Kosovo and the Politics of Recognition

Even among longstanding supporters of national self-determination for Kosovo, the eagerness with which the Bush administration extended diplomatic recognition immediately upon that country’s declaration of independence on February 17 has raised serious concerns. Indeed, it serves as a reminder of the series of U.S. policy blunders over the years that have compounded the Balkan tragedy.

This is not the first time Kosovo has declared its independence. In 1989, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic revoked the province’s autonomous status, allowing the 10% Serb minority to essentially impose an apartheid-style system on the country’s ethnic Albanian majority. The majority of ethnic Albanians in the public sector and Serbian-owned enterprises were fired from their jobs and forbidden to use their language in schools or government.

In response, the province’s ethnic Albanians – consisting of over 85% of the population – declared an independent republic in 1990, establishing a parallel government with democratic elections, a parallel school system, and other quasi-national institutions. The movement constituted one of the most widespread, comprehensive and sustained nonviolent campaigns since Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence. In response, Serbian authorities engaged in severe repression, including widespread arrest, torture, and extra-judicial killings.

For most of the 1990s, the Kosovar Albanians waged their struggle nonviolently, using strikes, boycotts, peaceful demonstrations, and strengthening their parallel institutions. This was the time for Western powers to have engaged in preventative diplomacy. However, the world chose to ignore the Kosovars’ nonviolent movement and resisted the consistent pleas by the moderate Kosovar Albanian leadership to take action. By the end of the decade, the failure of the United States and other Western nations to come to the support of the Kosovars’ nonviolent struggle led to the rise of a shadowy armed group known as the Kosovo Liberation Army, ultra-nationalists with links to terrorism and the drug trade, who convinced an increasing number of the province’s ethnic Albanians that their only hope for national liberation came through armed struggle.

By waiting for the emergence of guerrilla warfare before seeking a solution, the United States and other Western nations gave Milosevic the opportunity to crack down with even greater savagery than before. The delay also allowed the KLA to emerge as the dominant force in the Kosovar nationalist movement. Rejecting nonviolence and moderation, KLA forces murdered Serb officials and ethnic Albanian moderates, destroyed Serbian villages, and attacked other minority communities. Some among its leadership even called for ethnic cleansing of the Serb minority to create an ethnically pure Albanian state.

Tragically, former KLA leaders and their supporters now dominate the newly-declared independent Kosovo Republic.

Western Dithering

The United States and other Western nations squandered a full eight years when preventative diplomacy could have worked. The United States rejected calls for expanding to Kosovo the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) missions set up in Macedonia or to bring Kosovo constituencies together for negotiations. Though many Kosovars and others expected that the U.S.-brokered 1995 Dayton accords would include an end to the Serbian occupation and oppression of Kosovo, the United States and other parties decided it did not merit attention.

When Western powers finally took decisive action toward the long-simmering crisis in the fall of 1998, a ceasefire was arranged where the OSCE sent in unarmed monitors. However, they were given little support. They were largely untrained, they were too few in number, and NATO refused to supply them with helicopters, night vision binoculars, or other basic equipment that could have made them more effective.

As Serb violations of the cease fire, including a number of atrocities, increased, Western diplomatic efforts accelerated, producing the Rambouillet proposal that called for the restoration of Kosovo’s autonomous status within Serbia. While such a political settlement was quite reasonable, and the Serbs appeared willing to seriously consider such an agreement, it was sabotaged by NATO’s insistence that they be allowed to send in a large armed occupation force into Kosovo along with rights to move freely without permission throughout the entire Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Also problematic was that is was presented essentially as a final document without much room for negotiations. One of the fundamental principles of international conflict resolution is that all interested parties are part of the peace process. Some outside pressure may be necessary — particularly against the stronger party — to secure an agreement, but it cannot be presented as a fait accompli. A “sign this or we’ll bomb you” attitude also doomed the diplomatic initiative to failure. Few national leaders would sign an agreement under such terms, which amount to a treaty of surrender: allowing foreign forces free rein of your territory and issuing such a proposal as an ultimatum.

Smarter and earlier diplomacy could have prevented the war. Instead, the U.S.-led NATO allies began bombing Serbia in early 1999, prompting a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces, resulting in nearly one million refugees. After 11 weeks of bombing, a compromise was reached in which Serbian forces would withdraw and the province would be placed under a UN trusteeship.

