Would independence for Kosovo contribute to or undermine international security?
Louis Sell versus Bruno Coppieters
Louis Sell is an adjunct professor of history and political science at the University of Maine. A retired long–serving US diplomat, he is a former director of the International Crisis Group in Kosovo, executive director of the American University in Kosovo Foundation and author of Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Duke University Press, 2002).
Bruno Coppieters is professor of political science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Free University of Brussels). He is co-editor of Statehood and Security: Georgia after the Rose Revolution (MIT Press, 2005) and of Contextualizing Secession: Normative Studies in Comparative Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Dear Bruno,

Independence for Kosovo is the only way to assure security in Kosovo and across the Balkans. Failure to acknowledge Kosovo's legitimate claim to independence has already led to one war and contributed to at least two other conflicts. If the current negotiations over Kosovo's final status do not lead quickly to real independence, further conflict – which would almost certainly spread beyond Kosovo – is likely.

The desire for independence among Kosovo Albanians (Kosovars) – over 90 per cent of the province's population – is clear and the case overwhelming in terms of law, morality and common sense. Since Yugoslavia's dissolution, Kosovo's leaders and people have struggled for independence. This struggle began with non-violent resistance to a brutal and illegal occupation, became armed resistance when Serbian oppression became intolerable and international promises proved hollow, and, following NATO's 1999 air campaign, culminated in liberation. Since then, it has continued under a well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual UN administration. Throughout this period, the Kosovars and their leaders have, with rare exceptions, chosen to work with the international community. Probably no other nation has been asked to jump through so many hoops on the path to independence. The international community should understand that denial of independence, which all Kosovars believe is theirs by right, would eventually provoke a destabilising counter-reaction.

The stabilising effect of independence becomes even clearer when compared to the alternatives. Leaving aside the immorality of the prospect, can anyone imagine the impact on international stability of trying to return Kosovo to Serbian rule? It would be like trying in 1952 to re-impose Nazi rule on France. Or what about the notion of "Three Republics" or some other form of loose association with Belgrade? Even if Kosovo (and for that matter, Montenegro) could be persuaded to accept association, it is hard to imagine how the two peoples could cooperate effectively or amicably. Nor is continuation of the current international administration realistic. The patience of the Kosovars is exhausted. They tolerate international rule only because they believe they will soon be independent and because they understand that their future as an independent state is linked to international cooperation.

The desire for independence among Kosovars is clear and the case overwhelming in terms of law, morality and common sense
How about the situation after independence? Here again, the arguments are overwhelming. Kosovo Albanians – with international assistance – have laid a solid foundation for democracy. Since 1999, Kosovo has held several elections. The province has a functioning multi-party system, independent media and the foundations of a system of self-government. Moreover, it has successfully negotiated the kind of test which would have shaken more firmly established democracies, the death of Ibrahim Rugova, the "founding father" of Kosovo independence.

The creation of a prosperous and sustainable economy, essential for both Kosovo and regional stability, also depends on independence. Continued international rule and uncertainty about Kosovo's future are preventing application of a host of basic rules and procedures, without which Kosovo cannot have normal business relations with the rest of the world. Numerous international studies have identified Kosovo's abundant supplies of coal as the basis for a power generation and export industry. But after seven years of international rule it is clear that only independence can ensure the stable and predictable political environment and the economic and legal regime to attract foreign investment.

An independent Kosovo is also a necessary precondition for ethnic harmony and the return of refugees. As long as Kosovo's future remains uncertain, both Albanians and Serbs will look towards their respective communities to bolster their own position against future change. In an independent Kosovo, Albanians will have more confidence to extend the hand of tolerance and those Serbs who wish to remain will understand that Kosovo is the homeland in which they will build their future.

Although seemingly paradoxical, an independent Kosovo is also the way to ensure a democratic future for Serbia. Ever since Slobodan Milosevic began using Kosovo to fuel his nationalist agenda, Kosovo has been poisoning Serbia. Moreover, this state of affairs did not end with Milosevic's extradition to The Hague. Although Serbian leaders privately admit that Kosovo is lost, none has had the courage publicly to state this truth. In any case, an independent Kosovo in which Serbs' legitimate interests were protected is the only realistic foundation on which to build a stable and peaceful relationship between Serbia and Kosovo and for Serbia with the rest of the world.

It is, of course, also possible to imagine an independent outcome in Kosovo which went in the opposite direction. If the international community were to delay independence, or to link it to yet another round of "standards", or if the independence offered were a charade, lacking, for example, immediate membership of the United Nations, the danger is that the Kosovars would feel betrayed and take matters into their own hands, as the Kosovo Liberation Army did between 1997 and 1999. Partition, either by hiving off the predominantly Serb area in the north or by creating de facto ethnic cantons elsewhere, risks violence within Kosovo and surrounding areas.

