Photo: Atdhe Mulla

Kosovo’s tenth birthday and tales of secessionism

Secessionism neither began nor will it end with Kosovo. The country’s leaders should develop a foreign policy platform that is not obsessed with recognitions and UN membership.

There is probably no such thing as the ‘best’ time for a state to be born. This has particularly been the case since the Second World War, after which the admissibility and the legitimacy of a state has continued to depend on what the community of existing states thinks about an emerging state, and not much on what the emerging state thinks. What the community of states thinks about an emerging state further depends on the individual circumstances of each existing state: their histories, domestic circumstances, and most importantly, their established and changing alliances.

When Kosovo’s leadership, backed by western support, decided to give birth to a new state, they had no way of knowing the right timing for doing so, nor should they have looked for it to begin with. Yet when Kosovo was born, it was soon to face the unpredictability of the international system.

Kosovo emerged at the dawn of one of the worst global financial crises and economic downturns, especially in the developed world that then supported Kosovo. As western powers engaged in lobbying for the recognition of Kosovo, many who were lobbying and many who were lobbied had other immediate problems to deal with at home. Greeks, for example, could not be bothered with Kosovo when at the time they did not know whether their own state would survive.

In August 2008, just six months after Kosovo declared independence, Russia invaded Georgia, and in a matter of three days it mopped out any Georgian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, moving quickly to recognize both regions as independent states. It is true that Russia’s invasion followed Georgia’s initial military attempt to take control over South Ossetia, but be as it may, Russia was quick to use Kosovo’s independence as one of the arguments for its recognition of the two breakaway regions.

Such arguments did not stop with Georgia. When the Russian-leaning President Yanukovych of Ukraine was ousted from power by western-backed protesters in early 2014, Russia, believing it would lose some important strategic interests to the west, moved on to annex Crimea, and employed Kosovo and ICJ’s 2010 opinion on Kosovo’s independence as an argument for having done so. Russia also gave birth to two other state-like entities in Ukraine, namely Donetsk and Lugansk in Ukraine’s east, where the war is still ongoing.

I would not suggest that Russia’s utilization of Kosovo’s argument in its campaign to carve up new borders in its neighborhood had any impact on Kosovo’s legitimacy. Nor could I suggest that Kosovo was to blame for this, regardless of Russia’s discursive use of the ‘Kosovo argument.’ But it is important to recall some of these events in order to bring to light some of the problems with Kosovo’s responses when other actors in the international system have used, and probably will use, Kosovo to justify either secessions or invasions.

Kosovo’s external supporters have consistently used the sui generis argument primarily to give Kosovo’s secession a unique character so its recognition would not mean a legitimation of secessions in other places around the world. In turn, Kosovo also used its external supporters’ sui generis argument to defend its own secession. However, I am not sure if this argument ever made sense or benefited Kosovo in its partial successes in gaining recognitions and international legitimacy (there is no study that would suggest so, and it may remain only as an opinion in pundits’ and policy makers’ minds). Every secessionist case is sui generis for that matter. There are far more cases in recent history of people who suffered more fatalities (in proportion to population), more refugees, deportations, and oppression than Kosovo, in fruitless attempts to make a state.

Kosovo’s 10 years of statehood is a sufficient period to suggest that the sui generis argument has not and will not work, because just like with any other secessionist cases in the past, Kosovo is not going to join the UN without Serbia’s consent. The sooner Kosovo understands this, the better. Understanding Kosovo’s dependence on Serbia’s consent for–as well as Kosovo’s policy makers fetishism with–UN membership, I have argued elsewhere how Kosovo can direct its foreign policy for its own benefit, even without UN membership.

Although it guarantees states’ external sovereignty, UN membership does not guarantee peace between states or even their ability to function. To take Eritrea as an example, ever since it got its UN seat in 1993, there have been more days of war than peace between Eritrea and its former parent state Ethiopia, and the relationship between them has been close to catastrophic since then. Another example is Somaliland, which unilaterally seceded from Somalia in 1991, and has been able to maintain its functionality and independence with zero recognitions; it has been virtually ignored by the entire world. Its parent state Somalia, on the other hand, is a full member of the UN, but one can easily ask whether Somalia even exists as a state, and let alone whether it can function as one.

