Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo…

Just ran across this article at Radio Free Europe. Short version: Russia has decided that independence for Kosovo is probably inevitable, and has decided to milk it for maximum benefit to Russia. Putin’s saying, fine, independence for Kosovo — but then apply “universal principles”, and give independence to the Russian-supported breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and TransDnistria.

Once you get past the initial reaction (“Wow, what a jerk”), this bears a little thinking about.

Putin has half of a point. Part of the argument for Kosovar independence is based on Wilsonian self-determination. This is the idea that a geographically defined, mostly homogeneous group of people, who share a common language and culture, and really want to be a nation, should be allowed to do so… even if they’re part of a larger nation already. This was the argument used to break up Austria-Hungary, back in the day, and it was also the argument behind recognizing Croatian and Slovenian independence fro Yugoslavia in 1991.

On these grounds, there is a strong analogy between Kosovo and at least two of Putin’s babies. Abkhazia is ethnically distinct from Georgia. Of course, it became ethnically distinct because most of the Georgians were ethnically cleansed in 1992-3. Before that, Abkhazians were a minority — just 17%, in the last Soviet census — while Georgians were the largest group. Still, Abkhazia was a weird, distinct little corner of Georgia even before that. So it’s not completely insane.

Then there’s South Ossetia. Again, ethnically distinct: mostly Ossetians. Again, ethnic cleansing — but unlike Abkhazia, it was always majority-Ossetian. Of course, most Ossetians live in Russia, where they seem happy enough to be part of a larger entity. Which sort of weakens the self-determination argument: it’s not that South Ossetians want to be a nation, they just don’t want to be part of Georgia. And South Ossetia is so tiny (3,900 sq. km.) and so devoid of natural resources that it’s hard to see how it’s going to survive.

(Both these conflicts, BTW, go back to the early 1990s and the tragicomic, ultimately disastrous government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Gamsakhurdia, the first democratically elected president of Georgia, was a former dissident and human rights activist. He was also arrogant, intolerant of dissent, militantly nationalist, and fanatically Russophobic. This combination led to bad things, the consequences of which are still being felt today.)

Then there’s Transnistria. Transnistria… well, it’s a gangster state, clawed off from Moldova in 1991-2, ethnically divided between Russians, Ukrainians, and Romanians. It makes no sense ethnically, economically, geographically, or in any other way. It got started because some local Party bosses in Tiraspol objected to taking orders from newly independent Chisinau, snowballed into a sort-of ethnic conflict (though there are plenty of Russians in Moldova, and a plurality of the inhabitants of Transnistria are Romanian), and now has become a prestige issue for Putin’s Russia: Transnistria is almost worthless to Russia, but it’s seen as a Russian protectorate.

So, if we were just talking about Wilsonian self-determination, then Abkhazia and South Ossetia would at least be in the discussion. You can argue whether the analogy to Kosovo is valid, but it’s not a completely insane analogy. (You could also ask whether Russia would support every similar ethnic separatist movement around the world. But let that bide.)

I don’t think the argument should end there, though. A right to self-determination doesn’t arise spontaneously just because you have a group that’s ethnically distinct. There’s more to it than that. The group has to have a valid reason for wanting to be independent. Simply put, there should be a legitimate grievance.

This is an argument that doesn’t get raised very often, because it works across the familiar language of “rights”. Surely a group’s right to self-determination shouldn’t depend on whether it’s oppressed or not.

But turn it around. If an ethnic group is part of a reasonably free country; if it has full rights to express its culture; if everyone gets to speak their native language, and educate their children in that language; if there’s not serious discrimination; and if the group is offered a reasonable degree of autonomy within the greater nation… then what right to they have to break up a country that’s working perfectly well?

Back to Kosovo. Part of the justification of Kosovar independence is Wilsonian. Albanians are a large majority in the province, and have been for a long time; are ethnically and linguistically distinct; and are absolutely united in their desire to be independent of Belgrade.

