Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

A united Cyprus: First fruit of Kosova’s independence ?

We were warned that recognising Kosova’s independence would open a Pandora’s box, triggering global chaos by encouraging innumerable other secessionist territories across the world to declare their own independence in the hope of recognition. The threatened consequence was always something of a non-sequitur, since the secessionist territories most frequently cited – Northern Cyprus, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria – had all already seceded from the countries to which they formally belong. How could recognition of Kosova’s independence spark the secession of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), when the TRNC had already declared independence from Cyprus back in 1983, twenty-five years before Kosova was recognised ? It’s a riddle to which President Vladimir Putin of Eurasia no doubt has the answer, one that he may reveal to us in the course of his current propaganda war against Oceania. Putin is himself fond of the supposed Kosova – TRNC parallel. It is therefore particularly poignant that the recognition of Kosova’s independence appears to be having the exact opposite result to the one that he and other prophets of doom predicted. Namely, on Friday, the Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat and Cyprus’s newly elected president Dimitris Christofias met and agreed to restart negotiations on reunifying the country.

There is reason to believe that this positive development is not unrelated to the independence of Kosova, as Professor Mehmet Ozcan of the International Strategic Research Organisation has persuasively suggested. Under Christofias’s hardline nationalist predecessor Tassos Papadopoulos, it was the Greek Cypriots, not the Turkish Cypriots, who were most to blame for obstructing Cypriot unity. In a referendum in 2004, the UN’s Annan Plan for Cyprus’s reunification was overwhelmingly approved by the Turkish Cypriot electorate but, on Papadopoulos’s urging, overwhelmingly rejected by the Greek Cypriot electorate. Papadopoulos believed that, with Cyprus entering the EU and able to veto Turkey’s entry, he would eventually be able to extract more favourable terms from the Turks than those represented by the Annan Plan. It is also entirely possible that he actually preferred a permanently divided Cyprus to one reunited on the basis of an Annan-style compromise; at the very least, he was prepared to postpone reunification for the forseeable future. From the perspective of most Greek Cypriots who would like in principle to see their country reunited, this strategy only made sense if it was indeed going to lead to unity on favourable terms in the long run. But the upcoming recognition of Kosova’s independence showed them that the international community could not be relied upon to uphold the principle of the inviolability of state borders indefinitely, particularly when it was a question of a country, such as Serbia or Cyprus, whose leaders were behaving consistently unreasonably. Hence the surprise electoral victory of the moderate Christofias last month. Symbolically, the first round of Cyprus’s presidential election, in which Papadopoulos came third and was therefore knocked out, took place on 17 February – Kosova’s independence day.

As leader of the Communist AKEL party, Christofias represented the non-nationalist option. AKEL has long upheld a cross-national ideology of brotherhood and unity between Greek and Turkish Cypriots and has a history of persecution at the hands of both Greek and Turkish extremists. When, prior to his meeting with Talat, Christofias was asked by a reporter whether they would be drinking Greek or Turkish coffee (they are the same drink), Christofias replied ‘Cypriot coffee, we will both be having Cypriot coffee’. Christofias and AKEL should not be viewed through rose-tinted spectacles; they opportunistically collaborated with Papadopoulos, helping to bring him to power and defeat the Annan Plan. Christofias continues to follow the Greek-nationalist line of insisting that Macedonia change its name. Nevertheless, under his leadership, Cyprus’s prospects for reunification seem incomparably better than they did barely more than a month ago.

The other element of the equation is that Talat did not respond to Kosova’s recognition by launching a new separatist drive, as the anti-Kosovar prophets of doom had predicted. Indeed, he explicitly rejected a parallel between Kosova and the TRNC: ‘We do not see a direct link between the situation in Kosovo and the Cyprus Problem. These problems have come up through different conditions.’ And he is right. Although it was the Greek side that was primarily responsible for provoking the crisis that culminated in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and although Turkey arguably had a legal basis for its invasion, nevertheless the form that this invasion took, involving as it did the dismemberment of the country and the ethnic-cleansing of the Greek population of the north, constituted an act of aggression and conquest. The Turkish Cypriot entity that became the TRNC in 1983 was therefore an artificial product of foreign invasion and ethnic cleansing – in contrast to Kosova, which was established as an autonomous region under the legitimate Yugoslav authorities, and whose Albanian demographic majority predated its conquest by Serbia in 1912.

