28 August 2006

Kosovo's closer

By Eric Jansson
for Financial Times, 28 August 2006

Joachim Ruecker, Kofi Annan’s new envoy in Kosovo, personifies the UN Secretary General’s understated approach toward the explosive issue of Kosovo’s political status.

The United Nations Security Council aims to see the Kosovo problem solved, at least nominally, before 2007. Taking office a few days from now, the German diplomat stands to play a major role in determining the way forward.

It will not be easy. A bomb blast last Saturday, injuring nine including a British policeman, highlighted the divisions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs as the UN tries to broker a deal expected to give independence to Kosovo and autonomy to its Serb-dominated northern municipalities.

An Albanian youth was held after the bombing, accused of lobbing a grenade into a Serb cafe in the divided town of Mitrovica. As long as such occurences can be expected, Kosovo will remain the most volatile Balkan flashpoint in the former Yugoslavia.

As a navigator through Kosovo's choppy politics, Mr Ruecker is a surprising choice. He conspicuously lacks the international heft of Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president and veteran negotiator who at Mr Annan’s behest presides at ongoing status talks between Kosovo Albanian and Serbian leaders. Until his move to the post-war Balkans in 2001, Mr Ruecker spent eight years away from Germany’s foreign service as mayor of Sindelfingen, a tidy Stuttgart suburb.

But his obscurity belies a proven ability, on the ground in Kosovo, to achieve results.

While Mr Ahtisaari’s seven-month-old negotiation drive grinds forward, it is bogged down by enduring enmity between pro-independence Kosovo Albanians and anti-independence Serbs. By contrast, Mr Ruecker, as the European Union appointee in charge of Kosovo's privatisation programme, has quietly succeeded over the space of two years in transferring much of the province’s economic capacity into local hands, setting essential groundwork for any future steps toward independence.

In first appearances as Mr Annan’s special representative designate, Mr Ruecker has therefore received warm welcomes from pro-independence leaders. Muhamet Hamiti, senior political advisor to Kosovo’s president, Fatmir Sejdiu, praised him as "someone who has been on the ground, who does not have to start from scratch and who will need no learning period".

Mr Ruecker offered further encouragement to leaders in Pristina by scolding Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, Serbia’s top official for Kosovo, in his first press conference. After Ms Raskovic-Ivic floated the idea of partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines, in a BBC interview, without naming her he shot back: "We cannot and will not accept partition as an option."

Such firm language wins points from senior UN officials concerned that the rival delegations presently corralled in Mr Ahtisaari’s talks be kept on common ground. But it may also signal the end of Mr Ruecker’s honeymoon in Kosovo as an savvy technician who, while tackling the practical challenge of privatisation, succeeded in steering mostly clear of the high intrigues regarding Kosovo’s future political status.

Last month the negotiations descended into near farce when the presidents and prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo sat across a table in Vienna. At the round, nicknamed "the meeting of the elephants", Pristina’s negotiators rejected outright a surprise Serb proposal for "20 years of autonomy, to be revisited in two decades", Mr Hamiti said.

Belgrade’s negotiators appear to have been forced back to the drawing board thereafter. Serb officials disowned Ms Raskovic-Ivic’s proposal of partition after Mr Ruecker pooh-poohed it.

Despite such difficulties, Mr Ruecker said he intends to "switch off the lights" when he leaves Pristina, signalling the end of the UN’s administration of Kosovo, now seven years old. To get there will require both technical savvy and political muscle.