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Debbie O'Leary
IU School of Law--Bloomington

Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, March 3, 2008

IU legal expert available to comment on crisis in Kosovo, Serbia

Broadcast media: To interview law professor Timothy Waters on-camera via the IU Video-Link to Bloomington, please contact Steve Hinnefeld at 812-856-3488 or

March 3, 2008

Timothy Waters

Timothy Waters

Print-Quality Photo

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence and its recognition by a number of influential states has not solved the Balkans' 'last crisis,' but instead pushed it into a new and unpredictable phase -- and put a spotlight on important trends in a world that is increasingly returning to a multi-polar, balance of power. The implications for American foreign policy and for democracy are profound.

Twenty-one countries have recognized the new state, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany. More are poised to, but Serbia clearly is pressing a diplomatic offensive to keep the number well below a majority of the world's states; and other powers -- like Russia, China, India and Brazil -- are throwing their support behind Belgrade. Meanwhile, protests in Mitrovica, Belgrade and Banja Luka -- including damage to American diplomatic missions -- have kept tensions high.

Timothy Waters, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington, is a frequent contributor to policy debate on international law and politics and helped draft the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. His op-eds on Iraq, the Balkans and international justice have appeared in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Christian Science Monitor. Here are his observations on four key issues:

Balkan Violence: Strains on Western Security Policy?

No one expected Serbs to welcome Kosovo's independence, but the scale of protests and violence along Kosovo's border with Serbia, in Belgrade, and even in neighboring Bosnia has taken many observers by surprise. Waters said it's still an open question whether the present violence is a phase or whether it will continue, with the risk that a deliberate provocation or unpredictable event could spiral into large-scale communal violence.

"The attacks on Western institutions have been tactical setbacks for Serbia, which has had to condemn these obvious violations of international law instead of focusing solely on what it sees as a far more egregious violation, namely the partition of its territory by outside powers," he said. "At the same time, the widespread protests probably help its effort to portray independence as the destabilizing choice."

Waters said U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was right to call for additional NATO troops in advance of independence; Bosnia could use a strengthened EU security presence as well. But with NATO forces stretched thin, this is a reminder of how the Balkans -- even if no longer the policy obsession they were in the 1990s -- still affect security policy.

"The West's options in the Balkans may be constrained if otherwise attractive policies are foreclosed by force limitations," Waters said. "And even additional troops would only restrain, not resolve, the national-territorial dispute at the heart of Kosovo's conflict, nor would they repair the rifts in global diplomacy that the crisis has revealed."

U.N. Paralysis: Back to the Cold War?

The United Nations may prove to be the real victim of the Kosovo standoff. Russia could not prevent a unilateral declaration of independence, and because of the veto system, it cannot force the U.N. to condemn Kosovo's action. But that same system gives Russia considerable leverage to isolate and cripple the new state in the international arena.

"In particular, look for trouble in the transition from U.N. administration in Kosovo," Waters said. "Russia can and will raise objections to the termination of the U.N.'s mandate; the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has written to the EU noting that 'some Security Council members' object to transferring the UNMIK mission's responsibilities to the new EU mission. Ultimately, the U.N. mission will probably close up shop, perhaps leaving a token presence that allows it to claim it hasn't, while the EU will effectively take on the same functions with or without a formal handover.

"But if so, then once again -- as with the 1999 war and the unilateral declaration -- Kosovo will have demonstrated the political marginality of the U.N. as a tool more useful for preventing things from happening than actually doing anything. That's not the mission envisioned for the world body after the Cold War, but with the resurgence of Russia, the rise of China, and the fading of America's unipolar moment, it looks like the future."

Kosovo and Its North: Independence, Then a Deal?

Even if Serbia succeeds in limiting the number of states that recognize Kosovo and isolating Kosovo from international institutions, it can't reintegrate Kosovo into Serbia. Any such move would be met by massive violent resistance by Kosovo's Albanians. Most states, even if they sympathize with Serbia (or share its concern about territorial integrity) won't be willing to pay the price of putting down that kind of resistance.

"This means that although its final status is not clear, Kosovo's separation from Serbia is a fact that is here to stay," Waters said. "But by the same token, Kosovo's north -- which is populated by Serbs and has retained close links to Belgrade -- will almost surely resist any effort by Pristina to bring it into the new state's ambit. And that is a formula for long-term contestation in the region and diplomatic tension at the international level."

Waters said it is not at all obvious why the Serb-populated area on the northern frontier has to be part of the new state. One possibility, he said, is that Western governments could eventually acknowledge the north's separation from Kosovo and press for a 'border adjustment' in exchange for Serbia recognizing Kosovo's independence.

"The Yugoslav crisis presented the West with a painful, urgent opportunity to rethink the relationship between borders and political identity," he said. "It's an opportunity the West didn't take, and the wars were even more violent because of it. Kosovo's independence presents another moment -- filled with danger and possibility -- to ask that question."

Echoes in Bosnia: What's the Right Response?

And perhaps not only Kosovo. In Bosnia, ethnic Serbs have reacted angrily and opportunistically, and Kosovo's independence has been a tremendous boost for their aspirations and their ability to push for secession, or at least to dramatically slow the political integration of Bosnia.

Waters said dissolution of Bosnia would present the international community with a complex and dangerous problem to manage.

"The last time it confronted that problem, it made extraordinarily callous and ill-considered choices. Now, the risks of major violence are minimal, but renewed calls by Serbs to reconsider the very idea of Bosnia challenge the West to answer the deep question still there -- what is it exactly that we are defending in Bosnia today? Is it a vision of multi-ethnic harmony? Is it the state for its own sake? Do we actually intend to support Bosnia even if large segments of its own people don't?

"I argued in an article published by Yale Law School that we owe Bosnians much, but we owe Bosnia nothing. There are good arguments why we should support a Bosnian state, but commitment to democracy -- if democracy means respect for the wishes of the people -- isn't necessarily one of them. Our policy in Kosovo, which in part rests on the democratic desires of Albanians to be free, is raising questions we may have to answer for Bosnia as well."

Waters can be reached at 812-856-2748 or For further assistance, contact Debbie O'Leary at 812-855-2426 or or Steve Hinnefeld at 812-856-3488 or

For Waters' previous comments on Kosovo's independence and its effect as a precedent, see