Talat may or may not recognise this distinction between Kosova and the TRNC. But he is undoubtedly aware of something of which the prophets of doom are not, but which is blindingly obvious: the fact that Kosova is being recognised internationally does not mean that other secessionist territories will be recognised internationally. The ‘Pandora’s box’ model would only hold true if a secessionist territory, encouraged by Kosova’s recognition, could translate this sense of encouragement into international recognition. As there is no way for a secessionist territory to do this, the model does not hold. The prospects of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria for recognition by Russia may have improved, but this would be because of a conscious policy decision on Moscow’s part, not because the territories in question felt ‘inspired’ by Kosova’s recognition. Talat is no knee-jerk separatist but a rational, moderate politician who supported the Annan Plan; he has no reason to jeopardise the Turkish Cypriot community’s chance to enter the EU because of Kosova.

There is a final lesson to be learned from this. Although Cyprus has much more justice on its side vis-a-vis the TRNC than Serbia has vis-a-vis Kosova, yet it is Christofias who speaks the language of reconciliation and ‘Cypriot coffee’. Serbia’s leaders have never been able to speak in this way to the Kosova Albanians; they did not speak of Kosova and Serbia as lands that belonged alike to Serbs and Albanians, or speak of the fraternity of the two peoples. Christofias may understand something that Serbia’s Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and President Boris Tadic clearly do not: that if you want to keep your country united and prevent one of its peoples from seceding, you need to treat the latter as your fellow countrymen and women, not as the enemy.

This is a lesson that should be learned by all regimes around the world whose oppression drives subject peoples to secede: if you want to avoid losing part of your territory, it pays to be reasonable. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Western alliance may congratulate themselves on having, with their decision to recognise Kosova, helped to promote stability and reconciliation in South East Europe and the resolution of an old conflict in their ranks.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Monday, 24 March 2008 Posted by | Abkhazia, Balkans, Caucasus, Cyprus, Former Yugoslavia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Turkey | Leave a comment

John McCain would be best for South East Europe

mccainThe democratic choice is an easier one for progressives to make in the UK than it is in the US. Over here, the ruling Labour Party is more progressive than the Conservative opposition on both foreign and domestic issues. But in the US, things are not so simple. Were I an American citizen, I would be inclined to vote Democrat over domestic issues – abortion, taxation, etc. But I have no doubt that the interests of South East Europe would be better served by John McCain as president than by either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

Bill Clinton bears a very large share of responsibility for the problems faced by the Balkans and Caucasus today. These are, in particular, a dismembered, non-functioning Bosnia; an anti-Western, disruptive Serbia; and a dismembered Georgia. The problem was not that Clinton was a particularly reactionary president in world affairs, but that he simply was not very interested in them, something that resulted in a failure of leadership. The mess in Bosnia is above all the fault of the former British Conservative government of John Major and the former French Socialist regime of the late Francois Mitterand; they were the champions of appeasement and the architects, along with Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman, of Bosnia’s dismemberment. Clinton could and should have insisted upon a change in Western policy vis-a-vis Bosnia upon becoming president. Instead, he chose to defer to his pro-Belgrade European allies, Britain and France, not wishing to fall out with them over something trivial like genocide in the heart of Europe. This was not only a moral failing, but a betrayal of US interests; the disastrous Anglo-French policy and Clinton’s vacillating support for it greatly damaged both transatlantic relations and the Balkans. There are times when Europe needs American leadership; Bosnia was one of them.

After the initialling of the Dayton Peace Accords in November 1995, Clinton continued to neglect Bosnia, allowing the indicted war-criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to escape arrest – primarily because he did not want to risk American casualties in arrest operations. Nor does Clinton deserve particular credit over Kosova; it is highly questionable whether the US would have acted to prevent the genocide there in 1999 had not Major and Mitterand been replaced in the meantime by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. NATO’s liberation of Kosova should have been followed up by the prompt recognition of its independence, while the Russians were in no position to cause such trouble for us as they are today. We could have ‘punished’ the Serbia of Milosevic with Kosova’s independence, instead of the Serbia of today, led as it is by the relatively pro-Western President Boris Tadic. But that problem, too, was allowed to fester; its resolution today is proving much more difficult than it need have been.

