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Swiss troops to stay in Kosovo come what may

Hashim Thaci celebrating his party's success in last weekend's general elections

(Keystone)

European Union foreign ministers have warned Kosovo against making a hasty declaration of independence in the wake of the province's elections last weekend.

Switzerland's defence ministry said on Tuesday that Swiss peacekeeping troops would remain in Kosovo, even in the event of a unilateral independence declaration.

After his most recent visit to the Serbian province in August, Defence Minister Samuel Schmid said the mandate of the Swiss troops would be called into question in such a change of circumstances.

However a spokesman for the ministry now says that these remarks were a "first appraisal" and that a "closer analysis of the situation" had shown that a new UN mandate would not be necessary for the Swiss soldiers to stay on.

"Even if the new government... unilaterally declares its independence from Serbia, UN resolution 1244 remains valid," the spokesman said.

With such a large share of the Kosovar disapora living in Switzerland, Kosovo's destiny is a prominent issue for Swiss politicians.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has publicly declared her support for an independent Kosovo.

Pro-consensus

The Swiss position is pro-consensus, arguing that evolution towards formal independence must happen under close international monitoring as well as through negotiations with Belgrade.

While Swiss diplomats have said that a return of Kosovo to Serbian sovereignty is "neither desirable nor realistic", Switzerland also acknowledges that independence cannot be imposed on Serbia.

Fears of a reckless independence declaration abated somewhat on Tuesday after Kosovo's prime minister-in-waiting said the province's leaders would "do nothing without coordination with our partners in Washington and Brussels".

Former rebel leader Hashim Thaci, who previously lived and studied in Switzerland, is expected to become Kosovo prime minister after his party won the largest share of the vote in last Saturday's elections in Kosovo.

Negotiations between representatives of Serbia and Kosovo, as well as those from the European Union, United States and Russia are said to be at a critical stage. The so-called "troika" is due to report back to the United Nations by December 10.

Patience

The eyes of the 200,000-strong Kosovar community in Switzerland are currently on their homeland. Swiss resident and writer Fatmir Brajshori, who left Kosovo in the mid-1990s, said he doubted the new government would go in the direction of independence without getting the right signal, primarily from the US.

"We have waited for our freedom for the past 100 years. The last eight years we have been under UN administration. Now we can easily be patient for a few more months or a year – there is plenty of time left for a radical solution or a new war.

Nexhat Maloku, a member of Zurich city's foreign advisory committee, told swissinfo he admired Calmy-Rey's stance.

"The commitment of President Calmy-Rey for Kosovo's independence is an important position and encourages Kosovo to foster close relations with Switzerland in the future," he said.

In a recent swissinfo interview, the new head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Kosovo, Tim Guldimann, said Kosovo's future status could only be decided in partnership with the international community.

Cooperation

"Kosovo is not an island and its future depends on its cooperation with the international community. Therefore unilateral steps could lead to political conflicts affecting Kosovo's interests," the Swiss diplomat said.

However, Serbs, Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and observers are growing more pessimistic about the chances that a deal can be brokered before the December deadline.

The positions of the main protagonists are in clear opposition. Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 per cent of Kosovo's two million people, insist on independence. Serbia has said it will never recognise Kosovo's complete separation. To compound the problem, the Serbian minority in Kosovo is fearful of living in a hostile state.

The province has been under UN control since 1999, when Nato intervened to stop a Serbian military crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists. Nato is currently in charge of Kosovo's security and keeps a 16,000-strong peacekeeping force in the province.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Diplomats from the United States, the European Union and Russia are trying to broker a deal between Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who want full independence from Serbia, and Serbian officials who oppose any such move.

The so-called "troika" is due to report back to the United Nations by December 10.

On the table is a plan by the EU's envoy to the talks, Wolfgang Ischinger, backed by Washington, to offer both sides a so-called status-neutral pact that would allow Belgrade and Pristina to agree on practical measures such as trade ties and border issues, without addressing independence.

There is also some discussion over whether Kosovo and Serbia could adopt an arrangement similar to that between China and Hong Kong or to the ties between East Germany and West Germany during the Cold War.

end of infobox

Key facts

Switzerland is home to 200,000 of the Kosovar diaspora.
This is the second largest immigrant community after Italians.
300,000 people in Switzerland come from the former Yugoslavia.
Switzerland has some 200 troops stationed in Kosovo.

end of infobox

"Unconstitutional"

Swiss law professor Thomas Fleiner, who is also an advisor to the Serbian government, has claimed that Switzerland's support for Kosovo's independence is unconstitutional.

He said article 54 of the constitution requires Switzerland to do all it can to contribute to the "peaceful coexistence of peoples".

A solution based on a compromise between the Serbs and the Kosovars would bring more security than a unilateral declaration of independence, he argues.

Fleiner, who is head of the Institute of Federalism at Fribourg University, also claims that such a declaration would clearly contravene UN resolution 1224 on Kosovo.

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