But another part of the justification is, the Serbs blew it. They had control over Kosovo for a full decade, 1989-99. They used the opportunity to impose a brutal and explicitly racist police state. Over 100,000 Albanians — including most of the province’s doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals — were fired from their jobs. Higher education in Albanian was suppressed. The province was handed over to egregiously corrupt cronies of Milosevic and brutal thugs like Arkan and his Tigers. Even so, armed resistance didn’t become significant until after seven years of this.

(You could argue that this was Milosevic, rather than “the Serbs”. A Kosovar Albanian would respond that Milosevic ‘s Kosovo policy enjoyed broad popular support; and further, that a third of the seats in Serbia’s Parliament are still held by the ultra-nationalist Radical party, and it’s hardly far-fetched to imagine them forming a government one day.)

If you accept this argument, how does it apply to Putin’s breakaway demistates? Well, Transnistria had no good reason to leave Moldova, and a majority of Transnistrians wouldn’t mind being part of Moldova again. While Moldova is a desperately poor country led by an authoritarian and obnoxious ex-Communist, Transnistria is even poorer and its ex-Communist leader is even more authoritarian and more obnoxious. Moldova at least has free-ish elections and the prospect of one day, some day, joining the EU. And Moldova treats its Russian minority tolerably well.

So, no independence for Transnistria. (Not that anyone is seriously thinking about it. Putin’s just scoring rhetorical points with that one.) Abkhazia and Ossetia? Well, that’s tougher. The Abkhaz and Ossetians weren’t being grossly oppressed. There were problems, but they didn’t remotely compare to the Kosovar’s decade of misery under Milosevic.

True, they were coming under a rather hysterically nationalist regime led by a complete idiot. That probably wasn’t enough justification for a war of independence, but they went ahead and made war anyway (with encouragement and assistance from Russia, to be sure.) Now — more to the point — they are independent, and they have reasonable concerns about how they’d be treated within Georgia.

Reasonable concerns; but I don’t think they rise to the level of “these groups must be given independence, for there’s no other way they can survive”. Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians got along tolerably well for generations. The Georgian government has expressed its willingness to try a variety of solutions… autonomy, federalism, cantonization, you name it. It’s not hard to imagine a Georgia including these regions but giving them (by regional standards) a reasonably high degree of freedom and justice. On the other hand, it’s quite hard to imagine either Abkhazia or Ossetia giving much freedom or justice to their own people as independent states.

(Is this the right metric to be using? Gandhi once said that “good government is no substitute for self government”. Upon much consideration, I don’t think that’s true… but it’s a trickier question than it first appears.)

Anyway. Kosovo will be gaining some sort of “conditional independence” soon, possibly this year… not because of either Kosovo or Serbia (both of whom are indulging in a politics of gesture) but because the international community is tired of keeping Kosovo as a sort of expensive pet. Whether this will have any effect on the frozen conflicts to the east… I doubt it. Transnistria and the Georgian provinces will have to be solved on their own terms, some day, one day.

23 thoughts on “Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo…

  1. That argument would unfortunately also work for Chechnia, Dagestan, Tibet, Crimea, Republika Srpska , etc … . And some of these place (Tibet foremost) must not become independent for the sake of world peace.

    Furthermore, following your argument, which has a certain merit, as we probably don’t want to end up with 500+ states on this planet, we have already made serious mistakes. For instance, Jugoslavija should probably still exist, if we wish to stay in the neighborhood. However, if taken to the logical conclusion, it means that the most atrocious independance movement is the most effective. Being as cynical as I am, I had always suspected so, but putting it so bluntly is probably not a good idea.

    On the third hand, do you have good empirical data on Transnistria? There are some doubts even the majority of Moldavians want to be Moldavian. And to be fair, lacking most international recognition might be a factor for Transnistria which should be factored in.

  2. You assume that independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia would mean self-government. Surely, it would mean becoming a Russian client state – something rather different.
    Putin has seen the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet republics fall away one by one. His most recent showdown earlier this month came with the new Ukrainian owners of a previously dependable client. He is determined to stop the rot, and these scraps of the Caucuses even seem to offer a chance to reverse the trend, albeit marginally and peripherally.
    Remember, people tend not to come away from meetings with Putin saying “That man is a new Woodrow Wilson”.

