Political leaders in Belgrade and Pristina should take a cue from health‑care workers jointly fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, put aside their political agendas and engage anew in a European Union-facilitated dialogue that leads to sustained peace, the top United Nations official in Kosovo told the Security Council during a 24 April videoconference meeting*.
Zahir Tanin, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), said that the human toll of COVID-19 is rising in Kosovo and throughout the Western Balkans. Public health authorities in Kosovo, in consultation with the World Health Organization (WHO) and others, swiftly put measures into place to curtail its spread, but with its smaller population and limited resources, Kosovo remains vulnerable, and its health-care resources are stretched thin. The economic impact is just beginning to be felt, and while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union are providing loans, more will be needed.
Unfortunately, in Kosovo, political divisions are distracting many leaders away from the health crisis, reducing public trust at a time of heightened public anxiety, he said. Sharp disagreements exist — both within the governing coalition and between the Government and the president — on a range of issues, from the response to the pandemic to lifting of the tariff on Serbian goods and dialogue with Belgrade. The conflicting agendas culminated in a vote of no confidence against the coalition government on 25 March, just as the coronavirus crisis was striking. A caretaker government is in place, but now Hashim Thaçi is calling for a new government, formed by an alternative majority. Whatever happens, political uncertainties must not derail non-partisan action to fight the pandemic, he emphasized.
Nevertheless, there are many examples of positive cross-community and cross‑boundary coordination, he said. Health officials in Pristina and in Belgrade, have established improved communication and coordination, which was missing at the onset of this crisis. Essential items cross the border freely and the Government of Serbia recently donated testing kits to Pristina’s health authorities. “The solidarity shown between leading medical professionals and officials, across ethnic and political divides, gives hope that cooperation can yet increase, as the rate of infections also continues to rise.”
The removal of a 100 per cent tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, coupled with the introduction of “reciprocity measures” vis-à-vis Belgrade, is not only a step towards more regular commercial relations, but also represents an important signpost towards a restart of the political dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, he added. While there is still no clear road map for continuing dialogue, there are at least signals that attention remains focused upon the issue, even as the COVID-19 emergency takes precedence. Welcoming the European Union’s appointment of a Special Representative, Miroslav Lajčák, tasked with advancing Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, he said that coordinated international support for European Union-facilitated talks is essential, as that approach remains the best hope for reaching a comprehensive agreement and for sustaining peace.
“In closing, I wish to pay tribute to those leaders and professionals on both sides of the boundary who are supporting one another in fighting the pandemic,” the Special Representative said. “I urge political leaders to follow their example, and to focus on unifying their energy while putting personal and political agendas aside.”
Ivica Dačić, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Serbia, said that the people of Kosovo and Metohija have not been forgotten “at this difficult hour”. His country, which has dispatched medical personnel and supplies to help Serbs, is ready to cooperate with Albanians and to work with Pristina to combat the epidemic. Both Serbs and Albanians infected with the virus are now receiving treatment in central Serbia. Time and again, he continued, Serbia has demonstrated its strong commitment to finding a compromise long-term solution for the issue of Kosovo and Metohija. It had hoped that the October 2019 elections in Kosovo and Metohija, and the appointment of new authorities in Pristina, would turn over a new leaf. “However, we ended up being faced with positions even more extreme and an absolute lack of goodwill for the dialogue,” he said, pointing to the programme and decisions of the Albin Kurti government regarding tariffs and “reciprocity measures” designed to pull the wool over eyes of those who called for their revocation.
“I take this opportunity to once again call for a return to dialogue and refraining from unilateral move,” he said, noting that the ongoing situation demonstrates the importance of cooperation and connectivity. However, the political atmosphere in Kosovo and Metohija has led to the politicization and misinterpretation of Serbia’s help in the fight against COVID-19. “It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to set aside our differences once we overcome the coronavirus pandemic and arrive at decisions and solutions that will ensure normal and peaceful life to all communities in Kosovo and Metohija.” He went on to express Serbia’s alarm at vows to make military service compulsory in Kosovo and Metohija and to pass a so-called law on war crimes, genocide and alleged Serbian aggression. He recalled that, during a Council meeting in December 2018, his Government warned of serious consequences in response to Pristina establishing its own military. He added that plans to bring a genocide case against Serbia before the International Court of Justice is motivated by Pristina’s attempts to obscure the issue of trials for crimes committed by the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army.
Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija who deal with physical assaults, threats and hate speech every day, and Albanians now rushing to Serbia for medical treatment, are the main victims of politicians who show no readiness to compromise, he said. “Sadly, I cannot help but conclude that Pristina politicians have, through their behaviour in these difficult times, once again affirmed the fact which has been clear to all — but some of you would not admit it — that the project to create an independent state of Kosovo was a big mistake made by a part of the international community, as well as that States cannot be created by unilateral decisions.” Serbia firmly believes the problems should be resolved through dialogue and it hopes that conditions for this will soon be in place.
Glauk Konjufca of Kosovo said that, even before the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Kosovo on 11 March, the government in Pristina had adopted preventive measures, keeping the number of infections relatively low and with fewer fatalities than elsewhere in the region. Recalling that the situation in Kosovo has changed radically since the adoption of resolution 1244 (1999), he said that there has been no interethnic conflict in the last six months, as indicated in the Secretary-General’s report, and that “the time has come for UNMIK to complete its mission”. However, it appears that Serbia cannot accept the fact that the International Court of Justice sealed the legitimacy of the independence of Kosovo, which is irreversible. “The sooner Serbia understands this, the more benefits there will be for Serbia, for us and for our region.” Some Council members do not recognize Kosovo as an independent State, but most Member States do, and by recognizing its independence, the Council will be supporting peace and cooperation in the region.
Turning to the aftermath of the Kosovo war in 1999, he said that, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), there remain 1,646 missing persons, the best-known of whom is Ukshin Hot, a University of Pristina professor arrested by the Serbian regime for political reasons and who was last seen in Dubrava prison on 16 May 1999. Sexual rape during the war is another tragedy that pervades the lives of many Albanian women and men who do not want to be registered or identified for fear of reliving the horror they experienced. Nevertheless, some brave women have come forward with their stories and others should seek justice, as well. Sexual rape is a war crime and most of the perpetrators were Serbian soldiers and police, he said, asking Belgrade to identify those who raped Albanian women and men.
“Our country's relations with Serbia have remained difficult, [but] the government of the Republic of Kosova is convinced that our relations with Serbia can be improved only through an equal, sincere and constructive dialogue,” he said. To create such an environment, Pristina decided on 1 April to remove the 100 per cent tariff on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was imposed by the previous government, while also adopting some reciprocity measures vis-à-vis non-tariff barriers that Serbia has imposed on goods from Kosovo. For there to be normal relations and to contribute to regional stability, Serbia should bring down its non-tariff trade barriers, stop its derecognition campaign against Kosovo and stop its finances to its parallel structures in Kosovo. He noted that, in recent days, Mr. Kurti has contacted United States President Donald J. Trump, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel and France President Emmanuel Macron, expressing Kosovo’s desire for an equal dialogue — one that does not hurt its territorial integrity and unitary character, and that aims to improve relations with Serbia and ideally result in mutual recognition. “The independence of Kosova is a factor of peace and stability in the region,” he emphasized.
In the ensuing discussion, Council members commended joint efforts by Belgrade and Pristina to contain the COVID-19 outbreak and urged them to resume dialogue with help from the European Union. Many also voiced ongoing support for UNMIK, although the delegate of the United States said that it is time to shutter the Mission, nearly 21 years after it was established by the Council.
France’s representative said that, for his country, the normalization of relations between Pristina and Belgrade — within the framework of a European Union-led dialogue — is a priority. “This objective is our compass,” he said, calling on the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia to engage with the newly appointed Special Representative of the European Union. Hopefully, cooperation between Belgrade and Pristina on the ground to fight the COVID-19 pandemic will help to rebuild trust. He reiterated France’s support for UNMIK, whose efforts must continue in conjunction with those of other regional and international actors, particularly the European Union Rule of Law Mission, known as EULEX Kosovo. “France is convinced that Serbia and Kosovo have a shared European future,” he said, emphasizing the need to consolidate the rule of law and socioeconomic development. He went on to say that, in support of the European Union-led mediation, France will be stepping up its efforts to facilitate a comprehensive, final and legally binding agreement between the two parties, contributing to lasting stability in the Western Balkans.
Estonia’s delegate said that the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is the key to regional stability. Dialogue should resume after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, he said, emphasizing that European Union-facilitated talks are essential for the two sides to advance along their respective European paths. Kosovo must further reforms in support of socioeconomic development, the rule of law and the fight against corruption and organized crime, he added. He expressed his country’s hope that plans by the leaders of France and Germany to host a summit in Paris between Serbia and Kosovo will come to fruition.
