Monday, 18 February 2008

Kosovo creates a precedent, whatever the West might argue

As Kosovo’s Parliament declared itself a “democratic, secular and multi-ethnic republic” and unveiled a new flag which purports to be an ethnically neutral symbol, celebrations on Pristina’s streets demonstrated a different reality. The flag with which the towns and cities of Kosovo have been festooned is the Albanian flag and the celebrations have seen an ethnic Albanian Diaspora pouring into the Serb province to hail the creation of another “Albanian state”.

In Mitrovica, where a Serb majority still predominates north of the Ibar River, police supervised by French soldiers needed to restrain Albanian celebrations on the south bank, as attempts were made to cross the river in order to taunt Serbs. It is little wonder that the residents of Serb enclaves have little faith in rhetorical commitments offered by the ex-terror chiefs in Pristina that they will protect their community after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

While NATO troops remain ostensibly to help secure Kosovo’s borders and to provide support to the nascent security services of the province, there is widespread recognition that their role is a disincentive for open displays of ethnic violence against the Serb minority. Kosovo is a region central to Serb self-conceptions of history and identity, scattered with historical sites significant to Serbs and Serbia. However the main concern of most young Serbs who live there is to leave.

As much of the west prepares to recognise the province as a state, other regions with local ethnic majorities are taking encouragement that their aspirations to establish ethno-nationalist states and gain international recognition may be successful. Nagorno Karabakh has a much more compelling case for official recognition of its separation from Azerbaijan than does Kosovo from Serbia. The ethnically Armenian province has little historical link with Azerbaijan other than a pragmatic Soviet decision to administer it from Baku rather than Yerevan. Armenians in the province suffered ethnic violence from Azeri forces comparable to that suffered by Kosovans under Slobodan Milosevic. There is little wonder that Karabakh’s Armenians see parallels between their own situation and that of Kosovo. The subtle difference is that Azerbaijan is an American ally which is important to the US strategically and as a result of its oil wealth.

In the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia local majorities oppose the Georgian authorities and have set up functionally autonomous governments. The EU and the US have been staunch in defending the territorial integrity of Georgia, but how can recognition of Kosovo not undermine their arguments? Similarly, in Moldova Transnistria functions as an independent state, with the assent of the majority of its population, but remains unrecognised.

It might be expedient for western governments to recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence, particularly given the support it is receiving from key players such as the US, Britain and France, but whilst pragmatic hypocrisy may be an easy solution in the short term, in the long-term it can have consequences. Arguing that Kosovo is an exception and that recognition of the province’s statehood does not create a precedent may seem a neat way to side-step tricky ethical debate but it will not cut any mustard with the various ethnic separatist movements now keenly watching developments in Pristina.

Neither is the argument that Slobodan Milosevic’s cruelties to ethnic Albanians were enough to differentiate this conflict from any other sustainable. Leaving aside the equivalence of Albanian on Serb terrorism, leaving aside the fact that Milosevic’s worst excesses were a direct result of NATO intervention in the region, leaving aside the consideration that countless ethnic squabbles have been treated differently despite similarly appalling atrocities, is the way to heal ethnic divisions and right perceived wrongs really to respond to such things by establishing separate states for those ethnicities? By such a solution are we not merely perpetuating the problems which we are purporting to solve? One perceptive commenter raises historical precedent in the thread below. Have we not been down this route before?

It is no accident that those European countries prepared to dissent from the western consensus that Kosovo should be recognised, are those who most directly feel the effects of separatist movements. They should be applauded for at least attempting to show consistent thinking and not allowing the remoteness of Kosovo to let thoughtless pragmatism prevail. Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Slovakia know from bitter experience that the simplistic arguments of ethnic nationalism are deceptive and facile. They appreciate that splintering nations along majority ethnic lines is not a solution and that compromise, tolerance and accommodation should not be so easily jettisoned.

11 comments:

Klootfan said...

My only insight into this story is from following the news on it for the past few years. Ive no great knowledge on it.

My question would be though, how could the west deny the decision of democratically elected parliament to declare the region independent. Would the EU just say NO to them, and refuse to recognise it? How fair is that. Surely democracy has prevailed. The onus now is on those pushing this independence to ensure to the highest standards that those minorities living within the new state are protected and their views listened to and accommodated.

Chekov said...

Kloot, rather than go into detail about this let me throw back a question to you. If a majority in Stormont voted for independence for Northern Ireland tomorrow and unilaterally declared that independence a day later saying "don't worry we'll treat the nationalists fine" would you think that the decision of Northern Ireland's democratic parliament was undeniable?

Kloot said...

If a majority in Stormont voted for independence for Northern Ireland tomorrow and unilaterally declared that independence a day later saying "don't worry we'll treat the nationalists fine" would you think that the decision of Northern Ireland's democratic parliament was undeniable?

I know the point you are making there. My answer is that if the NI parliament unanimously voted for it then most definitely yes.

If there was a sizeable percentage of the figure against it then no. And id apply the same to Kosovo. 50% + 1 would not be a strong enough mandate. 85%/90%+ would be.

