Kosovo a murky precedent for Quebecers

DUI - Référendum - Kosovo (17 février 2008), Soudan (janvier 2011)

After much tergiversation, the Harper government finally has recognized Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence.
The timing could have been better, as the announcement coincided with news of deadly riots in one of Kosovo's Serbian enclaves, but the ball was dropped.
Immediately, the focus turned to Quebec and to whether this recognition could be seen as a precedent that might help the sovereignists' quest for independence.
This is a complex question with no simple answer.
Yes, Kosovo can be seen as a precedent, and it is likely to be perceived and used by the sovereignists as such. Whether it actually can help the cause of Quebec sovereignty is another issue altogether. It probably will not.
In the laconic press release announcing its decision, and in all its declarations since, the Harper government has adamantly pointed out – as have the Liberals – that this is a unique case that can't be construed as a precedent for anything.
Other governments facing separatist challenges that have held back on recognizing Kosovo's independence, including Spain and China, might well dispute Ottawa's statement that Kosovo's unilateral independence "does not constitute any kind of precedent."
If that really were the case, then why did the Harper government wait so long to announce its position?
For Quebec sovereignists, the question is not whether they can invoke the Kosovo precedent but whether they should.
First, Kosovo does have a legitimate claim to independence in light of its recent history, but that claim isn't foolproof.
The mistreatment of Kosovo's Albanian majority by the Milosevic regime justified, in the judgment of many countries, some form of military intervention, and even if the breakup of Serbia was not in the cards in 1999, these abuses still remain the principal basis of Kosovo's case for independence.
On other criteria, however, the case is less clear-cut.
For example, the fact that Kosovo was not a federated unit of Yugoslavia weakens its claims for sovereignty and territorial integrity against the opposition of Serbia – which, after all, is in a transition to democracy.
Internally, the decision to secede was not submitted to a democratic test, and one could also question the capacity of the Kosovar state to fulfill the functions of a modern state and guarantee the rights of its minorities.
In an abstract sense, the fact that the international community is in the process of recognizing this self-proclaimed state in spite of such limitations can be interpreted as an indication that a claim for sovereignty need not be perfect to obtain international recognition, even if the central state does not recognize a declaration of independence by one of its component parts.
Maybe, if Quebec ever gets to declare its own sovereignty, the Kosovo precedent might be called upon to legitimate a unilateral declaration of independence after a "clear" expression of Quebecers' will that would be judged "not clear enough" by the federal government.
Maybe, but first Quebecers need to get to that point. To get there, however, the Kosovo analogy won't be of much use.
First and foremost, analogies to the Balkans can only remind Quebecers of the violent circumstances that led to Yugoslavia's dissolution, which is unlikely to appeal to the province's notoriously cautious voters.
The mounting violence in the Serb enclaves and the seemingly hopeless state of the Kosovar economy do nothing to embellish the analogy.
Second, the fact that Kosovo was only a section of a federated state might open up its territory to negotiation and possibly partition, which also makes it an unpalatable analogy.
A more immediate way in which this precedent may be misused by sovereignists stems from the fact that Kosovars declared their independence without a referendum.
Some militants who have grown impatient with the PQ's cautious approach are calling for a declaration of independence to follow immediately the election of a sovereignist government.
Quebecers may not be enamoured of referendums, but they would be the first to reject a declaration of independence without the explicit support of a majority of voters.
Before they can hope to plead their international case on the basis of murky foreign precedents, however, sovereignist leaders will need to convince their own jury at home based on a clear view of Quebec's own future.
Pierre Martin is a professor of political science at the Université de Montréal. He currently is a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center's Canada Institute in Washington, D.C.

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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