Over Russia and the Caucasus, too, Clinton, like George Bush Snr before him, showed a disastrous failure of leadership. With Russian politics in a state of flux, with the pro-Western Boris Yeltsin in power in Moscow and financially dependent on the West, a golden opportunity existed to push Russian policy in the Caucasus in a less imperialistic direction. The Western powers should have acted decisively to halt the dismemberment of Georgia in the early 1990s and prevent the break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from falling under Russia’s exclusive control. We should have recognised the independence of Chechnya, preempting Yeltsin’s violent assault on the country in 1994. But as is so often the case, the dovish policy is the one most likely to lead to confrontation in the long-run – think of Neville Chamberlain and Munich. Our failure to engage in the Caucasus, and Blair’s shameful support for Vladimir Putin over Chechnya in 1999, have been richly rewarded: Georgia, an aspiring NATO member, faces perpetual dismemberment, while an aggressive, ungrateful Putin has reentered the Balkans with a vengeance with the deliberate aim of derailing the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Chechnya proved to be the poison of Russian democracy and Russian-Western friendship; a Russian president willing and able to use weapons of mass destruction against his Chechen citizens is unlikely to respect democratic freedoms in Russia proper, and an undemocratic, authoritarian Russian regime is more likely to be hostile to the West.

In fairness, Russia is not solely responsible for the mess in the Caucasus; Georgia’s brutally chauvinistic former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was one of the architects of his country’s dismemberment, as was the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who supported the Abkhazians. The people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had legitimate grievances against Gamsakhurdia’s regime and its successors in Tbilisi. These are all issues that a more forward-looking US policy could have helped to resolve, but did not. 

I fear, therefore, the consequences for South East Europe of a US president who is dovish, uninterested in or unserious about foreign policy. Hillary Clinton has always worked hand-in-glove with Bill in the political sphere, and should share responsibility with him for his disastrous Bosnia policy. Indeed, the story is that her influence made it worse; that she read Robert Kaplan’s truly dreadful book ‘Balkan Ghosts’ and passed it on to her husband; this book, filled as it was with crude stereotypes about the Balkans (along the lines of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’), encouraged the perception of the Bosnian war as an expression of intractable ethnic conflict in which no moral issues were at stake, militating against any intention Bill might have had to resist Serbian aggression. Be that as it may, Hillary was more frank in welcoming Kosovo’s independence than Obama, who appears to see Balkan politics largely through the prism of his need to win the goodwill of the Serbian and Greek lobbies in the US. Hence his letter to the Serbian Unity Congress, in which he stated: ‘I support and shall help in every possible way development of the dialog between all sides in Kosova because I believe that peace and stability can be reached only by solutions acceptable for all sides’ – not far from an endorsement of the Serbo-Russian position on Kosova, which insists on a Serbian veto on any settlement. Hence also Obama’s endorsement of the Greek-nationalist position on Macedonia. These acts may be motivated by simple electoral opportunism, but they do not bode well for a principled and forward-looking US policy toward the Balkans should Obama become president. In flirting with the US’s Serbian and Greek lobbies, Obama is flirting with groups that encompass ultra-right-wing, Christian-fundamentalist, Muslim-hating bigots.

There are several reasons to believe that McCain would follow a more serious and principled policy toward South East Europe than either Clinton or Obama. He is aware of the importance of what he calls a ‘progressive Turkey’ as a strategic partner of the US and a beacon of Muslim democracy, and of the mutual inter-relatedness of democracy and stability in Turkey and Iraq. Turkey is both the most important Balkan country in world affairs and a state that borders on Iraq; the Balkans and the Middle East are adjacent, interlocking regions; McCain’s commitment to staying the course in Iraq is therefore most likely to promote stability in the Balkans.

McCain was correct to oppose Congressional recognition of the Armenian Genocide (here I break ranks with Norman Geras). The Ottoman Empire in 1915 was undoubtedly guilty of genocide against the Armenians, and Turkey should recognise this genocide. But it is not for an outside power like the US to single out this historic crime as uniquely totemic and worthy of recognition, particularly given that the US Congress has taken no parallel steps to recognise the genocidal crimes carried out by Russia and the Balkan Christian states against Ottoman and Caucasian Muslims during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Why should the US recognise the Ottoman genocide of one million Armenians, but not the Balkan Christian genocide of over six-hundred thousand Ottoman Muslims in 1912-13, when the latter crime was an immediate catalyst of the former ? The Turks would be entirely justified in taking offence at such double standards, and McCain is entirely correct that the US should be developing its relationship with Ankara, not creating new barriers to it – though he is also far from uncritical in his support for Turkey.

