German foreign minister calls on Kosovo and Serbia to resolve crisis

By Andreas Illmer

On a visit to Kosovo, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has urged both Pristina and Belgrade to settle their border crisis. He said all of Europe had an interest in a peaceful solution.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has called on Serbia and Kosovo to resolve their border dispute on the last leg of a three-day tour of the Balkans.

"What's at stake here is peace in Europe," he said after talks with Prime Minister Hashim Thaci in the Kosovar capital, Pristina, on Thursday. "The time for wars and conflicts along ethnic lines has to be over. There's no place for that in 21st century Europe. This is a European issue - the future of Europe will be decided here, and peace in Europe has to be protected here as well."

Westerwelle was the first high-ranking politician from an EU country to visit Pristina since the escalation of the border conflict between Serbia and Kosovo began last month.
Sending a signal

"It is important that leading members of the EU are in constant contact with both Pristina and Belgrade," said Wolfgang Ischinger, former EU Kosovo envoy. "So Westerwelle's trip to Kosovo is very important in that it sends a signal to both sides to continue with the dialogue. And it's of course also an important signal to the young state of Kosovo, to have the German foreign minister as a guest."

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but Belgrade has since then refused to recognize its renegade province as a sovereign state. The population in Kosovo is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian but the country's north remains Serb-dominated and Pristina has next to no control over the region.

In July, tensions escalated after the government in Pristina tried to regain control of the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo. Since then, NATO's Kosovo force (KFOR) has been controlling the area with talks between Pristina and Belgrade scheduled for later this year.
Prospective EU membership

"Westerwelle's trip to Kosovo is important for the region as Germany is seen as the most important EU state - especially when it comes to matters of EU enlargement," said Dusan Reljic, senior research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

"EU membership is something that all countries in the western Balkans have envisaged as their primary foreign policy target," he added. "So talking to Westerwelle is important for everyone in the region and in that sense Westerwelle's visit and talks will also have an influence on how the EU is going to further pursue its aims in the western Balkans."

But the EU is in a difficult position. While its EULEX police mission in Kosovo is the largest operation of that kind the EU has ever undertaken, the EU member states have yet to agree on how to actually handle Kosovo's independence. Only 22 member states recognize it as a sovereign state, while five states do not.
Who's in control?

The fresh negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade, scheduled for September, will find two hardened sides with little will to compromise. The background to this conflict centers around who really is in control in the country - Pristina faces the problem that it doesn't have a grip on the north where not ethnic Albanians, but Serbs are the majority.

Also, Kosovo is not making any progress on being recognized as a full UN member state. Two members of the Security Council - Russia and China - have not recognized Kosovo and they don't plan to do so in the future. The five EU member states that haven't yet recognized Kosovo are also unlikely to change their mind any time soon.

"Belgrade, on the other hand, is fully aware that the chances of regaining control of all of Kosovo are close to nil. But up to now, Belgrade has remained in control of the north of Kosovo," said Reljic.

"My feeling is that Belgrade would be ready to settle for a solution that would envisage that the north stays part of Serbia and Serbia recognizes the rest of Kosovo as an independent state. But that is something that is not accepted in Pristina. And it's not yet being accepted in most Western states."
Several options, few solutions

There's a whole set of options on the table for where things might go from here. One option would be for the situation to remain frozen as it is and for KFOR to continue to control the north of Kosovo. Yet this would simply postpone a solution and could lead to new tensions.

A variation of that would be to settle for some sort of special status for the north - but that too would hardly qualify as a long-term solution.

Kosovo might also, with the help of Western countries, try to retake control of the north. This, however, could escalate the tensions and would most likely lead to a large-scale exodus of the Serbian population in the north.

Yet another option would be for Kosovo to be split up. The north could join Serbia and the Serbia would then recognize Kosovo. But this is a scenario that Pristina would find hard to accept, as it would be an infringement on its territorial integrity. And Westerwelle on Thursday ruled out a division of Kosovo, saying that "the map of the region has been decided."

The German foreign minister left no doubt that the EU would continue its efforts to resolve the conflict, concluding that all of Europe had "a massive interest in a peaceful and cooperative solution" in the region.