Kosovo: Battling for Recognition (with Iowa’s help)

By Ambassador Ron McMullen, Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Univ Iowa


The Republic of Kosovo is among the 195 countries the United States recognizes as sovereign and independent; it is one of only two countries we recognize that is not a member of the United Nations.  (The other, the Holy See, is a UN “permanent observer state.”)  While 111 countries recognize Kosovo’s independence, Serbia, Russia, and China don’t.  To join the United Nations, applicants need the backing of two-thirds of the General Assembly members, after a recommendation by the Security Council.  Since Russia and China both have a veto in the Security Council, Kosovo has been denied UN membership.

Why?  Because Serbia has not recognized Kosovo’s independence and sees Kosovo as part of the historic homeland of the Serbian nation, going back at least 700 years.  Perhaps due to a sense of Orthodox solidarity, Moscow backs Belgrade.  The United States strongly supports Kosovo, having fought a short, sharp war against Serbia in 1998-99 with NATO allies to help secure Kosovo’s independence.  During that war, a bomb from a U.S. B-2 stealth bomber destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, further souring China’s view of Kosovo’s independence.

Moreover, some argue that Kosovo’s independence would undermine the international community’s consensus about when to recognize break-away countries.  The general rule of thumb is:  widespread international recognition follows recognition from the “mother country.”  For example, South Sudan was deemed sovereign after recognition by Khartoum, Eritrea after recognition from Addis Ababa, East Timor after the recognition from Jakarta, etc.  Thus, the reason Somaliland is not independent is due to the refusal of Mogadishu to recognize it as such, just as Kosovo is not a UN member because Belgrade refuses to acknowledge it as an independent country.

Many countries fear that Kosovo’s unilateral secession would establish a new precedent.  Therefore, Spain refuses to recognize Kosovo, probably due to fears of separatism in the Basque country and Catalonia.  Spain’s influence in South America has persuaded many states in that region to withhold recognition.

Many African countries, often the product of artificially drawn borders, are disinclined to recognize Kosovo’s independence, as is China–always concerned about Tibetan and Uighur aims.  Cyprus, anxious about Northern Cyprus, stands with Belgrade, as does India, perhaps worried about Kashmir.

If Kosovo can unilaterally secede from Serbia, some Serbs ask, why can’t the Republika Srpska (the Serb-dominated entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina) do the same?  For that matter, they continue, why can’t the Serb-controlled bits of Kosovo secede or join Serbia proper?

In 2008 Kosovo declared its independence and was recognized by the United States.  Soon, Iowa joined in to support the new country.  As over 700 members of the Iowa National Guard have served as peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, in 2011 the Iowa National Guard and the new Kosovo Security Force enacted a State Partnership Program.  This led to joint training programs in Kosovo on medical readiness, firefighting, disaster management, and other areas.  Prior to Kosovo’s independence, U.S. diplomat John K. Menzies served as Chief of Mission at the U.S. Office in Kosovo.  He later went on to become president of Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa.  President Menzies recruited hundreds of students from the Balkans to attend Graceland, including many from Kosovo.  In 2013 Governor Branstad and the president of Kosovo signed an agreement linking Iowa and Kosovo in the Iowa Sister States program.

The University of Iowa’s College of Law and Kosovo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed a Memorandum of Understanding in December, 2015 “promoting cooperation and mutual exchange of knowledge between the Parties.”  This followed an earlier agreement between the Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy and Law College’s International Legal Clinic that established an externship to enable UI law students to work in the Ministry on legal issues.

ron2Prizren, Kosovo

In May of 2016 I flew to Kosovo to participate in the Diplomatic Academy’s “Spring School,” which brought together young diplomats from Kosovo and elsewhere to sharpen their diplomatic skills.  The week-long workshop was held in the scenic provincial capital of Prizren, ringed by snow-capped mountains and only 11 miles from the Albanian border.

I had never been to the Western Balkans before, but I had been the U.S. ambassador to a state that had seceded from its mother country and felt I had some valuable perspectives to share.  I conducted a simulation on negotiations and gave a presentation on Soft Power, with practical tips on what individual diplomats could do to increase their countries’ store of soft power.  These were well received, and the workshops overall were interesting and fun.


ron3                          Kosovo’s Diplomatic Academy: Soft Power

Aaron Miers, a University of Iowa law student working with Kosovo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also attended the Spring School and was kind enough to show me around a bit before and after the workshop sessions.  On one occasion we hiked up to a hilltop Ottoman-era fortress, passing a burned-out Serbian Orthodox seminary along the way that served as a reminder of the ethnic conflict Kosovo has seen in recent years.

ron4With UI law student Aaron Miers at Turkish Fortress

In addition to the Diplomatic Academy’s Spring School, I also spent time in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, where I met with Ministry officials and was interviewed one morning on Kosovo state television.  Kosovo, especially Pristina, struck me as one of the most pro-American places I have ever been.  (Kosovo was country #100 for me.)  Where else could one find a statue of President Bill Clinton – the hero of Kosovo’s independence campaign — situated on “Bulevar Bill Klinton”?

ron5Bill Clinton Statue, Pristina, Kosovo

Until UN membership is achieved, Kosovo has its diplomatic sights set on regional organizations such as the EU and NATO.  Indeed, outside of almost every government building in Pristina one could see five flags: those of NATO, the EU, the United States, Albania (Kosovo’s closest ally), and Kosovo.

ron6Five Flags:  NATO, EU, U.S., Albania, and Kosovo

Meanwhile, Iowans will continue to help build Kosovo’s capacity in terms of safety and security, commerce, education, law, and diplomacy.  Kosovo is understandably proud of its hard-won independence and is grateful for American support and assistance.  The big question remains:  will the international community recognize states that arise from unilateral secession?