  3. A Russian client would be better. Seriously, soon everybody and his grandmother’s gardener will declare indenpendance.

  4. Superb post. Doug. I’m not sure that Kosovo (Kosova?) won’t be an EU/US client state too, though, given the unemployment levels and a lost generation. Do you see camp Bondsteel being dismantled in the next ten years ?

    Anyway, I love the idea of Wilsonian self-determination plus. Solves all sorts of problems for the French government like those pesky Bretons, Corsicans, etc.

  5. The concept of self-determination shouldn’t be allowed to become the tool of imperialist regimes. That’s the tactic that Nazi Germany used to carve up and conquer Czechoslovakia by using the Germanic populations of Sudetenland.

    An independent Kosovo doesn’t *truly* exist as an idea — it’s nothing but the dream of Greater Albania. This is proven by the fact how the same groups that launched the “war of independence” against Serbia are the same groups that expanded to war to include the ethnically-Albanian territories of Republic of Macedonia, a country which *hadn’t* oppressed them by any reasonable standard.

    Likewise there’s no genuine independence movement in Crimea — that’s just Russian imperialism. There’s no independence movement in Nagorno-Karabakh, that’s Greater Armenia longings instead. There’s no wish for independence by the Bosnian Serbs — their actions were the deeds of Greater-Serbia imperialism.

    Likewise for Abkhazia, likewise for South Ossetia. Little more than tools of Russian imperialism.

    Which independence movement are *genuine*, rather than mere the tools of a neighbouring imperialism? Quebec. The Basques. Kurdistan. Tibet. And yeah, Chechnya (atleast in the beginnings, before it became a tool of “Islamic Caliphate” imperialism).

  6. As you said only part of the Kosovars issue is self-determination. In 1944 they voted to join the then proposed state of Yugoslavia. In 1991 90% of the population voted to leave but it was never recognized by any foreign state to avoid the breakup of Yugoslavia. we see how well that worked.
    Also according to the 1974 constitution they were a de-facto republic within Yugoslavia and had the same right to leave the country as every other republic.
    One of the main reasons Slovenia and Croatia left Yugoslavia in 1992 was because they saw what Milosevic’s gov’t was doing to the Kosovar people. Until 1989 most Kosovars only wanted an equal say within Yugoslavia.

  7. I’ve never been one to believe that ethnic groups have any special right to independence as sovereign states; just that people have a right to their collective identities and to responsible government wherever they live. I’ll support independence movements only where there is so much bad blood, so little prospect of peaceful coexistence under a common government, that independence is the only way to secure a right to their identity under a responsible regime. And even then, governments on both sides of the new border have a strong responsibility to stranded minorities.

    By that standard, Serbs in Kosovo have every reason to distrust independence as much as Kosovars distrust reunification with Serbia. I’m not sure that Georgians have really long coexisted peacefully with Abkhazians and Ossetians. Under the Soviet Union, both had another, more hegemonic authority to appeal to. Now that authority is gone and bad blood dating back to the 19th century is reemerging. I’m not sure Georgian promises of federalism are more trustworthy than comparable proposals from Serbia with respect to Kosovo.

    As for Transnidria – I don’t know. I know very little about Moldova, but I know that when the Gagauz wanted to separate, and failed to get Russian backing, Moldova freaked out, but then later did right by them with an extensive autonomy proposal that seems to make everyone happy. I think there’s a good chance that the Transnidrians could get a decent deal out of Moldova.

  8. Putin does not believe in “universal principles” for determining independence. Chechnya is the clearest possible refutation of that claim.

  9. He does believe in reciprocity. If I let one of your favorites become independent, you need to return the favor. Which is not unreasonable a price for Russian cooperation.

  10. I would just like to point out that Serbia is still exporting dead bodies of Albanians from its mass graves, like that of Batajnica, near Belgrade. I would also like to point out that Serbia has started and lost 4 wars in 12 years. Who would want to live with these war mongering animals?

