The asterisk gets bigger

The asterisk gets bigger

Kosova’s defeat at UNESCO was as decisive as it was narrow because its stunted sovereignty leaves Pristina no room for error.

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By David B. Kanin

The United States picked up two client communities during the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the region’s Albanians and Bosniaks. Neither has much to show from this connection.

The Dayton Agreement is getting some attention these days because it was struck exactly twenty years ago. It should not be forgotten that this deal was only one of the false starts and failed proposals that marked US and European diplomacy of those years. The West initially denied Yugoslavia would fall apart and then scrambled to figure out how to assert its influence when this forecast proved false. It also should not be forgotten that the Bosniaks were the victims not only of genocide at Srebrenica but also of international pressure that predated Dayton. They were forced into a stillborn “federation” with reluctant Bosnian Croats in the Washington Agreement of February 1994, a process that underscored the futility of multi-culturalist teleology and helped ensure the failure of Bosnia as a whole when this dysfunctional, canton-laden structure was absorbed into the arrangement made at Dayton.

Alija Izetbegovic and—even more—Haris Silajdzic knew their community was being harmed by Western diplomacy but could do nothing to prevent Slobodan Milosevic from enjoying the only diplomatic triumph of his time as Serbia’s strongman (Milosevic, not the much-overrated Richard Holbrooke, was the “architect” of Dayton). The West forced the Bosniaks to acquiesce to what was decreed in Dayton, and also made two promises to the Bosniaks it did not keep—that refugees and internally displaced persons would be able to return to their prewar homes and that the context governing this return would an internationally-nurtured unified Bosnian state.

The internationals have constructed a myth about the decades of failure that followed. The story goes that for the first ten years after Dayton Bosnia was “the global poster boy” of post-conflict peace building, but then it failed to achieve the promise of those early years. This myth was repeated recently by Paddy Ashdown,[1] whose vice-regal brand of autocracy continues to be celebrated by diplomats who are yearn for revival of the Bonn powers., These people forget their calls for constitutional reform as early as 2005-6—which amounted to an admission that the Dayton arrangement already was a failure. They also forget that their warnings of doom unless all parties in Bosnia accepted international instructions at Butmir in 2009 were trumped by talks between Silajdzic and Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik and were ignored on all sides. They remain tone deaf to the irony of their insistence on bringing “democracy” to Bosnia by way of diktats promulgated by foreign overlords and backed by military force.

While still ensconced, Ashdown touted the progress his regime was imposing—so he should be not have been surprised when his successor, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, drunk that Kool-Aid and—reasonably—encouraged the locals to take responsibility for their own future. It was not Schwarz-Schilling’s fault that this did not go well—Ashdown’s happy talk had set the stage for anomic drift.

Since then, the Bonn powers have shrunk into insignificance. This is a good thing, because all they accomplished was to permit their progenitors to avoid being held accountable for creating and enabling a ramshackle political arrangement that failed from day one. There is a report of a letter from public intellectuals urging the US and EU to uphold Dayton and ensure something called Bosnia’s “European Future.”[2] If accurate, this would represent a perverse demand. The West has been attempting to change Dayton Bosnia almost from the time it came into being. It is Bosnian Serb figures who have defended Dayton—and why not? This sort of rhetoric, whether from governments or academics, is stale. It will not change the fact that the current political-security arrangement in Bosnia is congenitally flawed, just like all the others that have been imposed by various Wests since 1878.

Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot work, but it can claim to have universal recognition of its formal existence. Kosova, which suffered through a process of diplomatic separation from Serbia conceived and (mis)managed from Washington between 2006 and 2008, cannot say the same. The bedrock fact of Kosova’s predicament remains that, while Serbia is a universally recognized country and the emerging community of Serb-run municipalities inside Kosova enjoys international recognition of its existence, Kosova itself lacks a stable and legitimized international status. It does not matter that more than 90 countries extend it diplomatic recognition. Five EU members do not and there are no signs any of them will change their minds. They and others around the world reject arguments that the issue of Kosova’s status is not analogous to their own concerns about claims to independence closer to home. Without approval from these five Kosova cannot get into “Europe” and so will remain the region’s foster child.