McCain was an early supporter of Kosova’s independence. He stood by the oppressed Kosova Albanians before it became fashionable in Washington to do so, and continued to do so despite the support given by many right-wing Republicans – largely for anti-Clinton and anti-Islamic reasons – to the anti-Albanian policies of Milosevic and subsequent Serb-nationalist politicians. A Republican president who is ready to put a combination of US strategic interests and morality above petty sectarian domestic feuds and religious hatred is more likely to act in South East Europe’s best interests.

Finally, McCain led a delegation of US senators to Tbilisi in August 2006, to express unconditional support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and to challenge the presence of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, suggesting they be replaced by a UN or OSCE force. Although Moscow likes to draw a false parallel between Kosova and South Ossetia, in reality, secessionist South Ossetia is more like the Serb-controlled enclave in northern Kosova – an expression of the imperialism of a larger neighbour that seeks to punish a former colony for seeking independence by dismembering it. Georgia is not Russia’s backyard, and any policy that treats it as being so will only bolster the anti-Western Russian neo-empire that has arisen under Putin to become a dangerous enemy of the West. McCain is entirely correct in his belief that in defending Georgia, the West will be defending itself. His suggestion that Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia be replaced by a UN force should be welcomed by all multilateralist opponents of unilateral intervention by great powers in the internal affairs of other countries. But don’t hold your breath.

Thursday, 20 March 2008 Posted by | Abkhazia, Balkans, Bosnia, Caucasus, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Greece, Iraq, Islam, Kosovo, Macedonia, Middle East, Russia, Serbia, South Ossetia, Turkey | 3 Comments

Self-determinaton: Are we hypocrites or anti-imperialists ?

I am half-Croatian, and I shall confess to having a specifically Croatian agenda for opposing the right of Bosnia’s Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) to secede from Bosnia, and for rejecting the idea that such an act of secession would be in any way equivalent to Kosova’s entirely legitimate secession from Serbia.

Namely, if one were to support the right of Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia, one would have to support a similar right for the Croat-controlled part of the Bosnian Federation. This would lead, effectively, to the emergence of a Great Croatia. As an opponent of Great Croatian nationalism, this is not something I could accept. Every true Croatian democrat and anti-fascist is the sworn opponent of Great Croatian nationalism, consequently of the partition of Bosnia. Not only would this be an enormous injustice to the people of Bosnia, but it would reward the worst elements in Croatian politics – Ustashas, Tudjmanites and other chauvinists. It would be a betrayal of all those true Bosnian Croat patriots – Stjepan Kljuic, Ivo Komsic, Ivan Lovrenovic and others – who valiantly defended their Bosnian homeland against the Great Croats during the 1990s and thereafter.

Support for the right of national self-determination is about supporting democracy, but it is also about opposing oppression and injustice; about standing up for the rights of smaller, oppressed nations against colonial masters or predatory neighbours. It is therefore wholly at odds with the idea that such predatory states should be allowed to manipulate the right of national self-determination to expand their borders at the expense of those smaller and weaker than themselves. This is what Serbia attempted to do vis-a-vis Croatia in the 1990s. It is what both Croatia and Serbia, at the same time, attempted to do vis-a-vis Bosnia. It is what Russia is attempting to do vis-a-vis Georgia. And it is what occurred in the most notorious instance of the abuse of the right to self-determination: the 1938 Munich Agreement.

It could be argued, however, that no matter how one tries to justify it, this remains hypocritical. Let us take up the challenge and say:

1) We should recognise the right of Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia – provided Republika Srpska recognises the right of its former Muslim- or Croat-majority areas to secede from it (with all those expelled and non-resident allowed to participate in the vote), and provided Serbia recognises the same right to Muslim-majority areas in the Sanjak and Hungarian-majority areas in Vojvodina;

2) We should recognise the right of the Bosnian-Croat-held areas to secede from Bosnia – provided Croatia recognises the right of its former Serb-majority areas to secede (again, with all those expelled and non-resident allowed to participate in the vote);

3) We should recognise the right of South Ossetia to secede from Georgia – provided Moscow recognises the right of North Ossetia to secede from Russia;

4) We should recognise the right of Abkhazia to secede from Georgia – provided Moscow recognises the right of all its autonomous republics in the Russian North Caucasus to secede.