  11. In 1944 south slavic unificated and formed Socialistic Republic of Yugoslavia.KOsovo was anexed in 1944 by Yugoslav comunists and gave a autonomous status.
    But genocid and mass ethnic cleansing never stoped.
    In 1990 Serbs leading by State and Nations Destroyer Milosevic desintegrated this State.
    All nations won this indipidence even the nations that speak same language like Serbs because they wanted freedom and not to live with killers in same roof.
    Should Kosovars live with theirs killers and feel the Serbia like like home-state?
    That is unrealistic!
    Because they killed 10.000 Kosovars
    3000 are missed and their bodyies are returning slowly from Serbian Mass -graves.
    1.000.000 was deported from their houses and their houses were burned
    Because Kosova was constitional unit of Disintegrated Yugoslav federation
    Because they dont have nothing similar with with serbs and and they strongly demands fredom and peace with all neighbohours.
    They deserve freedom because they never atacked another states and nations.
    And they accepted democratic rules of progressive Europe and USA
    Because they are

  12. @John

    I’m not sure that Kosovo (Kosova?) won’t be an EU/US client state too, though, given the unemployment levels and a lost generation.

    For the foreseeable future, yes. Kosovo as an independent statedoesn’t make a lot of economic sense. It may eventually turn out OK — neighboring Macedonia seems like a good role model so far — but it will take many years.

    Do you see camp Bondsteel being dismantled in the next ten years ?

    No.

    @Aris:

    An independent Kosovo doesn’t *truly* exist as an idea — it’s nothing but the dream of Greater Albania.

    I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong. I’ve spent a lot of time in Kosovo. Kosovars want independence. With a few exceptions, they don’t want unity with Albania.

    This is proven by the fact how the same groups that launched the “war of independence” against Serbia are the same groups that expanded to war to include the ethnically-Albanian territories of Republic of Macedonia, a country which *hadn’t* oppressed them by any reasonable standard.

    Um. You’re obviously not familiar with what happened to Albanian refugees in Macedonia in 1999. And while Albanians native to Macedonia weren’t immiserated the way Kosovars were, they were definitely second-class citizens. (Still are, to some extent.)

    And while former KLA certainly assisted in Albanian separatism in Macedonia, the bulk of it was internal… Macedonian Albanians looking to adjust the status quo for themselves.

    Here’s a strange thing: I’ve spent a lot of time in Albania and in Kosovo. And I’ve met a lot of people who believe in “Greater Albania”.

    But none of them have been Albanians. They’ve all been Serbs or Greeks.

    Likewise there’s no genuine independence movement in Crimea — that’s just Russian imperialism.

    Sure.

    There’s no independence movement in Nagorno-Karabakh, that’s Greater Armenia longings instead.

    I don’t agree, but put that aside for now. I didn’t mention N-K because it’s so damn complicated. Deserves its own post.

    Which independence movement are *genuine*, rather than mere the tools of a neighbouring imperialism? Quebec. The Basques.

    Twaddle. Quebec and the Basques are part of perfectly nice First World countries. The Basques could legitimately ask for some more autonomy, but Quebec… don’t get me started. They already have wealth, full political representation, a high degree of autonomy, and full protection of their culture and special status.

    I love Quebec and the Quebecois. But when they start talking about independence, they lose me completely.

    Five of the last six Canadian Prime Ministers came from Quebec. Remind me again how they’re oppressed?

    Ah well, not Europe. I’m just saying.

    @Arber

    [Kosovars] In 1944 they voted to join the then proposed state of Yugoslavia.

    Um. No.

    Also according to the 1974 constitution they were a de-facto republic within Yugoslavia and had the same right to leave the country as every other republic.

    Also no. They were an autonomous region within the Serbian Republic. They had almost the same status as a republic, but no guaranteed right of secession.

    One of the main reasons Slovenia and Croatia left Yugoslavia in 1992 was because they saw what Milosevic’s gov’t was doing to the Kosovar people.

    True.

    Until 1989 most Kosovars only wanted an equal say within Yugoslavia.

