Overseeing Kosovo’s Conditional Independence

The lesson of Kosovo's transition to independence is the value of the ‘ICO model’; a timebound mandate and a commitment to local ownership, transparency and respect.

Posted on 02/13/18
By Pieter Feith | Via ECFR
Life-size “New Born” sign with flags of different countries in Pristina, Kosovo. (Photo by Marco Fieber, CC license)

In February 2008 I accompanied Javier Solana, the European Union’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The trip came just two days after the Kosovo Parliament declared independence. We met with the leaders of the newly independent state and were struck by how the festive atmosphere in the capital contrasted with international concerns about reactions from Belgrade and the Kosovo Serbs. Mindful of past violence and continuing embitterment, Solana privately urged Kosovo’s leaders to take a conciliatory approach in dealing with the Serbs.


The International Civilian Office (ICO) that I would go on to represent in Kosovo was coming together and getting organized. In order to pave the way to independent governance, a Planning Team had prepared, in close consultation with Kosovo’s caretaker government, a draft constitution and a raft of laws, as required by the Comprehensive Settlement Plan (CSP) of Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland.


Our mandate as an ICO was to supervise Kosovo’s independence for a limited period, pending the implementation of the Ahtisaari Plan. The plan’s main features included a decentralization initiative involving municipal elections (including in the North), the protection of Serb religious and cultural heritage, the demarcation of the Kosovo-Macedonian (FYROM) border, the setting up of a constitutional court, and economic and fiscal reform (including matters related to property rights and privatization).


The broader thrust was to prepare Kosovo as a modern multi-ethnic democracy with full protection for Serb and other communities. Together with other states of the region, Kosovo would enjoy a perspective of future membership of the European Union, provided that it demonstrated respect for the rule of law, good governance, and regional cooperation.


The ICO was a relatively small office of, at its peak, about 250 talented and dedicated Americans and Europeans – a reflection of Kosovo’s anchors of support in recent history. It took about four and a half years to carry out the bulk of Ahtisaari’s state-building blueprint, after which the period of supervision was ended in an agreement with Kosovo’s international supporters.


Looking back, there were two distinct phases. The first stage was focused on stabilization through establishing and consolidating the key institutions of the state. The second sought to enhance local ownership by transferring responsibilities from the ICO to the Kosovo authorities and the EU. The watershed came around July 2010, when the International Court of Justice opined that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was in line with international law.


Our relationship to the political elite was based on equal partnership, rather than on intrusive international scrutiny that Kosovo had experienced during the preceding decade. In contrast with interim administration practice in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where non-compliant local politicians were dismissed and legislation annulled by the international community, I avoided using my powers as the final authority. We sought accountability of elected politicians, but to the parliament, the constitutional court, and to civil society, rather than to the ICO.


To be sure, none of the ICO’s achievements came without challenges or even controversy. Belgrade actively resisted Kosovo’s independence, and its ally Russia prevented endorsement of the Ahtisaari plan by the Security Council.


This led a number of states, including five members of the EU, to withhold recognition of the new state. As a result, the carefully designed arrangements for coordination between the EU and the ICO became unsustainable, particularly in the conduct of public policy. In whose name was I expected to speak of the ‘status-neutral’ EU or of the ‘status-committed’ ICO?


With active American encouragement, the ICO was receptive to the Kosovo government’s stated desire to extend its authority into the North; however, setting up a new Kosovo-Serb controlled municipality of Mitrovica North with administrative linkages to the capital remained largely aspirational.


In the final stages of the mission, the Kosovo government grew steadily more impatient to see the international supervision lifted. However, last-minute wrangling resulted in agreeing additional steps empowering the Serb community, such as providing them with a separate TV channel in their own language.


Nevertheless, it is regrettable that we narrowly failed to secure agreement on setting up an association of Serb municipalities in accordance with Kosovo law (as foreseen in the CSP), given that this project still remains elusive in the ongoing dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina on normalization of relations. Additional effort and a greater willingness to use our remaining authority might have settled this issue long ago.


An important lesson of the Kosovo experience over the last decade – context and settings being quite specific – deals with the ‘ICO model’; a lean and unbureaucratic organization with a time-bound mandate and a commitment to local ownership, transparency and respect. Certainly, the unique cooperation between Americans and Europeans, embodied in the ‘transatlantic ICO’, may not seem plausible these days.


But whatever the U.S. role, a bespoke, ‘light’ partnership in post-conflict advice and support – similar to the ICO – should constitute a preferred instrument in the peacebuilding toolbox, closely linked to preventive diplomacy and mediation.


On 10 September 2012 the ICO was disbanded. Today, our presence may already have faded from public memory. This is as it should be; the ICO was, after all, a short interlude operating among a confusing and often conflicting array of international mandates and actors.


What is worth remembering, ten years on, is what Martti Ahtisaari told his hosts during the ICO closing ceremony: ‘The Comprehensive Proposal offers Kosovo the possibility of stability, prosperity and good governance. Whether that possibility becomes reality depends on the people of Kosovo, and in particular on you, their democratic representatives. It is in your power, and your power only, to make Kosovo corrupt or fair, to make Kosovo a failure or success’.


Pieter Feith is a Dutch diplomat who served as International Civilian Representative and EU Special Representative for Kosovo.

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