Secession blues

Secession blues

Make no mistake; the ongoing Catalan crisis is a disaster for Kosova.

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By David B. Kanin

The tussle between the Spanish state and Catalan activists will only marginally affect autonomist talks and posturing in Vojvodina, Bosnia, and southern Serbia.  The first actually is the closest regional analogue to Catalonia – both are the richest regions of their countries and resent the appropriation of their resources (as they see it) for the benefit of other parts of their countries.  On the other hand, Serbs have been in Vojvodina for a much shorter period of time than Catalans in northeastern Iberia, and there is no language difference between Serbs north and south of the Danube to match conditions regarding that marker of identity in Catalonia.

The Catalan issue is more marginal to disputes in Bosnia and the Presevo Valley.  Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik’s rhetoric is designed to tap dance around the tension between the logical comparison between Catalan secession demands and his on-again-off-again threat to pull the Serbian entity out of the still-born Bosnian state and Serbia’s strong support for Spanish unity.  Dodik has been much more exercised about the acquittal on war crimes charges of Nasir Oric, Bosniak commander at Srebrenica during hostilities that led to the mass murders of Bosniaks by Serb forces in 1995.

Talk of secession from Serbia by ethnic Albanian notables in the country’s south is largely pro forma and would deserve attention only in the context of a serious discussion of a partition of Kosova/o .  That could happen some day, but the situation in Catalonia has made it less likely in the short run by strengthening Belgrade’s hand in the struggle to maintain its claim over the lost province.  More on that below.

Claims by European Union officials that the Kosova/o issue is sui generis are as ludicrous now as they were when they were part of the failed US effort to convince Russia and the UN Security Council to replace Resolution 1244 with documented international recognition of an independent Kosova.  Contrasts between the political systems in Spain and Serbia or treatment of Catalonia and Kosova/o by their respective states are irrelevant.  Kosova/o and Catalonia (and Kurdistan, Scotland,  and Quebec) are analogous when it comes to the core issue – whether activists can mobilize a population into – and attract international support for – a successful movement to secede from a sovereign state.  Kosovar leaders clearly have had the support of a lot more of their population than did Montenegro’s Milo Djukanovic in 2006, but they and their American patron have failed to gain the unanimous support of EU members, which is the only relevant international barometer.

Spain’s agony over its Catalan problem should put paid to any lingering fantasies about Madrid accepting the sui generis argument and dropping its opposition to Kosovar independence.  There has been no movement of any of the five EU states toward recognizing Kosova – and there will not be – despite the hopes of those officials and academics that predicted such recognition.  (The author heard this misplaced optimism at an impromptu meeting among Balkan watchers who happened to be together at a conference the day a much over-hyped EU-brokered agreement was struck by Belgrade and Pristina in April 2013).  Comments and visits to Catalonia by secessionists from Vojvodina, Kosova, and elsewhere simply have reinforced Madrid’s motivation to oppose an independent Kosova.

Serbia’s strong rhetorical stance in favor of Spain and against Catalonia was predictable, but Madrid clearly does not want too close an embrace.  Belgrade acceded to a Spanish request to hold off on sending a letter to the EU complaining about alleged double standards regarding Spanish and Serbian sovereignty.  This is a reminder that, despite Western rhetoric, Balkan problems rank well down the pecking order to Western policymakers until chronic disputes turn into acute crises.

Kosova’s options are limited.  Pristina can hope Spain and Catalonia come to an agreement on a mutually agreed approach permitting Catalans to decide on whether to become independent, resulting in a peaceful victory of pro-independence forces and a resulting about-face by Madrid on the question of Kosovar independence.  The odds on this every happening are very long.

The most likely path is inertial – Kosova probably will once again put its trust in the desultory talks under EU mediation that have been going on in Brussels since the 2013 agreement.  These, however, will continue to push the one issue that matters – status – down the road in favor of technical discussions both sides know cannot lead to any meaningful “normalization” (no matter what they say to Western interlocutors).  A corollary to these talks will be further futile American efforts to convince the five EU nay-sayers to recognize Kosova’s independence (assuming the current US administration has any interest in doubling down on Washington’s so-far futile diplomacy).

Instead, Serbia and Kosova could decide to engage in bilateral talks about possible partition plans or confederal approaches to their bilateral relationship.  Speculations about such ideas make the rounds of  press and specialist speculation from time to time, but would involve hard work, frequent stalemates, and dealing with lethal domestic spoilers on both sides and with international mavens who automatically reject any solution they cannot claim credit for.  These difficulties are worth the effort, in my view, but chances of either side being willing to do this work are as slim as those of garnering unanimous EU support for Kosovar independence.

The setback to Pristina of events in Catalonia, combined with the likelihood of inertia on the independence issue, may over time strengthen support In Kosova for Albin Kurti and Vetevendosje’s push for a greater Albania.  No matter the certainty of international condemnation of this stance, Kosova’s domestic and international problems appear likely to discredit the current weak government headed by Ramush Haradinaj and strengthen a party that came second in the last election and has the benefit of having neither governing responsibility nor coalition partners to contend with.  In the absence of progress on any front, Kurti’s appeal for political unity within them Albanian universe could seem more appealing – and more honest – than what the public is hearing from mainstream political and patronage notables.  One thing to look out for would be a decision by Haradinaj or harder line people around him to explore a deal with Vetevendosje, no matter any personal or political animus existing between the two sides.  Of course, Albania would then have to make a decision similar to Serbia’s regarding the Bosnian Serbs as to whether it wants to have anything to do with something so potentially destabilizing.

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).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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