NATO warned of possible violent conflict in northern Kosovo ahead of Sunday's elections. Erhard Drews, a commander in the Kosovo Force, told DW how peacekeeping efforts are progressing.
With Serbia's presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections scheduled for May 6, members of Kosovo's Serbian minority have expressed intentions to organize municipal elections among themselves. Kosovo's government sees this as a provocation, since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia, however, still refuses to recognize the sovereignty of the breakaway province.
In an interview with DW, Kosovo Force (KFOR) commander Erhard Drews provided a glimpse into the current situation.
DW: With the elections just around the corner, you have gained peacekeeping support from Germany and Austria. Can it be said that the situation is under control and will remain so on election day, despite warnings of possible conflict?
Erhard Drews: Yes. The extra reinforcement provided by the German-Austrian OHS battalion was a precautionary measure agreed on two weeks ago, when it was still not clear in what way the Serbian national and presidential elections would be conducted in Kosovo. We are glad that we have this support because it allows us to increase our presence around the country. I am confident that we'll be able to prevent major incidents and tensions this weekend, especially since the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe was successful in getting both Belgrade's and Pristina's consent for conducting the elections in Kosovo.
Apart from this reinforcement, what measures did KFOR take to maintain control over the situation?
We communicate closely with security forces around the country, which includes Kosovo's police and the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo - EULEX.
The KFOR troops are prepared for taking control of the situation if local conflict breaks out and cannot be dealt with by the police or EULEX.
How do you assess the cooperation between KFOR, EULEX and the Kosovar Security Force, and also between KFOR and Serbian security forces?
KFOR troops have a lot of work in the border region between Kosovo and Serbia
From my perspective, the level of cooperation with the police in most of the country is excellent. This also applies to EULEX, which practically functions as the link between the Kosovar police force and KFOR. I am confident that these connections and the good cooperation will produce positive results during the critically important election weekend.
Our relationship with the Serbian armed forces is very professional and trustful in regards to all matters related to controlling the border region.
Is the Serbia-Kosovo border under control?
It is under control as far as the cooperation between the Serbian armed forces and KFOR is concerned - in restricting the movements of violence-prone groups. However, police supervision and border control on the other side, in parts of northern Kosovo, is not fully organized.
Alternative routes still exist in the border region, although NATO has ordered that they be closed. When will this happen?
We are not a rule-of-law mission - that's EULEX's task. Our focus is on maintaining security, while EULEX takes care of law enforcement. Border politics fall rather into the latter category.
There have been clashes between Serbian and Kosovar police in recent weeks, resulting in some deaths. How great is the danger of an escalation of the situation in northern Kosovo, not only on election day but in general?
The violent incidents in April resulted in heated words being spoken by the media and local politicians. This aggravated the nervous state that the two ethnic groups find themselves in. Luckily, the situation has become somewhat more relaxed in the last few days, mainly because both the media and the politicians have softened their tone. At the same time, KFOR has increased its presence in the crisis regions over the past two weeks.
Of course, the elections on Sunday do create a danger of further escalation. We have had many meetings to analyze the risk, and together with the local police and EULEX we are convinced that we have taken the right measures in the right places to be able to tackle any conflicts before they get out of hand.
In the north of Kosovo there are armed groups, criminals and Serbian police units. Who bears the responsibility for the situation in this region?
I believe that both governments - in Pristina as well as in Belgrade - need to assume responsibility. And they need to stay alert and avoid drawing too much attention to certain topics so that they don't add fuel to the fire.
The responsibility for northern Kosovo is also shared by local representatives, who are not always cooperative when it comes to settling the conflict and easing the anxiety of local residents. The international community is also responsible to a certain extent - in its contribution to establishing dialog between Pristina and Belgrade, as the EU does, and in the form of international organizations that function here. And I also see KFOR as responsible for preventing tensions and the spread of violent conflict.
KFOR is able to keep the situation under control, but without solving the underlying problem and improving the political situation. How can the international community help here?
You are right. A military solution is not on the cards - we need a political solution. The dialog between Pristina and Belgrade is a step in this direction. There is hope that it will stabilize the relations between the two governments and countries.
Another alternative would be for the Kosovo government to open dialog with its Serbian minority in the north, which currently shows little interest in being integrated into Kosovo. I'm glad that the government has already taken the first steps towards getting the northern residents interested becoming an integral part of Kosovo. This could be the key to solving the problem.
Interview: Bahri Cani / ew
Editor: Simon Bone