The Western myth of a Serbian Kosova

Author: Branka Magaš
Uploaded: Tuesday, 29 November, 2005

Article written for the BI website argues that Western politicians have been mistaken in accepting the notion that Kosova is 'an integral part of Serbia', so that Belgrade must necessarily be involved in discussions about Kosova's status

As negotiations between Serbia and Kosova about the latter’s status are about to begin under UN auspices, one is prompted to pose the obvious question: ‘Why is Serbia involved at all?’ Or, to put it in another way: ‘Why do Western governments assume that the wishes of Kosova’s inhabitants are insufficient grounds for recognising its independence, and that such a step requires also Belgrade’s acquiescence?’

Answers to such questions refer as a rule to Kosova being an integral part of Serbia: recognising Kosova means changing Serbian borders. The international community, the argument continues, has thus far respected the borders of the former Yugoslav republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have all been recognised within their existing borders. Recognising Kosova as an independent state without Serbia’s agreement would be a departure from past practice. Some even suggest it would violate international law. The otherwise respectable International Herald Tribune even recently published a letter from Raju G.C. Thomas in Belgrade (27 October 2005) that moved on from arguing that Kosova’s independence would violate ‘international law’ regarding ‘the territorial integrity and sovereignty of existing states’ implicitly to advocate suppression of the recalcitrant Albanians.

The Western assumption that Serbia enjoys sovereign rights over Kosova, however, is as fictitious as the Serbian myth that Kosova was the cradle of the medieval Serbian state. On the contrary, Kosova’s inherent sovereignty and separate existence from Serbia is a well established legal and historical fact. By accepting Serbia as a relevant partner in negotiations over Kosova’s future, the United States and the European Union have vested it with an authority that it never enjoyed in the former Yugoslavia

To begin with, the former Yugoslav republic of Serbia was not of the same character as the other former Yugoslav republics. Unlike Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro, all of which were constituted on a unitary model, the Serbian republic was from its inception composed of three distinct politico-territorial entities: Serbia, Kosova and Vojvodina. These entities were constituted separately and independently from each other in the last stages of World War II (1944-5), as part of a process leading to creation of a Yugoslav federation on the ruins of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The process began with the formation of a number of distinct politico-territorial entities in areas liberated from Italian Fascist and German Nazi armies of occupation: once established, these entities served as basic building blocks for the new Yugoslav federated state. Some of them were constituted as republics, others as autonomous regions (later provinces). Each and every one of them, however, was established formally as an emanation of the proclaimed will of their (usually ethnically mixed) inhabitants.

Kosova and Vojvodina were actually established before Serbia: Kosova in January 1944, Vojvodina in March 1944, Serbia only in November 1944. Serbia at the latter juncture did not include either Vojvodina or Kosova. It was only in July 1945 that Kosova and Vojvodina voted - autonomously and separately from one another and from Serbia - to join Serbia. Their adhesion to Serbia was sanctioned by the Yugoslav AVNOJ government in August 1945, when they were also given separate (from Serbia) representation within Yugoslavia’s federal bodies. Kosova and Vojvodina, in other words, were from the start constituent elements of the Yugoslav federation, just as the republics were. This was fully recognised by the last Yugoslav constitution, by virtue of which Vojvodina and Kosova were in all practical respects equal to the republics. Despite their formal union with Serbia, they were by the nature of their constitutions and legal status provinces of Yugoslavia, not of Serbia. Their union with Serbia was legally valid only during Yugoslavia’s existence, or as long as their populations did not decide otherwise. For just as Kosova had voluntarily joined the union with Serbia, so too it retained the right to leave it by its own will.

Four of the six former Yugoslav republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia) are today internationally recognised states. Their recognition took place on the basis of two criteria: their separate status within the former Yugoslavia, and the will of their populations. Although Kosova satisfies both criteria, its international recognition has been delayed for reasons of Western Realpolitik - resting on the (clearly mistaken) premise that peace in the region can be achieved only by conciliating Serbia.

What is most extraordinary in this whole story is that while the international community treats Serbia as a state whose alleged borders should be respected, it simultaneously pretends that Kosova was not a self-governing territory within Yugoslavia and within Serbia, hence that its status remains to be determined. The fact is that neither Serbia nor Kosova are internationally recognised states, though each has its own democratically elected government. Whether Serbia and Kosova win international recognition depends - and should depend - solely upon the freely expressed will of their respective populations.

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