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Kosovo, Independence, and Nation-Building

December 18, 2009


A little over a decade ago news about the Balkan region filled the headlines with accounts of ongoing strife, ethnic cleansing, and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. In the intervening years, the International Criminal Court has tried (or is trying) some of the individuals who committed heinous crimes against humanity during those years of conflict. Political conditions in much of Balkans remain tenuous, including in the small country of Kosovo. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia last year — a move Serbia claims was illegal. Serbia is now taking Kosovo to court and the repercussions of the court decision could have broad global impact [“See you in court,” The Economist, 28 November 2009 print issue]. The article explains:


Kosovo is a tiny place. But … when hearings begin at the United Nations’ International Court of Justice on the legality of its 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, people from Catalonia to Tibet will be paying it close attention. Serbia persuaded the UN general assembly just over a year ago to ask the court to intervene. Its ruling may have ramifications around the world. Unlike the six former republics that became states after Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, Kosovo was a province of Serbia. But some 90% of its 2m-odd people are ethnic Albanians. In Yugoslav times it had many of the attributes of a republic, with an assembly and government. After NATO’s war in 1999, it became a UN ward. Serbia’s lawyers argue that Kosovo’s assembly had no right to declare independence and the UN should have nullified its act. The Kosovars reply that this is a constitutional question, not an issue of international law, so the court has no business opining on it. They also insist that Kosovo had a right to self-determination, just as much as the ex-Yugoslav republics.”


Self-determination is touchy subject. Generally, the subject is raised by ethnic groups that live as minorities. Because ethnicity involves things like race, religion, language, culture, historical ties, etc., determining the exact number of ethnicities in the world is difficult. Suffice it to say that there are thousands of them. If each ethnicity exercised self-determination and tried to carve out a country for itself, the results would be disastrous. Few of the thousands of countries created would be sustainable. The expansion of government bureaucracies would require an increase in the amount of taxes needed to keep government programs afloat thus creating overhead costs (i.e., new tax burdens) on the global economy that could stifle growth. Logic, however, seldom plays a large role on what is primarily an emotional political stage. That is why the outcome of Serbia’s day in court will make headlines around the world. The article continues:


In all likelihood, the opinion of the court (which is not binding) will be vague, because there are many differing views over self-determination. Most Western countries (but not, eg, Spain) accept that Kosovo’s Albanians had that right. Some 63 states have recognised Kosovo’s independence. But Russia says Serbia’s right to territorial integrity has been violated. Admittedly, Russia’s position was weakened when it recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August 2008—but the West’s refusal to recognise either Georgian territory also seems to conflict with a recognition of Kosovo. The irony is that, even if the court were to find against the Kosovars, Serbia would be quite unable to absorb 2m hostile Albanians. Some senior Serbs concede privately that the real aim of going to court is to be rid of Kosovo, not to get it back. They want to manoeuvre the Kosovars into a position where they feel forced to return to the negotiating table—at which point Serbia might propose an exchange of Serb-inhabited north Kosovo for the Albanian-inhabited Presevo valley in Serbia.”


Most countries, I suspect, would have preferred that the Serbs and Kosovars worked out their differences at the negotiating table rather than going to court. Whatever the court’s decision is, it will set a precedent that will make a number of people unhappy. That is why the justices are likely to waffle in their opinion. The article reports that, for the most part, Kosovars are ambivalent about the proceedings. They don’t believe it will affect their independence, but they do worry that it could affect their economic future.


Shyqyri Haxha, boss of PTK, Kosovo’s post and telecoms operator, which wants to privatise its profitable mobile arm, says that, unless the court finds clearly for Kosovo, it ‘will have implications for foreign investment’. He fears it might ‘deter big players from coming.'”


Although Kosovars think of themselves as citizens of an independent country, it is a country still occupied by some 14,000 NATO peacekeepers (which, per capita, is nearly twice as many NATO troops as are deployed in Afghanistan). Those troops, in addition to keeping the peace between Kosovo and Serbia, provide the foundation for nation-building activities [“Despite its troubles, Kosovo offers model for nation-builders,” by Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, 1 December 2009]. Whitlock begins his report by detailing the sad state of affairs in which Kosovo finds itself.


The economy is a basket case, with a 45 percent unemployment rate. Most people are dependent on foreign largess. Kosovo even lacks an international dialing code. Landlines are all cursed with Serbian numbers, even though Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Cellphone numbers are borrowed from Monaco or a Balkan neighbor, Slovenia. And yet, in spite of its problems and growing pains, Kosovo is cited by many diplomats as a credible model of nation-building, a sign — relevant to the current debate over Afghanistan — that a determined effort by foreigners can help to build a country from the ashes.”


It’s clear from Whitlock’s description of Kosovo’s current situation that patience is required by those providing development support as well as from those receiving it. Economies don’t turn around overnight. As retired French general Yves de Kermabon (a former NATO commander) observed, “When you are in the field, it feels like nothing is moving forward. But when you come back after two or three years, you are amazed at the progress.” Whitlock continues:


Few people in Kosovo are predicting an easy road ahead. In interviews, foreign diplomats, government officials and ordinary Kosovars agreed that it will take years, if not decades, for Kosovo to stand on its own. … But construction cranes rise like green shoots from the skyline of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, which is in the midst of a building boom thanks to foreign aid. In another hopeful sign, Kosovo in mid-November held its first municipal elections since declaring independence on Feb. 17, 2008. Although there were a handful of violent incidents during the campaign, voters cast their ballots in peace and there were no major allegations of fraud. … ‘Kosovo benefits in a way from being more or less forgotten,’ said a senior Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ‘Nation-building just takes time. This is a slow, painful process.'”


Patience, Whitlock reports, is beginning to wear thin. “Grumbling over the lousy economy and dysfunctional government is getting louder.” They also grumble that Kosovo’s government is not exactly independent.


Their actions can be overruled by Pieter Feith, a Dutch diplomat. He serves as the international civilian representative, a viceroy appointed by a group of 25 countries, including the United States, to oversee Kosovo’s development. Feith has described Kosovo as a sovereign country operating under ‘supervised independence.’ In an interview, he said his job would likely remain necessary for two or three more years. He said Kosovo’s elected politicians had much to learn. ‘The leadership are not experienced and do not have much long-term vision,’ he said. ‘We need to see the fight against organized crime and corruption taken to a new level of commitment.'”


What Feith describes hardly seems like the template for nation-building. Aside from the fact that peace is being kept by a significant outside presence, which allows for development projects to move forward, Whitlock doesn’t provide any reasons that activities there should be used as a model for others. One of things that my company, Enterra Solutions, offers to emerging market government leaders is the kind of long-term vision that Feith says is missing in Kosovo. Governments will likely make some bad choices and waste precious resources if they don’t have strategic roadmap to guide them. The fact that Kosovo suffers from significant corruption and organized criminal activities doesn’t bode well for its economy taking off. Nevertheless, Kosovo’s progress is worth watching.

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