February 26, 2008

Kosovo’s independence – a blessing?

At first glance the independence of Kosovo and its war-ravaged inhabitants from their former tormentors appears not only to be just, but also a blessing for the Kosovo Albanians, the Balkan region and Europe in general. How else could one have protected the Albanian minority from Serbian nationalism and put a definite, if abrupt, stop to strife in the region, which, as Europe’s backyard, needs to be stable and secure?

Why then was no exuberant elation heard across Europe, despite the wave of instant recognition and congratulation? And why do some EU members refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence?

Because the best that can be said about Kosovo’s independence is that it was the least bad out of many bad alternatives. It goes without saying that it, falling considerably short of being a good solution, has many drawbacks, some of them dire.

At first glance the independence of Kosovo and its war-ravaged inhabitants from their former tormentors appears not only to be just, but also a blessing for the Kosovo Albanians, the Balkan region and Europe in general. How else could one have protected the Albanian minority from Serbian nationalism and put a definite, if abrupt, stop to strife in the region, which, as Europe’s backyard, needs to be stable and secure?

Why then was no exuberant elation heard across Europe, despite the wave of instant recognition and congratulation? And why do some EU members refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence?

Because the best that can be said about Kosovo’s independence is that it was the least bad out of many bad alternatives. It goes without saying that it, falling considerably short of being a good solution, has many drawbacks, some of them dire.

The least of these difficulties is the fact that, now it has gained its independence, Kosovo has to become and act as a singular entity, providing for its inhabitants all the functions a state should. Next to an intact institutional structure, which, considering the pervasive influence of organized crime and the rampant corruption, will be a challenge in itself, this also entails a working economy. It is the latter which will pose the biggest difficulties, because despite an abundance of natural resources, such as nickel and coal, Kosovo is a region stricken by poverty. The unemployment rate among the Albanian population ranges between 35% and 50%. Among the minorities, such as the Roma, unemployment is somewhere around 100%. Independence also means that Kosovo is responsible for repaying the international loans (ca. $1.4 billion), which have been redeemed by Serbia up until now. These numbers show that Kosovo will be attached to the European umbilical cord for the foreseeable future. The existence of natural resources and the willingness of the Europeans to support Kosovo might however allow for economic improvements and, possibly, independence in the future.

The second danger is the wedge that Kosovo’s declaration of independence can drive between the EU member states. States like Greece, Cyprus or Spain are not at all comfortable with the precedence set by Kosovo, for they fear it might be used against them by their own secessionist rivals. In the case of Greece and Cyprus this fear focuses on the Turkish side of the island of Cyprus, while Spain is contending with the Basque and Catalan secessionist movements.

These compunctions are rooted in the illegality of the declaration of independence, for it was pronounced unilaterally and without a UN Security Council resolution; and, therefore, not in accordance with international law. Apprehensions about the question of legality are shared by other states than those which face secessionist dangers, such as Slovakia and Romania. They also refused to recognize Kosovo under these circumstances.

The supporters of Kosovo’s independence argue in favor of its legality by saying that UN Security Council resolution 1244 permitted such a step in spirit, if not in letter, by calling for a final status political solution. The problem is it doesn’t mention independence. Quite to the contrary 1244 explicitly mentions a “[…] substantial self-government for Kosovo, taking full account of the Rambouillet accords and the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the other countries of the region […]”. That clearly suggests that independence was neither the letter nor the spirit of the resolution.

Bending law and legality to such a degree has consequences not only for states which fear secessionist movements within their territory, but for international law and the UN as a whole. International law is a tenuous structure, which, generally speaking states adhere to on merit alone, since there is no enforcement structure. Further, the legality of international law is debatable, for it is negotiated and instituted with states that do not adhere to western values, the rule of law and international agreements. That means that disregard or misuse of this kind, especially by nations who pride themselves on the rule of law and are the big global promoters of its virtues, further undercuts the weak foundations of the UN and the international legal system.

The final and potentially most dire drawback of this solution is the destabilizing impact it has on the region. Certainly Albanians all across Europe are happy enough, waving Albanian, US and EU flags and celebrating in the streets. Serbians on the other hand shake their fists at what they consider the loss of their civilization’s cradle. They also take to the streets, but instead of waving flags they attack border posts, embassies and UN personnel; while at the same time countless Serbian cities, towns and villages name Vladimir Putin their hero and savior and proclaim him an honorary citizen. The Serbian disgruntlement over the European “betrayal” after Serbia’s cooperation with prosecuting Milosevic and its enormous economic and democratic progress is immense. Western influence and values might have lost the hearts and minds of the Serbians to nationalism and extremism for generations to come. It is already certain that Serbia will cause many problems for the EU, by exploiting its economic and ideological influence over the Serbs living in northern Kosovo to cement the rift between them and the rest of the population, potentially aiming at splitting the Kosovo de facto.

It doesn’t stop there however. This development threatens the stability of everything that has been achieved in the Balkans following the two wars. Already Serbs in Bosnia request accession to Serbia. And what if the large Albanian population in Macedonia asks to join Kosovo, or become independent? On what moral ascendancy can the west deny them? The greatest European asset is the appeal of its value system. Unfortunately, preaching water while drinking wine will destroy that potential as surely as it has destroyed it for the US.

The only question that remains is: what else could have been done? On what merit could one have asked the Albanians to remain part of a state that has subjected them to systematic displacement, rape, murder and genocide? A true moral dilemma, with few, hard choices to make and none a blessing! But, under these circumstances, Martti Athisaari, the UN mediator between Kosovo and Serbia, was right to eventually give the right to self-determination of two million Kosovo-Albanians precedence over Serbia’s territorial integrity.

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