The Perils of Breaking Away

Sometime in the next several months, Kosovo is going to receive international approval for its quest to become an independent nation. While many inside Kosovo and out will rejoice at its liberation from Serbia, there are significant dangers if, as expected, the United Nations backs independence.

Kosovo, which is historically Serbian but today has an Albanian Muslim majority of nearly 90 percent, has been under UN administration since the end of fighting between the Belgrade government and the ethnically Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999. A special UN commission is supposed to release a report on the province’s future by the end of 2006, and will almost certainly recommend steps toward independence. It now appears that the commission will delay its report, in large part because of fears over the precedent an independent Kosovo would set for other separatist conflicts.

The commission is right to be worried; Kosovar independence would represent a sharp break with established practice, and could have serious unintended consequences. These dangers would be lessened, however, if Kosovar independence provided the impetus for creating a new international consensus for handling separatist conflicts.

Today, the international community is supposed to respect existing states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity under almost all circumstances; intervening to stop genocide is one of the few, controversial, exceptions. In Europe, the prohibition on secession was codified in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which has been accepted by the United States, Canada, and almost every country in Europe. Unfortunately the Helsinki approach is clearly anachronistic. Some states should be allowed to break up.

Without updating the international legal framework, though, Kosovar independence would likely cause more problems than it would solve, strengthening demands for independence in secessionist regions such as Georgia’s South Ossetia and Sudan’s Darfur. What’s needed is an agreed set of principles to determine when, and under what conditions, secession should be allowed.

Ethnic homogeneity, a history of intercommunal violence, and international viability are the key factors that should be incorporated in into any new international agreement governing secession. Unlike South Ossetia or Darfur, Kosovo passes on all three counts. In such cases, the alternatives to secession are typically worse.

The difficulties of holding multiethnic states together by force are visible next door to Kosovo in Bosnia, where international troops have spent more than a decade trying to rebuild the trust between the Serbian, Croatian and Muslim communities that was destroyed in the conflicts of the early 1990s.

These difficulties are also visible in Iraq, where Western forces are struggling in vain to keep the country from fragmenting into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish statelets. As with Kosovo, some, including Peter Galbraith — himself a former ambassador in the Balkans — as well as Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations and incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden are suggesting it might be better to allow Iraq to move toward dissolution.

Their calls for a confederal Iraq that would eventually devolve into three separate entities, like the Security Council’s probable endorsement of Kosovar independence, show that the world is finally awakening to the reality that forcing ethnic and religious communities to live together against their will is not necessarily wise or realistic.

Both the Balkans and Iraq would be better off if their populations could learn to live together again. However, it’s not possible simply to forgive and forget the massacres and ethnic cleansing that have plagued Bosnia, Kosovo or Iraq in recent years. Moreover, by trying to paste states such as Bosnia (or now Iraq) back together, the international community is taking on open-ended commitments of troops, money and administrators. The international presence in Bosnia has gone on for 12 years; postwar Iraq will likely be worse.

Secession does carry risks. In Iraq, the threat of outside intervention by Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia is real, which might call the viability of ethnic mini-states into question. In the Balkans, Serbs ask, reasonably enough, if Kosovo can secede, what about Republika Srpska, the ethnically Serbian canton of Bosnia whose desire for independence fueled Bosnia’s bloody civil war in the early 1990s? Allowing Kosovo, or Iraqi Kurdistan, to become independent could set a dangerous precedent if not embedded in a larger strategy for managing separatism.

That is why a new international framework is necessary. Secession should be accepted by the international community as a last resort, when intercommunal warfare has made reconciliation impossible, and as such should be codified in international law. That would require an international conference to amend the Helsinki Act. Difficult as that might be to arrange, Kosovo’s looming independence and the possibility of Iraq breaking up show that the existing framework is inadequate. Better to develop a new framework now to manage and regulate secession than to allow Kosovo and Iraq to open Pandora’s box on an unprepared world.

Jeffrey Mankoff is a writer for the History News Service and a doctoral student in history and security studies at Yale. E-mail: