Conservative Columnist: The Moral Hazard of Kosovo's Independence

July 5, 2007 Topic: Society Region: Balkan PeninsulaEurope Tags: Kosovo

Conservative Columnist: The Moral Hazard of Kosovo's Independence

Resolving Kosovo's final status and issues linked to it around the world will take much more time and effort than a summer fishing expedition off Walker’s Point.

Last week's summit between President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin resulted in no "grand bargain" that could pave the way for the birth of an independent Kosovo. The momentary frustration for U.S. diplomacy of leaving unresolved final status of the UN-administered province may, however, prove to be a blessing in disguise. While the shortcomings of the Ahtisaari Plan have been analyzed and the dangerous precedent which would be set by redrawing borders with or without UN Security Council approbation well-known, consideration must be given to the overwhelming impact on the international community that Kosovo's statehood would have.

While Bush may be convinced that, as he told a cheering crowd of Albanians in Tirana, that the "time is now" for Kosovo's independence, policymakers in agreement with him seem to have forgotten what the classical Greeks would have termed how chronos ("chronological time") became their kairos ("right time" or "opportune moment"). Kosovo, of course, plays an immensely important role in Serbian history. It was the political and religious center of the medieval Serbian empire which was one of Europe's most evolved states in its day. It was also the scene of the epic 1389 battle which saw Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic and the cream of the Serbian nobility slain and the nation subsequently subjugated by the Turks. On the other hand, especially since World War II, higher birth rates among the Albanian community and increased emigration of Serbs left more than four-fifths of the population ethnic Albanian (the figure nowadays is above 90 percent given the flight Serbs and other non-Albanians since 1999), making Kosovo home to one-third of the world's Albanians.

While Slobodan Miloševic's 1989 ham-fisted abrogation of the provisions of the 1974 Yugoslav federal constitution-which provided broad autonomy for Kosovo-pushed the ethnic Albanian majority to unilaterally declare independence a year later, it is largely forgotten that Kosovar Albanians by and large kept their secessionist activities peaceful, pursuing a Gandhi-like strategy of resistance under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova. The irony, however, was that these nationalists were largely ignored by an international community preoccupied with the war in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) emerged after the 1995 Dayton Accords effectively signaled that Rugova's pacifist approach had no international traction. But fighting-especially if it provoked conscience-shocking repression-would reap the reward of internationalization. So, with the help of light weapons smuggled from Albania, the KLA began a campaign of hit-and-run attacks on Serbian civilian as well as security targets-as late as 1997, it was on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, both for its tactics and its criminal operations-successfully provoking Belgrade into launching a counterinsurgency campaign. The new armed conflict then caught the attention of U.S. mediators who increasingly made the province an agenda item, culminating in the Rambouillet Conference of 1999, which stipulated that Kosovo's final status would be determined at a future international conference based on "the will of the people", the opinions of "authoritative experts" and the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act. The history of the recalcitrant Miloševic's rejection of Rambouillet and the ensuing war and international protectorate are widely known (although the de facto ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's Serbian and Roma populations less so).

Thus the perversion which threatens global order arises out of the international community's inadvertent fumbling. Generally peaceful ethnic Albanian nationalist activism was largely ignored, but the violent attacks of the KLA-and the brutal response it provoked-succeeded in attracting Western interest, NATO military intervention and, prospectively, recognition of Kosovo's independence. The lesson was that in a world where conflicts exceed both the political will and the material resources of the international community, the path to success for any stateless group fighting against a stronger state opponent is to initiate an armed conflict in which the latter's counterinsurgency effort will attract criticism and, if one is lucky, create the perception of a humanitarian crisis grave enough to threaten international stability. While President Bush probably only thinks of Kosovo while playing to Albanian audiences, he and his successors will have to contend not only with ethnic Hungarians in Serbian Vojvodina and ethnic Bulgarians in Romanian Dobrogea, but also restive minority groups in geostrategically vital regions like Sunnis in Shi‘a-dominated Iraq, Arabs in Israel, Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region, Ijaws in Nigeria's petroleum-producing Niger Delta and Cabindans in the almost equally oil-rich Angolan-occupied enclave. What will these groups have learned from Kosovo's independence? If you want sovereignty, reach for an AK-47 and hope your opponent fires back with BM-21 rocket artillery?


The problem is ultimately the one which the Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow analyzed in his pioneering work on insurance and risk-bearing which pointed out that the redistribution of costs increased risk of problematic behavior and thus negative outcomes. The solution in these cases is to reduce the "moral hazard" either by not paying claims arising purely from the provision of coverage or at least curbing financial incentives to make such claims through deductibles or co-insurance.

In a world where demand for diplomatic and military resources for conflict resolution exceeds supply, ethical realism requires us to diminish incentives to violence. While granting statehood to Kosovo appears to be a self-evident exit strategy from an otherwise interminable (and expensive) international administration of the province by an increasingly intervention-weary and overtaxed America, charting a consistent and principled course that ensures internal security and regional stability, while respecting the requirements of global order as well as U.S. national interest, will take much more time and effort than a summer fishing expedition off Walker's Point.


J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University.