    Also true. Nobody wanted to be part of “Greater Albania”. They wanted to be a full republic within Yugoslavia. Prominent Kosovars were still trying to push a “three republic” solution as late as 1995.

    Doug M.

  13. I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong. I’ve spent a lot of time in Kosovo. Kosovars want independence. With a few exceptions, they don’t want unity with Albania.

    Will this remain so?
    After all, Kosovo will be very poor, no matter what. Albania is far from a paradise and very peripheral, but it has at least decent ports, a passable coastline and several years headstart.

    Secondly, does the EU want yet another barely viable mini state? You cite Macedonia, but how are the long term prospects of Macedonia?

  14. Five of the last six Canadian Prime Ministers came from Quebec. Remind me again how they’re oppressed?

    I never said anything about the Quebecois being oppressed. I don’t believe that a people needs necessarily be “oppressed” in order to legitimately seek independence.

    They may simply feel as belonging in a separate nation.

    As for Albanians in the Republic of Macedonia “adjusting the status quo for themselves”, the very fact that they pretty much began their war only after the Kosovars were given their victory, indicates to me the connection of their ambitions.

  15. A right to self-determination doesn’t arise spontaneously just because you have a group that’s ethnically distinct. There’s more to it than that. The group has to have a valid reason for wanting to be independent. Simply put, there should be a legitimate grievance.

    If a group presses its desire for sovereignty far enough, the government they wish to be free must either grant it or push back. And if the government pushes back, those seeking after sovereignty will soon acquire some legitimate grievances, even if they didn’t have them to begin with.

    Every country in existence has a vested interest in the doctrine of territorial integrity, and every time national boundaries get redrawn, that doctrine is eroded. Thus, there is a proliferation of forms of semi-sovereignty, accepted by the international community to settle disputes by any means short of redrawing national boundaries.

    But I fear that in some parts of the world (and the Caucasus is near the top of the list), the resulting pileup of de facto sovreignties, autonomous republics, and the like, bears analogy to forest management by fire suppression: the attempt to keep little wars from happening stores up fuel for some future conflagration.

    And even if this fear is unfounded, in the meantime, the state of uncertainty regarding future national boundaries discourages development. Foreign investment bears a risk premium in Georgia, or Armenia, or Azerbaijan, while their respective boundary issues remain unresolved. For that matter, even nationals of those countries will tend to keep their capital (both financial and human) outside the border, if they can, just in case.

    To some extent, the language of rights stands in the way of conflict resolution. The lines of actual control are where they are, whether or not we approve of the means by which they got there.

  16. Its interesting how only countries that have hand in slaughtering albanians like greece (chams and arvanites( the greek word for albanians)), macedonia, serbia are adamant in refusing Kosova’s independence.

  17. Great analysis Doug!

    And I love your responses to Serbs and Greeks on this board. You nailed it, “Greater Albania” only exist in their heads.
    That “argument”, or rather misleading propaganda, has been used very frequently by Serbs and also Greeks to an extent.
    But now the world has realized which country in the Balkans has been striving for expansion, and did not stopp at nothing to create “Greater Sebia”. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, massmurder…

  18. never said anything about the Quebecois being oppressed. I don’t believe that a people needs necessarily be “oppressed” in order to legitimately seek independence.

    Nor do I, but I do think they need something stronger than “we’d rather be independent”. Especially if they’re part of a well-run nation which already recognizes their rights.

    They may simply feel as belonging in a separate nation.

    That’s not enough. Breaking up perfectly good countries for aesthetic reasons is a deeply dumb idea.

    As for Albanians in the Republic of Macedonia “adjusting the status quo for themselves”, the very fact that they pretty much began their war only after the Kosovars were given their victory, indicates to me the connection of their ambitions.

    …you’re repeating yourself, and I already responded to this.

