It was easy on Feb. 17, as an American, to celebrate the victory of the underdog. Many Americans, the ones who follow international affairs at all, watched celebrating Kosovo Albanians on the streets of Pristina and New York City with excitement and yes, even some pride. As Kosovars waved gigantic American flags on Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina and stopped traffic in Times Square wearing "Thank You America" jackets, it was natural to smile and think that maybe the United States had done something right for a change.
It was also easy on Thursday to watch the burning of the U.S. embassy in Belgrade and think that the Serbs are what they have been accused of being: war-criminal-hiding nationalists who deserve to lose their territory. And, when Serbs marched in Washington and Chicago over the weekend to protest U.S. recognition of Kosovo, it was easy to ignore them.
But the situation isn't so simple. Yes, Kosovo's unilateral declaration sets a bad international precedent for other separatist movements, but there is also a less theoretical and potentially more dangerous implication of Kosovo's declaration.
Independence, simply put, means the ability to stand on your own two feet. No one expects Kosovo to be truly politically or economically independent right away, but it is hard to look at the situation on the ground in Kosovo and see how the country ever will be. It is starting out its existence with a frozen conflict running through its territory; no recognition from several of its neighbors; no hope of eventual membership in the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the Council of Europe; and, last but not least, an EU administration of its territory with near dictatorial powers. Like the U.N. mission before it, the EU administrator can remove elected Kosovo officials and change laws. This "independence" is symbolic at best.
Some will argue that these are just interim conditions, and that over time the situation will improve economically, and then politically. This is the understandable hope of many in Kosovo, but it isn't based in any objective facts. Kosovo has 50 percent unemployment, with the vast majority of its population under 30. It is landlocked, and does not sit on any of the main trade corridors in Southeastern Europe. It lacks anything approaching a functioning legal system (a big failure of the U.N. mission there) and cannot provide outside investors any way of enforcing their contracts.
Surprisingly, independence isn't going to do much to change Kosovo's economic situation, and may even exacerbate it. While Kosovo may be able to get loans now from the IMF and World Bank, the last nine years have shown that aid alone is not going to do it. Kosovo has already received 25 times per capita the amount of aid given to Afghanistan, and the economy is still in shambles. Furthermore, it is a safe bet that Serbia will obstruct investment in Kosovo, first by shutting down the commercial border between the countries, and then by challenging privatization plans in the World Court and other international bodies. Late last week, Serbia indicated that it will continue to pay Kosovo's debts to the international community, which will amount to $70 million this March alone. Serbia's only reason for doing this is to preserve its legal claim to the territory and its right to tax any development projects. The legal wrangling likely to result will tie up proposed projects for years, and chase away the few investors Kosovo might be able to attract.
Kosovo has the deck unfairly stacked against it, and the United States helped stack the deck. In its Clinton-era haste to condemn Milosevic, the U.S. made an unwise promise to Kosovo, and in the years since the small country has been a pawn in a resurgent competition with Russia. With the U.S. promise of recognition behind them, Kosovars had no reason to compromise in their negotiations with Serbia. Likewise, with the unequivocal U.N. veto power of Russia behind them, the Serbs had no reason to compromise.
The result is not only a failure of diplomacy, but a huge setback for any democracy-building momentum that has been created in the Western Balkans since Yugoslavia's bloody civil war. The international community has turned Serbia into a rump state, set Kosovo up to fail, and handed nearby separatists a golden opportunity to hold referendums and secede. Tensions take time to percolate into conflict, but when they do it will be clear that we have not done Kosovo, or the Balkans, any favors.