Kosovo Crisis: No End in Sight

05 Mar, 2008    ·   2507

Sonali Huria states that recognizing Kosovo's UDI will set a dangerous precedent for secessionist movements across the globe

As Kosovo rejoices in its new-found 'freedom,' thousands of enraged Bosnian Serbs continue to pour into Belgrade to protest the breaking away of a province that is considered Serbia's cultural and religious nucleus. There have been sporadic instances of violence, most notably the torching of the American Embassy in Belgrade on 21 February by rioters, in an expression of their outrage against America's role in bringing the current crisis upon the Balkans. Apart from the United States, countries that have decided to extend diplomatic recognition to Kosovo include Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, and Austria, among others.

The nine-year long Kosovo crisis, beginning with NATO's indiscriminate bombings in 1999, however, seems far from over. If anything, it threatens to bring greater instability not only to the Balkans, but to other regions grappling with minority issues. Serbia has vehemently opposed Kosovo's moves towards secession from the start for, giving up its claims over the latter essentially implies ceding nearly 15 per cent of Serbian territory. Kosovo's independence also raises questions of its economic viability as an independent nation-state. According to 2006 World Bank and Statistics Office of Kosovo estimates, it is the poorest region in the Balkans and among the poorest in Europe, with nearly 45 per cent of its population living below the poverty line and 14 per cent below the 'extreme poverty' line. Therefore, it remains to be seen if it will be able to sustain itself economically or end up joining the ranks of the multitude of economically fragile states across the globe.

While the West has frequently argued that an independent Kosovo is certain to bring stability to the Balkans, the ground realities indicate otherwise. Kosovo's ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo, for instance, have expressed their total rejection of Pristina's 17 February declaration of independence, leading to concerns that they might push for secession from an independent Kosovo. The Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has threatened that the Serb Republic might follow Kosovo's example and withdraw from Bosnia. Russia, a traditional ally of Serbia, has been no less acerbic in its criticism of Kosovo's declaration. China, Spain, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Cyprus have condemned this latest development in the Balkans, especially since most of them are wrestling with their own problems of separatism.

While criticism and approval of Kosovo's self-proclaimed independence appear in the media with frenzied rapidity, there is little debate over America's critical role in these events. Its involvement in the Serbian province began with NATO's 1999 aerial bombing of Serbia - illegal according to international law and with complete disregard for the UN. The bombing was undertaken citing a civilian 'massacre' of ethnic Kosovar Albanians - a claim discredited since as being wholly exaggerated. This was the first challenge by the US to the practice of international relations, based on principles of non-intervention, non-use of force, and mutual respect for national sovereignty. Now, with the breaking away of Kosovo without Serbian consent, the US is lending credence to the forcible re-drawing of territorial boundaries without the consent of all concerned parties - a flagrant violation of international law. This has laid bare America's Janus-faced policy regarding issues of national sovereignty and territorial integrity; in 1991, it attacked Iraq on precisely the same grounds, namely to reverse Iraq's usurpation of Kuwait's territory.

Kosovo's 'independence' has not failed to ruffle feathers in South Asia. Sri Lanka was unequivocally critical in its denouncement of the declaration, fearing that the separatist LTTE in its own backyard would become emboldened into pressing harder for a separate Tamil state. China too has its share of separatist woes in Tibet and Xinjiang, while India faces similar pressures in Kashmir. Kosovo's unilateral separation from Serbia with active Western backing, therefore, threatens to set a dangerous precedent in the practice of international relations with serious implications for South Asia.

Additionally, it raises several other questions. For one, can international law be disregarded by powerful states to facilitate the re-drawing of territorial boundaries at will, without the consent of the parent country from which a minority wishes to break away? Will it be acceptable then for China or Pakistan to recognize Kashmir's self-declared independence, or vice versa, if India were to recognize a separate Balochistan in Pakistan or Tamil state in Sri Lanka? More importantly, do multiethnic or multicultural states trying to maintain the integrity of their diverse identities despite the western model of a homogenous nation-state, not have a right to exist?

Leaders in South Asia and the international community at large must reflect on these issues in all seriousness, failing which the hitherto sacrosanct principle of national sovereignty around which the international nation-state system is structured, may well become redundant.