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Yugoslavia: UN's Steiner Declines To Set Timeline For Resolving Kosovo's Status

  • Jolyon Naegele

The UN Secretary-General's senior representative in Kosovo, Michael Steiner, has set out a series of standards or benchmarks that Kosovo must achieve before its representatives, in consort with the international community, can proceed to resolve the province's final status. Steiner made the remarks in a lengthy interview yesterday with RFE/RL's Pristina bureau chief, Arbana Vidishiqi.

Prague, 16 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ever since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic capitulated to NATO in June 1999 and withdrew his forces from Kosovo, members of the province's Albanian majority have been asking the international community when the status of their homeland will finally be resolved.

The province's Albanian majority -- who make up about 90 percent of its nearly 2 million inhabitants -- have no desire to ever live under Serbian rule again. But for Kosovo's Serbs -- more than half of whom are in exile -- any form of independence for the province would be anathema, and demands continue to surface from some Serbian leaders in the province for the establishment of Serbian entities or cantons, as in Bosnia.

NATO peacekeepers and the UN administration have succeeded to a considerable extent in stabilizing the province over the past three years, the divided city of Mitrovica being a glaring exception. Ethnically based murders have largely abated. Local and parliamentary elections have passed off virtually without a hitch. And earlier this year, the Kosovo Parliament elected a president, Ibrahim Rugova, who in turn named a government.

Last November, the then head of the UN administration in Kosovo, Hans Haekkerup, said it would take at least another three years before conditions are right for resolving Kosovo's status. But Haekkerup resigned suddenly in December, to be replaced by Michael Steiner, a senior German diplomat with more than a decade of Balkan and Eastern European experience.

Steiner has taken up where Haekkerup left off, although the two men are remarkably different in style. Where Haekkerup was aloof and traveled little, Steiner has been visibly engaged and has been on the move ever since his arrival.

Similar to his predecessor, Steiner has been insisting on standards or benchmarks that need to be achieved as prerequisites for resolving Kosovo's status. In an interview with RFE/RL's Pristina bureau chief Arbana Vidishiqi, Steiner delineated the benchmarks but declined to offer a timeline, saying: "First standards, then status."

"We are talking about jobs. We are talking about reliable institutions. We are talking about freedom of movement. We are talking about the fight against crime. So these are the issues which are really of concern for the normal people here in Kosovo, for the majority of people (Albanians), as well as the smaller communities (minorities)."

Steiner says these goals must be achieved and that once they have been achieved, "the scene will be set for addressing the final status questions." How long it will take until Kosovo's status is resolved is -- as Steiner puts it -- "mostly in the hands of the people of Kosovo and their leaders, because they have to make essential contributions.

"I cannot tell you when this will be the case, and it would be wrong for me to set a timeline. But what I can say is the earlier we achieve these benchmarks, the better for us all."

Steiner rules out any suggestion of "conditional independence," as some commentators have proposed.

"I think we should have a bottom-up approach. That means, let's make the society in Kosovo ripe for addressing these issues. Let's prepare that. Let's prepare the society in Kosovo to be a respected society, which is capable also to carry what we want to achieve, that means to carry the substantial autonomy. Whatever the form will be in the end, that's not so important."

Steiner says that in order to fulfill the responsibility of what he terms "substantial autonomy," Kosovo's government and society must be prepared and "the right economic circumstances" need to be established.

He says one of the key issues that must be addressed before Kosovo's final status can be resolved is organized crime, which he describes as a problem throughout the region and one he says has to be "addressed Balkan-wide."

Kosovo's chief UN administrator also says the time has come to talk about practical issues, including the province's day-to-day relations with its neighbors, including Serbia.

"Kosovo is not an island, as I have said several times. So that means we need to have the contact, negotiations, and close relations with all our neighbors. That is economically necessary, but that is also politically necessary,"

For example, Steiner says that for Kosovo to be able to completely satisfy all of its electricity needs 24 hours a day in all seasons, a regional framework based on agreements with neighboring countries has to be reached, just like anywhere else in Europe.

