Precedents and Damage Control in Kosovo

15 04 2008

European Affairs
Vol. 9.1, Summer 2008

In matters of foreign policy, Western governments and their officials more often than not take rhetorical refuge in assertions of vague principle. It is nearly impossible for a country, especially a superpower, to declare and implement consistent policies because there are simply too many conventions and traditions that must be honored in the name of comfort and stability. When confronted with any inconsistencies, the natural response for a democratic government is to play dodge-ball, often frantically.

When Costa Rican government officials are asked about their positions on, say, micro-lending in Kosovo, the political fallout of almost any answer would be miniscule, if only because Costa Rica does not have significant political, economic or relational capital in Kosovo. In contrast, as a superpower, the United States has its hand in an infinite number of cookie jars, and inevitably that hand will get stuck. Not only are there more jars around the world in which America inserts itself, but there are more contraptions (money, pride, ideology, tradition) in those jars that can ensnare America’s hand, often over relatively minor concerns whose symbolism seems to take the shape of public policy.

The NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the UN protectorate that followed, and the symbiotic push for Kosovo’s development and independence have left many scrambling either to bemoan or trivialize the impact that Kosovo’s status could have on the global order. Given that the intervention, protection and development of Kosovo have each defied convention in various ways, there has been no shortage of curiosity as to what message has been delivered (and to whom) by the heavy international involvement in Kosovo. But what precisely is that message? Who is supposed to hear it, and who is not? Which precedents actually pose a threat, and to whom? And finally, how might these concerns and their inherent inconsistencies translate into future foreign policy?

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Next Moves in Kosovo

2 01 2008

Foreign Policy in Focus
2 January 2008

Negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina over the final status of Kosovo have officially failed, and Russia will veto any Western attempt at the UN Security Council to recognize the independence of this Serbian province populated by mostly ethnic Albanians.

At some point during the next three months, the United States and the European Union (EU) will give Kosovo the green light to unilaterally declare its independence.

But a few things must happen before then.

Next Steps for Kosovo

To avoid a repeat of the March 2004 riots, in which ethnic Albanians burned hundreds of Serbian homes and dozens of churches, NATO’s force in Kosovo will have to be certain that they have the right number of troops and that these troops are in all the right places.

The European Union also has to do some house-cleaning in anticipation of replacing the UN peacekeeping force (UNMIK) of roughly 2500 professionals. While nearly all the EU countries will recognize Kosovo’s independence, a handful of its 27 member-states have expressed understandable reluctance given their own internal secessionist conflicts. And while Kosovo’s independence would have greater legitimacy if endorsed by all the EU countries individually and collectively, a far more important European consensus concerns the continued political and economic development of this nominally Serbian province.

For the last eight years, Russia has consistently voted in the Security Council to renew the UN’s nation-building mandate in Kosovo under the condition that final status negotiations continue between Belgrade and Prishtina. If, however, Kosovo unilaterally declares independence, Moscow will likely veto any resolution that takes that independence for granted, including a renewed UN mandate. As a result, as soon as Kosovo declares, UNMIK will become obsolete, and a very large void must be filled very quickly. Read the rest of this entry »

Separatist Playbooks in Kosovo

15 11 2007
Voice of America
15 November 2007

Transcript of my VOA interview, in Serbian.

If You Give Separatists an Inch….

5 11 2007

Christian Science Monitor
5 November 2007

The NATO intervention in the Serbian province of Kosovo in 1999, the UN protectorate that followed, and the symbiotic push for Kosovo’s development and independence have left many analysts and politicians scrambling either to bemoan or trivialize the impact that Kosovo’s final status could have on the global order.

With the looming Dec. 10 deadline for the latest round of negotiations, it seems exceedingly unlikely that Washington will be able to persuade Moscow to endorse Kosovo’s independence at the UN Security Council. Yet Kosovo’s frustrated Albanians, who make up more than 90 percent of the province’s population, have hinted that they are on the brink of declaring independence unilaterally, even if it means renewed conflict with Belgrade.

Ultimately, in our international system, a nation’s “independence” is little more than the rest of the world’s willingness to recognize it as independent. So, even if Moscow vetoes Kosovo’s bid for independence, Kosovo can still enjoy some of the benefits of being an independent country. These benefits become more substantial with every state that recognizes Kosovo. Similarly, the likelihood of renewed violence would decrease if other countries viewed Kosovo’s self-defense as legitimate.

This means, however, that because negotiations are likely to fail, Washington has been encouraging, and will continue to encourage, foreign governments to support a technically illegal, self-declared, independent Kosovo in the event that negotiations collapse. Yet this kind of persuasion does not come easily.

There are more than 50 separatist conflicts across the globe, and few of the governments that have endured the bane of irredentism will be eager to recognize Kosovo if such a precedent could come back to haunt them.

Echoing countless other US and European officials, Daniel Fried, the US assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, responded to such concerns in February with the following logic: “Kosovo is a unique situation because NATO was forced to intervene to stop and then reverse ethnic cleansing. The Security Council authorized Kosovo to be ruled effectively by the United Nations, not by Serbia. UN Council Resolution 1244 also stated that Kosovo’s final status would be the subject of negotiation. Those conditions do not pertain to any of the conflicts that are usually brought up in this context.”

Unfortunately, Washington’s “unique” talking points are actually engraving a separatist playbook in stone, blazing a glorious trail that separatists will follow with greater determination, recruits, and (in all likelihood) success.

