Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Kosovo Conundrum

I read Timothy Garton Ash’s column in yesterday’s Guardian (UK) on the likely impending independence of Kosovo, and while I agree with his main point – Kosovo is a problem with no good, or simple solutions – he mentions in passing a point that deserves far more consideration.

Ash states: “who, under what circumstances, has the right to self-determination is a conundrum that liberals have spent 160 years failing to resolve.”

It is an important question that goes unanswered in Kosovo’s seeming march towards independence. The Kosovars suffered at the hands of the Serbs (as Ash describes in detail in his column), so therefor they deserve to be free from them. It’s an appeal that on an emotional level is hard to refute. But by the international community not addressing the question that Ash passes off as too tough to answer – namely under what circumstances do one people have the right to be independent of another – the seeds are sown for other conflicts.

Tucked away in the southeast corner of Europe is Abkhazia, a region in the nation of Georgia that for years has been seeking its own independence. Like the Kosovars, the Abkhaz claim to be an oppressed minority within their current nation, and like the Kosovars, the Abkhaz fought a war for independence. Like Kosovo, for years Abkhazia has been operating as a de facto state within a state (Abkhazia declared its independence in 1991, though no nation has yet to recognize their claim). Meanwhile the Georgians, like the Serbs, feel this breakaway region is an inherent part of their nation and do not want to give it up.

So if Kosovo is granted its independence, then shouldn’t Abkhazia get theirs as well?

Next to Kosovo is Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was the site of a brutal war between its main ethnic groups – Bosnian Muslims and Croats on one side, Bosnian Serbs on the other. Since 1995 the nation has been at peace. In reality Bosnia and Herzegovina is two states in one, a coalition of Bosnian Muslims and Croats and a separate Bosnian Serb state (Republika Srpska), bound together in a loose federal government. Recently some have said that should Kosovo break away from Serbia; the Republika Srpska should in turn break away from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Will the Bosnian Serbs have this right?

Even within Kosovo there are divisions. Kosovo Serbs make up about 5% of the population, with many concentrated in towns in the north of the region near the border with Serbia. The AP is reporting that these Serbs fear reprisals from the ethnic Albainian Kosovars should independence be granted, some have discussed breaking their northern region away from Kosovo and rejoining Serbia.

Would the Kosovo Serbs then be justified in declaring their independence? Or Republika Srpska? Or Abkhazia? Or any of the other troubled regions around the world? When do people get this elusive right to self-determination?

The problem, the one not being addressed by the UN, the European Union, the pundits, or by anyone else, is that Kosovo cannot exist in a vacuum. Other peoples who feel they are being oppressed, who long for a state of their own, will look to Kosovo and say if there, then why not here?

Perhaps there is a compelling case to be made for Kosovo’s independence; I am not trying to claim that there is not. What is the flaw in this situation - the flaw Ash points out so well - is that there is no process in place to illustrate why independence is the correct path in Kosovo's case, and to illustrate in what other cases independence would be justified, and conversely when it would not. International bodies like the United Nations and the European Union were created to deal with difficult questions like these. It’s not enough to say political theorists have been wrestling with the problem of self-determination for centuries leave it at that.
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