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John Metzler Archive
Monday, July 26, 2010

Does Kosovo’s status give green light to separatist movements?

PARIS — In what clearly represents surmounting a significant legal hurdle for the young state of Kosovo, the International Court of Justice has ruled that the ethnic-Albanian province’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 did not violate international law. Yet, the court’s ruling was characteristically equivocal insofar as it did not say that the new State of Kosovo in itself was legal. Nonetheless many international observers argue that the ruling gives a green light to separatism in a score of regions, some in Europe itself.


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The World Court passed an 10-4 non-binding advisory opinion which said that international law contained “no prohibition of declarations of independence,” and thus Kosovo’s declaration of independence “did not violate international law.” As would be expected the Serbs rejected the ruling. Ironically Serbia successfully lobbied the UN General Assembly to bring the case to the Hague court in the first place. Writing in Le Figaro, Pierre Rousselin commented editorially, “A Delicate Epilogue in Kosovo.”

Kosovo’s independence became a fait accompli largely in reaction the actions of the ruling Serb regime of Slobodan Milosevic who turned the ethnic Albanian enclave into a simmering Balkan pressure-cooker where the cruelties of ethnic cleansing and political repression made the best case for freedom from Belgrade. After endless political negotiations, a decade long United Nations mandate, the Kosovar Albanians unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008.

The Bush Administration immediately offered American diplomatic recognition of the new Republic as did France, Germany, Turkey and a host of other countries. Today Kosovo is recognized by 69 countries; without question an important achievement but still far short of the two-thirds of the 192 member UN General Assembly. Kosovo is not a member of the UN.

Importantly key countries such as Russia (Serbia’s historic patron), People’s Republic of China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia have refused to recognized the government in Pristina. To be sure some of the reasons are obvious — Moscow, Beijing and have traditionally supported socialist Serbia ideologically. But more importantly, multi-ethnic states, be they democratic or not, have a deep-seated fear of Kosovo stoking the embers of political separatism from Spain to Sumatra and Sinkiang.

Serbia’s Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic opined, that the court ruling could encourage separatist movements to “write their declarations of independence.” He has a valid point.

Thus while most of European Union’s 27 member states have recognized Kosovo, five countries have notably not done so. Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Greece and Romania all fear ethnic rumblings inside their frontiers such as the Basques or Catalonians in Spain.

But this emerges as the tip of a potentially far deeper political issue. Russia is crossed by many ethnic fault lines especially in the volatile Caucasian region where Chechnya naturally comes to mind. On the flip side, there’s the issue of the Russian-backed separatist regimes in Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mainland China rightly fears separatism — look only at Tibet and Sinkiang Province where ethnic repression by the Beijing rulers of both Buddhists and Muslims has led to deep resentments and growing separatist rumblings.

Let’s face it: Indonesia remains a mosaic of ethnic groups and nationalities who are not all on the same political page as the Jakarta government. The same goes for democratic India. And Sri Lanka recently ended a vicious separatist struggle. The point is that tiny Kosovo’s independence can be interpreted in many ways in far flung parts of the world.

While the Kosovo government in Pristina appears to have achieved an important juridical benediction from the World Court in the Hague, the fact remains that the social and ethnic stability in the disputed region rests with NATO’s peacekeeping forces. Almost 10,000 troops from the multinational KFOR units remain in the enclave a decade after the war between Serbia and NATO. Moreover international aid has been the intravenous for the two million mostly secular Muslims in the landlocked Balkan republic. Organized crime sadly remains equally entrenched as a millstone to development.

Pierre Lellouche of the French Foreign Ministry told Le Monde, “The juridical chapter is closed, but the political chapter is opening.”

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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