In 2012, Kosova was forced to agree that it could sit in on regional meetings only behind a nameplate marked by an asterisk. You can find claims that this marked a diplomatic achievement of the EU and a constructive (if controversial) agreement between Serbia and its former province.[3] Kosovars knew better. Some protested the deal and the authorities in Pristina have since sought to appear wherever possible without the hated stain on its nameplate.

The same attitude is apparent regarding the series of diplomatic defeats Pristina has suffered since signing an agreement with Belgrade in April 2013 that clearly disadvantaged Kosova’s claims to independence (no matter views to the contrary expressed by some of the same people who express nostalgia for the Bonn powers and by more than a few academics). The decision this week by a court in Pristina to defer recognition of the future rights of the Serb Zajednica in Kosova agreed on as part of another one-sided deal mediated by the EU in August reflects appropriate second-guessing in a country without a status. Kosova’s UNESCO defeat should be seen in this larger context—and it is in that context that Pristina will try to get the three votes it needs to reverse the decision.

Technical agreements between Belgrade and Pristina do not matter—both sides know that the status issue is the issue. Belgrade’s success in inserting the concept of “status neutrality” into the diplomatic discourse underscores that fact. Whatever becomes attached to neutrality hurts Kosova and helps a Serbia that one day will attempt to reassert its control over what it claims to be its territory. Complacent dismissal of this possibility reflects teleology, not analysis.

Kosova’s unstable global status naturally is affecting its fragile domestic politics. Of course, what passes for politics in Pristina is not unique—formal “democracies“ in Bosnia, and Macedonia, and Montenegro are only some regional examples of the de-democratization analyzed in the late work of Charles Tilly.[4] Nevertheless, Kosova’s international disadvantages leave it less room for error than some other countries. Its chances for long-term survival are considerably narrowed by the feuds being played out between rival members of its political class.

Albin Kurti and Vetevendosje have every reason to criticize Hashim Thaci and Isa Mustafa for the parts they have played in reaffirming the diplomatic bases for the handicaps Kosova suffers from in its condition of stunted sovereignty. Former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj is understandably frustrated by what happened in and to his country when he voluntarily gave up power and went to The Hague. Nevertheless, the use of tear gas to attack their opponents in Parliament served no purpose except to advertise Serbia’s claim to be the adult that naturally should have returned to it responsibility for its unruly former province. This violence may well have influenced the Constitutional Court’s decision to attempt to freeze progress toward a Serb Zajednica, but it also leaves Kosova with a broken political process that will be fixed neither by elections nor by more lectures from EU bureaucrats or members of parliament.

The Kosovar political opposition and the targets of their anger also would do well to compare the international impact of their behavior to the series of political and diplomatic successes enjoyed by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic.. Vucic’s handling of local rivals (does anyone remember Boris Tadic these days?) and a weakening Milorad Dodik, his visits to Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Moscow, and Washington, and his measured strategy (and rhetoric) regarding what he is working to restore as “Kosovo” are establishing him as the key political figure in the former Yugoslav space. Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic also deserves credit for the UNESCO victory, of course, but events since 2012 underscores Vucic’s accumulating reputation for competence.

Perhaps it is time for Bosniaks and Kosovars to compare notes on their predicaments and on the disadvantages of depending on Washington. They might think about including in the conversation Saudi Arabia, Israel, Taiwan (the Kosova of east Asia?), and other countries with other versions of the same problem.

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).


  1. Agence France Press, November 6, 2015.
  2. Balkan Insight, November 13, 2015.
  3. For example see James Ker-Lindsay, “The Significance of Kosovo*” E-International Relations, March 3, 2012.
  4. See Tilly, “Democracy” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and other works.

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