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Should the United States Recognize Kosovo?

Discussants: Marshall F. Harris, Senior Policy Advisor, Alston + Bird, and Alan J. Kuperman, Assistant Professor, University of Texas, LBJ School of Public Affairs
Updated: December 28, 2007

After eight years as a United Nations protectorate and centuries of uncertainty, Kosovo says it will unilaterally declare independence at some point in the near future. If it does so, the United States and many European Union countries seem likely to recognize the current Serbian province as a country.

Here, two experts discuss the wisdom of that decision. Marshall F. Harris is senior policy advisor at the law firm Alston + Bird, and is a former State Department official and adviser to the government of Kosovo. Alan J. Kuperman is a Balkan expert and an assistant professor at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

Marshall F. HarrisMost Recent

December 28, 2007

Marshall F. Harris

Compromise already exists under the UN-negotiated Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo, but Serbia and Russia stubbornly reject it. They demand exclusive acceptance of their terms and warn that international recognition will produce bloody conflict in Kosovo. This threat is endemic to Belgrade’s uncompromising, unreasonable, and unrealistic insistence that it be allowed to re-establish control over Kosovo. Serbia thereby continues its pursuit of hegemony, while Russia tries to separate Serbia further from the West. By contrast, Kosovo shares our values, understands that stability is in its interests, and, during the negotiating process, accepted compromise after compromise. The essence of these concessions is that—while entitled to immediate, unconditional sovereignty—Kosovo will receive graduated, “supervised” independence.

The biggest threat to Balkan stability is Serbia, not violence resulting from recognition. The quotas and over-representations of the Serbian minority’s status in the UN-negotiated plan may hamper Kosovo’s development and feed, rather than control, Serbian nationalism. The fewer quotas the more Kosovo will function as a normal state, and the more stable the Balkans will become. The U.S. and Europe are correct not to consider notions such as your “Serb Republic” within Kosovo. This would go beyond the compromise achieved in the Ahtisaari plan and recklessly dilute Kosovo's sovereignty.

Kosovo and all of Yugoslavia's former republics have concluded that they cannot co-exist in a state with Serbia, which invariably dominates and represses non-Serbs.  This is Serbian nationalism’s raison d’etre.  The only protection from it is legal separation.

Bosnia has suffered the most from this. You find use of the widely accepted figure of 200,000 killed there lawyerly, but your proffer of a different—albeit lower—number provides equally damning evidence of Serbian guilt. Parsing these numbers is spurious, but your equating the victims with the perpetrators of genocide is simply outrageous. Indeed, yours may be the only population-based proportional formula to mitigate blame for the slaughter of civilians. It does not compute here and could never be used to excuse those guilty of earlier genocides in Europe.

After four Serb-instigated wars, Kosovo will enjoy the protection of statehood. Based on the legal, binding, and operational portions of UNSC Resolution 1244—misrepresented in each of your dispatches—Kosovo will declare independence. Led by Washington, countries throughout the world will recognize it. Kosovo will then take its rightful place in the community of nations. This is a rare moment of hope and good news for the Balkans.

Alan J. KupermanDecember 26, 2007

Alan J. Kuperman

The Balkan wars of the 1990s were bad enough that Mr. Harris should not exaggerate, as he does, by claiming that "Serbian forces . . . kill[ed] hundreds of thousands of Bosnians." The definitive accounting of that conflict, completed this year by the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Center, found a death toll slightly under 100,000—including combatants and civilians of all three major ethnic groups: Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. The civilian toll of Muslims and Croats was 35,234—many of whom died in Muslim-Croat infighting of 1992-94. Mr. Harris thus overstates Serb offenses by a factor of ten.

Perhaps Mr. Harris exaggerates in hopes of justifying his call for the unprecedented, but dangerously precedent-setting, act of recognizing a unilateral declaration of independence by a secessionist entity in direct contravention of a standing UN resolution. That resolution, adopted in 1999, affirmed unequivocally "the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." Mr. Harris now dismisses the UN resolution as "preambular" and "non-binding." Such argumentation gives lawyers a bad name.

Mr. Harris also falsely claims that Russia is "isolated in opposing Kosovo's independence." In reality, Russia and Serbia have sympathy from states around the world facing their own actual or potential secessionist movements—including China, India, Greece, Spain, and others—comprising about half the world's population. Accordingly, if the United States and its EU allies recognize Kosovo's unilateral declaration, they will not settle the matter but only increase ambiguity over the province's sovereignty, thereby magnifying the risks of violence.

Fortunately, there still is time to forge a compromise by insisting that Kosovo's Albanians recognize a fully autonomous "Serb Republic of Kosovo" in the mainly ethnic Serb region of the province north of the Ibar River, as a condition of Kosovo's independence.

Such compromise would reflect the reality that both sides have blood on their hands. Serb forces temporarily expelled half of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians in spring 1999, but Albanian militants expelled an equal share of the province's Serbs later that year. Serbian forces killed about 0.5 percent of Kosovo's Albanian population after NATO began bombing in 1999, but Albanian militants subsequently killed the same percentage of the province's Serbs. Shared guilt calls for compromise, not an international embrace of one side while demonizing the other.

Marshall F. HarrisDecember 21, 2007

Marshall F. Harris

Russia is appropriately isolated in opposing Kosovo’s independence. While Moscow restated its objections in a December 19 UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting, the United States and European Union agree that it has exhausted its arguments and that Kosova can now declare independence and benefit from international recognition.

Russia has assumed what lawyers term a “bad case.” Language in UNSC Resolution 1244 reaffirms Yugoslavia’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” but it is only preambular and, contrary to your claim, non-binding. The United States and Europe have found that Kosovo’s independence and international recognition are legal and consistent with 1244. They explicitly reject Russia’s legal arguments and implicitly repudiate its claim that Kosovo’s independence establishes a precedent for Chechnya. They know that the real problem is not, as Russia asserts, the dangers of international recognition of Chechnya, but rather Moscow’s brutal oppression of Chechen civilians. Although this issue is about human rights and the rule of law—not fine points of scholarship—Russia’s is the genuine “fundamental attribution error.”

Kosovo is no more Bosnia than it is Chechnya. Europe’s denial, America’s refusal to lead, the UN’s indifference, and an arms embargo that actually facilitated Serbia’s lethality—the horrific confluence of factors that enabled Serbian forces to kill hundreds of thousands of Bosnians and drive two million from their homes—no longer exist. The vestige of this nightmare, a semi-autonomous Serb Republic within Bosnia, must not be recreated in Kosovo. You cite positively the strength of this entity’s police, but this mono-ethnic force’s thuggish power is a significant reason why I call the Serb Republic a black hole.

Kosovo has already progressed considerably. A NATO-led multi-national force with an extensive mandate has long been deployed, and Europe is sending 1,800 policemen. A UN-led administration is promoting minority rights and providing Serbs a stake in the nascent country. The Ahtisaari plan for “supervised” independence offers even greater guarantees for implementation.

Lastly, recognizing Kosovo is not a “wrong.” It is right to recognize the legal aspirations of Kosovo’s people for independence and liberty. To the extent that recognition is perceived as “punishment,” it is a just one—for example, see the legal concept of State Responsibility—based on the gravity of Serbia’s offenses. Undeniably, it culminates a singular process—initiated following Serbia’s genocidal attacks, perpetuated through years of UN administration, and now concluding with international recognition of Kosovo’s right to self-determination and democratic government.

Alan J. KupermanDecember 20, 2007

Alan J. Kuperman

Several of Mr. Harris’s contentions are at odds with the facts:

It is wishful thinking that “larger-scale conflict seems implausible.” Similar assurances proved tragically false in 1992, when the U.S. State Department (where Mr. Harris worked) urged recognition of Bosnia’s independence prior to addressing Serb autonomy demands, despite warnings from Europe’s top negotiator that this would trigger war, as it did.

UN Security Council Resolution 1244, adopted in 1999, did not end “Serbia’s authority over Kosovo,” so that “Kosovo’s independence would not violate this resolution,” as Mr. Harris claims. The resolution’s text actually reaffirmed “the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” Kosovo was to gain only “substantial autonomy and meaningful self-administration.” Recognizing Kosovo’s independence prior to new authorization by the Security Council would clearly violate international law.

Mr. Harris asserts that recognition of Kosovo’s independence “establishes no disintegrative precedents in territories such as Chechnya” because the history “of Serbia’s oppression and terror against Kosovo’s Albanian population makes the province unique.”  Chechens might beg to differ. Indeed, ethnic groups worldwide face government retaliation for rebellion, as in Kosovo. Rewarding Kosovo’s militant secessionists with independence would undoubtedly embolden such rebellions.

The re-emerging Cold War is not mainly because “Moscow’s actions are redolent of the Soviet Union.” Washington gratuitously expanded NATO into former Soviet states on Russia’s border, abandoned the anti-ballistic missile treaty, planned a missile defense in Eastern Europe that could degrade Russia’s nuclear deterrent, and diminished the prestige of Russia’s UN veto by sidestepping the Security Council to bomb Serbia, invade Iraq, and now recognize Kosovo. Blaming this all on Russia is a classic case of biased misperception that scholars term the “fundamental attribution error.”

Likewise, the half of Bosnia that is an autonomous Serb Republic is hardly “Europe’s black hole—an economic and political drag on Bosnian and Balkan progress.” Statistics and international officials confirm that the Serb entity’s economy and police force are stronger than those in Bosnia’s other half, a Muslim-Croat federation. Most importantly, creating a Serb Republic helped keep the peace in Bosnia, as it could in Kosovo.

Finally, Mr. Harris argues that we should punish all of Serbia today—by taking away its sovereignty over Kosovo—because Slobodan Milosevic ordered violence against secessionist ethnic groups in the 1990s. In other words, we should rectify collective punishment by imposing collective punishment. Sorry, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Marshall F. HarrisDecember 18, 2007

Marshall F. Harris

The United States and European Union should recognize Kosovo’s independence quickly and unconditionally. In accordance with the plan negotiated by UN representative Martti Ahtisaari, Kosovo should be granted international recognition for supervised independence. 

