A Postmodern Declaration Kosovo's sovereignty is a fiction: real power lies with EU officials backed by Western firepower


There seemed to be no immediate consequences when, in 1908, Austria annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. Vienna was in clear violation of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, which it had signed and kept Bosnia in Turkey, yet the protests of Russia and Serbia were in vain. The following year, the fait accompli was written into an amended treaty. Six years later, however, a Russian-backed Serbian gunman exacted revenge by assassinating the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo in June 1914. The rest is history.

Parallels between Kosovo in 2008 and Bosnia in 1908 are relevant, but not only because, whatever legal trickery the west uses to override UN security council resolution 1244 – which kept Kosovo in Serbia – the proclamation of the new state will have incalculable long-term consequences: on secessionist movements from Belgium to the Black Sea via Bosnia, on relations with China and Russia, and on the international system as a whole. They are also relevant because the last thing the new state proclaimed in Pristina on Sunday will be is independent. Instead, what has now emerged south of the Ibar river is a postmodern state, an entity that may be sovereign in name but is a US-EU protectorate in practice.

The European Union plans to send some 2,000 officials to Kosovo to take over from the United Nations, which has governed the province since 1999. It wants to appoint an International Civilian Representative who – according to the plan drawn up last year by Martti Ahtisaari, the UN envoy – will be the "final authority" in Kosovo with the power to "correct or annul decisions by the Kosovo public authorities". Kosovo would have had more real independence under the terms Belgrade offered it than it will now.

Those who support the sort of "polyvalent sovereignty" and "postnational statehood" that we already have in the EU welcome such arrangements as a respite from the harsh decisionism of post-Westphalian statehood. But such fictions are in fact always underpinned by the timeless realities of brute power. There are 16,000 Nato troops in Kosovo and they have no intention of coming home: indeed, they are even now being reinforced with 1,000 extra troops from Britain. They, not the Kosovo army, are responsible for the province’s internal and external security.

Kosovo is also home to the vast US military base Camp Bondsteel, near Urosevac – a mini-Guantánamo that is only one in an archipelago of new US bases in eastern Europe, the Balkans and central Asia. This is why the Serbian prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, speaking on Sunday, specifically attacked Washington for the Kosovo proclamation, saying that it showed that the US was "ready to unscrupulously and violently jeopardise international order for the sake of its own military interests".

In order to symbolise its status as the newest Euro-Atlantic colony, Kosovo has chosen a flag modelled on that of Bosnia-Herzegovina – the same EU gold, the same arrangement of stars on a blue background. For Bosnia, too, is governed by a foreign high representative, who has the power to sack elected politicians and annul laws, all in the name of preparing the country for EU integration.

As in Bosnia, billions have been poured into Kosovo to pay for the international administration but not to improve the lives of ordinary people. Kosovo is a sump of poverty and corruption, both of which have exploded since 1999, and its inhabitants have eked out their lives for nine years now in a mafia state where there are no jobs and not even a proper electricity supply: every few hours there are power cuts, and the streets of Kosovo’s towns explode in a whirring din as every shop and home switches on its generator.

This tragic situation is made possible only because there is a fatal disconnect in all interventionism between power and responsibility. The international community has micro-managed every aspect of the break-up of Yugoslavia since the EU brokered the Brioni agreement within days of the war in Slovenia in July 1991. Yet it has always blamed the locals for the results. Today, the new official government of Kosovo will be controlled by its international patrons, but they will similarly never accept accountability for its failings. They prefer instead to govern behind the scenes, in the dangerous – and no doubt deliberate – gap between appearance and reality.

February 20, 2008