international analysis and commentary

A dubious victory: Kosovo’s independence as Europe’s problem

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The advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) legitimizes Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). Additionally, the court gave full custody over this problematic pre-puberty statelet to the EU. Being the single parent of this problem child might not be the best role Europe has found itself in, particularly after so much time spent sharing responsibilities with the US.

In one sense, the ruling did not change much. Kosovo will still need a two-thirds majority in the UN General Assembly along with the UN Security Council’s recommendation to become a member – something highly unlikely to happen after both Russia and China reaffirmed their previously stated decision not to recognize its independence. Practically, Kosovo will still need a consensual acceptance by NATO and the EU in order to establish any formal cooperation with these two crucial organizations. Things are so bad that even if Serbia, by some miracle, recognized it, Cyprus would remain fanatically opposed to Kosovo joining the community of nations. None of this changed one jot due to the Court ruling.

What was this court performance all about? What does this ruling change and for whom? In reality, the ICJ issued a ruling that gives practically everyone a way out of the situation – except for the European Union.

The US is already heading for the exits and has been doing so for a while. It has been  hemorrhaging men, materials and money for the better part of the decade. Plans for a troop withdrawal from the Kosovo Force (KFOR) were in place as early as 2001, and continues throughout the Obama presidency. For example, the number of US troops in KFOR fell from 8,000 to 1,480 in less than a decade and is now smaller than Germany’s share (1507 troops), while overall EU participation in KFOR accounts for almost 74% of troops. The same goes for financial support, as the US is pouring less and less into Kosovo, coming from almost €100 million in 2009 to a projected €65 million in 2011, the EU has pledged to give €510 million, covering as much as half of Kosovo’s Mid-Term Expenditure Framework.

Clearly, the US has lost interest in lingering in the Balkans any longer. This is an easily understandable decision if one bears in mind its imperial overstretch in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the looming crisis in Iran and North Korea. In the emerging multipolar world, the amount of power and the perception of international “responsibilities” are in direct proportion. With the US vulnerable and losing the “world cop” rank, it is not surprising it decides to limit the backing of Kosovo to the occasional tap on the shoulder and supportive rhetoric, while leaving the EU to deal with it in the field. The World Court opinion that Kosovo’s UDI did not violate international law might have been just the excuse US has been waiting for to start the final withdrawal from the region, declaring victory as it rides off into the sunset.

So right now it looks like Kosovo is becoming more and more exclusively an EU responsibility and problem. After all – it is in Europe’s backyard, isn’t it? But, if Kosovo is in its backyard, the same can be said of other troubled regions nearby, such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria. The stunning ICJ opinion states that the “scope of the territorial integrity principle is confined to the sphere of relations between the States”, opening a Pandora’s box with secessionist movements around the world racing to embrace “freedom”. While some may argue the World Court has made it clear that the opinion applies only to the document and not to the event itself – unwittingly the Court has blessed a new interpretation of what it takes to be independent, according to the needs and the relative strength of the interpreter in action.

In the end, it is not about what the ICJ meant – but about how people interpret its words. Giving carte blanche to separatists around the globe at the exact moment in which the US is effectively withdrawing from the Balkans after many years of active involvement and with the EU still crippled by internal financial and political turmoil – might not be the best idea ever. To put it politely Europe’s historical track record in the region is somewhat less than stellar.

If the US is not going to do it and there is reason enough to doubt EU can do it – is there someone else to offer a helping hand to the European peace project? Can EU count on some other country’s help and support to get out of this mess? After all, it is also in Russia’s backyard. However, the truth is Russia’s backyard is far too large and troubled for it to pay too much attention to every little plant in need of watering. The fact Russia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence will hardly change – simply because it has no interest in doing so. The ICJ opinion serves Russia’s interests in Georgia and Moldova, preserves its influence in the Balkans through Serbia which still needs support, while at the same time keeping the EU busy and less likely to choose to engage elsewhere in regions where Russia does have vital interests.

What the ICJ advisory opinion actually accomplished was to let almost everyone off the hook, except for the hapless EU, the good old maid who will try to clean up the mess afterwards.