The representative of the United States said that her country is encouraged by the increased cooperation between Pristina and Belgrade to facilitate the flow of essential goods and personnel required to combat COVID-19. It is also encouraging to hear both Kosovo and Serbian leaders say that they remain committed to the normalization of relations. Although tariffs have been suspended, Kosovo must remove all reciprocal measures immediately and unconditionally, she said, encouraging both sides to implement agreements to open up economic opportunities and resume dialogue in earnest. She reiterated the United States firm conviction that UNMIK fulfilled its original purpose long ago and that it should close. In that regard, her delegation looks forward to working with other Council members to draw down the Mission and determine a more relevant role for the United Nations in helping Kosovo and the Western Balkans realize their full potential.
The Russian Federation’s representative said that the situation in Kosovo continues to deteriorate. No rosy pictures of “Kosovo democratic achievements” will convince his delegation to the contrary. Besides a new looming political crisis, the Kosovo-Albanian leadership shows no interest in dialogue despite Serbia’s readiness to resume negotiations. The United States and the European Union are trying to create conditions for dialogue to resume, but they will fail if they ignore provisions of resolution 1244 (1999) and if unilateral measures introduced by Pristina are not lifted. The European Union-facilitated dialogue remains stalled, first and foremost, because the bloc did not ensure that Kosovo‑Albanians fulfilled their obligation to set up the Community of Serb Municipalities of Kosovo. He went on to say that Pristina’s plans — supported by some Member States — to create a so-called “Kosovo Army” run counter to resolution 1244 (1999) and will only lead to destabilization. Cooperation between Belgrade and Pristina in fighting COVID-19 is welcome, but the publication in Kosovo media of personal data of Kosovar Serbs infected with the coronavirus is irresponsible and inadmissible. Turning to UNMIK, he said that the Council should continue to support the Mission as it plays a leading role for creating the conditions for bringing a negotiated solution closer.
The United Kingdom’s representative said that efforts undertaken by UNMIK and its partners have seen gains since 1999, but the Mission now must be carefully tailored to address remaining challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is not the time for political manoeuvring, but cooperation, domestically and regionally. Citing examples of joint efforts to address COVID-19, he said these actions can solidify the foundations for closer cooperation both within Kosovo, and between Kosovo and Serbia, over the pandemic and thereafter. He welcomed Pristina’s development of a multilanguage website, requesting that all information related to COVID-19 is available in all official languages of Kosovo. Anticipating a resumption of dialogue, he urged Pristina, Belgrade and the Council to fully cooperate with the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, Specialist Prosecutor’s Office and other relevant institutions to end impunity and ensure justice for victims and their families. Regretting to note the slow progress in domestic war crimes prosecutions, he urged authorities in Kosovo and Serbia to push ahead. He commended Pristina for dealing with the legacy of conflict-related sexual violence, with the first indictment filed by a local prosecution for this offence as a war crime, as well as the Mission’s related efforts, adding that the United Kingdom funds the “Be My Voice” awareness-raising campaign in Kosovo.
Germany’s delegate praised cooperation between Pristina and Belgrade as they fight the pandemic together. “This spirit of collaboration should be a positive example in resolving differences.” Progress to resolve the political relationship between Kosovo and Serbia is urgently needed, he said, with the goal being a comprehensive agreement that would enable them to join the European Union. Welcoming the lifting of tariffs, he called on both sides to further build confidence, including the adoption of more conciliatory rhetoric and a halt to Serbia’s de-recognition campaign. Noting that a Kosovar government commission has so far granted survivor status to 758 women and 27 men who had experienced conflict-related sexual violence, he called on Kosovo institutions to intensify their efforts to empower women survivors from different communities. He went on to discuss a French and German initiative to strengthen the control of small arms in the Western Balkans, saying it is helping to build new capacities at both the national and regional levels.
Belgium’s representative said that the urgency imposed by COVID-19 should inspire political leaders to put their differences aside and give Kosovo’s citizens the protection and help they need under the current circumstances. Fighting COVID-19 will benefit from regional cooperation that has no ulterior motives. He welcomed the Serbian and Kosovar authorities’ pragmatic approach on health issues and encouraged them to expand their efforts. Welcoming Pristina’s recent decision to lift tariffs on Serbian goods, he invited the two sides to engage with the European Union’s new Special Representative with a view to normalizing relations. He reiterated Belgium’s support for transitional justice, saying that, only by truthfully facing its past — with special attention to missing persons — can Kosovo consolidate lasting peace and reconciliation.
