Recognising Kosovo is a bad idea

Kosovo’s independence is a product of the lazy belief that multi-ethnic secular states won’t work

The manner in which Serbia treated its province of Kosovo, the argument goes, leaves it with little legitimacy to retain control over it. Ergo, independence.

Forget that such concern for wronged populations is highly selective and exceptional. Underlying the West’s support for Kosovo’s independence is the lazy surrender to the belief that secular, multi-ethnic, liberal states cannot be realised. The objective issue around Kosovo’s declaration of independence—with the West’s connivance—is whether it helps reconcile age-old Balkan enmities. Leaving Serbia with a sense of grievance is unlikely to help in its transition to a liberal state.

Now, Kosovar Albanians suffered immensely under the repressive rule of the Communist Yugoslavia, and under Slobodan Milosovic’s post-Yugoslav regime. But today’s Serbia is different. Kosovo’s separation will set liberal Serb politics back by strengthening the most chauvinistic elements.

Realists will find nothing surprising about selective application of laws and principles. But it is difficult to see what Kosovo’s promoters will gain from backing its independence. The US will have the gratitude of 1.84 million ethnic-Albanian Muslim citizens of Kosovo, and perhaps some more of their counterparts in neighbouring Albania. But is that worth escalating the confrontation with Russia? Even some EU states and American allies won’t condone an independent Kosovo—Spain, Greece and Turkey are against the idea. China is against it. In other words, Kosovo isn’t going to receive international recognition any time soon.

What of Kosovo itself? How likely is it that it will treat its own Serb minorities well? Its leaders have tried to reach out to the minorities. The new Kosovo flag is supposed to enshrine equal treatment of all its citizens. Yet, in a story that has been replayed over centuries, Kosovo’s Serb minority is declining in number. Popular sentiment is a very different thing:

But in a sign of how hard it will be to forge the kind of multiethnic, secular identity that foreign powers have urged, the distinctive two-headed eagle of the red and black Albanian flag, reviled by Serbs, was everywhere Sunday, held by revelers, draped on horses, flapping out of car windows and hanging outside homes and storefronts across the territory. [NYT]

Not all foreign countries though, will see the “multi-ethnic, secular” identity. Pakistan’s Daily Times heralds the announcement of its independence declaring “A Muslim Kosovo is born”. “Being a Muslim state”, it says, “— not yet Islamic — we hope that it survives”. It warns that the pan-Albanian movement could set off a regional scare, and “when Middle Eastern princes and kingdoms start knocking at the door with pots of money…may seduce the new state and cause its Muslim population to choose the wrong path”.

India must not recognise an independent Kosovo. In a narrow interpretation of its interests, good relations with Russia outweigh any gains from backing the breakway state. In the broadest sense, it is in India’s interests to see the emergence of secular, liberal, multi-ethnic democracies. India must not feed the defeatist logic of ethnic-religious nation states.

Update: In an op-ed in Mint, Bharat Karnad argues that “New Delhi should not only firmly decline to (recognise Kosovo), but it should wage a sustained diplomatic campaign to deny Kosovo international recognition and seating in the United Nations. The principle on which Kosovo is founded is antithetical to the concept of an inclusive democracy and India.”