Kosovo and realpolitik


Since it’s the big story, I suppose I’ll have to do something on the Kosovo UDI. We won’t get a consensus, but there are a few issues around this that are worth teasing out.

The first thing is that, while there are disputes in international law around the issue of unnegotiated secession and border changes, IR theory frowns on it very heavily. And indeed it’s extremely rare for secessionist para-states to get recognition. This of course goes back to the American Civil War, when foreign states (Britain in particular) refused to recognise the Confederacy in case their colonies started getting ideas. Now the days of the old-style colonial empires may be nearly (although not totally) over, but we’re also left with the still-rumbling question of ethnic separatism. Madrid’s cold feet over Kosovo are not, I suggest, entirely unconnected to the Spanish state’s increasingly draconian attempts to outlaw Basque nationalism, and the periodic rows with the Barcelona government about the Catalan autonomy statute.

But then, the lesson of this affair, and we’ll see it illustrated in other ways, is that precedents don’t count for nothing when the Empire has made a decision.

There are a couple of other interesting points I’d like to explore, which involves going back to the original break-up of Yugoslavia. Brussels, on a rather dubious self-awarded mandate, decided that it was going to manage the break-up, and set up the famous Badinter Commission, a panel of judicial activists, to legitimise what it was going to do. Suffice to say, the Eurocrats then went on to flout the rulings of their own pet panel.

To cut a long story short, Badinter determined three main things. First was an a priori determination that Yugoslavia was in “a state of dissolution”, which wasn’t necessarily obvious or inevitable at the time, and the only remaining question was the division of the spoils. Well, whether or not the dissolution was inevitable pre-Badinter, it certainly became so afterwards, and that was no accident.

The second point was that the six republics of Yugoslavia were the units of self-determination, and that republican borders were inviolable. This was problematic from the point of view of Yugoslav constitutionality. Nobody really understood the unworkable 1974 constitution (I suspect that was deliberate on the part of Kardelj), but there were two types of self-determination enshrined there. The republics and autonomous provinces were held to be the organs of regional self-government (although the Republic of Serbia was neither fish nor fowl, having an enormous West Lothian question in Kosovo), but self-determination was also vested in the nations (narodi) of Yugoslavia. This, in ambiguous Titoist style, was the pay-off for having 40% of Serbs outside Serbia. It also explains the explosive nature of Tudjman’s downgrading of Serbs in the Croatian constitution from constituent nation to ethnic minority, which remains their status today. A constituent nation has certain inherent collective rights. An ethnic minority has whatever right the government chooses to give it. The point was not lost on Serbs who never really wanted to be part of Croatia in the first place.

But anyway, the “international community” determined that republican borders were sacrosanct. The purpose behind this was to pre-empt any Serb claims on parts of Croatia or Bosnia. This also meant, however, that Kosovo became an internal Serbian affair, which is how international governments treated it for most of the 1990s. The distinction never much bothered the anti-Serbian racists in outfits like the ICG, who seem hell-bent on re-establishing the borders of 1942, but the chancelleries of the Empire were a good bit more cautious. At least until late 1998, that is. And even after the 1999 war, the question of sovereignty was put on the back-burner for a while. In reviving it of late, there have been a few Jesuitical legal arguments, but the basic line of Imperial spin has been, well, that was then and this is now.

It would be a mistake, however, to see the reluctance to depart from the “republican borders” formula as purely down to legal issues. Once the formerly sacrosanct borders become malleable, that opens up a whole other can of worms. The elephant in the room of course is Republika Srpska. There is the Sandžak question, which could be mighty destabilising. There is the Felvidék question currently exercising the government of Slovakia. Above all, there are the Albanian irredentist movements in Macedonia (currently controlling around a third of the country), Montenegro, Serbia’s Preševo Valley and Greece (although that last one might be a tough nut to crack). And so on.

The third thing to issue from Badinter was the concept of “standards before status”. This was actually a rather good idea, in that aspiring states would have to meet certain standards of democracy, the rule of law and respect for minorities before getting international recognition. Trouble is, the Eurocrats then immediately broke this rule on grounds of realpolitik. Macedonia met the required standards but didn’t get recognition, through being blackballed by Greece and failing to have lined up a powerful sponsor. Croatia, on the other hand, flagrantly failed to meet the required standards but did get recognition on the insistence of the German government.