I strongly suspect that once you insist that the strong be subjected to the same principles that they would like to impose upon the weak, then their own enthusiasm for these principles would vanish.

The right of nations to self-determination is an undeniably thorny issue, above all because there are so many areas where the rights of two or more nations overlap, and where it is difficult or impossible to grant the right to one nation without denying it to another nation – or even destroying the second nation altogether. This is why, when considering how to apply the right, so many factors must be taken into account – rather as in the case of a judge or jury weighing up numerous factors in a court case. I would, however, suggest two general rules of thumb:

1) The right of self-determination, since it is a democratic right, cannot belong to nations that have achieved an artificial majority through ethnic cleansing, since the right belongs to the whole population of the territory in question – including those expelled;

2) The right of self-determination should not be used by larger, stronger nations that already enjoy independent statehood, to expand their borders at the expense of smaller, weaker ones whose state would be consequently destroyed. Thus, although I sympathise with the Albanian minority in Macedonia, given its history of oppression and discrimination, I would not support its right to secede and join Albania or Kosova – simply because there are already two Albanian states in existence, because the Macedonians are a much smaller people than the Albanians, and because Macedonia would be unlikely to survive such an act of secession.

If anyone responds by saying that I have imposed too many qualifications, I would reply that democratic rights are never perfect or absolute. I support freedom of speech and expression – but not to inciters of racial violence or distributors of child pornography. I support freedom of assembly – but not for uniformed, private armies. I support freedom of the press – but not the freedom of newspapers to practice libel.

National self-determination, furthermore, is inherently imperfect – however one draws the borders, there are always likely to be some members of a particular nationality who are stuck on the wrong side. The very concept of majority-rule implies that someone has to be in the minority. The problem with national self-determination is in fact a problem with democracy itself.

Most of the objections to the idea of a right of nations to self-determination are made by people positing hypothetical, extreme cases – such as the supposed danger of a Muslim-majority part of London seceding, or the possibility of a ‘Kosovo in the Galilee’. One could oppose just about any democratic principle by citing hypothetical, worst-case scenarios.

The secession of a Muslim-majority part of London ? That’s a risk I’m prepared to live with.

Monday, 3 March 2008 Posted by | Abkhazia, Balkans, Bosnia, Caucasus, Croatia, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Kosovo, Russia, Serbia, South Ossetia, The Left, Transnistria | 1 Comment

Georgian PM rejects Kosovo parallel

We are constantly being warned that recognising the independence of Kosovo will instantaneously lead to hundreds of separatist territories all over the world breaking away from their parent states, from Scotland, Catalonia and the Basque Country all the way to Taiwan.

Of course, any democrat would recognise that nations or countries such as these do have the right to self-determination, should they wish to exercise it. As an Englishman and a Briton, I would be very sorry if Scotland or Wales chose to secede from the United Kingdom, but I respect the right of Scotland or Wales to do so if that is what its people want. I would bear a seceding Scotland or Wales no ill will; I would wish it all the best in its new life as an independent country; and if the British state were to react to its secession with violence, I would support Scotland or Wales in the resulting war. However, I am confident that the UK, as a democratic state, would never resort to violence in this manner, and that a Scottish or Welsh secession would occur peacefully.

If the recognition of Kosovo’s independence inspires other unfree nations to struggle for freedom, then it can only be a good thing. But I very much doubt it will. Secession is a serious and often mortally dangerous business; nations secede because they are suffering from oppression, or because their people believe they will enjoy a happier existence as an independent state; they do not do so merely because some other nation in a different part of the world has successfully seceded. The Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Kurds in Turkey or Iraq, or the Taiwanese are not naive enough to believe that if Kosovo’s independence is recognised, then they too have been given a green light by the international community to set up their own independent state. When people cite the possiblity of the recognition of Kosovo’s independence encouraging secessionism in other parts of the world, they are usually scaremongering.

