166. Kosovo: A Clash of Principle With Reality

By
Robert M. Hayden

Kosovo is often seen as the most recent example of the clash between two established principles of international politics: self-determination and the inviolability of borders. However, it is better seen as a clash between a principle and reality.

The principle is inviolability of borders. The reality is the rejection by an overwhelming majority of the people, within one part of the state, of inclusion within these borders. This situation is hardly unique in the world. Kashmir and Cyprus come to mind, as well as the Palestinian rejection of inclusion within Israel's extension of control, if not legal sovereignty, to the West Bank and Gaza. Of course Yugoslavia became "the former Yugoslavia" when the Slovenes and Croats repudiated inclusion within that state. In 1992, Bosnia disintegrated when Bosnian Serbs and Herzegovinian Croats refused inclusion within it, similar to India's partition in 1947, when Muslim majorities in border regions objected to incorporation within the newly independent state. While the partition of Bosnia has not been recognized internationally, neither has the Dayton agreement reconstructed the Bosnia that the war destroyed--and it is unlikely to do so. Increasingly, the High Representative actually rules without the consent of the governed. The Dayton agreement was never subjected to popular ratification because it was thought that the Serbs and Croats would reject it.

When a population rejects inclusion within a state, rule must be maintained by military and police control, as in Kashmir, the West Bank, or Kosovo. Removal of the armed forces results in de facto cession of the territory. It is possible that a government can gradually gain the confidence of a rejecting population, as did the government of India in Punjab. In that case, however, the population itself was divided between ethnic groups (many Punjabis are not Sikhs) and even politically among the local majority itself (many Sikhs opposed secession). The same Indian government has been much less successful in winning the hearts and minds of Kashmiris, who now are homogenous politically and ethnically. (The Hindus have almost all fled Kashmir.)

While it might be argued that the principle of immutable borders can be accommodated by recognizing secession, this is sophistry. Transforming an internal administrative demarcation into an international border does, in fact, create a new border by forming a frontier. How could new countries appear without new borders? Furthermore, the new sovereignty transforms people who had been equal citizens into threatened minorities (for example, Serbs in Croatia or non-Serbs in Republika Srpska) or transforms a minority protected by the larger state into a threatened and defenseless one (such as the Azeris in Armenia or Armenians in Azerbaijan). The exodus of the exposed minority is a likely result, voluntarily or by force. Thus, recognizing secession does not preserve the status quo on the ground, even if it pretends to preserve it on international maps.

In Kosovo, secession would almost certainly lead to the sudden flight of more than 200,000 Serbs (mirroring the current situation with the Kosovar Albanians, but certainly no better). This would create a new wave of refugees into Serbia, which has already absorbed more than a half million refugees from the earlier war of secession in Yugoslavia. The difficulty in accommodating so many refugees in Serbia becomes clear when one reflects on earlier German complaints regarding the cost of smaller numbers of refugees to its highly developed economy.

On the other hand, continuation of the armed confrontation between the Kosovar Albanians and the Serbian state has produced a similar number of Albanian refugees, as they seek to leave the areas of conflict. The sheer number of Albanians in Kosovo makes possible the flight of hundreds of thousands of people into Albania or Macedonia, which risks destabilizing each of those countries, albeit for different reasons.

Thus, the status quo in Kosovo cannot be preserved. Large numbers of people will leave their homes, if not their country, in any event. The questions then become who, how many, where, and under what circumstances.

In this situation, the use of "autonomy" is deceptive. The idea is actually meaningless. "Autonomy" is code for a situation in which the larger government has no power in the "autonomous" region, as existed in Kosovo under the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. "Autonomy" is simply secession under a different name. The solemn assurances that "secession will not be permitted" are empty rhetoric. The connections of "autonomous" Kosovo with Serbia would be much like those of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to the rest of the island. The world pretends that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus does not exist, when in truth it does exist. In fact, "autonomy" renders the larger state's sovereignty void. Interestingly, rather than change borders, the international community finds it easier to create what Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist, no. 15, once labeled "mimic" sovereignties: territories without a government or with a supposed government that has no power or authority in territories supposed within its sovereignty.

The principle of inviolability of borders hinders finding a solution to the problem. If borders cannot be changed, either all of the Serbs will leave Kosovo or most of the Albanians will do so. There is no other choice: the future for Serbs under an independent or "autonomous" Kosovo would be every bit as cheery as that of Serbs in Croatia, Muslims in Republika Srpska, Greeks in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or Turks in the rest of Cyprus.

Partition, however, may provide the best chance for managing the movement of populations and creating a relatively stable political solution, resulting in relatively homogenous nation-states. Fewer people would be forced to move, and those who did could be accommodated in a state under a government that would actually have the authority to meet the needs of the population.

Many in the international community may urge that Kosovo simply be severed from Serbia under the guise of "autonomy" and the pious assertion of "justice." This course would be unwise not only because of the immediate and destabilizing influx of Serb refugee into Serbia but also because it would preclude the development of normal, non-revanchist politics in Serbia, perhaps for generations. Serbs, along with Bosnian Muslims, were the great losers in the Yugoslav wars, and also like Bosnian Muslims, they opposed the demise of Yugoslavia. (The Serb leadership is another matter; I refer to the Serbian public opinion in 1990-91.) Losing Kosovo would only empower the likes of Vojislav šeŠelj. One might look to the last settlement in Europe that was driven by thoughts of punishing a supposedly guilty nation: Versailles. In 1919, Max Weber wrote (in Politics as a Vocation) that "a nation forgives if its interests have been damaged, but no nation forgives if its honor has been damaged..."

I realize that partition acknowledges the failure of currently cherished ideals of multiculturalism and tolerance as well as renounces the principle of inviolability of borders. Even if such realism may be called unprincipled, I believe it is preferable over adherence to principles that are so far removed from reality in some circumstances as to be truly erroneous.

Dr. Hayden spoke at an EES noon discussion on May 6, 1998.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant