Why Kosovo's Independence is Necessary
Why Kosovo's Independence is Necessary
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 5 minutes

Why Kosovo's Independence is Necessary

In the coming weeks or months, members of the United Nations Security Council will be asked to vote on a resolution on Kosovo . The vote will largely determine the future of this entity of some two million inhabitants, which was once an autonomous province in the former Yugoslavia, and since 1999 has been under UN administration.

Security Council Resolution 1244, which mandated the UN to govern the province, called for the start of a "political process designed to determine Kosovo's future status."

Eight years later, after extensive negotiations between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, UN Special Envoy Maarti Ahtisaari submitted his proposals on Kosovo's final status to the Security Council in March. He recommended that "Kosovo's status should be independence, supervised by the international community." Now the Council must decide whether it agrees with this verdict.

When a resolution is tabled, Qatar and Indonesia, Muslim-majority countries, will be among the Security Council members that will judge whether the UN Special Envoy's recommendations should be supported.

The kind of resolution that is passed will determine what kind of Kosovo will exist. Will it become an independent state, with its own flag, anthem, seat at the UN, and membership in international organizations? Will it remain a UN administered territory? Will it revert back to becoming a part of Serbia?

Kosovo's Albanian majority of 90 percent seek independence. Kosovo Serbs and Serbs in Serbia want the entity to revert to Belgrade's control. Throughout years of negotiations, Serbs, and Kosovo Albanians have stuck to diametrically opposed and irreconcilable positions.

The resolution will also decide how Kosovo's future status will be implemented. As the entity is within the European Union's immediate neighborhood, where former Yugoslav states aspire to EU membership, a resolution is expected to hand over many responsibilities from the UN to the EU. The projected international civilian representative, who will also serve as the EU's Special Representative, will primarily monitor the Kosovo government's implementation of the status agreement, support the building of local institutions and the strengthening of the rule of law. The NATO-led military force KFOR, which has been present since 1999, will most likely stay on.

Many UN Security Council members are concerned that by voting for a resolution that supports the UN Special Envoy's recommendations, they will be implicitly supporting the establishment of an international precedent. If Kosovo is allowed to transform from an integral part of Serbia, to a UN-administrated territory, to a full independent state, then the right to self-determination will supersede the right to state sovereignty and territorial integrity. If Kosovo is allowed independence, what about the myriad other self-declared statelets from the Western Sahara to Chechnya? Won't they also demand that the UN gives them the same rights as Kosovo ?

In some quarters there may be sympathy for this argument, but Kosovo is clearly a unique case. It belonged to now defunct Yugoslavia. Already in 1991-1992, the EU established specific guidelines to govern the recognition of new states emerging from Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. (Click here  for a detailed analysis.)

These guidelines were never meant to have universal validity for other parts of the world. The EU decided that only Yugoslav republics would be eligible for recognition, thus at the time denying Kosovo any claims to independence.

But the new states, including Serbia, received recognition based on their commitment to protect the rights of national and ethnic groups. Belgrade did not uphold its side of the bargain but rather launched a massive ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovo Albanians. In doing so, it became a unique country that lost the moral authority to govern a part of its population. NATO's decision to bomb Serbia in March-June 1999 and UN Resolution 1244 that shifted many governing responsibilities from Serbia to the UN, already made it clear that Kosovo is a unique case.

Faced with concerns about establishing a precedent and imposing a solution on Serbia, several undecided members of the Council support a delay in the passage of a resolution. Delay could be useful if there was any likelihood that Kosovo Albanians and Serbs could ever agree to a compromise. However, developments since 1999 and extensive negotiations have shown that this generation is incapable of agreeing on Kosovo's status. Kosovo Albanians do not want to become once again a vulnerable minority within Serbia; Serbs do not want to accept a loss of some 11,000 square kilometers (4,247 sq. mi.) of their territory.

Supervised Independence

The compromise Ahtisaari has formulated — "supervised independence" — ensures that the Serbian minority in Kosovo (less than 10 percent of the population) will be guaranteed extensive protection, and the Kosovo Albanians will only obtain full independence after a period of international supervision. Neither side is fully satisfied with the solution. But it offers a way for Kosovo Serbs and Albanians to cohabitate peacefully, and for the international community to maintain strong leverage over Kosovo's development.

Delay is unlikely to make any decision on Kosovo's final status, or its implementation, easier. It leaves the population of the region in limbo, unsure about their future, worried about interethnic violence, unable to fully take responsibility for the creation of state institutions and the revitalization of the local economy. Until a decision on status is made, people in Kosovo are unlikely to feel any obligation to participate in a democratic polity based on the rule of law. Nationalist extremists and criminal gangs would only gain confidence. In short, further delay risks regional peace and stability.

Without a UN resolution, Kosovo Albanians may unilaterally declare independence. Until now, they have not done so because they trusted that the UN and its member states were committed to a step-by-step process of state building and eventual international recognition. Kosovo nationalists are the main actors pushing for such a step. They claim that eight years of UN administration is enough and has done little to support economic development. They want change fast and have little interest in "supervised independence."


If Kosovo's moderate elite who have accepted this formula are unable to deliver a UN resolution, the nationalists' credibility in Kosovo will automatically increase. When they declare independence, it will be on their terms and very possibly without the assurance of extensive minority rights, the establishment of democratic institutions, and the rule of law. Violence between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs may break out, and the UN would find itself in a weak position to respond.   

Since 1999, Kosovo has come a long way in establishing functioning government institutions, setting up a multi-ethnic police, cracking down on criminality, and increasing revenue collection. Yet much more needs to be done. The UN, bound by its current mandate, is reaching the maximum of what it can do to support institution building, promote the rule of law, and encourage economic development.

For peace and stability in Kosovo and the wider Balkans, Kosovo's moderate people and politicians need to take responsibility for their future. This will only happen if UN Security Council members hand this responsibility to them with a resolution that determines Kosovo's status once and for all.

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