The embarrassing thing is that the Empire did set standards for Kosovo to meet before getting recognition. Not a single one of them has been met. And yet, recognition will be forthcoming because the Powers have decided so, and to back down now would involve an unacceptable loss of face. Also, it will annoy the Russians, which is just the sort of “democratic geopolitics” that led to the Khmer Rouge holding Cambodia’s UN seat for a dozen years after they were overthrown. And if I was the Russians, I’d be sorely tempted to follow through on my threat of recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Yes, behind all the chest-beating about the glories of humanitarian intervention there is a whole tangle of hypocrisy and naked power politics. But, in a situation where the spiv Milo Djukanović and the ethnic cleanser Hashim Thaçi are the agents of “democracy” against, er, the elected government in Belgrade, what do you expect? By the way, I give Thaçi credit for being able to say with a straight face that Kosovo will be judged on how it treats its Serbian minority. If there’s one left, that is.

My position, as it happens, is a more pragmatic one. I don’t claim to stand on the high moral ground of universal values, but I do think there are standards you can apply. And I also hold to the realist position that a strong moral case in the abstract doesn’t always equate to good policy.

For instance, as I’ve said before, there is a strong case in the abstract for Kosovo Albanians having the right to self-determination. In the here and now, I’m opposed to independence for Kosovo because the place is run by a bunch of mafiosi, its economy is based on the trafficking of drugs, arms and women, and giving this basket case the attributes of statehood will make a bad situation worse. (And why does Kosovo need a new flag when it could use the good old Jolly Roger? Although Montenegro might have a prior claim.) There’s an even stronger case for Chechen self-determination, but that isn’t very appealing when the actually existing Chechen separatist movement is dominated by crazy jihadis. And, before I get accused of being a terrible Slavophile, I’m also opposed to a declaration of independence by Republika Srpska, on the grounds that a decentralised Bosnia represents the best chance of avoiding a return to war.

Note that all these positions are conditional and all could change if circumstances change. It may not provide the easy satisfaction the interventionists get from venting about “evil Serbs”, “evil Russians”, or increasingly these days “evil Muslims”, but it’s less likely to lead you up ideological dead ends.

And, by the way, there are lots of de facto para-states knocking about. If we are going to back the idea of “standards before status” and all that malarkey, how come Kosovo can get the thumbs up but the Empire continues to pretend that Transnistria, South Ossetia, Karabakh or Abkhazia don’t exist? Or, for that matter, Somaliland?

Rud eile: I was sorry, although not surprised, to hear about the death at 59 of Brendan Hughes, a genuine republican hero. Brendan had been in very poor health for a long time, and it’s to his credit that he spoke out for what he believed in when he could have just fitted in comfortably to the peace process environment. He remained to the end a voice for those seeking an alternative to the GFA process, and was interested in political alternatives rather than just a reversion to old-style militarism. It’s a pity that he never got to see the emergence of a political alternative, because there’s still no credible one in sight.


  1. korakious said,

    February 18, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Finally. Some sense.

  2. Jason Cooper said,

    February 18, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Yes, indeed. Take a long hard close look at Transdniestria and you will see that there’s a place which is much more socially and ethnically at peace with itself than Kosovo, with a better-run government and with a better claim to recognition.

  3. Guano said,

    February 18, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    You could also have mentioned the US military base in Kosovo.

  4. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 18, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Ah yes! Camp Bondsteel, another thing that never seems to figure in these discussions.

  5. Johnny said,

    February 18, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Whatever happened to ‘post-nationalist Europe’?

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 18, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    Did it ever exist? Outside of John Hume speeches, that is?

  7. Guano said,

    February 18, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    “Brussels decided that it was going to manage the break-up”

    And the main lesson ought to be that in practice Brussels made a complete mess of it. This lesson is deliberately avoided by those who, first of all, blame Serbia for everything that went wrong and, secondly, see the main lesson as “there was too much appeasement of Slobbo”.

  8. andy newman said,

    February 18, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    Excellent argument.

    Only oe area of disagreement. I think the reason that Britain failed to recognise the Confederacy was that Lincoln (ne of my all time heroes) threatened to invade Canada, and reopen the question of soverignty of the Canadien provinces.

  9. Binh said,

    February 18, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    So you support resistance movements only when you find the politics of its leadership somewhat compatible from your own point of view?

    Chechnya and Kosovo are different from eachother, in that Kosovo’s “independence” is entirely dependent on the military protection afforded by U.S. imperialism which supports independence as a way to weaken Russia’s client, Serbia. The KLA ceased to be a national liberation movement when it allowed itself to be NATO’s pawns in 1999 and didn’t fight the foreign troops that came in after the war.

    The Chechnyan resistance is a 100% legitimate movement, even if I think the Islamicists leading it are scum, and they should win their independence. It would weaken Russia but no imperialist power is really to use them as a pawn.

  10. February 18, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    […] is a first class discussion of the problematic nature of Kosavan independence published over at the Splintered Sunrise blog, which argues: “There is a strong case in the abstract for Kosovo Albanians having the right […]

  11. chekov said,

    February 18, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    Good article – Somaliland and its neighbour Puntland are not given independence because they refuse to form themselves into states – they are a (relatively successful) reversion to rule by a sort of traditional large tribal gathering. From the “empire’s” point of view, they are disliked as they are not structured in such a way so as to take on Somalia’s foreign debt obligations. Hence imperial foreign policy in the area is determined to establish a central government in Mogadishu – plunging the north back into civil war in order to subjugate them under some Ethiopian gangster puppet if needs be.