Another important event as Kosovo approaches its tenth anniversary is Catalonia’s demand for independence from Spain. Interestingly, Catalonian secessionists also employed Kosovo’s independence argument to further their secessionist cause, and in return, Kosovo responded with their usual sui generis argument. This takes me to the other problem with Kosovo’s sui generis defense of its statehood. It is morally unjust to argue that Kosovo is sui generis only for your own interests, although as I suggested I don’t know if such an argument ever served Kosovo’s interests. Kosovo should deliberate and decide for itself whether other communities deserve their own state.

Furthermore, one should not forget that even though Kosovo is mentioned as a precedent and an argument, countries have been demanding independent states long before Kosovo ever became one. For example, although Catalonia refers to Kosovo to justify its cause, Catalan secessionism started well before Kosovo was on any map of the world.

Also, as Ryan D. Griffiths’ data show, since 1945, there have been, on average, 52 secessionist movements every year. The same data suggest that there has not been a significant increase, if any, in secessionist demands since Kosovo declared its independence. Take for instance the more recent case of the Iraqi Kurds referendum for independence in September 2017. Unlike in Catalonia’s case, Kosovo is nowhere to be found when it comes to Iraqi Kurds demands for their own state.

So, the initial hunch of many that Kosovo’s independence or its recognitions would lead to a wave of secessionist movements proved to be completely wrong. Neither secessions nor invasions began with Kosovo, nor they will they stop with Kosovo.

But at the same time, employing a sui generis argument to blindly and collectively reject any attempt at future state-making is to become ahistorical. For example, when Kosovo’s Hashim Thaci recently responded to a Spanish-based media regarding the comparison between Kosovo and Catalonia, Thaci stated that “Kosovo is not Catalonia, just like Spain is not Serbia.” But we can also say that Kosovo is not Eritrea, just like Ethiopia is not Serbia.

Did Kosovo deserve to become an independent state? Yes, it sure did, and it deserved so in its own right. Decades-long systematic violence, repression, exclusion, and humiliation of a people just because of the language they spoke or ethnicity they belonged to, and without a sign of the central regime’s will to address the problem, are all pretty good reasons for a people to have a separate state.

But was Kosovo lucky with the turn of events in history? Yes, sure it was, just like some of others were lucky, while others were not. And in the circumstances under which Kosovo managed to secure more than 115 recognitions, three from permanent members of Security Council, many from the Balkans and Europe, should be considered an unprecedented success. These recognitions are more than enough for Kosovo to be able to interact with its external environment without being intimidated for having limited recognitions.

Kosovo should not expect its recognitions to grow massively. Anything that it can expect is gaining or losing one or two recognitions intermittently. And this is not the end of the world.

But what has been unfortunate for Kosovo in the decade it closes, is the fact that most of the developed world that recognized Kosovo are the ones who have isolated Kosovo the most in terms of the free movement of people (but of course not of capital). I say it is unfortunate because even Serbia, its hostile neighbor, has not isolated Kosovo’s people as much as the west has.

For example, it is much easier for a Kosovo citizen to travel to non-recognizing Israel than to a recognizing European country. Criticism of corruption in Kosovo as a justification for its isolation does not sit well with any rational mind. The EU has cut a visa-free deal with Ukraine (while it was at war), and with Moldova, which is ranked 30 places beneath Kosovo on Transparency International’s 2016 corruption perception list, and whose leadership is growing more pro-Russian than ever in the past couple of decades.

This brings me to my last point, which is a call on Kosovo’s future leadership and society to be a bit more ‘open minded’ about what to expect from the EU for the next decade to come. There is no evidence that the EU will solve its internal divisions on Kosovo’s status. Spain has grown even harsher on Kosovo’s statehood over the years, and there is no sign that Greece will  change its mind. As such, and despite what is being said, the EU cannot and will not condition Serbia’s accession with a recognition Kosovo. While Germany can do this, the EU cannot, since such a policy or decision depends on the Council’s consensus.

At the same time, one should not mistake “normalization of relations” with recognition, regardless of what Brussels officials tell Kosovo’s leadership behind closed doors. As far as one can tell from the European Commission enlargement strategy, the EU could admit Serbia before the latter recognizes Kosovo. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Kosovo is given the option to join the EU (decades down the line), ambiguously tied to Serbia.

This news should be devastating, especially as Kosovo marks its 10th anniversary, but it does not have to be. Kosovo might want to start forging its own ‘sui generis’ path rather than blindly seek conditioned recognitions and membership in international organizations. Kosovo must establish stronger bilateral relations regarding the economy and defense with those few states that matter for its well-being and survival.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

15 February 2018 - 14:44

Shpend Kursani

15/02/2018 - 14:44



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