In the following interview, Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso obtains an invaluable insider’s view on Kosovo’s recent history, from a former American diplomat who found himself at the epicenter of diplomatic turbulence while serving as UNMIK Regional Representative in the ethnically-divided city of Mitrovica (2005-2008).
In this all-new interview, Mr. Gallucci discusses the unique working conditions he faced while in Kosovo and the international community’s successes and failures, both in general terms and in regard to specific incidents such as the now-infamous Mitrovica courthouse raid of March 17, 2008. The interview ranges from the chronic effects of Balkan “tribalism” on international peacekeepers and the EU’s attempt to replace the UNMIK practically via sleight-of-hand, to organized crime- the only “real inter-ethnic activity” in Kosovo.
Prior to his UN position in Kosovo, Mr. Gallucci served for over 25 years with the US State Department in various high-level postings, primarily in Africa and Latin America. These positions included serving as Charge’d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Khartoum (2003-2004), Charge’d’Affaires in Brasilia (1999-2000) and Deputy Chief of Mission in Belize (1994-1996). Mr. Gallucci also has served within the State Department in numerous roles such as National Security Council Director for Inter-American Affairs (1998-99), Coordinator for Intelligence Resources and Planning (2001) and Director for Inter-American Affairs in the Intelligence and Research Bureau (2000-2001).
Today, Mr. Gallucci retains an interest in Kosovo’s future course and his commentaries, some of which expand on the issues discussed in the present interview, are to be found on his independent blog, Outside the Walls.
Diplomatic Intrigue and the Run-up to Kosovo Independence
Chris Deliso: First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, I appreciate this rare opportunity to take readers behind the scenes into what really has gone in to making the modern Balkans from the diplomatic perspective.
Gerard Gallucci: Glad to have this opportunity to chat. Though I must say that perhaps we are still waiting for that “modern” Balkans. Kosovo – the last act of the break-up of Yugoslavia – is the “fat lady” who has not sung yet at the end of the opera, so we really don’t know how things will turn out.
CD: You served as UNMIK Regional Supervisor in North Mitrovica from June 2005 through October 2008, a fairly tumultuous period in Kosovo’s recent history. Can you give us a sense of what it was like at the beginning of your term? Was there a generally recognized feeling that the West would grant Kosovo independence, and that UNMIK – especially in Mitrovica – was an obstacle to this process?
GG: For me personally, it was a bit like coming home to be in Mitrovica… in the sense that I had spent half of my career in the State Department dealing with tribal conflicts in Africa. I recognized at the outset that the ongoing conflict between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo was also a tribal one. I believe some misunderstood the situation between the two sides as simply “ethnic differences” and therefore in some way bridgeable. But in Mitrovica, the Bridge over the Ibar literally divided the city rather than joined its two halves.
By 2005, I think it was generally understood that the Albanian majority in Kosovo was never going to submit itself to Belgrade again and that Kosovo’s status would have to be resolved to the satisfaction of that majority, and fairly soon. But at that time, UNMIK was still seen as an advantage by the Albanians and as a humiliating imposition by the Serbs. In the Mitrovica region, as I was an American, I was seen as an enemy by the Serbs and as a great friend by the Albanians. Neither was true. The UN – and I as a UN peacekeeper – were neutral, and simply did what we could to help both sides avoid further violence.
CD: To the best of your knowledge, when was the date of February 2008 decided by the US and its allies for Kosovo’s independence, and under what circumstances? Was it meant to be timed with other events, or in light of other events? Had any earlier or later projected date been decided on, but ultimately withdrawn, and if so, why?
GG: I believe the timing was determined mostly by the fact that throughout most of 2007, it was still hoped that a status agreement could be achieved and efforts were still being made vis-à-vis Russia to reach an agreement within the Contact Group. Then there was winter. The Albanians had been following a plan of gradually moving toward something to be seen as inevitable. This was, from their side, a form of pressure on its international friends. Given increasing Kosovo Albanian impatience – and that by the end of 2007 there seemed to be no point in delay – I suppose February was seen as a good month with promise of spring not so far off.
CD: The independence initiative required the transformation of the international presence in Kosovo. Thus was born the European Union’s ‘law and order’ mission, EULEX, which started work on 9 December 2008.
When was the structure and projected reach of this mission decided, and what sort of compromises did the US and EU sides have to make in order for it to happen as it did? For example, we had received information from high-level officials that the EULEX mission had been decided in 2006 in consultation with the US State Department. Another source mentioned that Greece was specifically excluded from discussions because of its opposition to Kosovo independence. What’s the story here?