Georgia is the country most often cited as the one that would pay the price for Kosovo’s secession, given that two of its own autonomous territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have broken away with Russian support. So it is noteworthy that Georgia’s Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze himself has just publicly rejected the idea that Kosovo’s independence would create a precedent for Georgia: “We hope our friends and allies in the west take a firm position on the inapplicability of the Kosovo case to Georgia. In other words, Kosovo is sui generis”. He nevertheless expressed his fear that Russia would respond to the recognition of Kosovo by itself recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If this were to occur, it would have nothing to do with any natural spin-off effect from Kosovo’s independence, and everything to do with Russian troublemaking; i.e. a new crisis in the Caucausus would be the result of actions by Russia, not by Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

Neverthless, the Financial Times reports: ‘Mr Gurgenidze won support for his position on Kosovo on Thursday from Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s external relations commissioner, with whom he held talks in Brussels. “We do hope also that Russia will understand that, certainly on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, things should remain as they are,” she told reporters.’ Furthermore, ‘Some EU officials doubt that Russia, beset with restive minorities of its own on its southern borders, would go so far as to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.’

Indeed. If Russia were to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would raise the question of why Chechnya, with its much larger population, should not also have the right to self-determination.

Food for thought.

Saturday, 8 December 2007 Posted by | Abkhazia, Georgia, Kosovo, Russia, Serbia, South Ossetia | Leave a comment

Rejecting false parallels: Why Kosovo is not South Ossetia (or Abkhazia or Transnistria or northern Cyprus…)

We are all familiar with a certain dishonest rhetorical tactic: the use of an argument that is objectively ridiculous and that the person making it knows is ridiculous, but that nevertheless can sound impressive to the ears of someone who does not pause to think twice about it. A good example is the claim that we should not recognise Kosovo’s independence lest it set off a chain reaction across the world, with secessionist territories rushing to follow Kosovo’s example by declaring independence. Former Serbian foreign minister Vuk Draskovic suggested these would include northern Cyprus, the Basque country, Corsica, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South Ossetia, Chechnya and Taiwan. A superficially more sophisticated older brother of this argument is the one made by Russian President Putin and his supporters: that if Kosovo is allowed unilaterally to secede from Serbia, the same right should be accorded to the Russian-backed breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (formally parts of Georgia) and Transnistria (formally part of Moldova). Both of these arguments are sophisms, and it is worth pausing for a moment to understand all the reasons why.

We can start by rejecting the obvious falsehood that recognising Kosovo’s independence without Serbia’s consent would be an irresponsible act of radicalism equivalent to Prometheus’s revealing the secret of fire to mankind or Pandora’s opening of the box. Unilateral declarations of independence – and unilateral recognition of the independence of secessionist territories by outside powers – are part and parcel of the modern world. It is enough to mention France’s recognition of the independence of the United States in 1778, Britain’s recognition of the independence of Bangladesh in 1972 and Germany’s recognition of the independence of Croatia in 1991 – all of them without the consent of the country against which the wars of American, Bangladeshi and Croatian independence had been fought. None of these actions led to global chaos. Recognising Kosovo’s independence without Serbia’s consent is hardly an action without precedent in international relations.

Nor is it true that the world is covered by dozens or hundreds of potentially separatist territories, all eagerly watching to see what happens with Kosovo before deciding whether themselves to follow its example. We know this is not true, because several of the territories that are usually cited – South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and northern Cyprus, in particular – have already unilaterally seceded from their parent countries. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus formally declared independence in 1983, years before Kosovo attempted to secede from Serbia. Anyone with any knowledge of the chronology of historical events in greater south-eastern Europe knows perfectly well that the acts of secession in question were not in any way inspired by events in Kosovo. In the cases of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria, the obvious precedent, in the eyes of the secessionist leaderships, was the secession of the constituent republics of the USSR, to which was coupled their own reluctance to be left in an independent Georgia or Moldova.

Secessionist leaderships, in other words, choose the precedents that suit them. Those South Ossetians, Abkhazians and Transnistrians seeking precedents can cite the recognised secession of Lithuania, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Montenegro, etc. If Kosovo is recognised, they will be able to cite Kosovo as well. But nobody should confuse rhetoric and propaganda with genuine motivation. And it is particularly comical to hear the Russian leadership voice its ‘fears’ of Kosovo setting a precedent, when it was the Russians whose military intervention enabled South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria to break away from Georgia and Moldova in the first place. That the Russians continued to support the secessionists in question while crushing Chechnya’s bid for independence should be enough for us to dispense with the illusion that their arguments over Kosovo have anything to do with principles over consistency and precedent-setting. They could, if they wish, respond to our recognition of Kosovo’s independence by recognising formally the independence of their Transnistrian and South Caucasian clients – as Turkey has recognised northern Cyprus – but nothing forces them to do this, certainly not their infinitely malleable ‘principles’.

