Kosovo declared independence on 17 February 2008, becoming Europe’s newest state. This moment was the culmination of a long and difficult process that had its origins in Belgrade’s oppression of the Kosovars, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority, in the 1990s. It was a controversial moment in that it pitted two principles of international law – the territorial integrity of states and peoples’ right to self-determination – against each other. But in the end, the basis for Kosovo’s independence was the prevailing view in international law that minorities who suffer systematic discrimination have the right to secede. This provided the basis for Kosovo’s recognition by a majority of UN member states. Kosovo’s history made it a sui generis case.
To understand how Kosovo achieved independence, it is essential to comprehend this history. In 1989, Belgrade abolished Kosovo’s far-reaching autonomy as a province of Serbia; two years later, as Yugoslavia dissolved, Kosovo lost its status as a federal entity of Yugoslavia with rights similar to those of the six republics. During the 1990s, the Serbian authorities consistently discriminated against the Kosovars, excluding them from Serbia’s administrative, health, and education systems. In reaction, the Kosovar leadership under Ibrahim Rugova pursued a policy of peaceful resistance for several years, before a lack of progress led to the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army and an armed struggle. This, in turn, prompted Yugoslav and Serbian security forces to conduct a massive military operation against the Kosovars.
Following a failed attempt to negotiate a settlement at Rambouillet, in France, in March 1999, NATO decided to intervene militarily against Yugoslavia. After the campaign began, Yugoslav forces intensified their efforts to expel Kosovars from their homes, eventually pushing 800,000 of them into neighbouring countries.
After almost three months of NATO airstrikes, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic finally capitulated by agreeing to withdraw all security forces from Kosovo. This ended Serbian administration of Kosovo. Passing Resolution 1244 on 10 June 1999, the UN Security Council established an UN-led interim administration (UNMIK) and an international security force (KFOR). Moreover, the UN was authorised to facilitate a political process to determine Kosovo’s future status.
The international community took more than six years to begin this process. In consultation with the UN Security Council, Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari as his special envoy for the Kosovo status talks. In 2006, the mission’s headquarter in Vienna (UNOSEK) hosted 17 rounds of negotiations between delegations from Kosovo and Serbia. Throughout the process, Ahtisaari and his team remained in close touch with the Contact Group (comprising Germany, France, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), which had provided “guiding principles” for the negotiations. According to these principles, the settlement of Kosovo’s status had to ensure multiethnicity and allow all communities to participate in government. Moreover, the principles stated that there would be no return to the pre-March situation 1999 , no partition of Kosovo, nor union between Kosovo and any other country or part of any country. During a meeting in London on 31 January 2006, the foreign ministers of the Contact Group added the requirement that the settlement “had to be acceptable to the people of Kosovo”. Given that 90 percent of Kosovo’s population wanted independence, the ministers’ statement had obvious significance.
From the outset of the Vienna talks, it was apparent that neither side would change its position on the fundamental question of Kosovo’s status. Belgrade was determined to preserve Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo while the Kosovars insisted on independence as the only viable solution. Thus, UNOSEK focused the discussions on issues that had to be settled regardless of the eventual status of Kosovo: community rights, administrative decentralisation, the protection of the Serbian Orthodox Church, security, property rights, and economic matters. Yet it proved impossible to reach an agreement even on these issues. As a consequence, Ahtisaari concluded that no amount of negotiation would produce a mutually acceptable solution on Kosovo’s status. Representatives from the EU, Russia, and the US attempted to negotiate a solution in autumn 2006, but only succeeded in proving that Ahtisaari’s assessment was correct. Exercising his mandate, Ahtisaari put forward a proposal of his own that took into account Kosovo’s recent history, the reality on the ground, the guiding principles of the Contact Group, and the views expressed by the parties in the Vienna talks.
Submitted to the UN Secretary-General and the parties in March 2007, this “Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement” (Ahtisaari Plan) contained significant compromises. It is based on the concept of independence, albeit while including several limitations on Kosovo’s sovereignty: the prohibition of union with another country, restrictions on its future security force, international supervision of its independence for an initial period and and a continued international military presence. In response to Serbian concerns, the Ahtisaari Plan included extensive provisions that benefited Kosovo’s Serbian community. The transfer of a maximum of competences to the municipal level and the creation of new Serbian-majority municipalities were designed to allow Serbs to largely control their affairs. Guaranteed seats in government, parliament, and other relevant institutions were to enable the Serbian community and smaller minorities to have a disproportionate influence on Kosovo’s decision-making processes. Ahtisaari’s proposal also contained extensive provisions to protect the heritage of the Serbian Orthodox Church. All these measures were intended to create conditions that would allow Serbs to remain in Kosovo, and to encourage those who had left to return.
It is regrettable that Serbia rejected the Ahtisaari Plan and Russia prevented the UN Security Council from endorsing it – despite the fact that the plan had the full support of Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon. In contrast, the Kosovo leadership accepted the Ahtisaari Plan and committed to pass all its relevant provisions into Kosovan law. Indeed, parliament fulfilled this commitment soon after the declaration of independence.
The Vienna talks and the resulting proposal by the UN special envoy cut the Gordian knot and determined Kosovo’s status once and for all. Kosovo’s independence has become an irreversible fact, even if Serbia, Russia, and some other countries persist in their denial of reality. Hopefully, the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina will bring about a gradual improvement in relations between Serbia and Kosovo, and their eventual accession to the EU will lead to the universal recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty.
Albert Rohan is an Austrian diplomat who served as UN deputy special envoy on Kosovo’s future status.