There are good chances that the process leading to talks on the final status of Kosovo could begin in the second half of this year but also risks that tensions could rise in tandem, the top United Nations envoy administering the ethnically divided province said today.
"Those bent on derailing the process may see violence as their only means to do so," Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative Søren Jessen-Petersen told the Security Council in presenting the latest report on Kosovo, which the UN has run since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) drove out Yugoslav troops amid grave human rights abuses in fighting between Albanians and Serbs in 1999.
"The message must be clear: provocations and violence cannot be allowed to stop progress towards a stable, multi-ethnic society," he added, ruling out partition as "simply not a realistic option" for the province, now legally part of Serbia, where ethnic Albanians outnumber other communities, mainly Serbs, by about 9 to 1.
"The society we are trying to build in Kosovo must have space for all communities as a stable, tolerant, multi-ethnic democracy," said Mr. Jessen-Petersen. "As such, all talk about partition of Kosovo becomes an agenda for those who may be eager to re-ignite the divisions and flames of the past."
He noted that the last three months have been marked by a positive trend but that the challenges ahead are considerable. On the credit side he cited continuing improved security, with rates low for serious crimes and showing no evidence of ethnic bias in policing and judicial processes.
Tangible progress has also been made in implementing the so-called Standards, eight goals in areas such as democratic institutions, minority rights and an impartial legal system, but "there is further to go to ensure that the positive processes are translated into action on the ground," he said.
The local Albanian-dominated government has also undertaken reconstruction of almost all properties damaged or destroyed last March when, in the worst violence since the UN took over, an onslaught by Albanians to drive out Serb, Roma and Ashkali communities led to 19 people being killed, nearly 1,000 injured and hundreds of homes and centuries-old Serbian cultural sites razed or burned.
On the debit side, Mr. Jessen-Petersen said, the security environment remains fragile, minority communities continue to feel insecure and Serbs are often victims of misinformation disproportional to the facts on the ground, leading to perceptions of insecurity that prevent many of the displaced from returning home.
Serbs are "regrettably" still staying outside most political and democratic processes after their boycott of last October's election and appear to be waiting for more positive signals from Serbia following a 12-month boycott of direct contacts between the Serbian Government and Kosovo, which are now about to resume.
"So there is progress, but at the same time problems do remain. Much more has to be done to reassure the minorities that they have a future in Kosovo, to guarantee freedom of movement for the minorities, and to speed up the process of returns of displaced persons," the envoy declared.
"2005 is a key year for Kosovo. There is now broad agreement on a clear way forward and a clear timetable that could lead us to the negotiations on final status in the second half of this year. To defer this process for much longer would only prolong the pain, increase the risks, and delay the day when the region will turn its back to a painful past and move forward on a common European future," he added.
While praising Mr. Jessen-Peterson’s work, Nebosja Covic, head of the Coordination Centre of Serbia and Montenegro for Kosovo and Metohia, said Kosovo’s parliament and government were not truly multi-ethnic, there was no protection for non-Albanian communities from being out-voted, and constant attacks on Serbs and other non-Albanians were not “isolated incidents.”
It was therefore unjustifiably optimistic to think there would now be a major turnaround in just a few months, creating conditions for negotiation on the future status of the province, he added, but he stressed that Serbia stood ready to participate, at all levels, but on equal footing from beginning to end, in all processes.
Video of Council meeting [2hrs 47mins]