Is Kosovo Really Independent?

Kosovo has declared independence, yet it has achieved anything but. The West’s acceptance of this new ‘status’, without safeguarding the rights of Kosovo’s minorities, will weaken the little moral authority it may have over Moscow and Beijing. 

Kosovo has declared independence, yet it has achieved anything but. The West’s acceptance of this new ‘status’, without safeguarding the rights of Kosovo’s minorities, will weaken the little moral authority it may have over Moscow and Beijing.

By Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director, International Security Studies Department, RUSI

‘We are an independent, free, sovereign and democratic country’ intoned Fatmir Sejdiu, the president of Kosovo, immediately after the province’s parliament declared the country’s independence.

Of course, Kosovo is none of these things: its independence will be questioned by many countries for years and, because of Russia’s veto, the new state has no chance of becoming a member of the United Nations. Its sovereignty is buttressed by the presence of large numbers of NATO forces, and the first act of the European Union after Kosovo proclaimed its sovereignty was to promise to send more administrators and advisers. Finally, all the claims for ‘democracy’ belong to the future: Kosovo’s Serbs will remain an ignored permanent minority in the country’s parliament and other ethnic minorities are unlikely to gain representation for a long time yet.

Furthermore, behind the claims of European ‘solidarity’ which are likely to be made today when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels, the reality remains that Europe is deeply divided about future policies in Kosovo. Britain, France and Germany have railroaded their preference for Kosovo’s independence despite the grave doubts expressed by Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus and Romania, to name but a few examples. And, to make matters worse, the ‘West’ – in reality, a clutch of just a few Western governments – has decided to simply ignore a United Nations Security Council resolution, which recognises Serb sovereignty over the province. When the United States went to war in Iraq, Europe was convulsed by legalistic arguments about the ‘imperative’ of having UN authorisation for any military action. But many of the same people who have cherished the United Nations’ supremacy in world affairs are now strangely silent about Kosovo; it appears that, after all, some UN Security Council resolutions are more binding than others and that resolutions which are no longer ‘fashionable’ in European intellectual circles can simply be ignored.

As always in the Balkans, it is very easy to construct a doomsday scenario. Russia could use the Kosovo precedent to immediately recognise ethnic Russian enclaves in former Soviet states such as Moldova or Georgia. The Serbs could cut off supplies of water and electricity to Kosovo, plunging the newly-born state into a major economic crisis. The Serb military could also move in to protect ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. And violence could erupt all around.

In reality, none of these doomsday scenarios are likely to happen. The Russians do not need to recognise ethnic Russian enclaves on the territory of the former Soviet Union immediately; they can do so at any time in the future, in a more leisurely manner. All that Moscow needs to do for the moment is to tout the possibility that it may recognise such enclaves in order to blackmail NATO against even considering offering full membership to Georgia (which has asked to become a member of the Alliance), and to threaten Ukraine of similar consequences should Kiev attempt to join NATO as well. The precedent of Kosovo is one which the Kremlin can keep in its pocket, to be deployed when required.

Nor is Serbia likely to resort to extreme measures. The authorities in Belgrade are deeply divided over their response, but politicians seem to be in agreement that the use of force is no longer an option. The ethnic Serbs of Kosovo are already leading a separate existence; this will continue and Kosovo will remain divided, very much like Bosnia still is. Yet the Serbs are unlikely to push for a formal separation from Kosovo.

But the European Union has no right to be complacent. Kosovo’s two million residents ‘enjoy’ a gross national income of only $1,000 per head, similar to that of some of the poorest countries in Africa. The traditional argument was that this poverty is due to the province’s uncertain status: without a clear legal regime, investors refused to bring their money. But the legal situation of Kosovo is unlikely to be clarified for years, so the investors still will not come; Kosovo will remain poor, a ward of the West. Economic reconstruction will therefore remain a key challenge.

Democracy inside Kosovo will also remain a dream. Since NATO intervened in the Balkans in 1999, Western governments had one slogan: ‘standards before status’, meaning that the province would first have to adopt a constitution protecting ethnic minority rights and respecting existing frontiers before it gains its independence. Nothing was done, so the West shifted its position: it argued that ‘standards’ and ‘status’ could come at the same time. But, when this was also not respected, Europe resigned itself to the current situation, and granted ‘status’ – namely independence – before the democratic standards are in place. From now on, the going will be much harder: having granted Kosovo its independence, the EU is reduced to the role of trying to push the Kosovars to accept new constitutional provisions allowing for the return of the Serbs and Roma people expelled from the province, with none of the levers of pressure which the EU enjoyed before.

A classic example of this difficulty was evident already yesterday when Mr Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s prime minister, said that he is proposing to ‘negotiate’ with Macedonia – a neighbouring state which has its own large Albanian ethnic minority – about ‘any territorial difficulties’. The border between Kosovo and Macedonia was supposed to be settled before Kosovo obtained its independence, but the issue was not settled, so grave problems are now likely to occur. And nobody in the Balkans believes that Kosovo will be a ‘multi-ethnic’ state. In short, dreams remain just dreams.

Years from now, when most Western politicians will have forgotten the story of Kosovo, the episode will come back to haunt them. Whenever the West preaches again to the Chinese or the Russians about the need to respect international law and the primacy of the United Nations, Moscow and Beijing will retort with one word: Kosovo. Yet again, Europe has moved rashly and without much consideration in order to solve one immediate problem. And, yet again, this has merely created even more difficulties.

Dr Jonathan Eyal, Director, International Security Studies Department, RUSI

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Explore our related content