Kosovo: plaything of the Great Powers

Ignore the shrill claims about irrational ethnic desires pushing Serbia and Kosovo towards conflict - it's foreign meddling that is fracturing the region.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics World

America, Russia and the European Union are set to deliver a report today to the United Nations Security Council on last month’s failed negotiations between Serb and Kosovo Albanian leaders on the future status of Kosovo. Since NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 to expel Serbian security forces from the province, Kosovo has been in political limbo – still nominally under Serbian sovereignty, but administered as a UN protectorate and occupied by NATO forces.

Kosovo’s Albanian leadership has announced its intention to declare independence from Serbia after 10 December. Serbia has vowed to challenge this with all means, ‘short of force’. But what is really happening behind the rumours of impending war and ethnic rivalry? They only way to get to the bottom of the conflict is by tearing away four key myths that obscure it.

Myth 1: Ethnic antagonism is driving the conflict

According to the political analyst Ilana Bet-El, the ‘basic confrontation’ in the region is about the ‘unwillingness of the different ethnicities, especially the Serbs, to live together with any other ethnic group – or to be ruled by another’ (1). Yet from start to finish, the crisis over Kosovo has deepened not because of spiralling ethnic conflict, but because of decisions made in Brussels, New York, Washington and Moscow.

What makes the stand-off a flashpoint for international tension is not the bitterness of ancient grudges, but the fact that the Great Powers have invested themselves in the conflict, producing a three-cornered rivalry between Washington, Brussels and Moscow. As a result, what is at stake in the conflict is not ethnic domination, but the prestige and position of the Great Powers.

Struggling to revive its battered foreign policy, the Bush administration has cast itself in the role of Big Uncle, spreading freedom and democracy by helping little Kosovo to gain independence. The EU is muscling in on the UN’s turf, keen for a piece of the peacekeeping-and-protectorates action that the UN has monopolised over the past decade. Having established a protectorate next door in Bosnia, the EU now sees another opportunity in Kosovo to practice its Potemkin colonialism – erecting the façade of nationhood to prove the existence of a common EU foreign policy. Russian president Vladimir Putin has backed Serbia, threatening the use of Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council against any move to supervise independence through the UN. But this is not due to Slavic brotherhood so much as Putin polishing his strongman image in the international arena. The stakes have been raised far beyond a regional dispute, and it is these stakes that are driving the current diplomatic crisis.

Myth 2: The Serbs refuse to compromise because of Kosovo’s place in Serbian history

According to the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, Kosovo is part of Serbs’ ‘emotional and historical integrity’ (2). Time and again, the Serbian stance on Kosovo is explained by reference to Serbs’ attachment to Kosovo as the ‘cradle of Serb civilisation’.

In other words, the Serbian stance on Kosovo is irrational – a mere emotional spasm. This means, in effect, that Serbs are being over-emotional when they object to being isolated by UN sanctions for a decade, when they oppose being bombed day and night for 79 days, and when they baulk at having their country amputated by international diktat. From this point of view, the height of rationality would be voluntarily to dismember your own territory in order to spare the Western powers the embarrassment. Anything less than immediate compliance is put down to emotional immaturity.

In truth, the Serbian response to international pressure over Kosovo is not down to ancient birthrights, but something much more profound: the universal impulse to resist being attacked and undermined by meddlesome outsiders.

Myth 3: Kosovo is seeking self-determination

Calling on the EU to ‘stand firm’, Jonathan Steele argues that ‘Kosovo is moving towards independence’ (3). But a bid to separate from Serbia does not amount to independence. Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s prime minister, former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrilla and would-be independence leader, has already said that any declaration of independence will be made in close consultation with Washington and Brussels.

But real independence is never made on someone else’s say so. From the beginning, it has been made clear that the EU will establish a mission with extensive powers of oversight over any ‘independent’ Kosovar government. Or, in other words, the EU will have the final say, but it will be the Kosovo Albanian government that will be accountable for EU policy. As such, Kosovo will be the first state founded since 1945 whose hands and feet will be bound at birth, its constitution containing provisions to set formal limits on the state’s freedom of action.

According to Simon Jenkins, Thaci really wants ‘the luxuriant post-intervention dependency enjoyed by Bosnia, Sierra Leone and the embattled regimes in Baghdad and Kabul’. Perhaps if it were really luxurious, it wouldn’t be so bad, but judging by the record of dependency cultivated by the UN, there will be little to luxuriate in. Despite having had the better part of a decade, billions in aid dollars and a plethora of dictatorial, neo-colonial powers at its disposal, the UN has failed to integrate Kosovo’s divided communities, failed to spur economic growth, failed to provide security for Kosovo’s minorities and failed to build any coherent institutions of government. On the eve of apparent independence, Kosovo’s recent elections saw the lowest turn-out since 1999 – hardly the mark of a people surging towards freedom. It seems that Kosovar voters correctly ascertained that their destiny has been taken out of their hands.

In truth, the Kosovo Albanian leadership sold out any meaningful self-determination for their people back in 1999, when the KLA organised its strategy around involving NATO in the conflict with Belgrade – turning a putative struggle for independence into a humanitarian rescue operation. After casting themselves as weak and powerless, that was, sure enough, the way the international community treated them, sending an appointed viceroy to rule them and an army to occupy them.

Myth 4: EU integration provides the ultimate solution to regional problems

According to commentator Timothy Garton Ash, the ‘best answer’ for both Kosovo and Serbia is EU membership (4). Certainly, both countries ardently desire it, longing to escape ethnic enmity by entering the cosmopolitan bliss of European unity.

But, like paradise, the benefits of heavenly Europe are always postponed, coming at the cost of life in the present. As the states of the former Yugoslavia are submerged into a protracted process of EU accession, they have to conform to various guidelines and regulations issued from Brussels, restructure government departments and pass, reform and implement new laws. All this for the promise of EU membership, and despite the fact that no concrete timeline or definitive date for membership have been set. In other words, Serbia already endures all the privations and obligations of EU membership, with none of the supposed benefits. If Kosovo becomes an EU satrapy, it will already be integrated into the EU: not as a member, but as a ward of Brussels, nominally independent but deemed too immature to stand alone.

EU peacemaking claims to defuse antagonism by broadening the context of conflict. But all it really does is diffuse political accountability, dispersing it across multiple levels of authority. By staking so much on EU accession, both Kosovar and Serbian political leaders have given themselves up to the mercy of a process far beyond their control, whose pace is subject to all sorts of arbitrary international pressures, dependent on the mood of Western leaders and electorates.

This leads to only one conclusion: the problem is not ethnic groups struggling for independence, but the perpetuation of dependence; not too much self-determination, but too little. The peoples of the former Yugoslavia can never achieve independence by playing the Great Powers off against each other.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A critique of contemporary international relations (UCL Press, 2007). Read more about the book here; buy the book from Amazon(UK) here)

Previously on spiked

David Chandler argued that the existence of sovereignty without policymaking independence has undermined the public sphere in the Balkans. He described how the UN is dumping responsibility for its mess in Kosovo on to the European Union. Philip Cunliffe pointed out that while Serbia voted in parliamentary elections, the West decided on its future. Frank Furedi said politics without sovereignty is not politics at all. Or read more at spiked issue Former Yugoslavia.

(1) A lingering sore, Ilana Bet-El, Guardian, 22 November 2007

(2) It’s hard to imagine a worse outcome for the Balkans, Simon Jenkins , Guardian, 21 November 2007

(3) Stand firm on Kosovo, Jonathan Steele , Guardian, 28 September 2007

(4) The best answer for Kosovo is EU membership – and for Serbia too, Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian, 6 December 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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