This brings us to the question of whether Kosovo really is fundamentally different from those secessionist countries that we have already recognised – Slovenia, Croatia, Latvia, Georgia, Montenegro, etc. – and fundamentally similar to those we have not – South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, etc. The answer on both counts is, simply, no. Kosovo is different from the latter territories in terms of its status in the former federation to which it belonged: it was – like Croatia, Slovenia and the other former Yugoslav republics – a constituent member of the Yugoslav federation in its own right. By contrast, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh were not constituent members of the former Soviet Union. Transnistria was not even an autonomous entity at all. If one applies consistently the principle that all the members of the former federations of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia should have the right to self-determination, then this right belongs to Kosovo.

Furthermore, when Kosovo joined Serbia in 1945, it did so formally of its own free will, by a vote of its provincial assembly. Kosovo was, before Slobodan Milosevic’s abrogation of its autonomy in the late 1980s, already effectively independent of Serbia, which was a composite republic consisting of the two autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina and so-called ‘Serbia proper’ – each of which was a member of the Yugoslav federation in its own right, independently of the other two. There is absolutely no reason why the international community should, given the collapse of this federation, automatically assign Kosovo to the possession of an independent Serbia. Since Kosovo joined Serbia in 1945 on the understanding that it was simultaneously part of Yugoslavia, the only reasonable course of action would be to permit Kosovo’s assembly to decide what its status should be in the new circumstances. These new circumstances were, let us not forget, created by the leadership of Serbia’s deliberate and successful campaign to break up Yugoslavia and deprive all Yugoslavs – including the Kosovars – of their common homeland.

Not only is Kosovo not equivalent to Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria in legal and constitutional terms, but it is not equivalent to them in other respects either. With roughly two million people, Kosovo has a resident population roughly four times the size of Transnistria’s, ten times the size of Abkhazia’s and thirty times the size of South Ossetia’s. It has a larger population than several independent European states, including Estonia, Cyprus, Malta and Iceland (about five times the population of Malta and seven times the population of Iceland, in fact). Furthermore, Kosovo’s population is overwhelmingly Albanian and supportive of independence, and was so even before the exodus of non-Albanians following the Kosovo war in 1999.

By contrast, Abkhazia’s largest nationality was, until the ethnic cleansing operations of the early 1990s, the ethnic Georgians, who outnumbered ethnic Abkhaz by two and a half times, who comprised nearly half the population of Abkhazia and who oppose independence. In South Ossetia, ethnic Ossetians outnumbered ethnic Georgians by two-to-one; still, an independent South Ossetia would be considerably smaller in terms of population and territory than any independent European state except for mini-states like Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino. Were their independence recognised, Abkhazia and South Ossetia would in practice become parts of Russia; a vast state would thereby have expanded its borders at the expense of a much smaller state (Georgia). As for Transnistria, its population is somewhat larger than Abkhazia’s or South Ossetia’s, but Moldovans who oppose independence comprise the largest nationality, albeit outnumbered by non-Moldovans two-to-one. And as we noted above, Transnistria’s claim to independence on constitutional grounds is even weaker than Abkhazia’s or South Ossetia’s. One could make a case for the independence of any of these territories, but in terms of constitutional status, population size, national homogeneity and viability, Kosovo’s is by far the strongest.

Modern European history has witnessed the continual emergence of newly independent states that successfully secede from larger entities: roughly in chronological order, these have been Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Luxemburg, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Norway, Bulgaria, Albania, Poland, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Ireland, Iceland, Cyprus, Malta, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Montenegro (for the second time). There are, of course, many countries or nations that have failed to secede, or whose secession has not been recognised internationally. The merits of any particular claim to self-determination have to be judged on their own basis.

In supporting Kosovo’s independence, both justice and as many precedents as we care to pick will be on our side. And we can safely ignore the sophisms put forward by hostile governments against us.

This article was published yesterday on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Thursday, 29 November 2007 Posted by | Abkhazia, Balkans, Caucasus, Cyprus, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Kosovo, Russia, Serbia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Turkey | 2 Comments