On June 10, 1999, after 78 days of a US-led NATO bombing campaign, the Serbian army withdrew from Kosovo, a small province with an ethnic-Albanian majority. But with the Serbian Army’s eviction, the ethnic-Serb dominated government in Kosovo collapsed. To take its place, and oversee Kosovo’s physical and political reconstruction, the Security Council created the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, that very day.
From the outset, a large NATO force in Kosovo obviated the need for a significant deployment of UN peacekeepers. The United Nations, however, provided the bulk of international civilian administrators and supplied a “blue hat” police force, which has played a crucial role in Kosovo’s reconstruction.
As envisioned by the Security Council resolution, Kosovo’s physical and political reconstruction would be built upon on four “Pillars.” The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would oversee democratization and institution building. The European Union would spearhead economic development. The United Nations was left with the difficult task of setting up a judicial system and polices services, while a UN representative would serve as the top civilian administrator. UNMIK would remain operational until Kosovo’s final status–either as a sovereign state, province of Serbia, or something in between–was decided.
Setting up a functioning police force was a particularly difficult task. When Serbian forces left Kosovo, the police force–which was aligned with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic–disintegrated. The job of maintaining law and order through basic police work like investigating crimes and traffic control fell to the United Nations.
Their most important task, though, was hiring and training local police. In 2004, the Kosovo Police Service reached its planned size of nearly 7,000 officers. Today, there are fewer than 2,000 UN Police in Kosovo, reflecting the fact that the Kosovo Police Service is now up and running.
Meanwhile, uncertainty over Kosovo’s final status remains a constant challenge to the mission. In March 2007, Martti Ahtisaari, the UN’s top diplomat for the “future status process” recommended the province’s independence from Serbia. Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia, balked at this suggestion. Should the debate in the Security Council remain intractably stalled, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian government may unilaterally declare independence from Serbia. If that happens, European governments could be split over whether or not to formally recognize Kosovo, which could potentially threaten the flow of funds for Kosovo’s reconstruction.
Until questions about Kosovo’s final status are resolved, UNMIK will likely stay put and continue to help the fragile Kosovo government assume greater administrative control over its territory.