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Kosovo, Palestine, Iraq: the limits of analogy

Shlomo Avineri
4 March 2008

The declaration of independence by Kosovo on 17 February 2008 is an important victory for the ideas of self-determination and national sovereignty. Ever since most of the old Ottoman vilayet of Kosovo was annexed to Serbia in 1912 after the first Balkan war, the province's mainly Muslim Albanian population suffered under Serbian rule. After 1918, Yugoslavia tried to change the demographic balance by encouraging Serbs to settle in the province, viewed as the birthplace of the Serbian nation. In Titoist Yugoslavia, Kosovo enjoyed an autonomous status, but with the re-emergence of Serbian nationalism under Slobodan Milosevic this was cancelled, Albanian-language schools were closed, and Serbian functionaries from Belgrade replaced local Kosovar Albanian officials.

Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Yitzhak Rabin. He is currently visiting professor in the nationalism studies programme at the Central European University in Budapest.

This article was first published in the independent website BitterLemons.org.

The ensuing resistance - initially peaceful, later violent - led to ever harsher Serbian measures, culminating in threats of massive ethnic cleansing, verging on genocide. For the first time in modern history, this brought about (in 1999) an effective American-led international humanitarian intervention. Many of the intellectuals and public figures all over the world who supported the intervention were Jewish: Elie Wiesel, Michael Walzer, Richard Holbrooke, Bernard-Henri Levi, Bernard Kouchner and others. They called on the world community, which failed so dismally to protect the Jews from the Nazis, not to abandon Kosovar Albanians. The United States secretary of state Madeleine Albright explicitly mentioned her Jewish roots in her insistence that the US could not leave the Kosovars to their fate.

That Kosovo's independence did not enjoy the support of all European Union members has very little to do with the merits of the case, but stems from the Realpolitik considerations of countries with territorially-based national minorities. That is why Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus did not follow the United States and the majority of the EU in recognising Kosovo's independence. Russia's opposition is similarly motivated by obvious analogies with the Chechen uprising. Even democratic Canada is hesitant, due to Quebec.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Serbia and the Kosovo issue:

Juan Garrigues, "Kosovo's troubled victory" (7 December 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, "Kosovo's Serbs in suspension" (10 December 2007)

Mary Kaldor, "The Balkans-Caucasus tangle: states and citizens" (9 January 2008)

John O'Brennan, "Kosovo: the hour of Europe" (14 January 2008)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's presidential election: the best-laid plans..." (21 January 2008)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia chooses a future, just" (5 February 2008)

Timothy William Waters, "Kosovo: the day after" (18 February 2008)

Robert Elsie, "Kosova and Albania: history, people, identity" (21 February 2008)

Dragan Klaic, "Serbia: an old script, replayed" (27 February 2008)Obviously there have been echoes in the middle east, and from opposing camps. In Israel, the nationalist rightwing expressed concerns that Kosovo may become a precedent for a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence, and even for an attempt by Palestinian Arabs in Israel, especially in the Galilee, to secede unilaterally. In parallel, some Palestinians maintained that if the current post-Annapolis Israeli-Palestinian talks should fail the Palestinians might adopt the Kosovo model and declare independence unilaterally.

The false and the true

These analogies seem plausible, but are fallacious for three reasons. First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not limited to the post-1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It is a conflict between two national movements - the Jewish national movement, Zionism, and the Arab Palestinian movement, both laying claim to the same piece of land. The Kosovars, on the other hand, never claimed Belgrade and all of Serbia as their patrimony. Hence in the Israeli-Palestinian case a two-state solution, based on partition, is the only reasonable and fair solution, and is viewed as such almost universally. Such national conflicts can be resolved only by mutual consent and agreement: that this is difficult and may take time is obvious, but there is no alternative to negotiations.

Second, while the Kosovars gained almost universal support and the international community, under US leadership, used force to intervene on their behalf, the middle-east situation was totally different. Here it was the Palestinians who in 1947-48 flaunted international legitimacy by rejecting the United Nations partition plan and went to war not only against the emerging state of Israel but also against a United Nations decision. It was the Arab side in 1948-49 that was repeatedly condemned by the UN, with both US and Soviet support, for its violence against Israel.

Third, since the Oslo accords developed in 1993-95 there exists a legitimate, albeit not sovereign Palestinian Authority. Its legitimacy has recently been greatly attenuated by the Hamas putsch in Gaza - and solving this is a serious challenge to the Palestinian national movement. Moreover, since Annapolis both Israel and the Palestinians have been continuously negotiating. That no agreement has yet been reached is the consequence of both the complexity of the issues and the relative weakness of both leaderships. Nothing similar to this existed in the Kosovo context.

There is, however, a case in the middle east that is similar to Kosovo: the Kurds in Iraq. Here, as in former Yugoslavia, an ethnic minority with a distinct culture, language and history has been continuously oppressed by a series of brutal Arab regimes. Like the Kosovar Albanians, Iraqi Kurds are entitled to self-determination and sovereignty; that Turkey, Iran and Syria oppose this has as little relevance to the merits of the case as has Spanish - or for that matter, Russian - opposition to the independence of Kosovo. It is difficult, on moral and political grounds, to support the independence of Kosovo while opposing the same rights for Iraqi Kurdistan.

All this shows the limits of analogy and the sometimes cynical and propagandistic use made of it. Each conflict has its own characteristics and has to be addressed - and hopefully settled - on its own merits, difficult as this may be.

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