From Yugoslavia to Catalonia and back: Some thoughts on parallels and differences



A few days ago, I wrote a few lines for Radio Free Europe (and a few other media, including AFP, N1 and UOL noticias) on the similarities and differences and the uses of the referendum in Catalonia and in the Balkans, which caused some lively debates. Here are these notes with a few points expanded.


Parallels and Differences

First, neither is Spain Yugoslavia, nor is Catalonia Slovenia or Croatia. Just like Istria, Vojvodina or Republika Srpska are not Catalonia. The reasoning, the dynamics and political process leading to any independence movement is specific, but each success is claimed by independence groups and each failure by states. One key difference between Kosovo and Catalonia is the violence. Despite the heavy-handed police response on Sunday, the independence movement in Catalonia cannot claim a recent history of repression as Kosovo did. Catalonia did experience a brutal repression in the context of the Spanish civil war, yet this is more than half a century past and four decades of democratic, decentralized rule in Spain are the reality and have been for a long time. In Kosovo, even before the war 1998-9, the revocation of autonomy in 1989 suggested that Kosovo could not rely on any autonomy arrangement with Serbia.

This is a key difference with Catalonia, which enjoys far-reaching self-government. Despite the stubborn and inflexible policies of the Rajoy government the difference are stark: Spain is a democracy, Yugoslavia and Serbia in the 1990s were not. There is a parallel in the fact that the more intransigent and heavy handed the centre is, the more likely people turn their support to independence. The pictures of the police violence during the referendum is the best advertisement for the independence movement. This stands in contrast with the approach taken by the UK or Canada, allowing for a referendum to be held unrestricted. Allowing for referenda to happen does reduce the all or nothing/now or never environment of referenda.

Only a few years before the respective referenda in Slovenia and Croatia in 1990, only a minority favored independence, but the heavy-handed policies of Milošević catapulted nationalists to power and secured support for putting a distance to Belgrade. Thus, independence movements are always the product of the relationship between the region or people seeking independence and the center. The Yugoslav cases suggest that repression and centralization efforts backfire.

Repercussions and Echoes in the Balkans

There are repercussions of the referendum in Catalonia for the region: The tensions between the Spanish government and the region are part of the key reasons that Spain has not recognized Kosovo. Thus, the first risk is that any confrontation in Spain over Catalonia will make Spain and arguably other non-recognizers more reluctant to consider recognizing Kosovo. Thus, we need to not only consider the effect of the crisis on independence movements, but also on state policies.

The Balkan cases, as most other independence movements live off their own internal dynamics, not based on what goes on elsewhere. However, success and failure elsewhere shape debates. There are only two real potential cases in the region at the moment, the north of Kosovo and the Republika Srpska. More historical regions, Vojvodina or Istria, have a sense of identity distinct from the Croatian and Serbian nation-state and a multi-ethnic, rather than mono-ethnic narrative of difference. Both lack strong movements for independence and lack a clear cultural distinction from the rest of the country as is the case in Catalonia (see an excellent new book by Dejan Štjepanović on this). Both the political leaders in the Republika Srpska and the North of Kosovo have articulated their policies separate from Catalonia. In the North of Kosovo, the discourse is not about independence, but rather about remaining with Serbia (echoing similar arguments made by Serb secessionists in Croatia Bosnia in the early 1990).

In the case Catalonia were successful in achieving independence, it would encourage the president of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik to pursue his goal. The Parliament of the Republika Srpska already stated when Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 that it reserved the right to pursue independence for the RS if Kosovo would achieve international recognition. Already Dodik has been continuously hinting at organizing a referendum. He has recently held back from pursuing a referendum on independence, largely due to international pressure, including from Serbia and Russia.

Catalonia will not cause new independence movements, just as Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not trigger a new wave of independence movements. It will serve as argument of both states and independence movement to make old claims or to counter them. A large factor is the international environment. There is generally little support for recognizing states. This is usually done only in extraordinary circumstances, either when there is an agreement with the central government, as happened in South Sudan, or if there was massive repression and a strong, violent independence movement, as in Kosovo or when the state had already disintegrated and there was no clear path to keeping it together, as it was in Yugoslavia. When Aleksander Vučić accused the international community of hypocrisy for not recognizing Catalonia, but supporting Kosovo, he is ignoring the specificity of Kosovo, which were underlined in the submissions and arguments brought to the ICJ in preparation of the 2010 advisory opinion on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Thus, neither Catalonia not fit any of these categories of potential countries that can make a plausible claim for independence, neither can Republika Srpska nor the North of Kosovo.


Kosovo: Of Talks and Violence

Just three weeks ago, relations between Serbia and Kosovo seemed to have been the best in many years. A first agreement between the two governments paved the way for increased freedom of movement in regard to travel with ID cards, license plates and other technical issues. The atmosphere between the key negotiators Edita Tahiri and Borko Stefanovic seems professional.

