Kosovo: the obedient child of Europe

Kosovo has not ‘declared independence’. It has slavishly submitted to the rule of UN officials, NATO troops and dictatorial modern-day viceroys.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics World

As has been expected for some time, Serbia’s breakaway province of Kosovo (mostly populated by ethnic Albanians) formally declared independence on 17 February 2008.

In the run-up to yesterday’s declaration, the issue of Kosovo’s independence has been discussed in terms of the need to resolve the province’s status versus the destructive precedent that it might set by stoking other secessionist movements, particularly in tense regions like the Caucasus. Some commentators have wondered whether the new state will ever win recognition from countries with their own restive minorities, and whether such a small and impoverished state can ever be economically viable. None of these positions cuts to the heart of the issue.

For the past eight years Kosovo has been run not from Belgrade but as a United Nations protectorate (UNMIK), complete with an internationally-appointed viceroy. UNMIK was established after NATO bombed Serbia into withdrawing from the province in 1999. So in yesterday’s declaration, Kosovo’s parliament did not declare independence from Belgrade – yet nor did it declare independence from the ruling UN. Instead, the declaration embraces a model of supervised independence (1).

Under the terms of this model, the UN protectorate will be replaced by the ‘European Union Rule of Law Mission’ (EULEX), a 2,000-strong nation-building mission, incorporating police and judicial officials from the European Union to manage Kosovo’s legal system. Like the UN viceroys that preceded him, Pieter Feith, the head of EULEX, will have sweeping undemocratic powers to dismiss public officials and veto parliamentary legislation.

The constitution of the new state also incorporates the Ahtisaari Plan – a framework for independence drafted not by Kosovo’s parliamentarians but by UN diplomat Martti Ahtisaari. The Plan sets various restrictions on the new state, committing it to international supervision of its minority protection regime and forbidding it from voluntarily merging with any other country. To top it off, Kosovo will continue to be occupied by a 16,000-strong NATO army that will retain ultimate responsibility for security.

From the outset, the run-up to the declaration has been intricately coordinated with the EU, to ensure that it fits the timetable of ministerial meetings in Brussels rather than anything happening in Kosovo. Under the terms of ‘supervised independence’, Kosovo’s political leaders have willingly cast themselves in the role of obedient children, to be chastised and patronised by Brussels about democracy and multiculturalism, even as Brussels makes them submit to an unelected viceroy with dictatorial powers.

What this means is that the debate about international law and the merits or otherwise of Kosovo’s independence is largely irrelevant. This is because the very way in which the case for independence has been made undermines itself. What point is there discussing abstractly the rights and wrongs of independence for Kosovo when Kosovo’s own leaders have voluntarily offered their people up for EU nation-building experiments? Even Kosovo’s new flag has been designed in consultation with outside experts, who have excised the Albanian national colours and symbols. Out goes the red flag with the two-headed eagle, which people in Kosovo waved from cars at the weekend; in comes a new, pale blue flag with a map of Kosovo on it, which bears a striking resemblance to the EU flag.

Independence on someone else’s say so is no independence at all. In other words, the substantial issue at stake here is not Kosovo’s independence, but its dependence.

As regards international politics, there is already ample precedent for what is happening in Kosovo. In terms of recognising secession, the European Community (forerunner of the EU) did the same back in 1991, when it recognised the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from Yugoslavia, thereby sparking the subsequent bloody civil wars. The reason this is not mooted in discussion of Kosovo today is because no one, including the Serbian political elite, has any wish to associate themselves with old Yugoslav ideas of multinational unity.

As for the worries about other volatile regions, the case that most closely matches that of Kosovo are not the ethnic enclaves on Russia’s borders, but East Timor. East Timor also emerged from UN tutelage when it formally declared independence in 2002, until it collapsed into strife in 2006, calling for more peacekeepers. Since the failed assassination attempt on President Jose-Ramos Horta on 11 February, East Timor has seen the arrival of more Australian troops, turning the country into an Australian colony in all but name. Judging by the case of this parallel UN protectorate, the future for Kosovo does not look bright.

The pernicious precedent that is special to the case of Kosovo is the institutionalisation of the idea of ‘supervised independence’. In many ways, supervised independence is more insidious than outright repression. If national oppression is the opposite of national liberation, then the idea of supervised independence subverts the possibility of freedom much more thoroughly. For unlike outright oppression, ‘supervised independence’ enshrines the idea that freedom can never be fully realised, but can only ever be enjoyed in small measure. The condition of petty freedoms is conceding that real freedom is unworkable. When so little value is placed on sovereignty and autonomy, people never have the possibility fully to apprehend and openly confront the issues and political stakes involved in self-determination.

The travesty of Kosovo’s declaration of independence is not the act of secession, nor the undermining of international law, but the very idea of supervised independence – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one.

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

Philip Cunliffe characterised Kosovo as the plaything of the Great Powers and 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. David Chandler said Kosovo was declaring dependence and 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. Or read more at spiked issue Former Yugoslavia.

1) Read the full text of Kosovo’s declaration of independence here.

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Topics World


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