Politics & Policy

Kosovo Independence Day

Freedom's fallout.

What does Kosovo’s declaration of independence mean for Kosovo, Russia, and the wider world? National Review Online asked some experts on the region.

David Satter

Russia under Putin seeks to assert itself and, for that, it needs manageable conflicts with the West. One of those conflicts is Kosovo. Independence for Kosovo was inevitable. No other solution was possible after the Serbs tried to expel the Albanians. For Russia, however, the Kosovo conflict offered wide possibilities for posturing — as the defender of the integrity of nations, upholder of international law and friend of the Serbs. Russian U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin has warned against “repressive measures” should the Serbs in Kosovo “decide not to comply with this unilateral proclamation of independence.” Like other Russian actions, this statement seems calculated to make the potential confrontation even worse.

Ironically, respect for territorial integrity is hardly a principle of Russian policy. Abkhazia would not have separated from Georgia without covert Russian support for the Abkhaz separatists in the early 1990s. Russia defends the aspirations of the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia, South Ossetia (which also separated from Georgia) and Transnistria (which declared its independence from Moldova) and Russian forces are stationed in all three. Most of the residents have Russian passports.

The Russian support for Serbia under circumstances where that support can lead to nothing positive is another example of why the growing authoritarianism in Moscow is a danger to the West. It has implications not just for the Russian domestic situation but, because it creates a need for enemies, leads to erratic Russian behavior abroad.

David Satter is affiliated with the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institute, and Johns Hopkins. His most recent book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State.

Nikolas Gvosdev

First, let’s dispense with the mantra that the stand-off over the way Kosovo became independent was between Serbia and its Slav big brother Russia and the “rest of the world” or marks some sort of dividing line between the world’s democracies and autocracies. Countries that have faced separatist movements and violent insurgencies — Spain, India and Indonesia, among others — are deeply concerned about possible precedents. Even a number of Israeli politicians have expressed concern about a Kosovo precedent being applied to the Middle East.

For the foreseeable future, American diplomacy is going to have extra challenges on its hands to prove to other countries that our rhetoric that Kosovo “sets no precedent” is sincere. This may complicate immensely our balancing act over Taiwan, where we have always wanted to support democracy — but forestall any declaration of independence from China. U.S. diplomats will have some explaining to do — presumably also to some members of Congress, why Taipei’s statement that “self-determination is a right recognized by the United Nations, and it is the people who are masters of their nation’s future” applies in the

Balkans but not in East Asia.

Finally, Kosovo will test the entire “standards with status” approach — again with clear ramifications for the Middle East peace process. Having declared independence, the main argument as to why Kosovo’s provincial government could not move more effectively on reforms and combating crime is removed. It will also determine, once and for all, whether the EU’s vaunted advantage in reconstruction is really deserved. Will the Europeans risk blood and treasure to enforce standards? If this doesn’t happen, kiss goodbye the likelihood of any other frozen conflict in the greater Eurasian space being solved — since no one will trust the guarantees the EU gives.

Kosovo’s independence may close the final chapter of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, but a new set of challenges has just begun.

– Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest and blogs at “The Washington Realist.”

Tom Nichols

The irony of the Kosovar declaration of independence is that its ultimate impact has very little to do with Kosovo itself, which for all intents and purposes has been a NATO protectorate since 1999. For Russia or anyone else to complain now about the formal recognition of a sovereign status that was achieved almost a decade ago is not only pointless, but hypocritical in the extreme. (Indeed, if only the Russians were nearly as concerned about the sovereign rights of Georgia as they are about those of Serbia.)

Still, there are two major effects of Kosovar independence to consider. The first is that the longstanding notion that the internal affairs of each state are no business of any others has been irretrievably discarded; the 1999 NATO attack on Serbia was a warning that national borders are no longer a protection against dictatorial mischief, including genocide, and Kosovo’s independence is just the final confirmation of that tectonic change in international norms.

Second, the Kosovar break with Serbia has laid bare the accelerating erosion of the authority of the United Nations. The U.N., in theory, should be the ultimate arbiter of whether and when national entities are actually “states,” but Kosovo has reinforced the reality that the leaders of the international community — in this case the U.S. and the EU — are actually the powers who make those decisions and can make them stick. This is largely because of the utterly dysfunctional nature of the Security Council, which allows illiberal states like Russia and China to punch far above their weight in international affairs due to the atavistic mechanism of the veto. It makes complete sense that Russia wants this issue moved to the Security Council, because it is only there that Moscow can silence the voices of over two dozen of its European and North Atlantic neighbors, and it is hardly surprising that there is little international support for allowing the Russians to snuff out Kosovo’s independence through legal acrobatics in New York.