Steiner served for a year after the 1995 Dayton accords as the deputy high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He says Bosnia's experience should serve as a model for Kosovo concerning refugees. He says the return of minorities is possible -- noting that 200,000 displaced persons and refugees have returned to areas of Bosnia where their ethnic group is in the minority.

"What you need in order to make it possible is some time since the traumatic events. This was clear in Bosnia. What was not possible in the beginning was then possible after some years."

In addition to time, the Albanian majority in Kosovo has to be ready for the minorities' return, their leaders need to support the returns and, Steiner insists, the leaders of those who want to return -- the Serbs, Montenegrins, and Roma -- need to actively take part in this endeavor.

Steiner says Kosovo's new government under Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi is saying the right things and that international donors are ready to support the returns. Steiner has also told the Serbian coalition Povratak (Return), to nominate two key posts -- a coordinator for returns and a senior adviser to Steiner on returns. He says it is high time that Povratak nominates people to these posts because "this is very essential if you want to have an integrated approach where the representatives of the Serbs take part in order to get this going."

Steiner accuses the Serbs of wasting time by failing to act.

"You need to overcome fears on all sides. And I think the key to it is very simple. I would describe it within two fundamental pillars. One pillar is multiethnicity; the other pillar is integration. Multiethnicity means that the majority people must be ready to accept that Kosovo is not a monoethnic society but must be an open society, open also to the other, smaller ethnic groups."

On the other hand, Steiner warns, "The smaller ethnic groups, including the Serbs, must be willing to integrate not into a Kosovo Albanian society but into a multiethnic society." Steiner says that if both sides show they are ready to accept these two principles, "then you can make it happen."

He says normal people understand that they have to play by the rules, and according to Steiner, "The fundamental rule in the European Union is, of course, multiethnicity," which he says means no differentiation along ethnic lines.

Last week, Steiner blocked a move by Kosovo's parliament to adopt a statement on the continued ethnic division of the northern city of Mitrovica. He called on deputies not to meddle in issues that are his responsibility, such as resolving the division of Mitrovica or Kosovo's borders, suggesting that lawyers should do their jobs and let him do his.

Steiner expanded on this for RFE/RL: "Our work is based on the [1999 UN Security Council] Resolution 1244 and the [one-year-old] constitutional framework. Now it's very clear that there are certain areas of activity which are reserved for good reasons to the international community. Others are transferred to the provisional institutions (Kosovo's parliament and government). That is very clearly set out in the constitutional framework, and I think we have to respect the rule of law. We have to also respect this distribution of power."

Steiner says that if parliament wants to discuss issues of Kosovo's fundamental interest, "That's fine, and we should not deny the parliament [the opportunity] to discuss things which are in the interest of the people" in Kosovo. However, he says, a line exists -- that is, a distinction between powers and responsibilities -- which must be respected.

"I have said in the last parliament's discussion that this was a dignified discussion and, of course, I would welcome any support from the assembly for the common tasks of KFOR and UNMIK. But we cannot accept that there would be an executive interference because otherwise it would make no sense to have this distribution of responsibilities. We should see it in [terms of] the long run. In the long run, we will have the transfer of all the authorities to these institutions which we have here."

Steiner reiterated his previously declared refusal to divulge any details of his plan for resolving the division of Mitrovica, beyond rejecting the main Kosovo Serbian demands to formalize the division of the city and of the Serbian-majority northernmost part of the province from the rest of Kosovo. He notes that UN Security Council Resolution 1244 provides for one system for the whole of the territory of Kosovo.

"We will not accept any tendency for separation. We will not accept any parallel institutions. We will work for the legitimate interests of all the communities living there, because there are also concerns which are legitimate on the Serb side. These we need to address, too, but on the basis of an integrationist approach."

Steiner says Serbian leaders in Belgrade with whom he has spoken have been "very encouraging." He says Belgrade agrees "there should be no separation, that there should be no partition, that there should be unified structures" in the north, as well as in the rest of Kosovo.