Posts Tagged 'independence'

Pandora in Kosovo

Photo by Matt Lutton

By Harry van Versendaal

A ruling by the United Nation’s highest court last week on Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 prompted frustration in Belgrade and triumphalism in Pristina but legal experts remain uncertain about the exact meaning and the implications of the decision for the divided region and beyond.

The much-anticipated decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, which was passed in a 10-to-4 vote by the judges, had a Delphic quality: While saying that the declaration of independence was not in violation of international law, it stopped short of stating that Kosovo is a legal state.

“The ruling in fact has very little real meaning. In fact, we are not clearer on whether Kosovo’s secession is legal than we were before. The court simply said that the declaration of independence as a statement did not infringe any international laws. Anyone can declare independence, in other words. What matters is the act of recognition – an issue that the court steered well away from,” James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkan expert at the London School of Economics (LSE), told Athens Plus.

Lack of clarity did not stop Pristina from hailing the decision, which is non-binding, as a victory. Serbs, their fortune and confidence tarnished by a series of lost wars in the 1990s, reacted angrily at the prospect of giving up this chunk of land traditionally seen as the nation’s historic heartland. Lawmakers this week passed a resolution that their country will never recognize Kosovo as an independent state, while the government launched a diplomatic marathon to halt further recognitions by foreign states. Kosovo, which has been under UN administration since a NATO air raid in 1999 ended a Serb crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians, has so far been recognized by 69 states, including the US and most EU governments – but not Greece. It has a population of 2 million, 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians.

Pandora’s box

Analysts had warned that a pro-independence ruling would have a Pandora’s box effect, emboldening separatist movements in areas such as Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Somaliland and northern Cyprus. In a nod to such concerns, shared by states like China, Russia, Spain, Romania, Cyprus and Greece, the court deftly fought shy of a political decision.

“The ruling has very little effect on separatist movements – and that is where the judges have been particularly shrewd. Again, anyone can declare independence. It is whether it is recognized that matters,” Ker-Lindsay said.

For Stefan Wolff, professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, the ICJ did not rule on whether the declaration of independence had any legal implications, which is essentially what other secessionist movements would need to make Kosovo’s case a precedent. But legal technicalities, he warns, will not be enough to stop the trend. “There is little doubt in my mind that secessionists elsewhere will interpret the court opinion in their favor,” Wolff said.

Might is right

Does Cyprus have reasons to worry? Ker-Lindsay says that the ICJ ruling will have no immediate effect on Cyprus, as the unilateral declaration of independence by the Turkish Cypriots was in fact explicitly declared to be illegal by the UN Security Council. “Had it happened today, we could be dealing with a very different situation. But it didn’t and we aren’t,” he said.

Despite successive UN resolutions, Turkish troops continue to occupy the northern third of the island since 1974. During a visit to Nicosia last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was at pains to reassure Cyprus.

“This was very specific expertise, it has nothing to do with any other cases in the world… It’s a unique decision, in a unique situation with a unique historical background,” he said.

LSE historian Svetozar Rajak is more skeptical, suggesting that a lot depends on your friends. “As the case of Kosovo has shown, if there is enough backing from the international community, any situation, in existence today or in the future, including Cyprus, may end up before the ICJ,” he said.

What next for Serbia?

Analysts agree that instead of wasting time and energy on what seems to be a lost cause, Belgrade should engage in practical cooperation that will allow it to one day join the EU.

But a pragmatic shift won’t come naturally. Reacting to the ruling of the ICJ earlier this week, Belgrade said that it will not change its policy of treating Kosovo as its territory, while it vowed to continue its fight to reopen status negotiations at the UN’s General Assembly.

Fortunately, this time war is not in the cards. Rebuffing nationalist calls for a military response, Serb President Boris Tadic this week said Belgrade will seek a compromise. “We are in a very difficult situation… but we won’t beat the war drums,” he said. “We cannot protect our interests in Kosovo without integration into the European Union and good relations with the United States, Russia and China.”

That does not mean that Belgrade will not be tempted to block Kosovo’s membership of regional organizations and even block the free movement of people and goods. But it’s hard to see how it will stick with a policy that undermines its EU hopes for too long.

“Given the catastrophic economic situation Serbia is in and obvious inability of the government in Belgrade to offer solutions, it may be tempted to accept any and every carrot from the EU, in exchange for the recognition of Kosovo independence,” Rajak said, adding that there seems to be little effective opposition from the existing political factors at home.

Some observers, including Rajak, are rather concerned about Pristina’s unilateral action in northern Kosovo. “I am afraid that the ICJ decision may encourage some in Pristina to contemplate forceful reintegration of the territories north of the Ibar River,” he said of the ethnic-Serb-dominated region that has effectively been under Belgrade’s control.