GG: I was not involved in those deliberations. However, in the second half of 2006, we in UNMIK – including in the Mitrovica Region – did begin interacting with the EU Preparation Team (EUPT). This was the organization that prepared for EULEX. But by the end of the year, it became clear that the EU saw itself as the “white knight” that would clean up the “mess” in Kosovo left by the UN, while at the same time looking to us in UNMIK to do the “heavy lifting” of getting the Serbs, especially in the north, to accept the Ahtisaari plan.
As UNMIK was not in the position of being able to support a final status approach not approved by the UNSC, we could not meet their expectations. We in Mitrovica Region especially could not do what the EUPT (and the ICO) wanted from us.
In the end, the EU team simply waited for the UN to run out of options, and in November 2008 essentially seized UNMIK’s mandate under UNSCR 1244 in order to provide “legal” cover for its support in extending Pristina’s control over the Kosovo Serbs both north and south.
CD: As a career US diplomat working in Kosovo for the UN, did you ever feel that local parties (whether political, NGO leaders or other) wanted to try and influence US policy through you, even though it was not your mandate? More broadly, was it difficult to balance the demands of your new role with your previous career background?
GG: As I mentioned, both sides saw me first of all as an American. Of course they sought both to use me to try to influence Washington, but also to seek to gauge what the US position really might be. Some thought I must be CIA. I did not go out of my way to disabuse anyone of any supposed influence they thought I might possess.
But in truth, I had no lingering connection to the US government, and had had no previous involvement with US policy in Europe, and therefore no stake in it. I worked as a UN peacekeeper, and this meant acting in a status neutral way. By 2008, the US was not status neutral and viewed those who were, even US citizens, as obstacles.
CD: In the same direction, please explain for readers what special conditions apply for any international working in the divided city of Mitrovica (as compared to the rest of Kosovo). Is it possible that other international officials stationed elsewhere could have been unaware of any such special local realities- or were they aware but simply chose to ignore this when enacting policy?
GG: I was told, by those who had been in UNMIK (and OSCE) longer, that Pristina HQ and Mitrovica Region had almost always seen things differently. There may have been various reasons for this. But it seemed to me that since Pristina HQ was in a mono-ethnic environment, it saw things in one shade only.
In Mitrovica, we had to live everyday with a divided reality. UNMIK staff in other regions where non-Albanians lived in significant numbers – in the enclaves – also tended to see a more complex reality.
CD: To what extent did diplomatic intrigue, subterfuge, obstructionism and petty careerism play a role in the day-to-day working of the international administration in Kosovo? And to what extent did the local actors, whether Serbs, Albanians or others, play a role in directing internal relations to their own ends? In all this, does Kosovo differ much from other crisis areas in the world where you have worked?
GG: The simplest answer to all these questions is “yes.” The UN mission to Kosovo, like all UN peacekeeping missions and all governmental and non-governmental organizations everywhere and at all times, experienced every type of bureaucratic, political and personal dynamic. And for sure, the local inhabitants vigorously sought to “colonize” the mission and turn it to their ends. In this, the Albanians had long practice with the Turks and were much better at it than the Serbs, who often seemed more comfortable with resistance.
The greatest difference between Kosovo and other places I have worked, however, is that Kosovo is part of Europe. With the higher levels of development of the former Yugoslavia and the support of the developed democracies of Western Europe – its near neighbors – it should have been easier to get Kosovo through the rough period of its part of the decay of Yugoslavia. The Albanians are intelligent and hard-working, the Serbs have many professionals and a proud intellectual history. But the Western Europeans have so far not risen to the occasion, and have treated the Balkans more like Africa than part of Europe. They have mismanaged, and taken sides.
The Mitrovica Courthouse Debacle, and Relevant Background
CD: Most Balkan observers know of the now-infamous “Mitrovica Courthouse Episode” of 17 March 2008, when international peacekeepers stormed a courthouse being peacefully occupied by Serb protesters, leading to a chaotic and deadly clash with other local Serbs- and a subsequent internal diplomatic skirmish in which you were personally targeted. I’d like to get some further clarification here on what occurred and why.
GG: As I mentioned, there seemed to be a built-in tension between internationals working in Mitrovica and those in Pristina. In Mitrovica Region, we were trying to constantly walk the line between the two communities along the Ibar, Albanians and Serbs.