    But, again: the Kosovo conflict helped trigger the Macedonian one, yes. But not because they were trying for “Greater Albania”. It’s because (1) Albanians were second class citizens in Macdonia, and (2) during the war, Macedonia treated the refugee Albanians like dirt, thus arousing resentment among Albanians on both sides of the border; and (3) the end of the Kosovo war released thousands of KLA fighters onto the market, and a lot of these crossed into Macedonia; finally (4) the war gave a huge boost to Macedonian Albanians who wanted to resolve the political struggle through violence, while temporarily discrediting those who were pursuing peaceful means.

    Look, Macedonia has been at peace for four, going on five years now. That’s because the Ohrid Agrement gave the Albanians a real stake in the country. It’s had some difficulties, but it’s now working pretty well… Albanians have been part of every government, and their linguistic and cultural rights are protected. Surprise: they’ve abandoned violence and (mostly) stopped agitating for independence.

    They don’t want to be part of Greater Albania. They want to join the EU.

    …I doubt I’ll convince you. Greater Albania seems to be Holy Writ in Greece. As far as I can tell, Greeks of all political persuasions are convinced that this is what Albanians want… all Albanians, everywhere, always. And every action of every Albanian anywhere, in Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Greece, is interpreted in that light.

    This strikes me as profoundly stupid, but, shrug.

    Doug M.

  19. …I doubt I’ll convince you. Greater Albania seems to be Holy Writ in Greece. As far as I can tell, Greeks of all political persuasions are convinced that this is what Albanians want… all Albanians, everywhere, always. And every action of every Albanian anywhere, in Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Greece, is interpreted in that light.

    Doug, I don’t feel as if I need to respond to arguments you attempt to put in my mouth. The idea of “Greater Albania” arose from the fact that Albanian minorities in both nations that had them be local *majorities* started agitating for “independence”.

    Kinda like the Serbs did in both Bosnia and Croatia, you know? I don’t think that one was coincidental either.

    Now you are telling me that appearances are deceiving. Well and fine, but don’t pretend that it’s not a natural first conclusion one could legitimately come to.

    That’s not enough. Breaking up perfectly good countries for aesthetic reasons is a deeply dumb idea.

    I also agree that it’s dumb. But that doesn’t mean it’s not in those people’s right to separate. At some point we have to agree that national groups should only participate willingly in greater unions, especially if they can separate without the need for “ethnic cleansings”.

  20. Its interesting how only countries that have hand in slaughtering albanians like greece (chams and arvanites( the greek word for albanians)), macedonia, serbia are adamant in refusing Kosova’s independence.

    Bekim, you simply named all three neighbouring to Albania countries. This should explain the seeming coincidence, shouldn’t it?

  21. The idea of “Greater Albania” arose from the fact that Albanian minorities in both nations that had them be local *majorities* started agitating for “independence”.

    I’m sorry, but it’s a fairly huge leap from “these groups would like independence” to “these groups want to be part of Greater Albania”.

    And it’s an even longer leap when you consider that the Macedonian Albanians have been satisfied with limited autonomy and a share of political power.

    Kinda like the Serbs did in both Bosnia and Croatia, you know?

    That’s a much weaker analogy than you probably think it is. Large minorities of the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs /didn’t/ want to be part of Greater Serbia. They wanted a dominant position in Bosnia and an independent Serb Republic in Croatia, but they didn’t want to hand over all power to Belgrade.

    This is why, for instance, Babic the dentist was sidelined as chief of the Republic of Serb Krajina in 1992, in favor of “Milosevic’s messenger” Goran Hadzic.

    And this was in the face of Greater Serbia propaganda that was much more sustained and intense than anything seen for “Greater Albania”.

    Doug M.

  22. That’s not enough. Breaking up perfectly good countries for aesthetic reasons is a deeply dumb idea.

    That unfortunately is a rarely concidered category. Such breaking up is, however, a popular idea. Leaving aside aestethic considerations, Austro-Hungary should still exist.

    Secondly, staying with the example, what would Canada do, if Quebec declared independance? Send in the police to arrest the prime minister? As this is hardly realistic, they’d offer negotiations for conditions and terms, play for time and hope for a change of heart.

    Thirdly, mini states declaring independance after a huge change is not new. A lot of that happened after 1919. Within a short amount of time, they all joined a larger country.

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