By Ridvan Berisha in Pristina (BCR No 412, 7-Mar-03)
Michael Steiner, head of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, has identified seven "practical issues of mutual interests" which he wants Serbs and Kosovars to discuss in talks which could take place in Pristina as early as next week.
The Kosovar side is already expressing scepticism about the dialogue, which will mark the first ministerial level meeting since the Rambouillet negotiations, which preceded the NATO campaign of 1999.
On March 3, Steiner announced that a group of Serbian ministers would be invited to attend talks on the issues with their Kosovar counterparts. In a letter addressed to Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic and his deputy Nebojsa Covic, Steiner identified the issues for cooperation as the recognition of car number plates, travel documents, identity cards and driving licenses, social security responsibilities, energy, trade, transport and the return of land registry records.
But many Kosovar politicians and commentators argue that since UN Resolution 1244 gives UNMIK total authority for running Kosovo, the Albanian side will enter the conference chamber empty-handed, since they have no power to decide on any of the issues at stake. Moreover, since the future status of Kosovo will not be in the agenda, the Kosovars will not be able to use the talks to push ahead any kind of negotiating platform with Belgrade on that issue.
Ramush Haradinaj, leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party, AAK, is one of several Kosovars to express such reservations. "Steiner's initiative is unlikely to succeed because the Albanian side will be weaker than the Serbs in this dialogue," he said.
As the sole power to decide on all of the seven issues under discussion resides with Steiner, the Albanian role in the dialogue will be largely ceremonial, argued Vetton Surroi, editor of the largest circulation daily Koha Ditore. "The Albanian side can sit and make whatever demands they like, but this won't mean anything to Belgrade, which doesn't have to concede anything to a side which will not be making the final decisions," he wrote in a recent column.
Political analyst Blerim Shala argued that Belgrade also has little incentive to attend the talks. "For the current Serb regime and its supporters in Kosovo, even the recognition of car number plates, IDs and travel documents represents a move towards Kosovo's independence. In the current circumstances any such recognition would be unbearable for the Serbs," he wrote in the daily newspaper Zeri.
Provocative statements from Zoran Djindjic last month, suggesting that Belgrade favours a partition of Kosovo, have put many ordinary Albanians on their guard. The establishment of an association of Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo on February 25 was seen as another step towards federalisation of the province.
"There may have been a regime change in Serbia, but the same old thinking about ethnic division colours their thinking on Kosovo. Djindjic's comments show that they lack the good will to be constructive about even the most practical issues," said Mirjeta Ajeti, a history student at Pristina University.
Kosovar hostility towards Belgrade is matched by a distrust of UNMIK's ability to handle such sensitive dialogue. It is also thought that the lack of any clear negotiating platform for the Albanians will render the dialogue with Belgrade irrelevant.
Whatever the word on the street and in the newspaper columns, however, Kosovar leaders such as President Ibrahim Rugova, Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi, the parliamentary speaker Nexhat Daci and the leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, have all agreed to attend the negotiations. On February 28, they signed a declaration confirming that they will join UNMIK in direct dialogue with all neighbouring countries, a definition which apparently includes Serbia.
Ridvan Berisha is a journalist at Radio-Television of Kosovo, RTK