Prof. Robert Austin on the moral argument for Kosovo’s declaration of independence
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: The declaration of independence for Kosovo has created quite a split internationally. Russia, China, Spain, and quite a few other countries have said they will not recognize Kosovo’s independence. The United States, Germany, England have. The critics of the Kosovo independence and the declaration fall into sort of two areas. Number one, it’s a violation of international law because it’s unilateral, and number two, it was an independence facilitated by an external military intervention. And if one recognizes the breaking up of a country based on external military intervention, haven’t you set an extremely dangerous precedent for countries around the world? So, first of all, what do you make of the legality of the declaration of independence?
ROBERT AUSTIN, PROFESSOR, MUNK CENTRE FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Well, the thing with Kosovo is that everyone knew that eventually it was going to make or break and essentially declare independence. The arguments against Kosovo independence—and they’re substantive, you can’t dismiss them out of hand—the simple fact is is that Kosovo is not the precedent for anything. I do believe that Kosovo is sui generis. I also want to stress that Kosovo is the beginning of the end of what was known as Yugoslavia. If we look at—and, again, history is important here in this context—if you look at 1989, Slobodan Milosevic creates his career in what was then the autonomous province of Kosovo. This sends a signal to the other republics that basically leads to the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. And then this is why Kosovo is left to last. It is certainly the most complicated of the Yugoslav conundrum, but what you see happening in 1999, which is a NATO intervention, which is partially illegal in the sense that it doesn’t have UN Security Council approval, but nevertheless—.
JAY: Illegal, then, by many accounts quite barbaric in terms of the bombing of Belgrade, and perhaps the threat to Kosovo quite exaggerated. The number of deaths at one time were totaled as 100,000, later seems to be less than 5,000.
AUSTIN: But what you did see happen in 1998-99 was certainly a humanitarian catastrophe. And NATO had made clear, especially Milosevic, that there was a line in the sand in Kosovo. It’s also very important to stress that from ’89 to ’99, the Serbian leadership in Belgrade did not negotiate seriously at all with the Kosovo leadership. And the position of the Kosovo leadership did change from ’89 to ’99, and it steadily became more and more hardened, so that by the time 1999 came around, when NATO did intervene—and I accept what you say, Paul, that there were aspects of the intervention that were barbaric that were well thought out. It was an air war when it probably should have been a ground war. But nevertheless, what was happening on the ground in Kosovo was a humanitarian catastrophe, and we remember those images. There was a million people who fled Kosovo. I was in Albania in 1999. I saw what happened. I witnessed firsthand what happened. What NATO did, something had to be done there, because we’d seen that Milosevic wasn’t responding to anything.
JAY: There were some suggestions at that time that the Kosovo Liberation Army, the KLA, was actually partly deliberately creating an atmosphere of panic amongst Albanians to get a refugee flow going to Albania, partly to help justify the intervention. You were there. What do you think is the truth of that?
AUSTIN: I think that—you know, and also there’s accusations against the Serb government, that through something called Operation Horseshoe, that they were trying to expel the Albanians. I haven’t seen enough evidence to convince either side. What I do know, and I interviewed a lot of—you know, literally hundreds of people in a random way that came across the border. They left because they perceived a threat to their own personal security. Some of them actually felt it directly, which is the presence of Serbian or Yugoslav military. Some just heard it through the grapevine. Nevertheless, the result was the same, is that people perceived a severe threat to their personal security and they left.
JAY: And would you say people were afraid of another Bosnia?
AUSTIN: I think absolutely. And I think that one thing that’s been made clear in Serbian policy towards Kosovo since 1989, and also it’s in its historic roots too—don’t forget, Kosovo has—you know, the problem didn’t come to us in 1989; it’s been with us throughout the 20th century. The key thing the Serbian leadership has made clear in Kosovo is they want the territory. Absolutely. There’s never been any indication that they actually want to integrate the Albanians that they tried to integrate the Albanians that they tried to make the Albanians part of, let’s say, a reformed Yugoslavia.