Chekov said...

I'll give you a clue here Kloot, there wasn't 85-90% in favour of independence 15 years ago. But then there were a good few more Serbs about at that time too. What you're basically saying is that if the minority shrink below a certain size then it's ok to ignore them. I hope to god that that isn't the lesson which comes out of Kosovo.

Kloot said...

What you're basically saying is that if the minority shrink below a certain size then it's ok to ignore them

As opposed to if the minority goes above a certain size then it's ok to ignore them

What I would say though, is that any vote in parliament should be backed up by a referendum of the people.

I'll give you a clue here Kloot, there wasn't 85-90% in favour of independence 15 years ago.

As I was saying, I dont claim any substantial insight into the issue to be able to hold a proper debate on this topic. So if my comments are misinformed, then so be it.

Kloot said...

As an aside, would your views on separatism extend to Scotland as well.

For instance, were the Scottish parliament to vote for Scotland leaving the union, and were this decision backed up by a referendum, would you also be against such a move, despite it being the democratic wish of those people.

And you would be against the scenario pointed out above, then I suppose Id ask, why is it OK for a parliament to vote itself into a union, but not ok for a parliament to vote itself out of a union

Kloot said...

And you would be against the scenario pointed out above,

Should read "And if you would be against the scenario pointed out above..."

Chekov said...

“As opposed to if the minority goes above a certain size then it's ok to ignore them”

I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you’re getting at with this comment.

“What I would say though, is that any vote in parliament should be backed up by a referendum of the people.”

‘Any’ vote in parliament or just votes regarding national sovereignty? Who decides on the extent of that body’s sovereignty and exactly the territory it should represent? What about clashes of parliaments? If a site of travellers outside Longford decide that they are a parliament, declare independence and the majority of travellers on that site declare independence should we listen to them? Kosovo is a part of Serbia by international law and the Serbs have had no say in this.

“As an aside, would your views on separatism extend to Scotland as well.”

As much as I loathe Scottish nationalism, it is neither violent nor is Scotland a hotbed of ethnic tension. Similarly Scotland is part of the UK because it entered into a Union between nations. If Scotland was to vote for independence in a referendum and if the Westminster Parliament were to ratify this independence I would have to reluctantly ascent to that decision.

“And you would be against the scenario pointed out above, then I suppose Id ask, why is it OK for a parliament to vote itself into a union, but not ok for a parliament to vote itself out of a union”

My example was an attempt to underline the fact that ethnic complexities make the question of secession more than a matter of ‘do the majority in this particular region assent to this?’. Kosovo was never in a union with Serbia. Kosovo is part of Serbia, albeit a part which has been afforded some autonomy. Montenegro was part of a union with Serbia and exercised its democratic right to leave that union, as was its right.

Chekov said...

The travellers site is having a referendum and voting unanimously for independence btw.

CW said...

While I'm no advocate of Kosovan independence as it can only bring about more trouble with the worst case scenario being another destabilisation of the Balkan region - but I'm not sure what viable alternative there is. It couldn't go on being a NATO/EU/UN protectorate indefinitley, partition of the region is a non-starter and Albania doesn't seem to want Kosovo. I have sympathy for the Serb minority, but it was their own president Milosevic who set the ball rolling with his ruthless campaign of terror in the region, which came to a halt only by the NATO bombing of Belgrade. Let's face it though the real reason for the US and other western powers' support for Kosovan sovereignty are puely strategic and economic. It's all about positioning of US military bases and oil and gas pipelines rather than human rights. With influential European states like Spain and Greece refusing to recognise Kosovo, it looks set to become a phantom state along the lines of Transnistria or Northern Cyprus. It doesn't look good for strongly divided areas like Mitrovica.

Chekov said...

CW the newly “independent” Kosovo is effectively still a protectorate, make no mistake about it. There is no independent sovereignty there in any way that we would normally understand. I actually intend to post about this later today. Partition of the area is a non-starter, although I fully sympathise with those in the north of the province who cannot see any reason if Serbia can be effectively partitioned why shouldn’t Kosovo? And you are right that Albania can certainly not be permitted to subsume Kosovo (whether the authorities in Tirana wish to or not) unless we wish to precipitate a dangerous wave of Greater Albanian separatism in countries throughout the Balkans.

Your statement that Milosevic set the ball rolling is contentious. He committed crimes in Kosovo alright, but the bulk of his worst activity was conducted AFTER NATO had started to bomb Belgrade. The ground invasion was actually what halted Milosevic’s actions in Kosovo after they’d been precipitated by the bombing of Belgrade. Up to that point more death and destruction had been visited on Serbs by the terrorists of the KLA than had been inflicted on ethnic Albanians by Serb forces.

Where you adjudge the ball to have started “rolling” is a fairly arbitrary historical judgment. Coincidentally the Guardian today carries an article highlighting the violence committed on minorities in Kosovo which continues to this day. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/david_cronin/2008/02/bandoned_in_kosovo.html
I think you are entirely correct about selfish strategic interests being paramount. Again, I will later today link an article which posits this theory in more depth.