Niger’s representative said that the security situation requires special attention, after the targeting of religious sites and acts of terrorism involving perpetrators repatriated from Syria. He also called for international solidarity to support a trust fund to help communities suffering from lead poisoning. He spotlighted UNMIK’s efforts to promote human rights, the rule of law, institution‑building and civil society. He requested the Secretary-General’s Special Representative to provide the Council with more details about actions taken by the Mission to support the government of Kosovo in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
South Africa’s delegate, commending UNMIK for such achievements as being the first peacekeeping mission to receive an International Organization for Standardization standard, voiced support for the Mission’s work, including its continued cooperation with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women). Reiterating his delegation’s support for continued engagement with authorities, civil society and bilateral and international partners in building peace and intercommunity trust, he remained concerned about the ongoing stalemate and called on both sides to redouble efforts towards reducing tensions that were undermining future prospects for dialogue and reconciliation. Only dialogue can resolve differences. Regarding the parties’ laudable efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, he expressed hope that the spirit of compromise will be the foundation for negotiations towards an inclusive, fair political settlement that is acceptable to both sides.
China’s delegate said that the best way to resolve the Kosovo issue is for the parties concerned to reach a mutually acceptable solution through dialogue and consultation, in accordance with relevant Council resolutions. China understands Serbia’s legitimate concerns vis-à-vis Kosovo and commends its efforts to find a political solution. Hopefully, Kosovo will show political will, lift its unilateral tariffs and work towards resuming dialogue. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, China hopes that all sides will put the interests of people first, refrain from rhetoric or actions that could complicate the situation, and create conditions for the proper settlement of the Kosovo issue. For its part, he added, the Council must remain seized of the matter.
Viet Nam’s representative urged Serbia and Kosovo to resolve their differences through good-faith dialogue and peaceful negotiation, and applauded those, including the United Nations and regional actors, who are supporting peace and stability for Kosovo and the rest of the Balkans. He also commended UNMIK’s efforts to engage with all communities in Kosovo and to facilitate cooperation between Belgrade and Pristina. He expressed serious concern about the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastating impact on socioeconomic developments and the well-being of the people in Kosovo, and also urged Mission staff to stay safe.
Indonesia’s representative drew attention to the need to resume stalled European Union-facilitated dialogue, emphasizing that political leaders must demonstrate commitment and convince their constituents they are serious about peace. Without resuming dialogue, there will be no progress in combating organized crime and corruption or advancing economic development. Highlighting the important role UNMIK plays in maintaining stability in the region, he commended the Mission’s multiple approaches to engage grass‑root communities and its support in the working group on persons unaccounted for in connection with events in Kosovo. On COVID-19, he said that working with neighbours plays a vital role in managing, containing and eliminating the pandemic, making it critical that Pristina authorities start to work together with neighbouring communities to address this issue promptly. Calling for unity of action in addressing COVID-19 and its potential security-related impact to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate, he said: “It is time to put aside all the past resentments and seek to live as a single human heart: one heart that beats for the single cause of peace for each nation and all people.”
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines underscored the need for good-faith commitment between both parties to a political solution, adding that recent incidents targeting religious sites and cemeteries make it hard to create and maintain an environment that is conducive to progress. She also emphasized the significance of women’s participation in the peace process and commended UNMIK’s work in that regard.
The representative of the Dominican Republic, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, urging the political authorities in Kosovo to take current conditions into account — and to adopt the steps needed to combat COVID-19 — before setting a date for fresh elections. With tariffs now lifted, Belgrade and Pristina must take steps to speed up negotiations. Cooperation and the promotion of measures to build trust are key to achieving normalized relations. He went on highlight the efforts being made by EULEX Kosovo to strengthen access to justice and improving the independence of the judiciary.
Tunisia’s representative said that dialogue, under European Union auspices, is the best way for the two parties to resolve outstanding issues. Tunisia welcomes the initiative of France and Germany to organize a summit on Kosovo and calls on the international community to keep encouraging Pristina and Belgrade to set aside their differences and focus on consensus-based solutions. He went on to commend cross-border collaboration in response to COVID-19, which hopefully will help create a conducive environment for dialogue.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.