Kosovo and the end of national liberation

The doublespeak in Kosovo’s ‘supervised independence’ sets a dangerous precedent, dressing up occupation as ‘freedom’ and interference as ‘democracy’.

Philip Cunliffe

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There has been much discussion over the past few days as to what precedents will be set for international law following Kosovo’s declaration of independence last weekend. Will Kosovo’s secession from Serbia encourage other minorities to bid for independence, sparking off more conflicts? How can the secession be justified without the backing of the United Nations Security Council?

Media coverage has been concerned with which countries will recognise Kosovo and which will refuse. The problem with this discussion is that very little attention has been paid to the form that Kosovo’s bid for autonomy has taken: that of ‘supervised independence’. That this important fact has been noted only in passing goes to show just how uncontroversial this idea is. Yet it is without a doubt the most troubling aspect of all this turmoil.

Supervised independence subverts the idea of national independence much more thoroughly than traditional imperialism or even brutal national oppression. Under the terms of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, it has willingly accepted a 2,000-strong nation-building operation from the European Union (EU), to ensure the rule of law in the new state. Some commentators have pointed out that this effectively makes Kosovo’s independence a sham. As I argued on spiked earlier this week, the new state will have the trappings of independence – a national flag, embassies, and so on – but none of the substance of sovereign statehood: the unrestricted right to live under its own laws and institutions (see Kosovo: the obedient child of Europe). This is because the representative of the EU in Kosovo will have the power to strike down legislation he or she dislikes. The result will be an empty shell of a country, filled with EU and NATO power.

But even this is not the whole story. It is not just the gap between appearance and reality that is so troubling here. The form of Kosovo’s independence is just as worrying, quite apart from the fact that Kosovo will be a de facto EU puppet state. For the idea of supervised independence undermines self-determination more than bullets and bombs ever can. In ‘supervised independence’, full independence is substituted for ‘independence-lite’. Here, the hunger for freedom is satisfied just enough to contain the appetite, while the actual substance of freedom is denied. Kosovo will be free … except where it counts.

The case of Kosovo illustrates that the existence of even purely formal, empty standards is important, because at least this gives us a yardstick by which we can judge the conduct of politics in practice. At the very least, ideals give us something to aspire to. If it was claimed that Kosovo was fully sovereign, then it would always be possible to contrast the ideal of Kosovo’s independence with the reality of its domination by the EU. But even this most basic mode of political criticism – comparing ideals with reality – will become more difficult in the case of Kosovo, where it is openly admitted that Kosovo is not fully sovereign.

This will have real, tangible effects on the functioning of democracy in Kosovo. In a situation where the state is both formally circumscribed from the outside and independent at the same time, we have a scenario where it will be much harder to clarify political roles and responsibilities. By the same token, it will be much easier to evade political accountability. Under the terms of such regulated sovereignty, it will never be clear where political initiatives originate, or which political claims have genuine precedence: those of the EU or the Kosovo government. Kosovo’s government will legally be unable to resist the encroachment of the EU on its policymaking. On the other hand, it will not be able to cry ‘imperialism!’ either, because it actually conceded to a model of limited autonomy at the outset.

Kosovo also illustrates how international interventionism perversely serves to exonerate national political elites from accountability to their own people. Kosovo’s political leaders will be able to invoke the demands of the international community when calling upon their people to make more sacrifices. Similarly, in Serbia, the political elite will be able to pose as national champions, deflecting attention from other pressing concerns in the drive to recover Kosovo. Serbian prime minister Vojislav Koštunica has already announced a generational struggle to recover the breakaway province.

The model of supervised independence formalises and institutionalises trends that are more widespread in international politics today. The fact that supervised independence can be mooted shows how little store is put by the idea of sovereign self-determination. Much like Kosovo, neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina has recently been transferred from being a protectorate of the international community to that of the EU. Yet throughout this period, Bosnia has always had the status of being a fully sovereign state. In Kosovo, this process has been taken a step further: not only will the new Kosovo be an EU protectorate in actuality, it will also be given a degraded version of sovereignty to boot.

In this brave new world order, sovereignty is seen as something that can be talked up to placate the masses, while their governments lock themselves into international regulation in order to restrict the power of their own people. Kosovo shows how far this international process has advanced. This is the real precedent to come out of the case of Kosovo – and easily the most dangerous. If we accept uncritically this idea of ‘supervised independence’, we will lose the measure of the very meaning of national liberation and freedom.

Philip Cunliffe was interviewed about Kosovo for Antiwar Radio – listen to it here. He 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 argued that Kosovo’s independence made it no more than the obedient child of Europe. Earlier, he characterised it as the plaything of the Great Powers. 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.

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

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