Noncongruent sovereignty, independence and statehood

by Daniel Serwer


'Kosovo is Serbia' graffiti in Kranj, Slovenia. MZaplotnik via Flickr

Sovereignty, independence and statehood are usually assumed to go together. But like love and marriage, that may be frequent, but not universal. Taiwan is clearly an independent state in the sense that it governs itself but Taipei is not sovereign, since most other sovereign states don't recognise it as such. Somalia is not sovereign and for a long time lacked a state. Even now the Mogadishu government doesn't control the whole territory, but Somalia is independent, or at least parts of it are, because only Somalis control them.

This non-congruency of sovereignty, independence and statehood becomes glaring in dealing with Kosovo and Palestine. Kosovo is certainly a state and was one even when it was an autonomous province of Serbia. It had then, and has now, its own government, legislature, police and judicial system. It claims to be independent. More than 100 sovereign states recognise its independence and sovereignty, which is not however complete. Serbia does not recognise it as sovereign: Belgrade controls the Serb communities of northern Kosovo. In addition, NATO-led forces protect Kosovo’s borders and have legal authority to intervene anywhere on its territory. International prosecutors and judges participate in Kosovo’s judicial system.

Both Kosovo and Palestine also face major-power opposition to their ambitions

The situation is even more complicated for Palestine. It has two states: Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, but neither is independent. Israel controls the borders of both and intervenes at will on their territory. Despite this, more than 100 states have recognised Palestine as sovereign and it holds observer-state status at the United Nations. The Palestine Legislative Council has not met since 2007, but the security forces of the Palestinian Authority continue to operate and its government continues to exist, the former with the support of Israel and the latter dependent on funding that comes from taxes collected by Israel.

Both Kosovo and Palestine seek full recognition as independent and sovereign states. One big obstacle to both is powerful neighbours. While NATO prevents Serbian military intervention in Kosovo, Belgrade still controls the politics of the Serbs there and campaigns actively against recognition and in favor of ‘de-recognition’. The converse is true in Palestine: Israel intervenes at will, but the politics are largely the product of the distinct Palestinian elites in control of Gaza and the West Bank.

Both Kosovo and Palestine also face major-power opposition to their ambitions. In order to gain UN membership, Kosovo would need Russia to agree, since the UN Security Council needs to approve. That isn’t likely unless Russia gets something major in return from the United States, like recognition of its annexation of Crimea or UN membership for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the secessionist provinces of Georgia that claim to be independent but lack wide recognition as sovereign. Palestine would likewise need the US to agree to UN membership, which isn’t likely for now unless Palestine accepts something like President Trump’s ‘deal of the century’.

In both Palestine and Kosovo, territorial issues are often proposed as part of the solution. The state of Israel resulted from a UN General Assembly decision to partition the territory of mandate Palestine. The Palestinian Authority has accepted Israel’s ‘1967’ borders (dating from 1948), with minor and equal land swaps. Israel wants more on the West Bank, where more than half a million Jews already live. It is even open to an ethnically based exchange of territory that Palestinians occupy inside Israel proper. Failing a territorial agreement, Israel is prepared to live indefinitely with the current situation, which denies citizenship to millions of people under its control.

Serbia would like the same deal with Kosovo: autonomy within an envelope of Belgrade’s sovereignty. But Kosovo was removed de facto if not de jure from Serbian sovereignty by a UN Security Council resolution in 1999. Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, a political move that the International Court of Justice has advised – in response to a Serbian initiative – did not breach international law. Serbia continues to want to annex Kosovo’s four northern municipalities, three of which were majority Serb before the 1999 NATO war. The proposed exchange in this case is also ethnic: there are Albanian-majority communities in southern Serbia that Kosovo would like to annex.

Moving borders is not a successful formula for solving the incongruency of states, independence and sovereignty.

But in neither case is it likely that ethnically-based exchanges of territory will succeed. The idea is odious to modern human rights standards, which require that states fully recognise minority rights, including the right to choose which country minorities want to be citizens of. Even if a territorial exchange between Israel and Palestine could be agreed, many of the Palestinians Israel would like to be rid of would likely choose to live in Israel. While the Serbs of northern Kosovo and the Albanians of southern Serbia would be more supportive of territorial exchange, other circumstances prevent it: Serbia is unwilling to give up territory it regards as vital to national defence, and Kosovo is unwilling to give up the most important of the four northern municipalities, which was majority Albanian before the 1999 war.  

In order to make statehood, sovereignty and independence congruent, territorial solutions are often proposed in the Balkans and Middle East, where national boundaries do not accord with the distribution of ethnicities, religions and other identities. Proposals for the partition of Bosnia, Greater Serbia and Greater Albania, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, making Kuwait Iraq’s 19th province and ethnic rebellions aimed at ethnically defined independence from Iran have all failed. The only successful partitions anywhere near the Middle East and Balkans in recent years were the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia into its component federal units and the independence of South Sudan, both of which occurred along previously drawn internal borders (partly disputed in the case of Sudan and South Sudan).

Thus, moving borders is not a successful formula for solving the incongruency of states, independence and sovereignty. We need to learn to live with the ambiguities. If there was ever a moment after World War II when the world was everywhere covered with fully sovereign and independent states, that is no longer true. Learning how to manage that situation is a challenge, but one that we can no longer evade.

About the author

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Daniel Serwer is Professor and Director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He blogs at and tweets @DanielSerwer

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