Kosovo’s independence represents the last chapter in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and will promote political stability and economic prosperity. It will also, after four Serb-instigated wars, end perpetuation of Belgrade’s repressive hegemony over the former federation’s non-Serbs. This history—of Serbia’s oppression and terror against Kosovo’s Albanian population—makes the province unique. The UN Security Council recognized this in passing and implementing Resolution 1244, which ended Serbia’s authority over Kosovo, replaced it with an international administration, and foresaw a process for determining Kosovo’s future status. Kosovo’s independence would not violate this resolution. Washington and the European powers understand that Serbia has, by its own actions, forfeited its right to sovereignty; recognition of Kosovo’s independence establishes no disintegrative precedents in territories such as Chechnya; and Kosovo can neither reintegrate into Serbia nor remain in the limbo of international administration.

A largely isolated Russia holds otherwise, but the United States and Europe are now prepared to halt Moscow’s longstanding obstructionism. They rightly reject its obduracy and stonewalling in support of Serbia’s inflexible position. You are right to note the rise of “Cold War-like tensions,” but only in that Moscow’s actions are redolent of the Soviet Union. Fortunately, Russia’s threats carry no consequences beyond this singular issue.

Warnings of renewed violence are also overstated. A few extremists may provoke clashes, as we have already seen on occasion. Larger-scale conflict seems implausible. Kosovo has neither the will nor ability to wage war. Its potential backers have even less appetite. Meanwhile, NATO officials report that Belgrade has committed not to use force if Kosovo declares its independence.

Lastly, territorial integrity is an essential component of independence. The Ahtisaari plan provides extensive protections for Kosovo’s Serbs. To go further, as you suggest, by establishing a Bosnia-style “fully autonomous ‘Serb Republic of Kosovo’” should be avoided. The Dayton agreement stopped the fighting in Bosnia, but also rewarded the Serbs with much territory captured by force and with especial powers over it. Combined with a weak central government, this left Bosnia dysfunctional. Today, Bosnia’s Serbian entity is Europe’s black hole—an economic and political drag on Bosnian and Balkan progress. This mistake must not be repeated through similar over-empowerment of Kosovo’s minorities.

Alan J. KupermanDecember 17, 2007

Alan J. Kuperman

In general, it is a bad idea to recognize a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority. Recognition would violate international law (UN Security Council Resolution 1244), establish a dangerous precedent that would encourage violent rebellions in other multiethnic states, exacerbate growing Cold War-like tensions with Russia, and raise significant risks of renewed war in Kosovo, which could spill over to neighboring states.

Admittedly, the United States has raised the expectations of Kosovo’s Albanians by promising them independence for nearly nine years. If we do not soon recognize their independence, they may again resort to violence against the province’s remaining Serbs, as they did in 2004, or even against UN peacekeepers.

But if we simply recognize Kosovo’s declaration of independence under the UN’s Ahtisaari plan, which grants only limited autonomy to Kosovo’s minority ethnic Serb municipalities, we likely will trigger the following path to war:

Kosovo’s main ethnic Serb enclave, in the province’s north above the Ibar river, will declare itself still part of Serbia and not under the authority of the newly recognized state of Kosovo. The north’s ethnic Serb police will take off their existing Kosovo Police Service uniforms and revert to the insignia of Serbia. Militant ethnic Albanians will view this as a red flag—the return of hated Serbian police to Kosovo—and retaliate by attacking Serbs, especially in the more vulnerable enclaves where 60 percent of Kosovo's Serbs still live. International peacekeepers—a relatively small and incoherent group of 17,000 troops from thirty-five nations—cannot possibly protect all the Serbs, many of whom will flee northward as their houses are burned. Serbia’s politics will be radicalized in favor of nationalists, who advocate retaining Kosovo by “all necessary means”—including war.

To avert war, the United States should refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence until the province’s ruling ethnic Albanians first recognize the north as a fully autonomous “Serb Republic of Kosovo,” which would be part of Kosovo but have its own police force and special relationship with neighboring Serbia. This is the same institutional design employed in Bosnia, under the 1995 Dayton Accords, to successfully end war and sustain peace ever since. If Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership agreed to this arrangement, the United States would recognize their declaration of independence.  The north’s ethnic Serb police then would don uniforms of the new Serb Republic of Kosovo, satisfying their need for autonomy while implicitly conceding the sovereignty of Kosovo. This compromise would not mitigate the other negative consequences of recognition, but could avert war.

For more on this issue from these two debators, see:

  • Alan J. Kuperman. “Averting the Third Kosovo War,” American Interest, January-February 2008. (LINK)
  • John Menzies and Marshall Harris. “Now is Time for Independent Kosovo,” Baltimore Sun, December 9, 2007. (LINK)

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