    The most important thing to get about the various laws and norms of international relations theory is that it’s all total fantasy. In reality, it’s pure power games.

  12. louisproyect said,

    February 18, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    I haven’t written about Yugoslavia in a few years but I would recommend that people who want an alternative to the cruise-missile narrative check out my articles at:


    Just look for anything with Kosovo, Yugoslavia, etc. in the title.

  13. Renegade Eye said,

    February 19, 2008 at 3:25 am

    See this.

  14. February 19, 2008 at 5:23 am

    […] Splintered Sunrise There is a strong case in the abstract for Kosovo Albanians having the right to self-determination. […]

  15. WorldbyStorm said,

    February 19, 2008 at 8:50 am

    I do think there are serious problems here. Every recourse one has, as you note, say International law, self-determination, etc, etc is unconvincing from one perspective or another and still leads to a point where everyone is practicing pragmatism of one form or another. Those of us who think the declaration etc is a bad idea are hardly any less pragmatic than those who think it is, it’s just that we’ve lined up for various reasons on the ‘not today, perhaps tomorrow side’ – or perhaps more accurately ‘not this sort of sovereignty’ side. So I don’t know if any of us come out of this in any particularly good ideological or philosophical shape.

  16. Johnny said,

    February 19, 2008 at 9:56 am

    “Did it (post nationalist Europe) ever exist? Outside of John Hume speeches, that is?”

    It certainly would have been a much better path to follow than this current trend of recognising anyone who can offer the slightest bit of proof that they are a bit different from their immediate neighbour.

    Anyone for an independent Leinster?

  17. Dr Paul said,

    February 19, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    The Matgamnaite Shiraz Socialist site has congratulated the formal independence of Kosovo. See .

    I’ve sent this comment:

    Self-determination for Kosovo — a legitimate demand? The Kosovo Albanians were badly treated under the Yugoslav state; I get the feeling that they were never accepted as proper equal citizens of the South Slav state either in its prewar or postwar variants. Unlike the other nationalities of postwar Yugoslavia, the Kosovo Albanians were subject to national oppression. Certainly the call for equal treatment for the Albanians within Yugoslavia was a legitimate demand, as would be some form of constitutional arrangement that would allow them the same rights as the other Yugoslav nationalities.

    The disintegration of Yugoslavia, of course, rendered that solution increasingly difficult. But the call for self-determination for Kosovo raises real problems, ones that we are seeing now.

    Firstly, Kosovan Albanian nationalism, whilst a product of national oppression, took on the all the delightful attributes of other Balkan nationalist ternds. Hence, the manner in which the KLA operated was no different to the way the Serb, Croat, BiH Muslim militias and irregulars operated — killing, terrorising and expelling people on national/ethnical/religious grounds. It has been involved in criminal gangster activities, just like other Yugoslav nationalist groups. Serbs, Roma, Slav Muslims and other minorities in Kosovo have been systematically harassed, expelled and killed by Kosovan Albanian thugs and militias.

    Secondly, what is the nature of the Kosovan state, so happily welcomed by our blog-master? An impoverished, backward place brimming with ethnical/national tensions; more-or-less controlled by the big powers. An irony is that if the Prishtina government wished to merge with Albania proper, the big powers would not allow it to do so. Its actual ability to put self-determination into practice is limited by foreign powers.

    Thirdly, there is a serious precedent: that separatist movements will try to emulate what Kosovo has done. This could lead to various nasty situations in Europe and beyond, raising the spectre of more ethnical/national politics and pointless violence. The question of Albanians in Macedonia immediately arises. An interesting bit here is that the government of another Nato protectorate — Bosnia-Hercegovina — has not recognised the state of Kosovo, presumably because the secession of Kosovo from Serbia effectively legitimises the secession of the Serbian part of BiH from the rest of it, and potentially the Croatian bit as well, leaving BiH with not much at all.

    I don’t cheer the arrival of an independent Kosovo, no more than I cheered the break-up of Yugoslavia and supported the seceesionist movements. Some people on the left did both; this was as wrong as those leftists who saw the Belgrade government as a legitimate heir of Titoism and overlooking the crimes of the Serb nationalists. The Kosovo Albanians had real grievances; but the formation of an ethnically-oriented, impoverished dwarf Balkan state, is hardly anything to cheer, and not an inspiring end to the Yugoslav drama.

  18. Dr Paul said,

    February 19, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Sorry, the URL was missing. It’shttp://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/

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