The Kosovo Question: Examining the Fate of the World’s Newest Nation


Published: April 3, 2008

The independence of the world’s newest nation was met with mixed reactions. Kosovo, Serbia’s predominantly Albanian region, declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17. This southern province of Serbia has been a United Nations protectorate since 1999. Serbia has vowed to never recognize Kosovo, whereas the United States and the United Kingdom offered almost immediate recognition and support while specifying that this is an exceptional case. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated, “The unusual combination of factors found in the Kosovo situation, including the context of Yugoslavia’s breakup, the history of ethnic cleansing and crimes against civilians in Kosovo, and the extended period of UN administration are not found elsewhere and therefore make Kosovo a special case. Kosovo cannot be seen as a precedent for any other situation in the world today.”

In 1445, The Ottoman Empire fully conquered the region of Kosovo. Thus, the ethnic Albanians in the area gradually converted to Islam. After the Balkan Wars of 1913, Kosovo, despite its ethnic Albanian majority, became part of Serbia. As a region of Serbia, Kosovo joined present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia in forming the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. From the late 1980s onward, Albanians living in Kosovo were increasingly affected by a rise in Serb nationalistic sentiment. This Serbian nationalistic identity had strong ties to Kosovo, as Serbians consider Kosovo an ancestral homeland the site of many important Serbian Orthodox Christian churches and monasteries.

Slobodan Milosevic became President of Serbia in 1989. In 1990, the autonomy that had been given to Kosovo in 1974 by the Yugoslav Constitution was revoked. Thus, The Kosovo Provincial Assembly and Government were dissolved and Kosovo Albanians in important state positions lost power.

Kosovar Albanians resisted Serbian rule during the 1990s by passive means. However, a new organization emerged, known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). This organization employed a radical agenda which used force. As the KLA began a campaign of attacks against Serbian security forces, Serbia responded with a military repression of the Kosovar Albanian population as a whole. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Serbian security forces made heavy and sustained attacks on Kosovar Albanian civilians, which constituted ethnic cleansing.

By September 1998, 250,000 Kosovar Albanians had been driven from their homes. The UN Security Council demanded a cease-fire and the start of political dialogue on Sept. 23. By the end of March, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) initiated air strikes on 400 static targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in order to suspend Milosevic’s field operations and to prevent further humanitarian catastrophes. Kosovo has been under the control of the United Nations since shortly after NATO warplanes forced out Serbian forces in 1999.

Kosovo’s declaration of independence was anticipated by most international observers, especially since two years of UN-supported dialogues ended without agreement as to Kosovo’s final status. However, is Kosovo entitled to declare its statehood? According to the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, “the state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” While Kosovo does contain a permanent population of about two million people within its defined borders, it does not have the latter two elements of statehood. Kosovo’s government is that of a transitional government provided by the United Nations (UNMIK). Furthermore, Kosovo has no army of its own, as NATO Forces are still currently stationed there.

Serbian President Boris Tadic declared that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence is illegal and violates Serbia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He told the United Nations Security Council,  “There are dozens of various Kosovos in the world and all of them lie in wait for Kosovo’s act of secession to become a reality and to be established as an acceptable norm.”

Opponents of Kosovo’s separation from Serbia argue that recognition of a unilateral declaration of independence sets a troubling precedent that will encourage other breakaway nations. In accordance with this view, it is not surprising that states with their own separatist movements immediately rejected recognition of an independent Kosovo. Russia is Serbia’s most outspoken supporter, and it echoes Serbia’s claim that Kosovar Independence will destabilize the Balkans. Russia has been struggling with a powerful separatist movement of its own, stemming from Chechnya. Also, it is interesting to note that Russia is one of the five permanent members of the United Nation’s Security Council and thus holds veto power. The upper and lower houses of Russia’s Parliament released a joint statement indicating that if Western countries continue to recognize Kosovo, Russia will recognize two Russian-backed separatists areas in the former Soviet Union, currently located in Georgia. Russia has already granted citizenship to residents of these two enclaves (Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

Another permanent member of the Security Council, China has expressed “worry” over the minority of Serbians still living in Kosovo. China also has its separatist problems with Tibet and with the “break-away” province of Taiwan. Furthermore, Spain, one of the few European Union countries to express intense criticism, fears that Kosovo’s independence will set a dangerous precedent for its own Basque region.

Meanwhile, a growing number of states have recognized Kosovo’s independence, including the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Canada, much to the anger of Serbians. On Feb. 22, protesters overran and burned the U.S. Embassy in Serbia’s capital of Belgrade. Fortunately, no diplomats were at the building at the time. However, the U.S. is accusing Serbia of not providing enough security forces to protect the embassy. The 1963 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states that the receiving country has the responsibility to protect the premises of the mission from any intrusion or damage. Serbian schools were closed on Feb. 22, and the government provided free train rides to the capital, in order to encourage protesters. Despite there being 200,000 protesters, major news sources reported that “riot police were virtually invisible” and did not begin to disperse the crowd until a half hour after protesters had breeched the embassy.

Although recognition of Kosovo’s independence has been criticized by members of the international community for its potential to spark other movements toward independence in the separatist regions of the world, it is important to remember that Kosovo is a unique case. The United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations have been deeply involved in stabilizing the Balkans, especially in regard to ending violence in Kosovo and creating an autonomous government. Therefore, the recognition of Kosovo’s independence was inevitable, in that it was the culmination of Kosovo’s struggle against Serbian oppression.