Separatist regions like the Basque Country or Abkhazia might not resemble Kosovo right now – as Washington is quick to note – but by so explicitly stating the merits of Kosovar self-determination and independence, Washington is essentially creating an innovative code, only to make the cipher publicly available. Current and future separatists merely have to manufacture the same conditions and sequencing that have compelled the West to embrace an independent Kosovo: terrorize locals, invite government crackdowns, incite a rebellion, and lure in foreign intervention and commitment to rebuild.

Once militants get this far, Kosovo will no longer be unique – even by Washington’s peculiar standards – and areas that share Kosovo’s characteristics will be equally deserving of independence. The horrid irony, of course, is that declaring Kosovo’s uniqueness has been Washington’s deliberate attempt to prevent future separatism, but it is inadvertently teaching militants how to navigate the complex inconsistencies of geopolitics. In fact, the more thorough and persuasive Western governments are about Kosovo’s “uniqueness,” the more legitimate separatists’ ambitions become, if only they follow the Kosovo model.

Not only, then, has Washington had a hard time selling Kosovo’s independence to all but its closest allies, but the very basis for that appeal is even more threatening to governments that would face invigorated separatism in the wake of an independent Kosovo – even if that independence is informal and technically illegal.

With the “unique” endorsement, Washington and a few European capitals close even more rhetorical doors that they will need to slip through when the time comes to reject separatist analogies in the future, and our failure to anticipate these complicated roadblocks will cost our allies more than anyone else.

[View this Op-Ed at CS Monitor]

Georgia’s Contagious Separatism

11 05 2006

Transitions Online: Unique coverage of all 28 post-communist countries
11 May 2006

It seems only natural for minorities in the former Soviet Union to feel a constant pull towards separatism. Their national borders were drawn almost arbitrarily—often to encourage conflicts—and a nascent sense of self-determination that followed the end of Soviet communism certainly plays a role in the region’s separatism, even today. Georgians, in particular, have witnessed their share of nationalist struggles, together leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. In Georgia’s mostly Armenian region of Javakheti, however, the potential for conflict has always rested just beneath the surface, requiring a greater and untapped impetus to inspire rebellion.

As Georgia’s southernmost region, Javakheti shares not only a border with Armenia, but also a culture, religion, and language, as Javakheti is more than 90% Armenian. Despite being born in Georgia, few of these Armenians feel any allegiance to Georgia at all.  After all, Soviet leaders in the early 20th century relocated thousands of Armenian families to Georgia’s southern regions to provide a protective buffer between the Ottoman Empire and the rest of the Soviet Union.  Culturally, linguistically and politically, the Georgians in Javakheti are Armenian.

And while any unrest in Javakheti pales in comparison to the tension in Georgia’s authentic separatist regions—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—Javakheti has all the makings of a civil ethnic conflict. To start, the most common language in Javakheti is Armenian, and Georgian is not a required part of the local curriculum for the same reason that Russian is not a required part of the Georgian curriculum—both nations feel a burgeoning sense of pride and self-determination. Javakheti has a better relationship with Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, than it does with the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The central government provides very little financial assistance to Javakheti, citing economic difficulties and limited resources, which inevitably leave the undeveloped region’s infrastructure in pieces and the people alienated.

Unlike in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—breakaway regions enjoying de-facto autonomy under Russian patronage—calls for secession or reunion with the “home country” have never been quite as loud in Javakheti, even though most of the unrest tethers to economic and cultural concerns—both typical catalysts for rebellion. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Forget Abkhazia

17 03 2006

Georgian Messenger
17 March 2006

While Georgia and Russia focus their efforts on addressing the potential for renewed conflict in South Ossetia, a series of provocative events and statements coming from Abkhazia should not be overlooked.  In fact, a number of mixed messages from Abkhazia are ripening the region’s political environment for advances toward peace.  Unfortunately, Tbilisi might be too preoccupied or temperamental to take notice.

For more than a decade, Abkhazia has been siphoning resources and support from Russia for no other reason than because Russia continues to offer them.  Ethnic Abkhazians have no more allegiance to Russia than they do to Georgia; after all, Abkhazia was also subject to the iron fist of Soviet rule.  Yet after breaking off from the rest of Georgia, Abkhazia desperately needed a pillar to rest on, and Russia provided that—again, not out of loyalty to Abkhazians, but merely to maintain its influence in the rapidly westernizing south Caucasus and Black Sea region. Read the rest of this entry »

Georgian Peacekeepers in South Ossetia?

3 03 2006

3 March 2006

Georgian officials have made it clear that they neither support nor trust Russia’s military peacekeeping force in South Ossetia. But what are the alternatives to this presence? Georgian ministers and members of parliament have advocated two different alternatives. Both assume that the Russians will abandon their interests in South Ossetia, and both invite more questions than answers.

The first alternative to the current, mostly Russian Joint Peacekeeping Force (JPKF) is an international peacekeeping force (PKF), perhaps led by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). On such an international force, the number of Georgian and Russian soldiers is unlikely to be greater than that on any other PKF in the world.

Georgian officials know, however, that they are not likely to be offered a truly international peacekeeping force. PKFs from the United Nations and the OSCE are dead ends for achieving Georgian goals in South Ossetia because Russia retains veto power in both organizations. NATO might offer an outlet, but only if the conflict seriously escalates to the level of Kosovo in 1999. Read the rest of this entry »

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