with Central and Southeastern Europe. The 52-year-old native of Munich entered the West German diplomatic service in 1981 upon completion of his law studies. He was a political officer and spokesman in Prague in 1989 when some 5,000 East Germans sought asylum in the West German Embassy, and he helped many of them over the fence into the embassy compound.

Less than two years later, as the former Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, Steiner was working on the Yugoslav desk at the German Foreign Ministry before being appointed to head the German humanitarian aid office in Zagreb.

In 1992, he was named to head the ministry's office for multilateral peace talks, during which he participated in various failed attempts to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia. In 1994 and 1995, he continued his peace efforts as a member of the international community's Contact Group for the former Yugoslavia.

After the Dayton peace accords were signed in November 1995, ending the fighting, Steiner went to Sarajevo as first deputy to the international community's high representative, Carl Bildt. He had been expected to succeed Bildt, but former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel were concerned that the international community was headed for a disaster in Bosnia and decided not to back a German for the post.

Steiner returned to Bonn before briefly serving as German ambassador to the Czech Republic in 1998. After the Social Democrats won parliamentary elections, the new chancellor, Schroeder, appointed Steiner to be his adviser for foreign and security affairs -- a task he won high praise for during his three years at Schroeder's side.

Steiner says "the facts are clearing up" gradually over his argument with a German soldier over a refueling delay during a stopover in Moscow on a return flight from Asia with Schroeder in November. The incident resulted in Steiner's resignation after three years as chief foreign policy adviser. Steiner was reported to have lost his temper while complaining about the delay and to have asked the soldier to provide caviar to Schroeder's entourage while they waited. Three soldiers subsequently filed a complaint accusing Steiner of having repeatedly called them by a vulgar term. Steiner subsequently apologized and said he'd only been joking about the caviar.

Steiner says that "nothing much is still objectively in the books," suggesting that reverberations from the affair appear to have dissipated. Steiner says the incident boils down to "something which, of course, was used politically against the chancellor."

A former aide to Steiner during his Sarajevo days, who remains in frequent contact, describes him as the "most dedicated diplomat" she's ever seen. In her words, "He doesn't have any personal life and works 24 hours a day, every day." But she adds, "He may be a difficult person to work for, but that doesn't really matter."

Kosovo's first SRSG, former French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner, served in Pristina for a year and a half, during which he earned a reputation for flamboyance, as well as for being susceptible to political pressure by ethnic Albanian politicians.

His successor, former Danish Defense Minister Hans Haekkerup, arrived promising a more serious, low-key attitude. He promised to stay in Kosovo for three years and brought his family along, as if to prove his point. But less than a year later, Haekkerup resigned, giving just one week's notice, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. There also are unconfirmed reports that Haekkerup received death threats by Albanians dissatisfied with his policies.

Haekkerup had repeatedly warned that he would block any attempt by the new parliament to declare Kosovo independent. All Albanian parties campaigned on a platform of independence in the 17 November general elections. The new parliament, however, has failed so far to elect a president of Kosovo, who in turn would appoint a prime minister to form a government.

In this legislative limbo, the need for a competent and experienced administrator is key. Steiner is interested. And he is single.