Kosovo's declaration of independence on Sunday and the ensuing international recognition from many powerful states is a powerful shot in the arm to peoples resisting and seeking independence from tyrannical regimes everywhere. Whilst every situation and every circumstance is unique, there are important lessons from the Kosovan march to independence for liberation struggles everywhere. These include the oft denied but evident brittleness of 'sovereignty' and the necessity amongst those struggling for freedom for unity, clarity of purpose and indomitable resilience against their oppressors' worst excesses. All of these played a part in the Kosovars' final victory on Sunday.
Whilst it has often been brandished by repressive states as a way of denying the demands for self-determination that inevitably follow their tyrannical rule and also of forestalling international efforts to restrain them, the notion of 'sovereignty' is in practice so brittle that one respected international relations scholar aptly calls it 'Organized Hypocrisy'. Others argue that at no time since the modern 'sovereign state' emerged (amid the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) has sovereignty been practiced as an inviolable principle of international affairs. Indeed, as one of our columnists points out this week, the most vehement defenders of sovereignty this week- Serbia and Russia - have also been threatening to recognize other demands for independence (Abkhazia in Georgia and Republic of Srpska in Bosnia- Herzegovina) and thereby violate the very 'principle' on which their outrage is based.
The swift recognition of Kosovo's independence by the United States and several European powers stems from the existence of other important, sometimes contradictory, 'principles' besides sovereignty; including those of self-determination, humanitarian intervention (lately in the form of the 'responsibility to protect') and perhaps the most oft cited one: as the US bluntly put it, Kosovo's "independence is the only viable option to promote stability in the region." The point here is that in the international politics arena, which is governed by competing interests (including those that masquerade as 'values'), no 'principle' is truly inviolable. In other words, international politics is about contesting and defending power-distributions, not principles.
As such, the recent history of the Kosovan struggle ought to be examined by those engaged in struggles for national liberation and statehood elsewhere. Not because the Kosovan example comprises, as Serbia protests, a 'tool-kit for separatists' - it does not - but because it amply demonstrates the dynamics and vagaries of international politics. For example, that the past few years of deliberation and discussion on the former Serbian province's political future have taken place whilst it was under international trusteeship has served to obscure the crucial role of the Kosovan Liberation Army (KLA) in the freedom struggle. The past few years have also obscured the initial (and vehement) hostility from powerful states, especially the United States, to both the Kosovan demand for independence and, especially, the KLA.
Indeed, whilst Kosovo's Albanians have been protesting against Serbian repression for decades, even when the international community was striving to bring peace to the rest of the Balkans in the mid-nineties, these demands were dismissed. Kosovars were excluded, for example, from the landmark Dayton Agreement in 1995. As the scholar Steven Burg notes: "for many Kosovar Alba-nians, the message from Dayton was clear: force was the only means by which to secure group interests … and the escalation from the use of force was the only way to internationalise [their] conflict." Within months the KLA had emerged to wage an armed struggle against Serbian rule. It was sharp escalation in violence and the vicious repression that Serbia unleashed on the Kosovan people that finally led to NATO intervention.
What is particularly interesting is the West's response to the Kosovan demands. Whilst taking these more seriously after the KLA's emergence, the West still insisted initially that Kosovars negotiate with Slobodan Milosevic's racist regime for autonomy within Serbia: the US, for example, called for "dialogue between the government of Yugoslavia and the responsible democratic Kosovar Albanian leadership". As for the KLA and its armed struggle, the US representative Robert Gelbard had a clear response: "we condemn the unacceptable violence by terrorist groups in Kosovo, particularly the KLA". He also said: "it is the strong and firm policy of the United States to fully oppose terrorist actions and all terrorist organizations."
The problem was that whilst the international community backed the 'moderate', 'democratic' leadership of Ibrahim Rugova (and called on it to also condemn the KLA's 'terrorism'), the people of Kosovo rallied instead to the fighters. That the present elected Prime Minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, is a former leader of the KLA reveals what Kosovars thought of international condemnation of their liberation struggle as terrorism and of accusations by countries such as Germany - one of the other states to swiftly recognise Kosovan independence this week - that the KLA was trafficking drugs. Indeed, so great was the popular swing behind the militants that Rugova's party, the LDK, splintered. Evenutally, it was the US itself which was insisting the KLA, must also represent the Kosovars alongside the LDK in negotiations with Serbia.
Once Kosovo became an international protectorate and the people could freely articulate their views, they chose not Serbian rule, but self-rule. And once it also became clear that this was the view of the overwhelmingly majority of Kosovars, the liberal members of the international community were compelled to shift their position. As British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said this week: "if we'd tried to sit on that aspiration, if we'd tried to deny it, I think we'd have far more instability and danger."
Despite oft-repeated commitments to human rights, democracy and just peace, the international community has supported the Sri Lankan state, despite its repression of the Tamils, for decades. Although the Tamils explicitly and overwhelmingly declared their demand for independence from the Sinhalese in 1977, the international community continues to tell us to negotiate with our oppressors for autonomy and devolution. The international community is well aware that anything short of independence - including the once much-vaunted, now ignored, federal solution - is vulnerable to arbitrary retraction by the Sinhala leadershipat any point in the future. Thus international condemnation of Tamil 'terrorism' and veneration of Tamil 'moderates' is, as we know full well, more to do with shattering Tamil unity and assisting the Sri Lankan state to isolate and destroy the LTTE, than with achieving a just peace.
The international community will not take on the Sri Lankan state on behalf of liberal principles. However, neither will it defend the odious regimes in Colombo indefinitely. As the case of Kosovo demonstrates, the principle of 'state sovereignty' cannot be sustained once the world is convinced that not only will the vast majority of Tamils, when given a chance, seek independence from Sinhala rule; but, especially, that they will not abandon their political goals or their struggle irrespective of the brutality visited upon them. Unity, clarity of purpose and indomitable resilience; this is how the third birth of a state in the 21st century became impossible to prevent.