Friday, September 28, 2007

Kosovo dispute highlights the issue of nationalities

Serbia warned the UN on Thursday of "unforeseeable consequences" that could destabilize the world if the breakaway province of Kosovo declares independence unilaterally later this year, according to a report by Reuters.

Serbian President Boris Tadic was evidently self-serving when he warned the UN General Assembly of the consequences of the legal precedent of an unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo. But he would have probably struck a sympathetic chord with a number of other countries, including many in Europe, that are fighting their own separatist movements.

Spain has to worry about Basque separatists, Russia about separatists in Chechnya and other rumblings of separation within the Russian federation, and Turkey about an undercurrent for a greater Kurdistan, spanning Kurd dominated areas in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Outside Europe, there are the Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, Kashmiri separatists in India, and a large number of other smaller and maybe lesser known separatist movements which will may get some encouragement from an unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo.

Nations have been built not only on shared ideological principles, shared culture and history, common language, or by a voluntary association of different groups. Some of them have also been built on the basis of shared ethnicity and/or religion. Pakistan, for example, was partitioned from India on religious grounds alone.

If we go by history, and a sense of justice, there should be no objection to an ethnic group declaring independence. This stand unfortunately only looks good in a treatise on nationalities, meant for academic discourse alone.

If we put it into practice, we could see a large part of the world “balkanized” because every ethnic group or group with nationalistic aspirations could demand independence regardless of its political and economic viability as an independent country. Many of them will likely emerge in haste and violence, without the institutions in place required to be nations.

The problem gets more complicated when we consider that every group with nationalistic aspirations is not the sole occupant of the land that it claims for its new nation. In Kosovo, for example, about 120,000 Serbs still live there, roughly half of them in isolated enclaves protected by a NATO peacekeeping force of 16,000, and the rest in a northern triangle that is closely tied to the Serbian hinterland, according to the Reuters report. Kashmir for example has a large number of Hindus who do not go along with the idea of the independence of the land.

Without the consent of these minority groups, many a newly independent nation will hence be born in bitterness, civil war, ethnic cleansing, and instability, apart from the hostility of the country they have broken from.

If Kosovo declares unilateral independence from Serbia, as it threatens, it could be the first of a large number of new flashpoints around the world.

There is also the danger that once a precedent is established, ethnic groups may consciously choose to populate an area, establish themselves as the majority population there, and then declare unilateral independence. That could mean, say 50 years from now, a slew of new nations that currently don’t exist.

The upshot is that a negotiated settlement between Serbia and Kosovo would in the best long-term interest of the world. Better perhaps that Kosovo gets autonomy with almost all powers over the territory transferred to it.

A solution in Kosovo, that avoids an unilateral declaration of independence, will not change the demands of the Tamils in Sri Lanka or the Basques in Spain. But the UN will avoid opening a Pandora’s box, that it is right now not equipped to handle.

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