The nationalist opposition in Serbia and Kosovo opposed the agreement, with Vetevendosje suggesting that it further undermines Kosovo’s sovereignty and DSS and the Radicals in Serbia arguing that the agreement leads to Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo. In brief, it was exactly what the EU had hoped to accomplish, a practical first step which paves the way to further negotiations and building confidence between the parties which had mostly talked at each other. This outcome was more encouraging that most observers (including myself) had predicted due to the upcoming Serbian elections early in 2012 and the rather weak Kosovo government. The reason it became possible was combination of the Serbian government banking on the EU candidate status prior to elections and an agreement with Kosovo can only improve the odds. The Kosovo government on the other hand appears to have trying to regain its international legitimacy through serious talks, after Thaci was tainted through the Marty report and the flawed parliamentary elections.

How did this success in talks so quickly descend into the latest round of violence? The talks did not resolve the issue of Kosovo products being able to enter the Serbian market, which has been impossible to date and hurt the fledgeling Kosovo economy. In an apparent move to improve Kosovo’s bargaining position and in response to Serbia apparently stepping away from a deal of customs (talks scheduled for mid-July were postponed for September as parties were unable to come to an agreement), Kosovo banned the import of Serbian goods. As Tim Judah convincingly argues, this was an unpleasant surprise for the Serbian government, as it suddenly and unexpectedly upped Kosovo bargaining power in talks where the pressure on Serbia traditionally came from Brussels (or Washington), not Prishtina. Of course, the implementation of such a ban is impossible as long as the borders as permeable and the government has few options of preventing the import of Serbian goods. If it would stop such goods on the border between north and south Kosovo around Mitrovica, it would only help consolidate the partition. Thus, it dispatched the special police unit ROSU to take over the two main border posts between Kosovo and Serbia in the North. It reached one and was blocked by Serbs barricades at the other. However, it was not to stay for long and was forced to withdraw soon thereafter under international pressure. During operation, a ROSU member was shot and killed by a sniper, presumably linked to local Serb nationalist structures. The barricades erected in the North and the subsequent burning down of the Jarinje border post by hooligans (according to Tadic) or a local smuggler (according to Blic) mobilized the Serbian parallel power structures in the North and further raised the stakes.

Apparently, the Kosovo government sent the police without consent of either the EU or the US government and the operation seem to have been planned by the government rather than being a regular police operation. Altogether this would mean that the operation was effort by the government to create a fait accompli (on a side: Milos Vasic reminds us that seizing customs posts is also how the war in Slovenia began in June 1991).

The incidents have fueled suspicions on both sides and encouraged both extremists  and spoilers. While the Kosovo government and media appear to be convinced that the Serbian government was behind the burning down of the border post in Jarinje, the Serbian media had a hard time imagining that the police operation could take place without international support.

The Kosovo government now threatend that it would arrest the Minister for Kosovo Goran Bogdanovic and the chief negotiator Borko Stefanovic if they entered Kosovo. While this is a symbolic gesture as the ability of the Kosovo authorities to arrest them in the North is limited, it undermines future talks and links the incidents back to the negotiations.

Although the official goal of the police operation failed, Prime Minister Thaci claims that there is no return to the status quo ante. He might be saying this to save face after the failure of the operation. Alternatively, one can consider the operation a success. He gained credibility domestically and for the first time the Kosovo government took the initiative without seeming to be remote controlled by the US embassy or others. The operation certainly put the status of the north on the agenda. The price the government might have been too high, though. First, the operation, which seems clearly reckless (it reminds of Saakashvili ill-fated intervention in S. Ossetia in August 2008) and without much promise to lead to a real rather than symbolic change, suggests that the Kosovo authorities have become more unpredictable and willing to use unilateral force to change the situation in their favor. Second, it would also seem to strengthen hardliners in Serbia who have warned about armed intervention of the Kosovo authorities in the North. Finally, the operation is unlikely to have earned the government international sympathies, even from close allies.

As the violence seems to have ended and Kosovo’s North returns to the “tense, but calm” status, where does this leave talks and the parties? Both sides come out looking more vulnerable: Serbia for the first time felt pressure from the Kosovo government through the boycott and the police action, even if brief and ultimately unsuccessful. Kosovo has noticed that it cannot established its authority in the North without international consent. The international presence is reminded that the situation can escalate very quickly and limited the escalation of violence requires a strong KFOR presence. One good side effect of the violence might be that it shed a light on the continued criminal security structures in the North. No matter how one thinks about the ROSU police operation, the killing by sniper of a police officer and the burning of border post suggest that these networks remain ready to use force quickly to protect their interests. While Tadic has been seeking to reduce the influence of the political representatives of these structures, the incidents might encourage the Serbian authorities to clean up the North of Kosovo more vigorously.

Despite all the posturing at the moment, it seems unlikely that talks will not continue, both governments have too much to gain, yet the violence is a reminder that negotiations are determined not just on the negotiation table, but also on the streets of the North of Kosovo.

P.S. As reader pointed out, the Kosovo government was successful in as far as KFOR upon taking control of border posts at least temporarily blocked all further trucks coming from Serbia.

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