Kosovo gains independence – again?

Under the guise of granting sovereignty, the UN is dumping responsibility for its mess in Kosovo on to the European Union.

David Chandler

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The latest UN proposals for Kosovo have been widely viewed in the international media as marking an important step towards independence. However, for many commentators, the plan put forward by the UN’s special mediator, Martti Ahtisaari, does not go far enough. Instead, it is seen as a sign of UN and EU weakness, in the face of Serbian and Russian reluctance to allow the people of Kosovo to have their freedom.

Under the UN plan, Kosovo would not have full sovereignty and would, for example, be ineligible to apply for membership of the UN. However, the government would be able to join some international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and to have more of the formal trappings of sovereignty, such as its own security forces (1).

There is an air of déjà vu about these discussions. It seems that eight years after Kosovo was first ‘freed’ from the rump Yugoslav state – following a 78-day NATO bombing campaign and the establishment of an ‘autonomous’ regime under a United Nations-run administration – the same international parties are again attempting to free the tiny province from Serb rule.

However, the international debates over the question of Kosovo’s independence have been framed in a misleading way. If the issue was Kosovo’s independence from Serbia then it would seem strange that the issue has dragged on as long as it has. After all, Kosovo has had eight years of separate and ‘autonomous’ rule under the UN’s administration. Considering Serbia’s increased ‘openness’ and dependency on integration into European Union institutions, the new plans seem to make very little difference to Kosovo’s situation.

Anyone would think that the Serbs were clinging on to Kosovo and holding off the advances of the UN, EU and US. Jonathan Steele, writing in the Guardian, portrays the situation in this way. ‘Why the Western spinelessness?’, he complains, suggesting that letting the Serbs delay and frustrate plans for Kosovo’s independence can only be a result of ‘post-bombing guilt’ or a wrong-headed attempt to head-off support for radical Serb nationalism. Steele suggests that a third reason for ‘spinelessness’ might be fear of Russia vetoing the plans in the Security Council (2).

If Kosovo’s future depended on the restructuring of the province’s relationship to Belgrade, then the eight years of international diplomacy, high-level forums and countless think tank reports would appear to have been a complete waste of time. The relationship was fundamentally changed when the province was ‘freed’ the first time around, in 1999. The problem of Kosovo today has little to do with Serbian rule – Serbia has not been ruling the province for the last eight years – but a lot to do with the rule of the United Nations administration (UNMIK).

In fact, it is Kosovo’s present ‘independence’, rather than its future independence, which is the problem the international administrators are grappling with. This is because the province’s independence since 1999 has been premised on external intervention. This external dependency has merely grown deeper the more international institutions have become engaged in running the province. As with Bosnia since the Dayton agreement of 1995, the rule of an unaccountable international bureaucracy has institutionalised the province’s ethnic and political divisions and its situation as an ‘economic basket case’ (3). Independence for Kosovo has therefore meant the opposite of freedom or self-government; and the transparent relationship of dependency – formalised in the international protectorate powers of UNMIK – has become an ongoing problem for the international actors involved.

There is a strong sense of déjà vu because the UN’s proposals which ‘promise Kosovo’s independence’ are expressed as if the last eight years had not happened. In many respects, time has, in fact, stood still in the tiny province (only about half the size of Wales or the state of New Jersey). There has been little change in any area of life in Kosovo, from refugee return to employment and economic reconstruction. The United Nations administration of the province has increasingly become an international embarrassment for an organisation which claims to be best placed to solve the problems of state-building (4).

The embarrassment is made worse because, despite having the full powers of an international protectorate, little has been achieved – the province remains politically and ethnically divided, power supplies remain irregular, unemployment still stands at well over 40 percent, GDP actually fell in 2005 – and the administration’s legitimacy has increasingly been challenged by both Kosovo-Albanians and Kosovo-Serbs (5).

It is UNMIK’s problems that are being addressed in the Ahtisaari plan, not the concerns of the people of Kosovo. Ahtisaari seeks to formalise the passing of responsibility for the dead end UN mission to the European Union. The European Union’s own uncertainty with regard to Kosovo has been the main reason for the stalling and delay. The basic administrative structure has been clear for some time, with EU planning teams working on the basis that the new Kosovo administration will be run by the EU’s special representative (EUSR) acting as the international civilian representative (ICR) (along similar lines to Bosnia, where the EUSR is also the head of the international administration) and below this level there will be a US deputy ICR and EU deputy ICR heading the European Security and Defence Policy mission.

The EU has not welcomed assuming responsibility for running Kosovo with open arms. This is hardly surprising considering the experience of UNMIK, let alone the disappointment of the EU’s own administrative mission in Bosnia – where the current EU special representative was forced to resign last month (6). The EU cannot avoid taking over the management of Kosovo but is much happier lecturing other states on how to behave rather than directly managing them itself.

The UN and the EU are embarrassed, not only by the extent of the dependency of the province upon international support, but also by their seeming inability to ameliorate the province’s political and social problems. It is for this reason that both the UN and the EU are more than happy to bring the Kosovo-Albanians and the Serbian government into endless discussions about Kosovo’s ‘future independence’.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding.

(1) Richard Beeston, Kosovo sovereignty plan raises tensions in the heart of Europe, The Times (London), 27 January 2007

(2) Jonathan Steele, Delay in recognising Kosovo will invite more bloodshed, Guardian, 26 January 2007

(3) Stephen Castle, The Big Question: Is Kosovo just an accident of war, and can it thrive as an independent state?, Independent, 26 January 2007

(4) For example, in the establishment of the UN Peacebuilding Commission

(5) For the extensive powers of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), see the organisation’s website; for the latest official economic data from the European Commission, see the Candidate and Pre-Accession Countries Economies Quarterly (updated 15 January 2007), pp.30-32; for the political situation see, for example, International Crisis Group, Kosovo’s Status: Difficult Months Ahead, Europe Briefing No.45, 20 December 2006, pp.10-13

(6) Ian Traynor, German Bosnia chief ‘fired’ after just a year, Guardian, 24 January 2007

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