Kosovo: the terrible aftermath

Don't panic:  this isn't going to be yet another re-run of my theme-song about NATO's illegal attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo in 1999 having been an unalloyed failure, contrary to the prevailing wisdom.  Anyone who wants to see that argument and the evidence for it can easily do so by clicking, for example, here and, especially, here (among many other posts littering this blog for years).  My purpose here is to recommend a deeply depressing, superbly well documented article in the London Review of Books, 17 July 2008 issue, by Jeremy Harding, about the current situation in Kosovo, nearly nine years after NATO's air war against the Serbs on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians, and a few months after the Kosovo Albanian majority in Kosovo, cynically egged on by the United States, Britain and much of the rest of the EU, unilaterally declared Kosovo independent in the face of furious opposition from Serbia, Russia and some others:  an act disagreeably reminiscent of white Southern Rhodesia's disastrous Unilateral Declaration of Independence, or UDI, on 11 November 1965.  

Harding's article graphically describes the dire economic situation in Kosovo: 40 to 50 per cent unemployment, infant mortality rates worse than those in Mexico or even the Occupied Territories of Palestine and twice those in Serbia, a Kosovo Serbian minority numbering around 200,000 wholly dependent on "money from Belgrade, a system of local patronage, and, like many Albanians, on racketeering." 45 per cent of the population live below the poverty level, i.e. unable to meet basic needs:  "around 15 per cent live in extreme poverty, earning less than a euro a day."  Harding comments:

No one would have imagined that a UN protectorate in Europe, stuffed with NGOs and awash with donor receipts, could perform so badly. Kosovo has low growth, no inflation, and few signs of an emerging economy. The roads are bad, the water supply is subject to cuts – the water is contaminated in any case – and the two coal-fired power stations in Obiliq, a township outside Pristina, are dying behemoths, polluting their way to extinction, unable to provide domestic users with regular electricity. Obiliq itself, stifled by their exertions, has a higher rate of respiratory disease than anywhere else in Kosovo.

Once a supplier of farm produce to other parts of Yugoslavia, Kosovo now brings in almost all its food, along with fuel and building materials. Its leading ‘export’ is scrap metal, a harvest of rundown plant from the Milosevic era and Nato bomb damage. Kosovo’s trade gap is dramatic: imports account for 90 per cent of legal cross-border trade. The UN, the EU and Nato have frozen the conflict between Serbs and Albanians for the last four years; inadvertently, too, they’ve kept development on ice. 

Of course things weren't much, if any, better in the days of Serbian rule immediately before 1999, when Kosovo was by universal recognition a province of Serbia — as, according to Serbia and its allies, legally it still is.  But Kosovo UDI has precipitated a fatal breach with Serbia, on which Kosovo's economy has hitherto largely depended.   Relations had anyway been badly damaged by the western intervention (brokered with the Serbs by US, Russian and Finnish diplomacy) under which Serbian military and administrative rule has been replaced by a UN-sponsored international military and civilian authority, ending the ethnic cleansing of the Albanians by the Serbs.  Then relations were even more seriously undermined by the ethnic cleansing of the Serbian minority in Kosovo by the Kosovo Albanian majority, carried out under the noses of UN, NATO and EU troops and administrators. 

The 'independence' declared by the Kosovo Albanians and promptly recognised by Washington, London and most other western capitals is a pretty unconvincing thing.  Predictably, neither Serbia nor Russia recognises it, nor is either likely to do so in the foreseeable future.  This means that membership of the UN for Kosovo is out of reach, since any application for it would inevitably be vetoed by Russia (and, probably, by China), even if the necessary nine-vote majority for Kosovo admission were to be obtainable in the Security Council.  Economic independence is similarly out of reach:  the only hope for Kosovo, now that it has cut itself off from Serbia, lies in the EU, although any glimmer of hope of eventual EU membership for Kosovo is so far down the road as to be virtually invisible — while Serbia's journey along the path to EU membership has now accelerated with the handover of Radovan Karadži? to the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague on charges of genocide and other war crimes.  Little support for Kosovo from UN bodies is likely, given Russia's certain opposition to anything that might smack of UN recognition of Kosovo's 'independence'. 

As Jeremy Harding shows, the international bodies that have been governing Kosovo in the nine years since 1999 — NATO, the EU, the OSCE, under a rather nominal UN umbrella in the shape of Unmik — have an extremely unimpressive record when it comes to promoting economic and social development in this poverty-stricken backwater of Europe.  With the gradual dismantling of UN authority and increased dependence on the EU, it seems unlikely that Kosovo will prosper any more in the next nine years than it has done in the last nine.  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the declaration of independence was a dreadful mistake. Jeremy Harding again:

The unilateral declaration of independence came on 17 February; it was made amid much jubilation in the Kosovo assembly, in signal disregard of SCR 1244, and pinpointed the tensions between the UN and the government. Over the years there have been many disagreements, yet the tendency to bat decisions back and forth has been a problem too: it has suited the Kosovo government to blame its failings on Unmik, while Unmik has been happy to criticise locals when its own shortcomings are under scrutiny. Perhaps the EU, now preparing to take over from the UN, will bring an end to this inertia, but it is not a foregone conclusion.

Kosovo Albanians have lived in dependency for generations, and the years under Unmik, with its fudges and flops, have seemed like a forced march along a familiar road. The only period of which they speak fondly – older people, obviously – lasted from the end of the 1960s until the beginning of the 1980s: a time of prosperity, growth, regional autonomy and relative democracy for Kosovo within the Yugoslav Federation.