Though initially set back by the nationalist reaction to the NATO bombing of their country, pro-democracy Serbs were able to gain enough support to mobilize a popular nonviolent insurrection in October of 2000 that ousted Milosevic. Serbia has been under a democratic center-left coalition ever since. Meanwhile, UN administrators and a multinational peacekeeping force have tried to keep peace in Kosovo, even as KLA remnants and their supporters have continued to harass the ethnic Serb minority, forcing nearly half of its population to flee.

U.S. Support for Independence

Despite widespread sympathy for Kosovo independence, many in the international community had hoped for a compromise settlement that would grant the province genuine autonomy under nominal Serbian sovereignty. As with Taiwan and Iraqi Kurdistan, most nations have had to balance their support for the right of self-determination with concern over the threat of the violence and regional instability that could result if the country’s de facto independence became official. In this case, however, no such balance was found, and the fallout from Kosovo’s declaration of independence and recognition by the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and other countries could be serious.

Any effort by Kosovo to join the UN will be unsuccessful in the foreseeable future given the certainty of a veto by Russia and China. Both countries have their own “autonomous regions” composed of national minorities – a number of which have dreams of formal independence – and thus fear the precedent such international recognition could establish. Kosovo is the only state recognized by the United States not also recognized by the United Nations.

Ironically, the United States refuses to join the more-than-75 nations that have recognized the independence of Western Sahara, originally declared back in 1976. Indeed, the Bush administration is on record supporting Morocco’s call for international recognition of its unilateral annexation of Western Sahara as an “autonomous region” of that kingdom. This double standard is particularly glaring in light of the fact that Kosovo had been legally recognized as part of Serbia whereas Western Sahara is legally recognized as a non-self-governing territory under belligerent military occupation, a status confirmed by the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice.

The United States has rejected proposals that would allow Serbia to annex a small strip of land in the northern part of Kosovo with a predominantly ethnic Serbian population and several sites that the Serbs consider to have important historical significance. At the same time, however, the United States is on record supporting Israeli proposals to annex strips of Palestinian land on the West Bank populated by Israeli Jews and other areas considered by Israelis to be of important historical significance. Ironically, the Kosovar Serbs have mostly lived on their land for centuries while the Israelis in the West Bank are virtually all colonists occupying illegal settlements built recently and in direct defiance of international law and a series of UN Security Council resolutions.

Such double standards help expose the fallacy of U.S. claims that its recognition of Kosovo is based upon any moral or legal basis.

Potential Problems

Recognition of Kosovo independence by the United States and some Western European nations under these circumstances could lead to a number of potential problems.

In Serbia, radical national chauvinists – in large part due to the incipient threat of Kosovar independence – came very close to defeating the moderate democratic coalition in the recent national elections. Hostility toward the United States and Europe as a result of what most Serbs see as a renegade province could retard the country’s efforts at European integration, worsening its economy and further strengthening reactionary forces. Though the government appears unwilling and unable to try to resolve through force what they see as a secessionist movement and the initial response from most Serbs appears to be more that of resignation than defiance, fears of rekindling Serbian national chauvinism are real. Masked Serb arsonists setting fire to UN and NATO border check posts in recent days is one such sign of looming unrest.

Another potential problem could emerge in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Here, a restless Albanian minority concentrated along its western border with Kosovo could be inspired to resume an armed secessionist movement in an effort to join with its newly independent Albanian-populated neighbor.

There is potential for fallout in the Caucasus region, with the possibility that the autonomous South Ossetia region in Georgia could declare itself independent and be immediately recognized by its neighbor Russia and its allies. With the Kosovo precedent, the Georgian government could do little diplomatically to garner support and, with Russian troops already in the territory, little militarily either.

The impact of Kosovo’s independence and recognition by the United States and other Western nations could also seriously worsen U.S.-Russian relations, exacerbating differences that hawks on both sides are warning could evolve into a “new Cold War.”

It is also quite possible that there will not be any serious negative long-term impact of these recent events and, with its legacy of nonviolent struggle and democratic self-governance, an independent Kosovo could prove itself worthy of universal recognition. Nevertheless, U.S. policy has contributed a great deal to the tragic political climate in this corner of the Balkans, a climate so poisoned that the international community is greeting Kosovo’s long-awaited independence with more apprehension than joy.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). From 1996 to 1999, he served as chair of the board of Peaceworkers, a U.S.-based group supporting the nonviolent struggle of the Kosovar Albanians and other nonviolent movements and peacemakers in areas of conflict.