Independence is the only realistic way to create a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Kosovo. But this independence needs to be prompt and real, assuring Kosovo's territorial integrity, establishing genuine self-government in a functional democratic state, and including a continued international security and assistance presence. Such independence, which would provide the basis for ethnic tolerance and good relations among all Kosovo's neighbours, is the only way to ensure international stability in this troubled part of the world.


Dear Louis,

Your position is clear and categorical. Independence for Kosovo would provide the most stable outcome for the region. And it would pave the way for reconciliation with Serbia and facilitate the integration of Kosovo's Serb minority. You fail to mention any of the problems encountered by the international community in its attempts to turn Kosovo into a democratic and multi-ethnic state. Nor do you appear to see any need for compromise. Indeed, limiting Kosovo's sovereignty, by for example granting it a form of independence that did not include immediate membership to the United Nations, would – you believe – risk new violence, as Kosovars "take matters into their own hands".

I don't deny that independence for Kosovo has become unavoidable. The degeneration in relations between Belgrade and Kosovo's Albanian majority in the decade between the removal of Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 and the 1999 NATO air campaign took the conflict beyond the point of no return. But there are still issues to resolve, such as the kind of compromise settlement that would favour the creation of a safe environment for Kosovo's minorities and minimise the necessarily destabilising consequences of a decision on conditional independence for other secessionist conflicts.

If the primary lesson to draw from Kosovo is that conflict resolution should be based on ad hoc criteria, independence would prove extremely destabilising
In the coming years, all UN members will probably have to decide whether they are ready to recognise Kosovo's independence. Many of these states are themselves divided societies and some have seen secessionist conflicts degenerate into violence. For all these countries, recognition of Kosovo is not simply a matter of international diplomacy, but an issue that raises questions about their own statehood.

Both secessionist movements and governments opposing secession are almost invariably convinced that their case is "overwhelming in terms of law, morality and common sense", to use your formulation in favour of Kosovo independence. Unfortunately, belief in such indisputable truths renders discussion on (necessarily painful) compromise superfluous. Worse still, advocates of such positions then argue that violence is the inevitable and logical consequence of the fact that the demands for (or against) secession of one side were not acknowledged by the other.

Kosovo is already being referred to as a "model" elsewhere in the world and providing ammunition for parties to other conflicts to legitimise their own positions. There are, of course, very different interpretations of the "Kosovo model", but something they all have in common is that they reinforce the view that a satisfactory outcome to secessionist conflict can only be achieved through force or other unilateral moves.

Some governments involved in the negotiations on Kosovo's final status deny the existence of a "Kosovo model". In their view, the principles involved in resolving this conflict will not constitute a precedent for any other. To be sure, the complex constellation of factors leading to NATO's 1999 air campaign and today's future-status negotiations are unlikely to be reproduced anywhere else in the same form. However, the issue is not whether the model can be applied universally, but whether the principles behind the eventual decision on Kosovo's status are universally valid. If the primary lesson to draw from Kosovo is that conflict resolution should be based on ad hoc criteria depending on the particular situation, independence would prove extremely destabilising for international security.

Those who claim to want universal principles to be applied in Kosovo may end up taking ad hoc positions in similar conflicts. Russian President Vladimir Putin favours the use of principles that are transferable to the stalled negotiations in the former Soviet Union. But he has gone on record to say that if Western states decide unilaterally to recognise Kosovo's independence, Russia would be entitled to behave in the same way in those conflicts in which it has a stake and to recognise breakaway states.

A second lesson from Kosovo, which may prove destabilising, concerns the use of force in secessionist conflicts. Soon after NATO's 1999 air campaign, then Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was the first to call for a resolution of secessionist conflicts in his own country according to the Kosovo model. Before that date, Georgian calls to the UN Security Council for international intervention to crush de facto Abkhaz statehood had been in vain, mainly owing to Russian opposition. But the Kosovo war showed that Western states were willing to intervene militarily in a secessionist crisis and even to overrule a Russian veto. The fact that NATO intervened in support of a secessionist movement was secondary for Shevardnadze. More important was the idea that military force remains the most effective instrument for ending the contest of wills in a secessionist conflict – a lesson that has also been drawn by many who favour unilateral secession.

In its mediation efforts, the United Nations has to take into account the worldwide ramification of any settlement based on unilateral decisions. At the local level, proposals for compromise must, above all, seek to improve the living conditions of the minorities and to facilitate the engagement of Kosovo Serbs in local institutions. A transitional international authority may have to be created specifically to deal with this issue. Every effort must be made to persuade Belgrade to buy in to an independent Kosovo. If, despite strong minority guarantees, Serbia were to refuse to accept a sovereign Kosovo, negotiations on international recognition would have to continue to avoid a split within the UN Security Council. Despite the impatience of the majority of the population, this would likely delay a UN seat for Kosovo. I would be interested to hear your view about how compromise may help avoid further unilateral moves in respect to the final status.


