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Last Updated: 03/17/2008
Kosovo: majority rule vs historical right
Ross Ryan

Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February provoked strong reactions around the world, calling attention once again to the political importance of the Balkan region, and confronting the international community with that most controversial of questions: which nations deserve sovereign statehood, and which must remain minorities within a state dominated by a more powerful “other”?

In a perfect world there would be no controversy about this; every nation would just be free. Since the reality of international relations is far from ideal though, the other question we need to ask is: who gets to be the judge? And on what criteria?

For the architects of Kosovo’s independence, the critical issue appears to be representation, the desire to be “the master of one’s own house.” This deceptively simple democratic ideal depends on two preconditions: a unified sense of national identity, and a fairly coherent geographical area in which one can claim to be a majority. The first of these conditions was emphasized by the Prime Minister of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi in his speech following the declaration of independence, when, after expressing his gratitude to NATO and his pride in Kosovo’s determination never again to be ruled by Belgrade, he appealed to the national sentiments of his supporters: “As my parents and grandparents taught me what being a Kosovar means, I ask you to speak to your children and grandchildren and explain to them the meaning of this day.”

This sense of shared identity, especially when repressed, resonates with a lot people. Taken together with the recent history of Kosovo and the simple fact that ethnic Albanians now make up the majority in the area, it is easy to see why so many in the international community – especially those NATO countries who intervened in the Balkan conflict nine years ago and separatist nations of all kinds – have welcomed Kosovo’s declaration of independence with open arms.

As most readers will be aware, however, there is a much larger historical context in which Kosovo’s independence must be considered, so the “coherent geographical area” part of the equation is somewhat more complicated. As with most longstanding ethnic rivalries, the “correct” border lines vary widely depending on which sources are consulted and how far back in time you want to look. Even with the discrepancies though, there are a few points on which there can be little doubt. One is that the territory of Kosovo was home to a Serbian majority for centuries and remains highly significant to Serbian national and cultural identity. The destruction of Serbian churches and other heritage sites in Kosovo over the last few years has been particularly hard for the Serbian people to accept, and casts some doubt over an independent Kosovo’s ability to protect the rich and diverse history of the region.

Another point to keep in mind is that the people of the Balkans, and Kosovo in particular, have been the subject of foreign interventions for as long as anyone can remember. Not too long ago, the Austro-Hungarian Empire precipitated the First World War in their attempt to contain the victorious Serbian army once it emerged from their own war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, a move which rather accidentally supported the ethnic Albanians in their campaign for a greater Albanian state. Then, during the Second World War, the Axis powers gave Albania control over Kosovo, which was a decision quickly reversed by the Allied powers at the end of the war. WWII was followed closely by the Cold War and, as could be expected from a place whose internal power balance was meddled with so invasively from the outside, resulted in cycles of widespread civil unrest, riots and guerrilla campaigns against Serbian communities, and Serbian military responses against ethnic Albanian communities.

In more recent memory we witnessed Milosevic’s promise to protect the Serbs in Kosovo, the break up of Yugoslavia – with wars in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia – the Dayton Peace Accords addressing those conflicts but not the one in Kosovo, increased Albanian violence and Serbian repression, and finally, the NATO bombing campaigns and occupation of Kosovo.

At this point NATO does not really have a choice – they cannot let Kosovo back under the control of Belgrade, since they already made the decision to bomb that city and demonize the Serbians, and they cannot occupy Kosovo indefinitely, so Kosovo’s independence is something of a foregone conclusion. The bigger question, then, is why the US, Germany, the UK, et al. got involved in this conflict at all.

The common assumption (at least in North America and Western Europe) is that NATO acted out of an altruistic humanitarianism. If that is true, then why have other humanitarian crises attracted so much less attention? Noam Chomsky’s favourite example is East Timor, where an even bloodier and more clearly defined campaign of ethnic cleansing took place in the same months as the violence in Kosovo, but we also have a long history of ignoring similar situations in Africa. What many researchers have found, including Chomsky, is that the “humanitarian war” argument has been used to justify the intervention after the fact, but cannot actually explain the motivation of NATO member states in the first place.

Another argument could be that the ethnic Albanians simply deserve statehood in Kosovo, under the democratic principle of majority rule. But here again consistency is nowhere to be found. In fact, the UK and the US seem to have taken the exact opposite decision in the Fertile Crescent. Although such comparisons are never perfect, there are few ways in which Israel’s situation parallels Serbia’s. Most fundamentally, both nations ground their arguments in a sense of historical justice – that the place itself, having been the cradle of their national and cultural identity, overrules the claims of whoever else might be living there now. Interestingly, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drew a similar comparison in response to NATO’s intervention in the Balkans in 1999, saying that “Israel should not legitimise Nato’s aggression, led by the United States … Israel could be the next victim of the sort of action now going on in Kosovo … Imagine what would happen if one fine day the Arabs declared autonomy for the Galilee and links with the Palestinian Authority” (Yediot Aharonot, Tel Aviv, April 2nd 1999).

So if we simplify the criteria of statehood to majority rule, on the one hand, and historical right, on the other, it would appear as though powerful western countries have decided to support some states (like Kosovo) for one reason, and other states (like Israel) for the other, with very little consistency.

The implication, then, is that some other interest is at stake – in this case, an excuse, perhaps, to continue expanding and restructuring NATO, the world’s largest international military organization, despite the fact that the Warsaw Pact is gone and the need for such an organization is far from obvious. Or, along the same lines, it could be that NATO’s interest in Kosovo is nothing more than nostalgia for those heady days of grandiose geopolitical maneuvering during the Cold War.

Given the predictable opposition to this move by Russia and China, the powerful states of the west should be careful what they wish for - it might just come true.