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Kosovo and Separatism

Last week, I counted Kosovo’s declaration of independence as a good thing. I still think that, on balance, it was. But I’m increasingly interested and perhaps troubled by how much I didn’t and don’t know about the whole thing.

And sadly, what commentary I’ve seen about it hasn’t really clarified the issue for me. Most visible opponents of Kosovo’s independence seem vaguely allied with Serbia or to have some related ax to grind. It’s often cited that those countries that have most prominently failed to recognize Kosovo’s independence have separatist movements of their own–Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia. I’m not swayed by this argument, because none of those have provoked–whether merited or not–outside intervention on behalf of one of the parties.

The basic argument here is made by Serbia’s foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, in a New York Times Op-Ed, in which he says:

Recognizing the unilateral declaration of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia legitimizes the doctrine of imposing solutions to ethnic conflicts. It legitimizes the act of unilateral secession by a provincial or other non-state actor. It transforms the right to self-determination into an avowed right to independence. It legitimizes the forced partition of internationally recognized, sovereign states.

Now aside from the need to discredit any commenter who has a horse in the race he’s covering, there is a legitimate point to be heard here. After all, Serbia had been willing to offer Kosovo nearly complete autonomy if it had remained a province of Belgrade. This, to one not schooled in Kosovo’s grievances, seems like an admirable solution.

And if you believe, as many seem to, that NATO intervention in the Kosovo issue was illegal and illegitimate, it stands to reason that this is indeed a great historical injustice. I have to plead ignorant on the question of whether or not the intervention was legitimate, my interest at the time that it occurred was minimal and my learning since–even after reading the Wikipedia article on the topic–has been limited. And, it seems, no news source I can get my hands on wants to tackle this difficult issue fraught with pitfalls.

The more interesting point, to me, is the question of Slobodan Milosevic. Even Mr. Jeremic admits that what he did was bad, but he makes the interesting claim that punishing the state for it is illegitimate.

A historical injustice is being imposed on a European country that has overcome more obstacles since we democratically overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 than most other nations have in a much longer time. Recognizing Kosovo means saying, in effect, that Serbian democracy must be punished because a tyrant — one who committed heinous deeds against the Kosovo Albanians in the 1990s — was left unpunished. Such misplaced revenge may make some feel better, but it will make the international system feel much worse.

Again, limited by own ignorance, I can’t really accede to or deny this version of history. And so here I am, unsure. I’m tempted to reach out and blame the news media–or the weak narratives of Wikipedia articles–for my inability to come to meaningful conclusion on the question of Kosovo and separatism. I’m sure that’s unfair.

But I do wish I had some answers instead of all these questions. Maybe the best non-resolution to the issue I’ve seen is offered by Al Eislele, who said, “The tortured history and complex nature of the Serb-Kosovo conflict leaves non-expert observers like me open to criticism.” Perhaps that, then, is the nature of foreign policy.

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