Dear Bruno,

It appears we agree on the key issue – independence. But you raise two conditions – minorities and impact elsewhere.

Democracy requires respect for all citizens and minority rights are as much in the interest of the Kosovo Albanian majority as they are of the Serb minority. The best way to protect minority rights is to incorporate them into a stable democratic state embraced as its own by the majority population – in other words through an independent Kosovo. But with rights go responsibilities. Serbs must be prepared to live peacefully and responsibly within such an independent and democratic state.

Similarly, it would be both unjust and impractical to hold Kosovo's future hostage to the behaviour of extremists in other parts of the world. To tell the Kosovars they cannot be independent because of Abkhazia would be about as fair – and as ineffective – as telling Thomas Jefferson to forget independence because it might encourage similar ambitions in other parts of the British Empire.

The international community should understand that denial of independence would eventually provokes a destabilising counter-reaction
Raising such issues – important in their own region but extraneous to Kosovo – brings us back to our original question – stability. Despite its apparent calm the current situation in Kosovo is not stable over the long term. Deferring action on final status or producing a phoney independence would quickly bring latent instability to the surface. There is also the issue of simple justice. If the international community intends to deny or obfuscate Kosovo independence it must tell people of Kosovo why. Saying independence cannot happen because of Transdniestr lacks credibility. The people of Kosovo would not accept such an explanation any more than the people of Belgium in 1830 would have accepted an appeal to rein in their desires for independence lest they upset the conservative Congress of Vienna system.

It would be highly desirable to persuade Belgrade to "buy into" an independent Kosovo. No one wants a revanchist, Versailles-type Serbia. But the primary responsibility for creating a democratic Serbia belongs to the Serbs themselves. Kosovo's contribution cannot be through forcing unjust, destabilising, or unworkable structures but rather by creating an independent, democratic and prosperous state, which will guarantee minority rights, the protection of religious monuments, and meet other legitimate interests of its neighbours.

In politics timing is everything and this holds with compromise as well. In the summer of 1776, one year into the American Revolution, British Admiral Richard Howe – a sincere friend of the American colonists despite his commanding the British fleet in American waters – offered to satisfy virtually all the demands the Americans had been making prior to the outbreak of hostilities. The American team, led by Benjamin Franklin, rejected Howe's offer because it lacked what by then had become the essential ingredient - full independence.

In the current talks the Kosovars have gone a long way in meeting compromises sought by the international community but they will insist on prompt and real independence, recognised with a UN seat, territorial integrity, and a functional state. This should include a NATO presence and eventual NATO membership and an advisory – though not a governing – international civilian presence, leading toward association with the European Union. Attempts to impose a contrary solution out of concerns such as "avoid(ing) a split within the Security Council" – however important this may seem to diplomats – will not be seen by the people of Kosovo as meeting their entirely just and reasonable demands and hence would be neither stabilising nor calculated to encourage a situation where minority rights could truly be respected.


Dear Louis,

I was interested to read the kind of compromises you favour to help overcome today's impasse. Concerning minority rights, you write that Kosovo's Serbs have to be "incorporated" into the new state institutions. I fully agree. But the question is how such incorporation is structured. The March 2004 riots have raised legitimate fears for the security of the remaining Serb minority. I believe that a transitional international administration in the north of Kosovo would be necessary to safeguard Serb rights there and that throughout Kosovo power needs to be decentralised in such a way that Serb-majority municipalities feel secure. Minority rights have to be backed by wide-ranging institutional reform.

You also argue that rights cannot go without responsibilities and that Serb citizens have to be loyal to the new state. In my view, such loyalty will only emerge through active minority participation in the political institutions of a multi-ethnic state. The loyalty of a minority cannot simply be mandated because the majority fears it may act as a fifth column for neighbouring countries. Such fear has dominated Balkan history and risks undermining the prospects for pluralism in Kosovo in future.

You believe that the Kosovars should not be expected to take the potentially destabilising consequences elsewhere of unconditional independence for their country into consideration. You write that we could not have expected either those fighting for American or Belgian independence to have reined in their aspirations out of respect for the potential international consequences. Yet you have also argued, at least where minorities are concerned, that rights go with responsibilities. If Kosovo has a right to sovereignty, it must share with other sovereign nations the responsibility to maintain international security and stability, safeguarding the principles of international law. Kosovo, too, must seek to contribute to solutions for balancing the principle of territorial integrity and the right to national self-determination. And Kosovo must respect the authority of the UN Security Council when it prescribes a particular course of action to advance stability in the Balkans. This is yet another reason to appeal to both Kosovar and Serb delegations to avoid adopting intransigent positions in the Kosovo talks. And it underscores the importance of building a broad international consensus on Kosovo's future in the UN Security Council in case the parties are unable to reach a compromise.

