As jubilant Kosovars danced in front of the Newborn statue unveiled in the capital, Pristina, to commemorate their long-awaited independence on February 17, 2008, many political leaders around the world watched the events with different emotions.
Their core concern was that granting independence to a former province could boost secessionist movements the world over, and not turn out to be a sui generis case, as Kosovo’s European backers have insisted.
The debate over the “Kosovo precedent” was revived in August 2008, when Russian forces poured into the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The conflict ended in Russia’s recognition of the enclaves’ independence, and the example of Kosovo as justification for this.
Advocates for the self-determination of various regions and provinces echo those sentiments. Some surveys estimate that there are over 200 secessionist movements worldwide.
However, after travelling to two very different lands in which there are strong secessionist movements, Abkhazia and the Basque Country, it seems for the time being, at least, that international fears about the impact of Kosovo’s independence are largely misplaced. Separatists are certainly interested in events in Kosovo and draw courage from them. But there is little evidence that Kosovo’s independence or recognition has significantly boosted their prospects of statehood.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union during which time they were autonomous republics inside Georgia, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared independence in 1992, triggering armed conflicts that ended in a Georgian withdrawal. Provisional peace agreements, brokered by Russia, resulted in the deployment of Russian forces along the administrative border with Georgia, enabling these lands to become de facto independent states, though without international recognition.
Kosovo was also an autonomous province until the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic stripped it of its autonomous status and incorporated it into Serbia in the early 1990s.
While Abkhazians – and Armenians in Nagorny Karabakh – mull the dilemma of enjoying de facto but not de jure independence, the Basques face a very different challenge: how to peacefully convert their existing regional autonomy to full statehood inside a developed Western democracy.
Despite the terrorist attacks launched by the Basque independence movement, ETA, over the past 40 years, most Basque people now see peaceful talks as the only path to independence.