A considerable number of Serbs live on territory controlled by Pristina, in the south, in enclaves like Strpce near the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Gracanica, a suburb of Pristina. Analysts agree that the court ruling has not reduced the need to discuss the future of these populations — it’s just that the rules of the game have changed. “After the ICJ opinion, Serbia is no longer in a position to dictate terms and should approach Kosovo as an equal partner,” Marko Prelec, an expert of the International Crisis Group, told Athens Plus.

It may sound unbearably cliche when it comes to the Balkans but experts urge both sides to set their differences aside and look ahead.

“In the end, both Serbia and Kosovo want to join the EU and neither can really have an interest in mutual hostility,” Wolff said. “It is important that leaders on both sides calm down now, make a realistic assessment of the situation and figure out a way forward.”

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Requiem for a nation?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Bart De Wever is not a big fan of Belgium. In fact, he would eventually like to see the nation “evaporate.” The problem is that his party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has just won an emphatic victory in the country’s general election. Is Belgium set to become the stuff of history books?

“Not yet,” says Pierre Vercauteren, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Mons. Although De Wever’s separatist party made a strong showing winning the largest number of seats in the 150-seat lower Belgian federal house, he says, that does not mean that there is an equal number of voters out there who want a divorce.

“These voters simply wanted to express a strong disappointment with the Flemish members of the outgoing coalition about the lack of success in the reform of the state which they promised in 2007,” Vercauteren said, describing the ballot outcome as “clear in its form, ambiguous in its meaning and complicated in its consequences.”

De Wever’s party won nearly 30 percent of the Flemish vote on a campaign to gradually disconnect Flanders from the rest of the country and has now entered what is expected to be protracted negotiations with the French-speaking Socialists (PS) of Elio Di Rupo, which came second nation-wide with 36 percent of the Walloon vote on the promise of increased public spending.

De Wever has said the Flemish “must be masters of their own fate” but following his victory he has watered down his separatist message. “We do not want a revolution,” Wever, a 39-year old historian, said. “We do not want to declare Flanders independent overnight. But we do believe in gradual evolution.” In an apparent bid to appease the francophone public, he suggested that he would make way for Di Rupo to be prime minister and rather pursue a deal to reform the federal state and finances – i.e. to devolve key powers to the regions. “Don’t be afraid. Have faith in yourselves,” the election winner told Wallonia voters after his victory.

“De Wever said he will not let Belgium explode but still remains deeply convinced that the end of Belgium is the future,” Vercauteren says. That would mean a slow death – but death nevertheless. For the time being, Flanders and Wallonia enjoy self-rule over employment, environment, agriculture, culture and sports but the former want to expand autonomy over health, justice and social security – a non-starter for their “dependent” cohabitants.

Since its creation in 1830, Belgium, the administrative center of the European Union, has seen little of the unity preached by the eurocrats in Brussels. Friction has been the leitmotif in the relationship between the nation’s two communities, the more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the more needy French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

The linguistic divide is evident everywhere: from political parties and boy scouts to road signs and license plates, while Brussels resembles a bilingual island at the heart of the nation. The linguistic apartheid between the 6.5 million Dutch speakers and the 4 million French speakers comes with a lot of luggage. Once a rural population looked down upon by their francophone kin, the Flemish are fed up with subsidizing their slacker neighbors. Wallonia has twice the jobless rate and 25 percent lower per-capita income. The discrepancy in the number of highway speed traps (a source of state revenue) is seen as emblematic of the divide: Flemish authorities have installed over 1,500 while the Walloon government just over 160.

A recent study by the RTL broadcasting company found 32 percent of the Flemish population want outright independence, 17 percent a confederation and 25 percent greater self-rule within Belgium.

If the past is any guide, negotiations between the different parties will be long and complicated. It took nine months for outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme to form his short-lived five-party coalition government in 2007, which collapsed over voting rights in Brussels’ suburbs.

Analysts fear that lingering uncertainty will prevent Belgium from curbing its huge debt making it, as the Financial Times put it, “the Greece of the north.” To make things more complicated, Belgium is set to take over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in July. Bart Maddens, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Leuven, says it should be possible to reach an agreement by September but even so, he adds, a prolonged crisis would have little consequences for the EU presidency. “There is a functioning government and prime minister, and the EU presidency is a matter which is largely dealt with on an administrative level,” he says.

Vercauteren is also not too concerned about the fallout, as the objective of EU integration has never been questioned in any of the two camps. “After all, the presidency has been prepared for more than 18 months. The new coalition government will comprise members from the outgoing government as well as the new one so you will have smooth transition and continuity,” he says.

Even so, the sight of a squabbling nation at the helm of the EU will not be a flattering one (neither for the perennially dysfunctional 27-member bloc of course). There is a question of Belgium’s image [abroad] but as the agenda has been already prepared there will be no paralysis,” says Vercauteren.

Pragmatism should be enough to save the day but not necessarily the nation’s face abroad.


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