The United Nations has to take into account the worldwide ramification of any settlement
Your historical references to Belgium and the United States are not helpful. Clearly, Kosovo is not unique if we look at the historical origins of many of today's states. Uncompromising positions backed by force and/or a favourable geopolitical environment frequently led to the creation of new states. But the world cannot be reorganised according to the moral and legal principles of 18th or 19th century nationalism.

International stability cannot be secured by the disintegration of multi-ethnic states but by state reform and increased self-government for minority populations. The main justification for granting conditional independence to Kosovo is that Serbia failed to reform the Yugoslav state to take Kosovar rights into consideration and the subsequent attempt to solve the issue through force backfired. But any exception to the general rule that ethnic conflict should be resolved through state reform and not by the break-up of existing states or through force necessarily has destabilising consequences for international order. Kosovo's secession will make mediation attempts elsewhere and especially in the former Soviet Union more difficult. A division of the world community over recognition of Kosovo's independence would have even more detrimental consequences on attempts to resolve other secessionist conflicts. We can only hope that both Kosovar and Serb delegations to the Kosovo talks and the other players involved in the process of political recognition will show practical wisdom in their efforts to reach a compromise and shun the uncompromising rhetoric that guided nationalist conflict in centuries past.


Dear Bruno,

Creating an effective "transitional administration" in the north, as the international community should have done in 1999, would be a positive step. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen now, when the international presence is diminishing. A special regime in the north, therefore, would create a Serb quasi-state and de-facto partition, especially since extreme Serb leaders in the north reject any links with Kosovo. Partition in Kosovo would exacerbate problems around the divided city of Mitrovica and likely spill-over into Presevo, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,* and possibly Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As long as Kosovo's future remains uncertain, both Albanians and Serbs will look towards their respective communities to bolster their own position
Albanian revenge on Kosovo Serbs in 1999 and the violent outbreak of March 2004 were shameful, as was international failure to stop the violence. But your legitimate concern for the Kosovo Serbs seems accompanied by historical amnesia. To understand why independence is so important to Albanians simply recall recent history – the forceful and illegal suppression of Kosovo's autonomy in 1989, the brutal apartheid-style Serb occupation of the 1990s, and the genocidal Serb campaign of 1999. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991 only force could keep Kosovo part of Serbia. "Institutional reform" is irrelevant here and looking at the Albanians' experience with Belgrade it is easy to understand why. Nor can dubious principles of ethnic conflict change this. The world has so far recognised five new states out of Yugoslavia and 15 out of the Soviet Union. Kosovo independence will not affect conflicts in the former Soviet Union which, like the one in Kosovo, will be resolved on their own realities.

And to get back to the original point of this dialogue, there is only one solution that can work in Kosovo and that is independence, in a democratic state with full respect for the human and minority rights of the entire population. Anything else will be neither just nor stabilising. It's that simple.


Dear Louis,

We agree that independence for Kosovo is the only feasible option but differ over the normative principles underpinning this position. You argue that past violence in Kosovo was the result of the failure to acknowledge its independence claim and that the oppressive policies of the Milosevic government demonstrated that only force could keep Kosovo within Serbia. I argue, by contrast, that violence was the result of Serbia's failure to reform its state institutions. In this way, independence for Kosovo only became legitimate on account of both the Serbian refusal to accord democratic forms of self-government to the Kosovar population that would have respected the principle of territorial integrity and of Serbia's oppressive policies. Our differences are not primarily related to recalling or forgetting particular historical events, the "historical amnesia" you refer to, but to moral principles.

Far-reaching conditions will have to be placed on the exercise of Kosovo sovereignty
Second, we disagree over the extent of the need for compromise. Both on the domestic and on the international level, far-reaching conditions will have to be placed on the exercise of Kosovo sovereignty. These are necessary to secure both minority rights and agreement within the United Nations. But you stress the potentially destabilising consequences of the compromise solutions I mentioned, such as the risk of partition that could result from strong powers for Serb majority municipalities.

Third, you assume that Kosovar independence will not affect other secessionist conflicts and that they will be resolved on their own merits. I believe, by contrast, that Kosovo is already and will remain an important point of reference in all secessionist conflicts. This does not mean that the formula of "conditional independence" will be used to resolve any other conflict, but that Kosovo will feature in all discussions on related issues. The Kosovo talks are therefore not only about Kosovo. Rather, they also have to address the issue of how a satisfactory solution can be found for an individual case that does not undermine wider international security.


* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.