With Pristina’s unilateral declaration of independence – unilateral in the sense that it was outside the process foreseen by UNSCR 1244 – it became harder to do that without risking losing credibility with one side or the other. If we pushed the Ahtisaari Plan in the north, we’d lose any ability to work with the Serbs, and if we did not assist the Pristina institutions and the Albanians to move into the north, we’d lose legitimacy in their eyes.
Because the UN was status neutral as long as the Security Council left [Security Council Resolution] 1244 unchanged, we had to remain neutral also, and to focus on helping to ensure peace until final status might be resolved.
As peacekeepers needing to work with both sides, this made our work increasingly difficult. UNMIK in Pristina – and to a degree, KFOR HQ – did not understand this reality. They increasingly saw us and our reporting on what we saw on the ground as “pro-Serb.” UNMIK HQ had also been pressured by the five Contact Group countries supporting Kosovo independence – the Quint – to “do something” to bring the Serbs in the north to heel.
When Kosovo Serb court officials – they had been working in the local Serbian courts – occupied the north Mitrovica courthouse on March 14, the UNMIK leadership decided to take advantage of this to use force to remove the local Serbs and subject them to the Kosovo justice system in Pristina. Other moves were planned, including arrests of northern political leaders, to subdue the north entirely. UNMIK HQ did not inform us in the region until the eve of the planned action.
It went as we had warned such use of force would go – violence, death and the collapse of UNMIK’s presence in the north. I wrote a critical “after action” report that put me crosswise with the UNMIK leadership. They tried to remove me, but UN HQ in New York intervened.
CD: At the time, outside media generally were blaming the Serbs for the incident. It was amusing to me to find certain editors in total disbelief that events might possibly have not gone down as reported. I myself had traveled to Mitrovica to analyze the incident for Jane’s Intelligence Digest (fortunately, most of my findings were published, despite differing from the ‘accepted truth’ of the moment).
Before getting to the actual incident and your role in it, let’s provide some context. One month earlier, Kosovo had controversially and unilaterally declared its independence, angering Serbia and her international allies. And March 17 was, as everyone knows, the anniversary of the bloody 2004 riots targeting Serbs across Kosovo. Anyone could surmise that this would be a very sensitive time.
So, in March 2008, or even earlier, did you ever receive any information that some aggressive move from the side of Pristina was going to occur to punctuate the UDI? Or did the courthouse raid come completely out of the blue?
GG: Before the date of the UDI [unilateral declaration of independence], UNMIK HQ in Pristina was very concerned about the Serb reaction: would the Serbs in the north attack the local Albanians; would the Serb members of the KPS take off their uniforms; would the Serbs cut off the water from Gazivode Dam or the electricity routing through the north; would they attack internationals, or our facilities?
Mitrovica Region UNMIK discussed these “red-line” issues with the northern Serb leadership. They understood the need to not cross these lines, and didn’t. It was only after Kosovo Albanian KPS were seen at the boundary gates that the Serbs attacked those gates and burned them down (without causing injury). No Albanians at the boundary was a Serb redline.
When Pristina saw that the Serbs did not react the way it was feared, but also did not accept the declaration, UNMIK and KFOR began looking for ways to complete the picture by forcing the Serbs to surrender, to “take out” the so-called radical local Serb leadership in the SNC. (Pristina HQ always seemed to believe – as the EU and ICO group do now – that it was only these radicals that were preventing the Serbs from accepting independence.)
In Mitrovica Region, we could sense that all HQ was waiting for was an excuse to do something. I have come to believe that the original seizure of the court by the Serbs, on March 14, may have been a set-up. I learned afterwards that the UN Police command in Pristina ordered the UN police guarding the court that day to let the Serbs enter the inner courtyard. In all the previous days the Serbs gathered to demand use of the building for their courts, this had not been allowed. In the event, Pristina HQ immediately launched preparations for the operation, not informing me until late evening of March 16.
CD: One contemporaneous storyline had it that backers of Kosovo independence, chiefly the US, were spoiling for a violent showdown in Mitrovica. Other sources were implying that a show of muscle on the part of the Thaci government was needed to silence the objections of Haradinaj supporters- or, that the Thaci government simply sought to pull something anyway, and cited this political concern internally. Are any of these explanations accurate and if so, what was the story?
GG: I don’t know for sure. But I believe it was entirely a Quint-ordered action with the US calling the shots.
CD: Do you think that anyone in the leadership of KFOR or UNMIK-Pristina was genuinely surprised that the Serbs would react as they did?
