Congratulations, Kosovo

Self-congratulatory remarks by the International Civilian Representative for Kosovo juxtaposes oddly with demonstrations on both the Serbian and Kosovar Albanian sides that underscore that the situation is anything but normal.

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By David B. Kanin

The substance of Pieter Feith’s comments last week is unimportant.  The attitude they represent matters more.  Kosovo now has been promised the chance of being declared “normal” by its erstwhile international supervisors.  Speaking for the 25-nation International Steering Group (USG), Mr. Feith, the International Civilian Representative for Kosovo (ICR) said the new state has made such progress that an end of the ISG-monitored “supervised independence”(is that not an oxymoron?) should be possible by the end of 2012.  The ICR solemnly declared that this happy event will “normalize Kosovo as a normal European state.” (Agence France Press, 24 January).

In the spirit of so many previous generations of Western imperial, mandatory, or trustee officials with vice-regal powers, the ICR awarded himself and his group credit for this happy event.  “Together with my colleagues, we have given the young state of Kosovo…a start in life.  We have established the institutions and now, from the end of the year, Kosovo will be like any other European state.” (Emphasis mine)  The ICR lay before Kosovo the prospect of coming closer to the European Union if it can build on its supervisors’ gifts, develop domestic institutions and serve as a stable, reliable partner in the region.

There exists an academic literature on the topic of how West Europeans since the Enlightenment have rationalized their self-asserted hegemony by relegating the status of whatever others they claim to supervise to rungs on an invented, asserted developmental ladder well below the exalted position of the civilized supervisors.  (Larry Wolff and Marco Cipolloni are two leading contemporary thinkers in the field.)  The ICR’s condescending rhetoric falls well within the universe of this scholarship and the pattern established by representatives of the Powers since the days of the 19th Century Concert of Europe.  The Council of Europe’s latest lecture to Bosnia falls in the same category.

Kosovo, however, is something of an anomaly.  The ICR’s insistence on repeating versions of the word “normal” underscores the point that the state/province is anything but.  It is one thing when all the Great Powers agree for a while on the diplomatic status, borders, government, and other aspects of a place on which they have imposed their writ.  It is another when this is not the case.  The usual rhetorical hyperbole does not wash when it serves ironically to underscore the contingency of an untenable status quo that satisfies no contestant.

I already have posted a comment on the shoddy US-led diplomacy that created the current diplomatic situation.  In this context, the ICR’s strange self-congratulations juxtaposes oddly with demonstrations on both the Serbian and Kosovar Albanian sides that underscore that the situation is anything but normal.  Washington’s failure to engineer an internationally agreed-upon replacement to UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and decision to impose a unilaterally declared Kosovar state created a fragile, highly contested condition.  The continuing legal existence of the security annexes to 1244 gives Serbia a viable legal reed to rest on; the fact that 85 countries have recognized the state of Kosova despite 1244 puts boundaries on the reach of that resolution but does not give the new state more than partial international status.  This situation satisfies no one and so cannot constitute be a “final” status.

Therefore, neither Boris Tadic’s latest proposal, nor the Ahtisaari Plan it is drawn from, will lead to a lasting solution to the Kosova/o imbroglio.  Tadic knows this; his rhetorical posture is meant simply to attract the positive international attention he needs to gain the brass ring of EU candidate status, the key to his hope for an electoral victory this spring.  (When you read “Ahtisaari,” think “Invincible,” or “Vance-Owen.”)

The two protagonists are looking in opposite directions.  Those Serbs who cling to dreams of Kosovo gaze back to a largely invented past which involves the province as the heart of their identity.  Never mind that Serbs were on both sides in 1389, or that they have been leaving the place in large numbers at least since least the trek of the Vojvods at the end of the 17th century.  Forget that Kosovo and the modern Serbian were joined only from 1913 until 1999.  Tito’s territorial adjustments also can be conveniently forgotten.

More important, those Serbs seeking to re-impose themselves on a hugely Albanian place ignore (or excoriate) the many co-nationals living south of the Ibar who are adapting themselves to the reality of being a permanent minority in a foreign country.  It is easy for the heroes in the north to sing the old songs, throw rocks at and build roadblocks against ineffectual EU “rule of law” mavens and their KFOR protectors, and thumb their noses at a government in Belgrade they nevertheless rely on.  These public performances do nothing for the much more numerous Serbs living from day to day in Kosova.

As the ICR praised his performance, his ISG demanded that Serbia stop “interfering” and withdraw its clandestine security forces from Kosovo. (Reuters, January 24)  The ICR warned that the process of ending supervised independence should not be held hostage by the nasty things he said “continue to dominate the situation” in the north.  Good luck with that.

In contrast, the Kosovars are wrestling with a very fluid future.  Development of the nascent Kosovar state is part of the central question in the southern Balkans:  into how many states and under what political context will Albanians organize themselves?  The current status quo reflects temporal limnality – the eventual relationship among Albanians in Albania, Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro, and the rump of Serbia remains an open question no matter Western rhetoric.  This context of contingency would not disappear even in the unlikely event that all these counties join the EU suddenly and soon.  The only constant – the communal and material heartbeat of the Balkans – is and will be the business done across the lines by patronage networks on all sides.

The recent demonstrations by Serbs living in the municipalities still making up a Serbian Kosovo and by Albin Kurti and Vetevendosja should be seen in this context.  The anger from both groups represent a combination of opportunity and fear in a situation where everyone knows someone eventually is going to force or negotiate another new “final” status.  Peoples in the Balkans have seen this before (often within a relatively short time after the supervising Power of the day has declared the extant political snapshot to be a permanent condition).  The Mayors in the north and those Kosovar Albanians desiring more than the sort-of state they now have are not marginal actors; they represent the larger knowledge that – one way or another – things are going to change.  Any citizens of the notional state of Bosnia paying attention to events farther south in the former Federation know the feeling.

While Kosovo’s Serbian mayors are attempting to restore a constructed past, Albin Kurti is a little ahead of himself.  Vetevendosje’s effort to stop – even temporarily – the import of goods from Serbia into Kosova had to fail.  It ignored both Kosova’s continued dependence on transportation routes going through the rump of Serbia and the likelihood that many Kosovars – like many in Serbia – do not wake up every day eager to fight.  Kurti overhyped his plans.  His actions were easily brushed aside.  The international overseers have no clue how to resolve Balkan disputes, but they do have the muscle to deal with direct kinetic challenges.

There will be further international lectures and local demonstrations.  States and their foreign supervisors will churn out elections and constitutions.  None will matter much.  Patronage networks (some are called “political parties”) will dole out the jobs and other forms of subsistence far more important to most peoples’ everyday lives.  The resulting inertia will reinforce cynicism in the region and frustration outside it.  The danger in this is that all of us are likely to be distracted by the minutiae this throws up and could be surprised when conditions or talented political entrepreneurs produce the next big change.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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