JAY: The argument is, is that there are many places you can find in the world with oppressed, persecuted minorities, ethnic minorities, national minorities. But that in itself is not grounds for, first of all, foreign intervention, ’cause that’s what makes this situation particularly complicated. If this was a domestic civil war, if Kosovo had fought for its independence, declared its own independence, I think in terms of the legality of it, it would be more straightforward. The problem here is it happens with mostly American military force. And now the political force that’s in power in Kosovo, essentially the descendants of the KLA, have been accused of being essentially mafia type, a sort of narco-political force. So if you put this together, how is this legitimate based on international law?
AUSTIN: The strongest argument, probably, against the independence of Kosovo might come from the international law aspect. But nevertheless, while you do defend international law, you also have to defend that you have to look after people inside your state. The strongest argument in favor of the Kosovo was certainly the moral one, which is they had essentially exhausted all possibilities in dealing with the government in Belgrade. There was nothing on the table for them. You’re right that the leadership in power now is part of the legacy of the Kosovo Liberation Army. They won free and fair elections. They’re still a major political force. I’ve heard all the accusations against them. I’ve heard all the accusations—a lot of them do come from Belgrade, I want to stress—that tried to paint the Albanian people as essentially a criminal people. I have not seen any evidence that will convince me of this. The Hague tribunal works. Some Albanians are in the Hague; some are not, ’cause we have to wait for indictments.
JAY: I know myself there’s a long history of very antagonistic relationships between Belgrade and Albania itself. And the amount of propaganda that was spewed by the Serbians against the Albanians for decades, most of it was made up. But the key point that created the justification for intervention was the actual idea through the media that thousands, 50,000, 100,000 people were about to be killed, so the intervention’s justified, because don’t you need a justified intervention to justify an independence brokered by the people that did the intervention?
AUSTIN: I don’t deny that. And, again, what we’ve heard reported in 1998 and ’99 turned out to be different. But nevertheless we have to stress that by 1999 Kosovo was on the verge of a major catastrophe. Negotiations didn’t exist. Keep in mind that the international community tried—through NATO and the European Union, etcetera, tried to broker a peace in [“RAM-bo-yay”], which actually wasn’t too bad a deal for the Serbs, and the Albanians signed onto it. It was the Serb decision not to negotiate seriously with the Albanians that brought us to this impasse. And, again, numbers, while important, I still think you have to stress that Kosovo had suffered ten years of an apartheid. Remember what happened in 1989. Illegally revoked autonomy. All Albanians are thrown out into the streets. They don’t have their jobs. They set up a parallel system of schooling. They have to exist entirely outside the existing state. By 1999 what are you left with? What’s there to save? The federation itself has disintegrated, which also provides even more legitimacy to the Kosovo cause, because we’re speaking about a federation that no longer exists.
JAY: In terms of what would make a declaration of independence legal, international law seems a little bit vague whether a unilateral declaration is legal or not legal. The people seem to have come around to recognize Bangladesh, which was more or less a unilateral declaration. So you can kind of argue it both ways. But one of the conditions of justifying unilateral declaration is that the state refuses to negotiate in any way. And my understanding is that there has been some indication the Serbs were willing to talk about a form of autonomy. Is that true? And if it is, doesn’t that mitigate the issue?
AUSTIN: Okay. Well, let’s look at when serious negotiations started, which was [when] the UN appointed Martti Ahtisaari, who has a huge amount of experience dealing with the Balkans. Let’s also be totally frank here, Paul: the Serbs don’t necessarily like Martti Ahtisaari. But he was appointed by the UN secretary-general to develop negotiations, which took place in Vienna. Ahtisaari has made clear that throughout this process, the Albanians negotiated and came a lot of way, especially towards solving the problem of a Serb minority. It has been clear that in that process the Serbs didn’t negotiate very seriously. Let’s be clear here, though. Ahtisaari was sent there to solve Kosovo’s problem, not Serbia’s. So the Serbs would be right in arguing that Ahtisaari approached the Kosovo problem that the end result would be a kind of independence, which he called “supervised independence.” Reading the Ahtisaari document carefully, keep in mind that the word “independence” is not mentioned. The best solution was of course to have that document go through the UN Security Council process, which would have legitimized not just the European Union presence but Kosovo’s supervised, highly restricted form of independence that gave huge powers to the Serbian and other communities that live in Kosovo.
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