GG: I know for a fact that the top leadership was surprised from the frantic phone calls I got that morning, after they saw what happened and had a group of Kosovo Serb prisoners in Pristina – where they had taken them after the “arrest” – that they no longer wanted to keep. They wanted our help in getting them back to Mitrovica. The Serbs were apparently demanding lunch first.
CD: After the courthouse raid, you attempted to resign (though UN headquarters in New York did not accept the resignation). At the same time, you crafted an internal memo, Report after Defeat, which pulled no punches in explaining why the incident had damaged the stature of the international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and how it could have reasonably been avoided. It was leaked soon after and excerpted in parts by local media (see B92 here), though curiously international media did not make use of it and to my knowledge is not published officially anywhere.
So, the question is, why did you write this report? Did you think it might make some difference in the way international policy in Kosovo might be conducted in the future? Partisan critics at the time just accused you of using the medium to take shots at Pristina. What do you say to such commentary?
GG: I wrote it because I knew Pristina HQ planned further dangerous actions and I wanted to make clear that the actions on March 17 had left the international community and security in the region in a very precarious state. I also wanted the record to be clear- I had learned that in the UN, many people sought above all else to protect their own butt.
I wanted to be on the record what had gone wrong, so that no one could claim later that they did not know if they tried something else [equally] dangerous. The independent investigation ordered by the UN Secretary General later supported what I wrote that day. (It has never been made public). The leak of my report was unfortunate and beyond my intent.
CD: One result of you standing up for yourself and the UNMIK-Mitrovica approach in this way was to further inflame relations with UNMIK-Pristina and, as was widely reported at the time, the UNMIK deputy there, former American diplomat Larry Rossin. Had you had policy disagreements with him previously, and if so, had UN headquarters weighed in on any such disagreements?
GG: Larry first hired me in 2005, we knew each other from our days in the US Foreign Service. He was a professional and we always worked well together. But in the days before the March 17 event, he did not bring me into the picture. Perhaps he was under pressure.
CD: In order to evaluate events correctly, it might be useful to establish some background context for readers. According to Mr. Rossin’s UN bio (.PDF), he had “opened the U.S. office in Pristina in July 1999, and headed it through February 2000… in that capacity, he was responsible for direction of all U.S. policy initiatives and oversaw the work of all U.S. government agencies in Kosovo.”
That strikes me as a pretty wide berth. Do you have any idea why he specifically was chosen? And, considering the unprecedented and large-scale nature of the Kosovo intervention, why would so much power have been given to any one man? In your experience in other crisis areas around the world, is such a scenario standard practice?
GG: I have no comment on this.
CD: Not to dwell on this topic excessively, but a missing part of the historical record should be clarified here. After Mr Rossin’s first Kosovo posting, he returned to Pristina as UNMIK Deputy Special Representative from October 2004 until March 2006. And then he took up the same position (under then-Special Representative Joachim Rucker) on 9 January 2008. Mr Rossin replaced Steven Schook, a former US general whose contract was not renewed in December 2007. Mr Schook had stated three months early that a UN internal investigation was targeting him for allegedly keeping overly close relations with Kosovo Albanian politicians such as Ramush Haradinaj.
At this point the pivotal question comes up. Was Larry Rossin brought back because of his previous important positions in the country, at a time when the US wanted to direct the independence drive? Or was the UN basically rushing to find anyone with the right experience who could step in to fill in after Schook’s unexpected departure?
GG: I worked very well with Steve Schook and was sorry to see him go. He had a good sense of realities on the ground, and had been very supportive of us in Mitrovica Region. I know nothing about why he left. But Larry was brought back perhaps because a deputy was needed urgently for the crucial time coming up, and he already knew the account.
CD: There are numerous subtle uses of language and terminology that affect the public discourse concerning Kosovo. For example, its Albanian leaders frequently refer to the local Serbs as perpetrating ‘parallel structures’ in regards to their attempts to self-administer their affairs. Of course, for Serbia, the whole independent Kosovo project is defined as a ‘parallel structure’ in deviation of international law.
The international community, at least the states that recognize Kosovo independence, tend to side with the Albanians in damning alleged Serb ‘parallel structures’ in the north. In your diplomatic experience, is this a concept with widespread usage in disputed areas? If so, were the Albanian and/or the Serb sides formally introduced to this as a ‘talking point’ by outside advisors, and if so, how?
GG: I believe that during the Yugoslavia period and under Milosevic, the Albanians themselves had used – and perfected – using “parallel” institutions to meet local needs and to govern themselves when Belgrade sought to deny them sufficient control.
CD: Perhaps the key divisive term in Kosovo since independence has been the phrase “status-neutral.” It refers to the mandated role of the international administration in Kosovo as decreed by UN Proposition 1244, created after the NATO intervention. For Albanians, people who use this term are deeply suspect as being ‘Serb sympathizers’ who refuse to accept an independent Kosovo.
On the other hand, internationals who see themselves as responsible to the original mandate, and this includes the OSCE, tend to regard it as a matter of principle- that is, doing the job without getting involved in larger political questions. Do you think there is a point to be argued here? Or, has the phrase been manipulated in a way that perpetuates an impasse in resolving relations between the ethnicities and their future status together?
GG: Status neutrality is the required stance of all international actors working under the mandate of UNSCR 1244. The ICJ in August reiterated the legality of that mandate and of the UN mission working under it. The OSCE and KFOR remain in Kosovo under 1244 and therefore also must act in a status neutral manner.
Status neutrality is also a practical matter. The UN and its partners are in Kosovo to keep the peace while the political issue of Kosovo’s status is resolved. Straying from that approach and taking the side of one or the other party – working for or against independence, or for or against Belgrade’s claim – is bad peacekeeping. It compromises your ability to work with both sides. In peacekeeping, it is probably better to have both sides dislike you, but be able to accept working with you, than to be loved by anyone.
Loose Ends: Organized Crime, Status Dilemmas, and the Effects of EULEX and the ICO
CD: In April this year, the Serbian intelligence agency (BIA) won public praise from the American Drug Enforcement Agency as being the best in the region. It came as an acknowledgement of the Serbian intelligence agency’s assistance to the DEA in cracking a Balkan narcotics trafficking gang operating in faraway South America. In October 2009 it was reported that the joint operation seized 2.7 tons of cocaine destined for Europe. Considering that you have had several prior diplomatic postings in South America, it would be interesting to know if you can recall any examples from previous decades of formerly Yugoslav involvement in the drugs trade there, and whether there was similar cooperation at that time between the two governments.
GG: This is beyond my knowledge.
CD: There have also been numerous reports of Albanian and Italian mafia activities in importing drugs from South America. Can it be said that such groups work together with Serb and other organized crime entities? Considering that in the Balkans organized crime and politicians are often closely intertwined, are there any cases of diplomatic “sacrifices” that may have been made in Kosovo, between the DEA’s war on drugs and the political exigencies of the moment?
GG: What I can say about this is that the Albanian-Serbian mafia operating on both sides of the Ibar was the only real inter-ethnic activity in Kosovo.
EULEX’s current program of arresting those involved in organized crime potentially has a rich array of targets north and south. Hopefully, EULEX will resist pressure, though, for performing “political” arrests. This could destabilize Kosovo- both north and south.
CD: In your mind, who benefits most from the continued impasse between Belgrade and Pristina over the status of Kosovo and their bilateral relations? Is it the politicians themselves? International workers wishing to remain employed? Organized crime? Islamic groups? Or anyone else?
GG: No one really gains from the current frozen conflict. Normal economic activity is required for growth and job creation. Investing in Kosovo is very risky, given the continued political uncertainty. Belgrade has recently been raising too the issue of outstanding property claims and the “privatization” process. Status issues include not only the political but questions of who has rights or claims over property and resources.
I suppose unresolved status does offer some perceived benefit to those politicians in Kosovo who use the issue – especially about the north – to distract attention from unmet popular expectations. But this is not much of a gain for anyone.
CD: Is EULEX, as some have criticized, a toothless tiger? To the best of your knowledge, do they have the security capacities in place to deal with anything more than putting out fires between the ethnicities as they occur?
GG: I would not point the finger at EULEX in this regard. They have often acted in violation of status neutrality – allowing or supporting Albanian efforts to bully local Serbs – but they do not lack capacity, as far as I am aware.
I would instead point at the Internal Community Office (ICO), also headed by Pieter Feith. It has the mandate of ensuring the full and fair implementation of the Ahtisaari Plan. However, in the south, where the local Serbs have been bullied into accepting their place in the plan, the ICO does little to meet its mandate.
The recent decision to destroy the phone infrastructure serving Kosovo Serbs in the south apparently was left entirely in the hands of the Albanians. One might have thought that the ICO would have at the least sought to insist on dialogue with the local Serbs first? Maybe some preparation and planning on how things might go afterwards? Apparently now, in some places, Kosovo Serbs cannot even call an ambulance.