Independence for Kosovo?

Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 did not break international law, the International Court of Justice has ruled in a non-binding decision.(1) This of itself has a limited meaning in legal terms. The Court’s full decision is not yet accessible, but the implications are that declarations of independence are matters for the relevant ‘host’ nation state to accept or not, and are not matters for international law a priori. In other words, the question is for the ICJ a nonjusticiable matter. The implications politically for the region are nonetheless serious.

Socialists have a great regard for the self-determination of peoples. There is no argument from socialism for or against independence for peoples or nations per se – the political meaning depends entirely on circumstances. All things being equal, therefore, the popular will of the people involved should be considered decisive. It is clear that from the start a majority of Kosovars did and do support independence for this Serbian province, mainly because of the strong Albanian majority in the area. Nonetheless, it is doubtful whether independence for Kosovo is the correct course.

The first major objection is the means it came about. Even after the Yugoslavian civil war and its genocidal aftermath had ended, the United States and its vassals waged another, separate, war against Serbia over the case of Kosovo. This war was based on information from the KLA, the Albanian-Kosovar militia, that the already collapsing Milosevic regime was attempting a second ethnic cleansing against Albanians in the area, or was even attempting to murder the entire Albanian population there. The allegations of mass graves and genocide turned out, however, to be entirely false when research teams finally hit the ground in Kosovo.(2) Not a single mass grave or the like was found. Moreover, the KLA itself turned out to have been more or less an Albanian mobster gang, which has since used the area as a staging ground for drug smuggling, making it one of the most mafia-infected areas of Europe. The International War Crimes Tribunal concluded the strife in Kosovo between the KLA and armed Serbs had a total casualty tally of 2.788 – most likely less than the amount of victims of the human trafficking Kosovo is now infamous for. Moreover, it was not a ‘necessary intervention’. As Benjamin Schwarz wrote:

Before NATO’s bombing Kosovo was embroiled in a brutal civil war in which the Belgrade government sought to suppress a guerilla insurgency that had assasinated Yugoslav civilian and military officials and the guerrillas sought to provoke Belgrade’s thuggish reprisals to attract the West to intervene on their behalf. The Milosovic government might eventually have accepted partition, which might have restored a semblance of peace. But instead of pursuing that diplomatic solution, the Clinton Administration cynically offered Belgrade terms that would have both nullified Yugoslav control of Kosovo and granted NATO the right to station troops anywhere in Yugoslavia — conditions Yugoslavia was bound to refuse. The U.S. and its allies then took this refusal as their pretext for intervention.


But a bad war leading to worse outcomes does not of itself deny the case for independence. We must also look at the context. The Serbian militias in Bosnia, who decidedly were guilty of most (though by no means all) of the conspiracies to mass murder in that civil war, maintain their own little ‘Republika Srpska’ within the official boundaries of Bosnia-Herzegovina. If Kosovo is allowed to become independent on the basis of the claims of a criminal militia and the weakness of the central state, then this gives the worst of the criminals just as good an opportunity to do the same. The result would be the worst of both worlds: both the criminals among the anti-Serb forces and the criminals among the pro-Serb forces in the region would be rewarded for their murderous efforts with the spoils they seized. The moral hazard this presents worldwide should be obvious.

Finally, an important argument is that socialists should strive for conflict resolution without war, and this involves supporting and strengthening international organizations and negotiation. The United Nations Security Council is a weak instrument from a socialist perspective – but like many United Nations institutions, it is better than nothing. UN Resolution 1244, adopted by the General Assembly as well as the Security Council, prescribes that any independence for Kosovo must happen on the basis of negotiations between Pristina and Beograd. The KLA and their supporters cannot be allowed to violate this any more than we could permit Serbians to attempt to keep the province by force. The Serbian government of Boris Tadic is not interested in either warfare or ethnic strife, and therefore is a serious negotiating partner for the legitimate claims of Albanians in the region if they truly want independence. There is no reason why, if they do want it, we should prevent them – but it must be done by negotiation, and in a way that actually supports the self-determination of peoples rather than the principle of “to the victor the spoils”. This is an important lesson not just for the Serbians, but also for the Americans and their allies.

1) “Kosovo independence not illegal, says UN court”. BBC News (22 July, 2010).
2) John Pilger, “John Pilger reminds us of Kosovo”. New Statesman (13 Dec. 2004).
3) Benjamin Schwarz, “Picking a Good Fight: Round One”. The Atlantic (06 April, 2000).


Interesting post.

But I don’t think radicals need commit to any particular arrangement of borders as they currently stand, however objectionable particular political elites or leaders may be in in individual countries. To do so would be to over-commit, I think, to the existing statelets and the elites that rule them in the Balkans. And surely the point of supporting self-determination as a general principle is that it is not for us as outsiders to set the guidelines by which peoples in any region resolve their differences? Along these lines, I would say another broader point to make is that, whatever the ruling of the court, the ICJ is in no position to rule on the self-determination or secession of peoples – this is a question that must always be decided politically, not in a court room (although we will have to wait and see the full details of the Court ruling on this score). Nor do I think the UN is any use here either: it was the UN that denied Kosovo self-determination from 1999-2008 under the terms of UN Resolution 1244, putting viceroys in Pristina with enough powers to embarrass Milosevic. From this vantage point, the congenital orientation of both Serbia’s and Kosovo’s leadership to seek the support of the ‘international community’ is part of the overall problem.

I agree with you that we need not have any particular commitment to the current borders or organisation of the Balkan. I have no principled opposition to new nations and secessions; the contrary if anything. But I think it is important to emphasize that boundary changes and secessions should be done in the spirit of peace and internationalism, and this means that we should definitely prevent nationalist and sectarian militias from being rewarded for violence and terror. You are of course right that the ICJ can’t judge on this issue, but as I understood it, that is also their opinion. Similarly I share your dislike of prolongued international concessions and committee governance of other nations. Bosnia still has no real politics and this only causes ethnic sectarianism to be strengthened. But I do think that the UN is an important instrument through which questions such as secession of ethnic minorities can and ought to be resolved.

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