In the appallingly complicated politics of the western Balkans, one thing at least is abundantly clear: that without the presence of Western troops, and the threat of NATO military intervention, much of the region would return to the full-scale ethnic warfare of the 1990s. If there were any doubts about that, they should have been dispelled by the latest clashes between Serbs and Albanians in northern Kosovo.
These clashes, in which 30 soldiers of NATO’s peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR) were also injured, originated in a boycott by Serbs in Mitrovica, of municipal elections last month in protest against the refusal of the ethnic Albanian government of Kosovo to grant their district greater autonomy. The voting stations had to be guarded by ethnic Albanian police after the local Serb police force resigned last autumn in protest against the decision by the Kosovo government to replace Serbian automobile license plates with Kosovar ones.
Mitrovica is the last remaining major ethnic Serb enclave in Kosovo, and the government fears, with reason, that the population there would use greater autonomy as a way of eventually separating from Kosovo and re-uniting with Serbia. The Serbs of Mitrovica fear, with equally good reason, that the establishment of full government control of Mitrovica would eventually lead to them sharing the fate of ethnic Serbs elsewhere in Kosovo, who were driven out after the NATO air campaign of 1999 forced the Yugoslav army to withdraw and established the rule of Albanian nationalists in Kosovo.
Kosovo’s independence was recognized by the United States and most Western countries after 2008, but almost half of the members of the UN (48 percent) continue to refuse to do so. Serbia has never recognized Kosovo independence, and in this refusal has the backing of Russia. Western-brokered negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo over the past two decades have led nowhere.
The result of the Serb election boycott was that ethnic Albanian mayors were elected in Kosovo with the support of only four percent of the local population. NATO and Western countries questioned the validity of the election, and asked the Kosovo government not to install the new mayors. The government rejected this, and sent armed police to take over the municipal offices, resulting in violent Serb protests. An intensification of violence was halted with difficulty by KFOR, which has been reinforced by an additional 700 troops.
The United States and NATO have placed chief blame for the latest clashes on the Kosovo government, with the Biden administration marking its displeasure by canceling Kosovo participation in a U.S.-led military exercise and declaring that it now has “little enthusiasm” for Kosovo’s bid to join the EU and NATO.
What are the lessons of this melancholy business? First, don’t expect gratitude. One might have thought that the Kosovar Albanians, having been liberated from Serbian rule by NATO, and then having received recognition of their independence from the West despite previous formal promises not to do this, would have been more responsive to Western wishes.
Second, don’t expect reason in a situation where ethnic loyalties and rival territorial claims are involved. One might have thought that having gained more than 90 percent of Kosovo due to the West, and with future membership of NATO and the EU at stake, the Kosovo Albanians would have been content to solve their greatest problem at a stroke and simply let Mitrovica go. Of course, in refusing to do so the Kosovar Albanians are only conforming to the behavior of the vast majority of states faced with ethnic secession.
Third, do not think that “democracy” is of much help in resolving ethnic conflicts. It can make them worse. The recent history of Kosovo demonstrates that by compelling rival groups to compete for power on set occasions, elections can bring ethnic tensions to a boil. As the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury said of Ireland:
“There is no precedent, either in our history or in any other, to teach us that political measures can conjure away hereditary antipathies which are fed by constant agitation. The free institutions which sustain the life of a free and united people, sustain also the hatreds of a divided people.”
More than 100 years later, this remains true of Northern Ireland. The “Good Friday” peace agreement of 1999, coupled with exhaustion after the previous 30 years of inconclusive violence has so far prevented a return to full-scale violence; but it did so by effectively ending open elections in favor of institutionalized power-sharing by the rival ethno-religious communities, along Lebanese lines. This arrangement was guaranteed by the continued power of a semi-neutral imperial force, the British state, backed by membership of the European Union, which was supported by both ethnicities. And now, in the wake of Brexit even that agreement has largely broken down.
If democracy is of little help, so too is legality, especially where the question of self-determination is concerned. Where the separation of territories has taken place peacefully and according to agreed legal norms (as in the cases of Sweden and Norway in 1905 and the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993), or may do so in future (Scotland and Britain), this has been due to the absence of serious ethnic tensions. These cases however have been exceptionally rare.
International legal experts have expended immense amounts of ink in the attempt to draw up a universal set of firm legal rules for self-determination. It is hard to claim that these have been successful — not least because many of the lawyers concerned have been working for governments looking for legal arguments to support positions that they have already taken for other reasons.
A more sensible approach draws upon law, but combines this with humanity, reality, enlightened U.S. and NATO self-interest, and sheer common sense. It is devoted above all to the limitation of future violence (and in the case of Kosovo, to avoiding a permanent deployment of NATO troops). It corresponds not to absolute standards of either legality or morality, but to what Hans Morgenthau called “the politics of the lesser evil.”
In the words of Louise Arbour of the International Crisis Group:
"[T]he legal framework informs, but only partially, the political response to claims [to separatism]. From a conflict prevention perspective, there can be no absolutist position… The first of these criteria is one of last resort [my italics]. Generally we support independence only when there is no hope for the conflict to be resolved or the right to self determination realized within existing borders…
"In the case of Kosovo, for example, especially after the 1999 war, it would be impossible to promote greater Kosovar self-determination with the framework of the Yugoslav or Serbian state…In the case of Somaliland, insistence on the increasingly abstract notion of the unity and territorial integrity of the Somali Republic, with Somalilanders governed again from Mogadishu, is both unrealistic and unsupported by more than twenty years of state practice."
The same set of principles apply to the issue of the separation of Mitrovica from Kosovo, since it is already obvious that the local Serbs will not and indeed cannot trust the Kosovar Albanian majority and its government to respect their rights. Rejoining Mitrovica to Serbia (after a local referendum supervised by the UN) would not end the dispute between Serbia and Albania, but it would remove by far the greatest danger, which is that a local ethnic conflict in Kosovo could lead to another regional war not originally intended by either government.
We should recognize in this context the immense difference between international and domestic law. Particular international laws and institutions are often unrecognized by many states, including the United States. Despite efforts by the West to create such institutions, they have no universally-recognized courts, and no internationally recognized police force. Attempts by the West to arrogate to itself the right to create such forces have met with opposition from a majority of the international community.
International law is in fact much closer to the traditional customary law of various tribal societies. It is based not on fixed written laws, but on a general cultural consensus. It pays respect to morality, but also recognizes the reality of relative power. Above all, in heavily-armed and disputatious communities, it is dedicated not so much to punishing violence as to ending it, and restoring communal peace. This approach is very far from ideal, but when it comes to cases like Kosovo, it is probably the best one we have.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
Kosovo Serbs protest as U.S. KFOR soldiers protect the entrance of the municipality office, in the town of Leposavic, Kosovo, May 29, 2023. REUTERS/Valdrin Xhemaj NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?