Kosovo and the politics of recognition

By Carlos Taibo (for Safe Democracy)

Carlos Taibo discusses the controversy surrounding the UN plan for Kosovo, and points out the arbitrary nature of the Western recognition of independent, self-determining states. Up until now, the criterion for Western recognition of the legitimacy of an independent State has been whether that region, before its independence, enjoyed self-determination under the political and legal framework of the original state to which it belonged. Kosovo presents an exception to the rule, which, in Taibo‘s opinion, means that the West must begin to reexamine its preconceptions about legitimate statehood.

Carlos Taibo is a professor of political science at the Autonoma University of Madrid where he is reputed as one of the foremost experts on Russia and Eastern Europe. He also teaches international relations and communication at the Complutense University of Madrid. He has published dozens of books on international politics.

IT OFTEN HAPPENS THAT THE HISTORY ESSENTIAL to understanding complex processes escapes our attention. One history that we have conveniently forgotten has to do with the Western policy of recognition of new European states. With the heat of recent disputes over the UN plan for Kosovo, it appears that we have again forgotten the criterion to apply to these countries.

And yet, somehow, the criterion in question is easy to establish: Western countries recognize the independence and right to self-determination of those republics, which enjoyed this right previously under the political and legal framework of the original states to which they belonged. No other criteria have been used in recognizing the fifteen member states of the former USSR, the two states born out of Czechoslovakia, or the six that have come into being due to the disintegration of the federal Yugoslav state.

It’s important to point out that while a majority did, not all countries recognized by the West held referenda for self-determination. And in those that did, there was frequently a lack of agreement regarding loyalty to the established republic, and the urgency of secession. Neither the use of a referendum, therefore, nor the public declaration of self-determination can be considered universal elements of the independence movements of the 23 States the West recognizes.

The preceding argument is essential to understanding the current situation with Kosovo. Were we to follow the same formula of self-determination and secession with Kosovo, we would find ourselves before the first exception to the rule. Kosovo, an autonomous province within the Republic of Serbia, lacked the right to self-determination under Yugoslav political and legal order.

What has just been discussed has a rather relative impact. I say this because one of the temptations that we must resist is to conclude that the criterion applied by Western countries is immutable and absolute. It has nothing to do with that. Allow me to break from what is commonly thought, that we must be reticent when recognizing formulas for self-determination, and examine this case in an unorthodox manner. I would like to ask why we have accepted statehood in those political instances where a region was allowed self-determination, and denied it in the rest. When it comes down to it, behind the criterion for recognition is none other than the idea that preexisting states were the product of the authoritarian whims of their rulers.

And if this is true then why should the consequences of such whims –the integrated federal republics of the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia– be awarded the right to determine themselves, while other regions like Chechnya and Kosovo are denied that right? Chechnya and Kosovo may be of inferior status to our 23 other historical examples, but were they not created of the same whim?

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