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The cooperative state

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A new United Nations initiative on Kosovo offers a faint glimpse of the distant spires of world governance shining through the dark clouds of discord and war, and of hope for the resolution of territorial disputes nearer home.

Finland’s former President, Martti Ahtisaari, who has proposed a boldly imaginative formula for “independence, subject to international supervision” is the UN’s special envoy for Kosovo. His plan could in principle help to resolve problems of ethnic and religious dissidence from Sulu in the Philippines to Spain’s Basque country, from Quebec to Pattani in Thailand or Darfur in Sudan. It offers a prescription for Iraq’s minority Kurds and Sunnis to co-exist with the majority Shiites. Like Jammu and Kashmir, itself an agglomeration of separate entities, a miniature Austro-Hungarian empire, with no coherence save the Dogra dynasty, many of these conflicts are the relics of disintegrating empires and composite multinational States like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia.

There is always a struggle for survival among the residuary units when such supranational unions break up. Singapore emerged from Malaysia and prospered. Timor Leste, having left Indonesia, hopes to do so. But Bali is too deeply embedded in the archipelago to consider following suit. Hongkong and Macao rejoined the motherland. Geography, history, politics, defence and finance all play a part in determining the future of territories stranded by the receding tide of empire.

But if Ahtisaari’s strategy for Kosovo — splintered from Serbia, which was part of Yugoslavia — is realised, it could also help to revive a UN that the American invasion of Iraq rendered ineffective. The suggestion of sharing responsibility for Kosovo with the European Union might prompt similar arrangements elsewhere with regional groupings like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the Organisation of American States.

Orthodox Christian Serbs regard Kosovo, where Muslim Albanians make up to 90 per cent of the two million people, as the cradle of their civilisation. The UN has administered the province since 1999 when the Nato bombing initiated by former US President Bill Clinton forced Serbian troops, notorious for brutal ethnic cleansing, to withdraw. Peace talks have dragged on since then.

Understandably, the overwhelming majority of Kosovars want to secede. Equally understandably, the Serbian government refuses to countenance this. Presumably, the 220,000 non-Albanian Kosovar refugees in Serbia and Montenegro endorse Belgrade’s refusal.

Ahtisaari rules out partitioning Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians. Serbia’s bogey of a ‘Greater Albania’ is also ruled out since Kosovo will not be allowed to join any other State. Despite limitations on actual independence, Kosovo can have its own national symbols, including a flag and anthem, and apply for membership of international organisations like the UN and the International Monetary Fund. But though the blueprint does not mention Serb sovereignty, the autonomous province will remain juridically part of Serbia. However, the Serb government will have virtually no authority, which explains the fury of Serbia’s President Boris Tadic’s and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. The latter would not even receive the UN envoy.

The UN Security Council, which must sanction the plan, will undoubtedly note these objections. It will also have to take into account Kosovo’s sufferings under Serb rule, what Kosovars themselves want, and the fact that to all intents and purposes the province has been outside Serbia for eight years.

While religion most often fuels dissent, it is not always so. Separatist movements can also be based on language, race and economic neglect, or combinations of the four factors, as in Tibet or Sri Lanka’s Tamil areas. Both the peace process in Northern Ireland and the elections in once-troubled Aceh in Sumatra demonstrate that there are peaceful political ways of addressing secessionist militancy and seeking conciliation.

Shashi Joshi’s The Last Durbar cites Lord Mountbatten saying to Sheikh Abdullah when he asked about an independent Kashmir with close relations with both India and Pakistan, “I am afraid true independence is not feasible.” But Mountbatten went on to explain that an expanded Joint Defence Council could deal with Kashmir “as a state acceding to both dominions rather than to only one”. That political half-way house was not very dissimilar from what Ahtisaari has in mind for Kosovo. Neither was Jawaharlal Nehru’s hope of a confederation that would allow space to both Kashmir and what was then still a restive East Pakistan. The fulfilment of any of these ideas would have saved a great deal of bloodshed and bitterness, and a massive haemorrhage of the subcontinent’s scarce resources.

Perhaps today’s best-known instance of shared sovereignty is the Franco-Spanish principality of Andorra. UN involvement, especially in association with regional associations like the EU or Asean, would be a different matter altogether. It would preserve small and vulnerable entities from the national ambitions of bigger neighbours. But even the UN will not be able to muster the political will and diplomatic skill needed to assume and discharge this new responsibility unless it is assured of the full support of the major powers that alone can provide the enormous resources needed in money and manpower. That, in turn, will depend largely on the little-known Ban Ki-Moon’s as yet untested and unproven capability. But assuming all this, Ahtisaari’s initiative is a reminder that the Camelot of a cooperative globe might one day seem a less remote vision.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.