Thursday, 8 March 2012

Dilettante in BullsEye: Self-Determination and the Serbs

In the latest edition of the European Democrat Students magazine BullsEye (Issue 47), I have an article entitled "...and justice for all? Self-determination and the Serbs", in which I highlight the punitive double-standard being operated against the Serbian people by the foreign arbiters of Balkan territorial disputes. The comparison to Northern Ireland is quite neat.

You can either head over there and download the e-zine for the pretty double-page spread, or the text is reproduced below.


...and justice for all? Self-Determination and the Serbs

The Balkan conflicts are inextricably tied to questions of race, identity and territory. The tragic collapse of Yugoslavia was marked by the clash between the irredentist aspirations of its various nationalisms.

The wars that scarred the region were eventually ended by NATO intervention, and today the situation is monitored by international bodies such as the UN and the European Union.

Whilst definitely a good thing, the fact that powerful foreign actors have such a massive influence over the course of events in the Balkans means that we have to take our responsibilities in the region very seriously. We must also make sure that we properly understand the assumptions – and prejudices – that underlie our policies.

When it comes to the settling of disputed borders then this boils down to one question: is our policy to arrive at borders that strike as fine a balance as possible between the competing desires of the region’s peoples? Or is it to deliver collective punishment to the Serbian people for the crimes of the Milošević government?

I ask because it appears that the foreign powers that are arbitrating the political settlement are operating a racially- or culturally-motivated double-standard.

 On the one hand, the borders of non-Serb states are held to be inviolable, despite large and geographically contiguous Serb populations being trapped within them. That has been our policy with the Republika Srpska and Krajina.

On the other, Serbia herself can happily be partitioned if a non-Serb population wish it so. That has been our policy with Kosovo and would presumably be our policy should Vojvodina wish to secede from Serbia proper.

So the question is what – other than its Serb character – makes the Repulika Srpska so different from Kosovo that the latter can be granted a right to self-determination that is denied the former?

Yet this problem runs even deeper than that, because the indivisibility of non-Serbian states is held as inviolable even while those states are being created from Serbian sovereign territory.

Case in point: North Kosovo. North Kosovo is a Serb majority area that is geographically adjacent to Central Serbia. If it were allowed to remain within Serbia there would be no awkward boundaries or problematic exclaves to deal with.

Surely North Kosovan Serbs have the same right to remain in Serbia as Kosovar Albanians have to secede from it?

 As an Anglo-Irishman, I can well understand the situation in North Kosovo because it mirrors the United Kingdom’s own experiences in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is perhaps this experience that leads to Britain being one of the only international peacekeepers giving partition a  fair hearing.

In short, a stable and contiguous population find themselves entangled in a nationalist project to which they do not subscribe, and face being torn from a state of which they are loyal and contented citizens.

As a democrat and anti-nationalist, my view is that in both instances partition (if not the eventual shape of that partition, which is more debateable) was the only just solution, because the alternatives are based on competing and equally valid nationalisms.

For example, the Kosovar nationalist who asserts ‘North Kosovo is Kosovar’ is no different either rationally or morally from the Serb nationalist who asserts ‘Kosovo is part of Serbia!’ Each of them is doing exactly the same thing: claiming that they have the right to overrule a group’s self-determination on the basis of nationalist ideology.

For the international authorities arbitrating the situation, declaring one of those statements a defensible fact and the other an irredentist outrage is nothing more than choosing an arbitrary favourite. That should not be our role.

The just solution, in circumstances like these, is a partition that adheres as closely as possible to the desires of the people on the ground. No nationalist on either side should be allowed to lay claim to great swathes of people who do not wish to be part of their project.

The British Unionists who fought for the preservation of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union understood this well. In the preface to the pamphlet Against Home Rule: The Case for the Union the Conservative leader – and staunch unionist – summed up the case for partition:

“Every argument which can be adduced [cited] in favour of separate treatment of the Irish Nationalist minority against the majority of the United Kingdom, applies with far greater force in favour of separate treatment for the Unionists of Ulster as against the majority of Ireland.”

To paraphrase: As Belgrade cannot compel Pristina to be Serbian, so Pristina cannot compel North Kosovska Mitrovica to be Kosovar. As Belgrade could not compel Sarajevo to be Yugoslav, so Sarajevo cannot compel Banja Luka to be Bosnian. There is nothing to render one nationalism superior to the other.

On the one hand, North Kosovo could remain within Serbia. Perhaps the three Albanian-majority districts of Serbia adjacent to Kosovo's eastern border could be offered the opportunity to join Kosovo in exchange.

As for the Western double standard, the only possible stem that I can see is the legacy of Milošević and his cohort of Serb ultra-nationalists who tore Yugoslavia to pieces. The Serbs do not deserve the same rights to self-determination as the other former-Yugoslav peoples, the argument runs, because they caused all this horror in the first place.

Yet this cannot – must not – be the international position. It goes without saying that Milošević, Mladić and Karadžić were monsters; that they and their followers must face justice and that their victims must see justice done.

But key to their evil was its racism, the crime of treating human beings as indistinguishable representatives of their race or creed rather than individuals. We must not fall into the trap of exercising the reverse policy.

We must always be vigilant that we punish the individual, and never the race. The people of North Kosovo should not have their right to self-determination abrogated because of the crimes of other Serbs.

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