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Border clash “diverts from real Kosovo issues”

Swisscoy has been in Kosovo since 1999 Keystone

A Swiss expert on the Balkans tells that an agreement to put an end to a border dispute between Serbia and Kosovo is shaky.

Andreas Ernst, a journalist with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, believes a more durable and far-reaching solution is needed than the one for Serbia to remove roadblocks in Kosovo’s Serb-run north .

The deal was brokered by Nato on Wednesday in a bid to end over a week of clashes and heightened tension. The reopening of the border posts will allow for shipments of food and humanitarian goods from Serbia. Nato peacekeepers will continue to man the checkpoints throughout mid-September. The border conflict continues despite international mediation.

Andreas Ernst: The border conflict is in reality a territorial dispute. For the majority of [Kosovo’s] population, which is Albanian-speaking, with 90 per cent living in the south of the country, the conflict is in principle resolved. But it’s different for the ten per cent in the northern corner. Here 97 per cent of the local population is Serb, feel like Serbs and see this region as part of Serbia. Does the international community have a solution at hand?

A. E.: No, because it is divided on this issue. Within the European Union 22 countries have recognised Kosovo, and five haven’t. So there is no common EU position. And because not all Nato states have recognised Kosovo, the same goes for the military alliance which provides the majority of troops for Kosovo.

And in the United Nations Security Council, Russia and China oppose independence. Of the 192 UN member states, only 75 recognise Kosovo. On the surface, it’s a customs conflict. Can you compare the area north of Mitrovica with the tax-free zone in the eastern Swiss resort of Samnaun?

A. E.: To a certain extent, yes. It’s almost a tax-free zone, where goods from Serbia are imported without duties being levied. For some time goods were controlled by Kosovan Serb policemen, with support from Eulex [EU] customs officials.

Taxes, if any, were first levied when the goods reached south Mitrovica [Albanian part of the town], the de facto border where Kosovan sovereignty begins. What would happen if this northern zone were handed over to Serbia and and in exchange, Serbia gave control of a different area to Kosovo?

A. E.: One possibility would be a territorial compromise whereby this northern corner would go to Serbia – or from a Serb perspective remain Serb – and in exchange Kosovo would receive two or three villages in southern Serbia that lie directly on the Kosovo border.

This solution, privately favoured by many Albanian-speaking Kosovars and Serbs, is controversial in the international community because of fears that partitioning along ethnic lines would continue throughout the Balkans.

But I think that is an exaggeration because ethnic divisions took place with the independence of Kosovo, where Albanians make up 90 per cent of the population. 

Now negotiations must be restarted and a compromise solution found. This is also in the interest of the Kosovo government in Pristina which finds itself in a vacuum because it’s not recognised by everyone internationally. A solution must result in both Serbia and Kosovo recognising each other.

The goal of any agreement should also be to make Kosovo a functioning state. But the customs issue distracts from the real problems of Kosovo: the economy, corruption and having a responsible government. The Kfor peacekeeping mission which includes a Swiss contingent plays an important role. Why?

A. E.: Kfor has been the most successful of all international missions. It’s a powerful factor which gains it respect. It’s important for the Kosovan Albanians that Kfor is led by Nato, which freed Kosovo in the war against Serbia.

But Kfor also guarantees security for Serbs who live in enclaves in southern Kosovo. This is where the armed Swisscoy contingent is based. Some say the Swisscoy engagement is not in accord with Switzerland’s foreign policy goals.

A. E.: It’s a question of principle. Switzerland was quick to recognise Kosovo after it declared independence. It seems to me logical that one plays an active role in this closely-monitored independence. If one didn’t want that, then Kosovo shouldn’t have been recognised.

Switzerland contributes about 200 people to the 6,000-strong Kfor force. Contingents from large countries like the United States have a higher profile. This has nothing to do with their performance but with the symbolic value of their engagement.

Switzerland does not really stand out. Many Serbs see the Swiss as siding with the Albanians – a consequence of Switzerland’s early recognition of Kosovo. Will Kosovo survive?

A. E.: Evidently but it’s a state in limbo that must be put on a solid foundation. In my opinion, this would be a peace agreement between Pristina and Belgrade.

This would also be in the best interests of Serbia. All reasonable people in Belgrade know that Kosovo as an entity has been lost. Therefore it’s a question of finding a face-saving solution. Part of that could be the exchange of the northern corner. This would resolve a large integration problem for Pristina.

A solution to this problem should be a lot easier to find than in the Israel-Palestinian conflict because both parties want the same thing: to be part of a united Europe.

Ernst was born in Zurich in 1960, and has a PhD in history.

Has lived and worked in the Balkans since 1999, where he works for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and does research on nation building in Kosovo.

Kosovo functioned as a UN protectorate from the end of the Kosovo war until 2008, when it formally declared independence from Serbia.

Swisscoy has been part of the multinational Kfor troops in Kosovo since 1999. About 4,200 Swiss soldiers have participated in missions so far.

The troops are armed for self-defence but do not join peace enforcement operations.

A sizeable ethnic Albanian community from Kosovo has been living in Switzerland since the 1990s.

The Swiss Armed Forces have been involved in peace support missions since 1953.

Currently a total of 273 men and women from the rank of first private to major general are involved in peace missions in 15 countries on three continents. The vast majority are militia personnel. 

(Translated from German by Dale Bechtel)

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