« January 2008 | Main | March 2008 »

February 18, 2008

Kosovo’s contested independence

Kosovo’s parliament has declared that Kosovo is ‘proud, independent, sovereign and free’. The Prime Minister (Hashim Thaci) made it clear that the country would be one in which there was no discrimination and the the aim was a ‘united nation with a clear European vision’. Serbia has declared Kosovo a ‘false state’ and, even more firmly, that ‘Kosovo is Serbia’. Countries of the European Union are split on the question of recognition. Russia, long-time supporter of the Serbs, is firmly against any recognition of the independent status of Kosovo. Some Balkan countries support the move and others are playing a waiting game. What are the issues? What is at stake here?

The Balkans is a place of great ethnic diversity and religious splits. Yugoslavia was a compromise worked out after the Second World War that grew out of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Tito’s regime held the country together but after his death, ethnic tensions grew along with severe economic problems and the tensions coalesced around ethnic nationalism. Yugoslavia fell apart from June 1991, amidst increasing violence. Kosovo’s majority population is of Albanian origins and its minority population is of Serbian origins. Any idea of a greater Albania as one way of uniting together people of Albanian origins has been dropped. The declaration of Kosovo as an independent country on the 17th February 2008 seems to be the final stage in the process of regional disintegration. In making the declaration, Kosovo was very careful to stress equality for and protection of minorities within Kosovo and of the country’s intention of being part of a European future. Thaci, the Prime Minister, in making the declaration and stressing ethnic equality, clearly has one eye on the Europeans and one on Serbia. Slovenia became a member of the European Union in 2004. Croatia and Macedonia have applied for membership.

Serbia is far from pleased with the unilateral declaration. Serbian troops were expelled from Kosovo in 1999 through the military actions of NATO. It has been made clear that ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ and that Serbian Ministries and institutions will continue to look after citizens from Kosovo. Serbs in Kosovo will continue to seek help from Belgrade and when the help is looked for it will be supplied. Kosovo is poor and reliant on trade with Serbia so any significant independence will be a longer time coming. It needs the support of the European Union if it is to tackle the exceptionally high rate of unemployment and crime. Serbs in Bosnia are restless as are minority Albanians in Serbia. Kosovo Serbs tend to see Kosovo politicians as the puppets of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Russia has declared its opposition to the emergence of Kosovo from Serbia and is taking the issue to the Security Council. Russia can prevent Kosovo becoming a member of the United Nations. Membership status at the UN was once seen as a hallmark of independence. Kosovo probably sees more importance in a closer relationship with the EU. The Russians argue that Kosovo needs to negotiate with Serbia. Serbia sees the Kosovo politicians as acting outwith the law. Russia also argues that unilateral declarations of independence breach international law. According to the BBC, Russia believes that such a disruption would ‘result in a chain reaction in many parts of the world, including Europe and elsewhere’. Once again, movements in the international arena are seen to be damaging Russia’s interests.

Spain, with its own autonomous regions or potentially autonomous regions, seems to agree. It is easy to spot other parts of the world where the decision to support Kosovo could lead to ethnic unrest. The fact that countries within the EU have differing views is embarrassing as the EU will help support Kosovo’s administration when the United Nations pulls out. On the face of it makes the EU inconsistent in as much as the re-integration of Cyprus remains part of the problem with Turkey’s application for membership. Britain and the United States argue that this is a final act in the Balkan saga and that no other minorities can expect to withdraw by such a process. Support for the withdrawal of other minorities in the region will not be tolerated. It would seem that this is to be regarded as the final act in the disintegration of the Balkans. Stability will partly depend upon Serbian reactions though Serbian options would appear to be limited. Effective options in Kosovo are also limited by geogrpahy, and economy.

February 11, 2008

What is happening in Afghanistan?

British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went on the 7 February on a joint visit to Afghanistan. The visit was unannounced in advance. What was on the agenda and why was the visit needed?

Although the war against the Taliban seemed to have been won, the situation on the ground is not nearly so certain. Public attention is more focused on developments or otherwise in Iraq (or even Iran) and Afghanistan has to some extent dropped out of the news. In the southern part of the country, near the Pakistan border, the Taliban have been putting up strong opposition to the international troops. The Taliban are financed by the poppy crops that sustain an international drug trade. The West would rather not see this production and the fact that the Taliban support the trade makes them more popular with local people. Casualties amongst Taliban supports have been very high, several times higher than amongst those of outside forces. Nonetheless the international forces body count is highly unpopular with governments (or the electorate) meant to be supporting the efforts to secure a peaceful Afghanistan. Civilians are also being killed in larger numbers. It is a dangerous country with a dangerous history and NATO governments are not keen to increase their involvement, leaving the UK and US forces with Canadian support to take the brunt of the fighting. There are an estimated 25,000 US troops in the country and the United States hopes to transfer more responsibility to other NATO contingents. NATO forces have been drawn for the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and, in a peace-making role, Canada. The commanders on the ground want more troops. It is a test for NATO as to whether or not these troops will be supplied.

At the meeting with the Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai, the visitors stressed that the USA and UK were committed to working with the Afghan authorities to defeat the Taliban. Rice was determined with Milliband to push Afghanistan higher up the international agenda and to convince other NATO governments to commit more troops. Karzai’s administration is faced with problems and in Taliban-influenced areas there are parallel administrations. The regime’s security is weak and the administration inadequate. Some international commentators fear that the country is slipping in the ‘failed state’ category. Milliband and Rice were interested in stressing positive achievements. Progress is said to be strong on the educational front for example and Karzai is proud of the achievements in this sector. Relations between the Afghan government and Pakistan are strained.

The relevant international agenda is that of NATO with a significant meeting (a NATO summit) to take place in Romania on the 2-4th April. The British are already have reduced their commitment to Iraq and are unlikely to take supply further troops to Afghanistan. The United States is sending a small number but the bulk of the new demands for troops will be expected from other NATO countries. It remains to be seen who will be willing to cooperate. This is a forgotten war and one that is complicated by the situation in Pakistan. Like Iraq, the war has no end in sight. It never does to over-estimate what military might can achieve. Political problems need political solutions.