17 February, 2008

Partitioning Serbia: Good; Partitioning Kosova: Bad

In international law and the practice of international politics, partitioning countries is generally seen as a bad thing and something to be avoided almost always. So with Europe's newest independent country, Kosova. Some have suggested that the country should be partitioned by giving to Serbia the northernmost strip of Kosova's territory, where ethnic Serbs are in the majority. This has been rejected by Kosova's leadership, and it is unlikely that the international players who count will take up this idea.

However, partitioning Serbia by taking the province of Kosovo and letting it become an independent state seems to be less problematic, at least to the major Western powers. The idea seems to be that Serbia under Milosevic essentially alienated itself from Kosovo by systematically oppressing its people and launching a campaign of outright ethnic cleansing prior to and during the NATO bombing campaign of 1999. This looks a bit like international law being made on the hoof, and it will be interesting to see whether highly oppressed regions of the world start having their independence from their oppressors recognized. The evolving principle does at least suggest in the Kosovan case that if the new state ultimately fails to protect the civil and personal rights of its ethnic Serbs, then they will have a legal right to have their majority areas secede and reintegrate with Serbia.

The Kosovan leadership are perhaps mindful of the extent to which their state's legitimacy hangs on it managing to be a country for all its citizens. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and President Fatmir Sejdiu have both pledged to end discrimination against ethnic Serbs; symbolically, their pledge was delivered in both Albanian and Serbo-Croat. But such talk is cheap, and plays well in Western Europe. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in much of Kosova you would be in danger of literally being killed if you were heard speaking Serbo-Croat in public. Kosova's leaders may face an uphill battle to integrate the country's Serbs into Kosovan life.


Alec said...

Ian, Partition is a horrible idea as you lay it out. But there have been simulations run at the US Institute for Peace and elsewhere that suggest it could work if Serbia put the Presevo valley (with a large Albanian population)on the table. Then its a quick trade-Presevo for Mitrovica. The problem is, that for Belgrade, "what's mine is mine." Its always been that way and that's why Yugoslavia collapsed.

ian said...

I'm a bit more agnostic about partition than some people. States are human constructs, and it would be unwise to see their creation as representing a once-off act of institution building that can never be changed. So the borders of states may change and move over time.

In the specific case, I reckon part of it is that the Serbian leaders have played a weak hand very badly. But no drawing of the borders will not leave you with some Albanians and Serbs on the "wrong" side. So while it is maybe handy if chunky ethnic majority states come into being, the countries in that part of the world (and elsewhere) will just have to learn to live with minorities.