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Kosovo’s Independence: The “Politics” of Geography and Internal Contradictions

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • May 14, 2008

    Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence on February 17, 2008 is dividing the world into states that support the move and those opposed to it. It has also emboldened separatist movements across the world.

    Prominent among supporters of Kosovo’s independence are the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, while on the opposing side stand China, Russia, Spain, Greece and Portugal. One impact of this divide has been its fallout on the United Nations. Just like NATO’s March 1999 intervention on behalf of Kosovar Albanians without a UN mandate, this time around as well the UN has been bypassed by some of the world’s developed states to further their own geo-strategic interests. So much so that UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon categorically stated that the decision to recognise Kosovo’s independence by important member-states were independent choices, and that the UN was still bound by Resolution 1244 of June 10, 1999, which recognizes Kosovo as an integral part of the Yugoslav Federation of which Serbia is the successor state. Resolution 1244 had also strictly laid down that future decisions on Kosovo must be guided by the principles of Serbia’s sovereignty over the province and territorial integrity.

    Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has defended the Bush Administration’s prompt recognition of Kosovo’s independence by arguing that Serbia’s gross human right violations in Kosovo in 1998-99 justifies the latter’s declaration of independence and therefore must be viewed as a “special exception” to the twin precepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, it appears that American support for Kosovo’s independence is guided by its interests, which is to establish a permanent military base in Kosovo to enable smooth oil transfers from the Caspian Sea via the Balkans to eventually reach the United States.

    Many countries like Spain, Romania, Greece, Portugal and Slovakia argue that the US had decided as early as June 1999 that Kosovo should never be re-integrated with Serbia. This suspicion has to be seen in the context of US behaviour in 1998 and 1999 in the region. In 1998, the US deftly removed the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) from its list of terrorist groups, described it instead as an insurgency, and deepened ties with the outfit. This, notwithstanding the fact that the KLA had acquired arms training in Afghanistan and Albania, and had funded itself through a well organised drug network in the Balkans. A year later, the US, with KLA support, started building Camp Bondsteel, a permanent military base on 955 acres of open farm land near the Kosovar town of Urosevac, in a display of a long term engagement plan.

    The same year it also revealed a plan to build a trans-Balkan oil pipeline by the Albania Macedonia Bulgarian Oil Corporation (AMBO), which is registered in the United States. This pipeline aims to bypass Russia and bring oil from the Caspian Sea to terminals in Georgia, to be subsequently transported by tanker through the Black Sea to the Bulgarian port of Burgas and onwards through Macedonia to the Albanian port of Vlora, for shipment to refineries in the US West Coast. The successful completion of this plan necessitates a US military presence in Kosovo to provide security for the project; Kosovo’s independence facilitates such a presence. Armed with these plans, the US won the support of major European states like Germany, France and Britain and successfully influenced the European Union to bypass the UN Security Council to facilitate a limited form of independence for Kosovo.

    The other significant geopolitical factor behind the prompt recognition of Kosovo’s independence by these states is their desire to see a diminution in Russian influence in the Balkans. Russia has steadfastly spoken against Kosovo’s independence and has supported the Serbian view of politically reintegrating the province. Kosovo’s independence thus deals a severe blow to Russia’s position in the Balkans.

    In a counter-move, Vladimir Putin warned on April 29 that the West’s recognition of Kosovo might motivate his country to support the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia, Trans-Dniester and South Ossetia. Indeed, Russia has started granting Russian citizenship to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following Kosovo’s independence. Fear of mounting conflict with Russia and the spread of separatist sentiments inflamed by Kosovo’s move have led to deep divisions within Europe. Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Slovakia, Portugal, Malta, Bulgaria and Romania have all refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence.

    Kosovo’s declaration of independence has also had an impact on separatist movements in various parts of the world, while at the same time discomfiting states that face such movements. On May 8, 2008, the parliament of the Georgian province of Abkhazia passed two resolutions asserting its sovereignty and independence from Georgia, and called upon the United Nations, Russia and other countries to recognise it as an independent entity. Abkhazian President Sergey Bagapsh noted that “Kosovo has just boosted everything…. Kosovo is a precedent and we will work in that direction.”

    Separatist groups in India are also attempting to draw inspiration from the Kosovo precedent. Yasin Malik, leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), told the Iranian-based Islamic Republic News Agency in February that the international community, and particularly the EU, “should play a pro-active role now towards the resolution of Kashmir issue as they did in case of Kosovo.” The website of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim has congratulated Kosovars on their declaration of independence.

    The argument put forth by most separatist groups in India and abroad that Kosovo is an ideal case of self-determination is, however, flawed. These groups deliberately overlook the harsh realities facing Kosovo today. Its territorial landscape is ethnically divided, with most of its 120,000 Serb population residing south of the Ibar River and Albanians in the area north of the river. Already, the province faces partition as Serbs vehemently defy the independence move and continue to be loyal to Belgrade. Since 1999, the ethnic divide has worsened and peace in this UN protectorate is being maintained by 16,000 NATO troops. The only difference now is that instead of a UN protectorate, there is an EU protectorate led by Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith. The situation is akin to that in Bosnia where everyday administration is being carried out by EU bureaucrats with little participation from the Bosnians themselves.

    Kosovo’s economy is an even bigger challenge. Unemployment rate is about 50 per cent. Two-thirds of young people are without jobs, leading to crime and drug addiction. Its most important mining project, the Trepca Mines, is in a dilapidated condition. According to Shpend Ahmeti, Director of Kosovo's Institute for Advanced Studies, imports constitute about US $1.9 billion a year whereas exports are a meagre $130 million. Business taxes are much higher than elsewhere in the region and there is an acute lack of reliable power supply. Added to this is the limited rule of law with high rates of organised crime. In addition, as Joost Lagendijk, overseer of Kosovo policy in the European Parliament states, “Kosovo is a poor agricultural country where the energy supply is chaotic, the rule of law needs to be upheld and the economy is almost starting from scratch.” The Report on the Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer 2007 rates Kosovo as the world’s fourth most corrupt economy.

    Thus, for the near future, Kosovo’s economy will depend on Western aid, its security will be provided by NATO troops and its political future will be overseen by the EU mission. In this context, independence has little or no meaning.