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Western Press Review: First-Ever Talks Between Leaders From Belgrade And Pristina; The Uneasy UN-U.S. Relationship

Prague, 14 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much analysis in the press today is focused on the Balkans, as first-ever negotiations between the autonomous government of Kosovo and leaders from the federation of Serbia and Montenegro commence in Vienna. The talks are set to discuss only "technical" matters, such as cooperation on energy, transport, and the status of refugees, leaving the contentious issue of Kosovo's final status to be dealt with at some point in the future. We also take a look at the uneasy relationship between the United States and the United Nations, and why the world might benefit from a reassessment of this often turbulent partnership.


Writing in the "Financial Times," columnist Stefan Wagstyl discusses the talks commencing today in Vienna between Kosovar leaders and those from the federation of Serbia and Montenegro. Officials from Belgrade, led by Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic, are set to focus on "technical" matters with their Kosovar counterparts, headed by President Ibrahim Rugova. The negotiations are expected to address cooperation on transport, energy, missing persons, and issues relating to refugees. The final status of Kosovo will not be discussed, for -- as Wagstyl puts it -- on this issue the two parties "could not be farther apart."

Belgrade believes Kosovo, a UN protectorate since the 1999 NATO-led bombing of Serbia, is an intrinsic part of the Serbian nation. Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian majority, however, wants independence and self-rule for the province. Harri Holkeri, a former Finnish prime minister and the current UN administrator of Kosovo, hopes that by building mutual trust with these first-ever talks, "one day fundamental political questions can be tackled." But Wagstyl says, "Such is the tension surrounding the Vienna meeting that Mr. Holkeri will probably deem it a triumph if everyone not only turns up but remains at the [negotiating] table."

And yet, the talks today are "the launch of the most important piece of diplomacy in the former Yugoslavia since NATO troops forced former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to surrender Kosovo." Not only the future of Kosovo is at stake, but also "the political and economic future of the surrounding region." And with the international community's attention now focused on Iraq and the Middle East, "time is running out for the western Balkans."


In a commentary in "The New York Times," European political affairs analyst Andrew Rosenbaum notes that observers ranging from former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his one-time Balkans envoy Richard Holbrooke to Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders and a former UN administrator in Kosovo, have hailed the bilateral talks in Vienna today as a very significant move toward progress on the subject of Kosovo. "Unfortunately, anyone who spends even a day walking the streets of Pristina and its neighboring towns will come away convinced that peace is not to be gleaned through diplomacy," Rosenbaum says. "The wounds of ethnic-Albanian majority and ethnic-Serb minority alike have not healed, and the 12,000-plus NATO troops here are simply stanching the bleeding by force."

When Serbs travel through the mainly ethnic-Albanian province, the reaction they receive is often reminiscent of the tensions that characterized the war. Buses are stoned and intermittent attacks continue. One in August saw two Serb children killed and four wounded as they swam in a stream. The roughly 200 Serbs that still make their home in Kosovo "don't go out much at all, and with good reason," says Rosenbaum.

"And the unease is growing as the initial joy of independence has faded. [With] the first rush of aid money drying up, many [new buildings] are unfinished and abandoned." And Kosovo lacks either civil or commercial law. As long as both Serb and Albanian Kosovars "settle their disputes with guns, foreign investment is a moot point."


In France's daily "Liberation," columnist Patric Sabatier says it is an irony of history that protectorates like Kosovo are now "fashionable." The protectorate model, under which a state government is entrusted to a foreign nation to help it climb out of chaos and allow for reconstruction, has been used by colonial empires in places from Cambodia to Morocco. Today it is the international community that intervenes, under the rubric of the United Nations, in countries that lack the means to stand on their own feet, end slaughters, or stop ethnic warfare. The right of intervention is a "moral imperative," says Sabatier. But it is also a profound political act because it supercedes the principle of national sovereignty and can jeopardize the independence of entire nations. Certainly, such arguments are often used by tyrants to better cloak their crimes. But these are also the realities on which international law is based. The protectorate is thus a phenomenon to handle with care, says Sabatier. Often, it "freezes" conflicts rather than resolves them, as can be seen in Kosovo. Administering a protectorate can also look a lot like a foreign occupation, as in Iraq. In short, says Sabatier, as necessary as it may be in places like Liberia, this system is far from being a panacea for the planet.


Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Michael McFaul of the Hoover Institution says the United States and the United Nations are at a "dangerous" diplomatic impasse. Instead of parting ways, he says, "both sides must reframe the way they do business with each other."

The UN must work to dispel some of the myths surrounding what it can and cannot do. First, it is not a world legislature. Its resolutions are not laws, and only become binding when a powerful state, such as the United States, or a coalition of nations with real power enforces them. The UN has no executive power to "levy taxes or raise armies." And while it has real peacekeeping and nation-building know-how, UN missions "only succeed if backed by one great power willing to bear the bulk of the burden," as Australia did in stabilizing East Timor.

Without the United States, McFaul says, the UN "has an uncertain future." And yet the United States "can pursue its security interests more effectively over the long haul by helping to transform, rather than walk away from, the UN." The United States "needs the UN to help legitimize its actions." On some issues, it can act unilaterally, "but enduring success is enhanced with the UN stamp of approval." America also needs the UN "to institutionalize burden sharing." Some of its national-security objectives, such as weapons nonproliferation, demand international cooperation.

The UN's "valuable trademark," McFaul says, is international legitimacy. "But to realize the true value of the institution requires internal reform" and a more effective U.S. partnership.


An editorial in the British "The Independent" looks at an alternative plan for peace in the Middle East, drawn up by "a group of politicians, academics, and others from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide [who] had been working on a draft agreement that could replace the 'road map'" to peace.

Not all the details of the new plan, known as the Geneva Accord, have been made public. But the paper says of those that are known, two offer cause for optimism. First, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has supported the effort. And second, unlike other peace plans, this one begins "with the practical and territorial solution -- a variation on the familiar land-for-peace barter -- in the belief that security will follow."

Another key element is the "Palestinian agreement to forgo a demand that has hitherto been central to their position: the right of refugees to return to their homeland. The Israeli negotiators for their part are reportedly ready to cede sovereignty over Temple Mount, one of the most disputed religious sites in Jerusalem. With a few carefully negotiated exceptions, Israel would also agree to withdraw to its 1967 borders."

There is not much that is truly new about the Geneva Accord, says "The Independent." But what is new is the "precedence given to the final settlement and the fact that the initiative comes not from officials, but from influential representatives of civil society."


Writing in France's daily "Le Monde," Alain Frachon says the mood in Belgrade is beginning to indicate a movement forward and less nostalgia for a mythic past. Reasons for anxiety remain, he says, among them the halting progress toward democracy, apathetic public opinion, economic recession after three years of bold reforms, and the presence -- even omnipresence -- of organized crime. Nevertheless, says Frachon, from one end of the political spectrum to the other, Serbs are in agreement on one thing: that the future of the country is with the European Union, a guarantee of alignment with the West after the bloody madness of the Slobodan Milosevic decade.

Serbia's priority is to enter the European Union, not to resume control of Kosovo and even less to maintain the artificial links that unite it to nearby Montenegro, with which it now forms a loose federation. Even if no Serb leaders will say it publicly, Belgrade seems to have said goodbye to its Kosovo ambitions: It knows these are incompatible with its integration into Europe.

One aspect of this is a case of national pride, says Frachon. Serb leaders cannot bear the idea that other former Soviet states such as Bulgaria and Romania -- which Serbs consider to be trailing themselves in terms of progress -- would succeed first at this crucial test of modernity that is EU membership.