Let’s be clear: the Kosovars are not saints, and there is plenty of blame to go around for the ugliness of Balkan politics. But Kosovo is now a nation, because the great democracies have decided it is. If the Russians do not like that fact, and the United Nations was not consulted over it, both Moscow and Turtle Bay should look inward rather than try to cast blame elsewhere.

– Tom Nichols is professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, senior associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, and the author of Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War (U. of Penn. Press, 2008)

James S. Robbins

The emergence of Kosovo as an independent state reflects a very sensible redrawing of lines. The Kosovars didn’t want to be part of Serbia, so they found a way out, just as Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia found a way out of Yugoslavia. Alas, with far too much suffering in the process. Would that all international divorces could be of the Czech-Slovak variety. But now that Kosovo is independent I hope the Albanian majority will have the integrity to allow their Serb minority to split off itself and rejoin Serbia. This is not only consistent with Kosovar rhetoric of national self-determination, but removes a potential future pretext for intervention by Serbia, Russia, and others. It surely helps Kosovo that they have an international armed force guaranteeing their border.

For those who seek implications in events such as this (and I am dubious of the value of precedent), look to Chechnya, Kurdistan, Tibet, Taiwan, Scotland, and Vermont, among others. It would be useful if international law could evolve a set of principles and protocols for redrawing national borders where they need redrawing. Not every nation needs a state of course — but neither does every country have to be a multicultural wonderland. Let the people who live there decide. The default fealty to international order has itself created numerous wars, in cases where separatists saw no other way to achieve their ends.

If the Kosovars decide not to allow the Serb minority an opportunity to make its preference known, such as by referendum, then they will have missed an opportunity to seize the moral high ground. It will be an enduring bone of contention, and future cause for conflict and conquest. Putin will see to that.

James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University , senior fellow for national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.

Richard Weitz

The international implications of Kosovo’s independence will depend heavily on how well the local authorities, and their EU and NATO overseers, manage the province’s transition. Russian government representatives have threatened that, if ethnic Serbs experience mass violence or if nationalists associated with the Pristina government try to encourage separatism among ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia or western Macedonia, Moscow would retaliate.

Russia’s response could entail encouraging the ethnic Serbs in northern Albania or Bosnia’s Republika Srpska to join Serbia. Moscow might also more openly endorse the separatist aspirations of the pro-Russian enclaves in Moldova and Georgia. Such an approach is risky, however, since applying the “Kosovo precedent” so broadly would invariably draw attention to Chechnya’s contested status within Russia. Chechen opposition leaders have already cited Kosovo’s declaration to reaffirm their own right to independence. Another option — moving closer to Serbia, Belarus, Iran, and other states alienated from the West — would leave the new Russian president with a weak hand of problematic allies at a time when Moscow will need to answer some difficult questions regarding how to position itself in global affairs during the next few years.

Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of program management at the Hudson Institute.

Ariel Cohen

Russia has made Kosovo a major issue in its relations with the West. President Vladimir Putin and other Russia policymakers, anxious to find points of confrontation with Europe and the U.S., have demanded that the Kosovo issue be decided in the U.N. Security Council, where Russia (and China) has a veto power.

Russia’s position has three roots. First, Russia views herself as a historic ally of Serbia. After all, it was because of this relationship that czarist Russia declared war on Austro-Hungarian Empire, and ended up in collapse. Secondly, Russia considers herself an indispensable power. Therefore, any solution that does not meet with Moscow’s approval is to be opposed. Thirdly, there is the issue of international law. Moscow claims that only the U.N. Security Council should be allowed to recognize new states, as the U.N. Charter claims.

Albanians, Russia points out, already has one U.N. member state. Now they will have two, and with the future success of Albanians in Macedonia, they may end up with three. Both Belgrade and Moscow would prefer the West support a democratic Serbia, not criminalized and militaristic Kosovars. Other separatist groups will only be encouraged by the Kosovars.

Russia may retaliate by recognizing independence of Abkhazia, which is part of Georgia, and of south Ossetia. It may also tilt toward Armenia in supporting Nagorno-Karabakh.

Repercussions over the Kosovo conflict will surely poison relations between Russia and the West for years to come.

– Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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