The tragedy is that a similar status of extensive autonomy under almost nominal Serbian sovereignty was probably available to Kosovo as an alternative to the equally nominal 'independence' which the western powers encouraged Kosovo to declare.  It's described as 'supervised independence', surely the most glaring example of oxymoron in modern times:  if you're supervised, you're not independent. In the run-up to UDI, Serbia, clearly under pressure from Moscow, urgently offered to restore Kosovo's autonomous status, brutally stripped away by Milosevic in the late 1980s.  It would have meant Kosovo acquiescing in continued Serbian sovereignty, and forgoing the trappings of full independence for which the Kosovo Liberation Army had fought.  But it would have ensured Russian as well as western support; Kosovo membership of the EU as technically part of Serbia would have become an attainable objective;  some kind of UN observer status could probably have been devised, with Russian and Serbian agreement; possibilities of UN, Russian and Serbian as well as EU and other western economic support would have opened up;  Kosovo could have enjoyed almost all the practical advantages of independence without having to cope with the penalties that it is now paying for a UDI that is incapable of achieving universal recognition.  Kosovo, in short, threw away the realities of a generally recognised and rewarded autonomy, for the sake of an independence which is so attenuated as to be almost unrecognisable.   The daunting implications of this are vividly described in the LRB article.

US and UK policy towards Kosovo and Serbia committed an unforgivable blunder with the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, an illegal act of aggression which achieved not one of its stated objectives.  Now, nine years after Serbian authority was driven out and Kosovo placed under international control, the US and the UK, with others, have blundered again in encouraging the Kosovo leaders into a damaging and probably irreparable breach with their Serbian neighbours by insisting on a fake and moth-eaten form of 'independence' which falls far short of the real thing.  It looks very much as if western attention to the Kosovo problem is going to leave that unhappy province in virtually permanent international limbo, and virtually permanent poverty too. 


2 Responses

  1. Jeremy Varcoe says:

    Although Harding's article and your assessment of it make depressing reading, Kosovo's declaration of independence may eventually prove to be a more stable platform for that sad and destabilised territory than the alternative you claim was available but ignored by the Kosovars and their supporters. This was reversion to a high degree of autonomy under Serbian sovereignty.

    Having heard evidence from quite a large number of both Albanian and Serb asylum seekers from Kosovo it is impossible to overstate the legacy of hatred, distrust and bitterness from the period of Serbian oppression and its aftermath. This may eventually subside but I believe it is totally unrealistic to expect the Albanian majority to have accepted anything less than full and legal secession from Serbia. Their perception, right or wrong, is that the Serbs could never be trusted not again to intervene in a detrimental way. So their decision may have been foolish but in their terms they saw no alternative. I consider the EU now has a duty to orchestrate assistance on a sufficiently large scale to kick-start development and to try to rekindle a sense of hope for all the communities, not forgetting all the minority groups, in this limpingly independent state.

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this, Jeremy.  I don't doubt the degree of bitterness between the two nationalities and communities, legacy among other things of the ethnic cleansings of Albanians by Serbs under Milosevic and of Serbs by Albanians under the UN-EU-NATO-OSCE protectorate.  Nor would I dispute your judgement that at present the Kosovo Albanians wouldn't have accepted anything less than full sovereignty and full independence from Serbia.  But if international control for nine years still hasn't succeeded in bringing about a degree of reconciliation, there seems no compelling reason why matters should have been brought to a head now (or rather last February) when the only change of status available was so profoundly unsatisfactory for all concerned.   Kosovo doesn't enjoy full, generally recognised, independence and has no prospect of UN membership for the foreseeable future, while Serbia's anger and humiliation at the loss of a geographically, historically and culturally significant part of its territory have deepened the rift by institutionalising it instead of helping to heal it.  Moreover the legality of Kosovo's UDI, contrary to the relevant Security Council resolution and actively encouraged by a small group of western governments, is extremely dubious, as well as providing a potentially disastrous precedent for other secessionist groups.  It also appears to reward the KLA's policy of seeking independence by terrorist means.  For all these reasons it seems to me that it would have been far better to continue international protectorate status for another few (or many) years, to encourage active economic and other collaboration during this time with Serbia (and Russia) as well as with the EU, to provide much more effective protection and guarantees for the Serbian minority in Kosovo, and to postpone indefinitely final decisions on sovereignty.  If the indeterminate international status enjoyed until February could be tolerated for nine years, why not try harder to encourage active reconciliation for another nine?  But of course it's now too late for that;  the boats have been burned.  So, as you rightly say, there's nothing for it now but to try to persuade the EU (and the US) to exercise their self-imposed colonial responsibilities for digging Kosovo out of its hole much more generously and effectively than they have done so far.  I wouldn't, though, hold my breath.

  2. James Dunn says:

    Great to read you, Brian!   Hope you are keeping well.   I went back to E Timor, where the UN mission asked me to make a preliminary report on the attempted assassination of the President. Actually it was not an organised assassination attempt, but  a botched attempt to corner Horta.

    Hope you and Jane are well.   Wendy is well and I am not in bad shape for an 80 yo.

    Best regards

    Brian writes:  Jane and I are delighted to have this excellent message from our old friend, probably the most knowledgeable commentator and activist in all matters East Timorese on the planet, including the welcome news that Jim and Wendy (who once rescued my son and me from a menacing undertow off an Australian beach) are in good shape — and that you, Jim, read Ephems from time to time!  James Dunn is also of course an established Australian commentator on international affairs and regular visits to his blog, at http://jasdunn.bigblog.com.au/index.do, are strongly recommended.  His recent warning not to be so carried away by Obamania that we underestimate John McCain's prospects of winning in November is salutary.  Keep up the good work, Jim.