Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Kosovo! (a.k.a. Oh, these map wars...)

February 17 will mark the second year from the day Kosovo declared independence: a fact that only 65 countries recognize so far. The issue behind it is of course a convoluted Balkan story, rooted in multi-layered historical claims (and that refers to all sides involved - directly, and indirectly), confused identities, artificial boundaries, and oh, so many passions. Serbia, despite the mounting pressure, has vowed it will never recognize Kosovo's independence. Russia is still trying to maintain at least a semblance of influence in the region and thus, is conspicuously siding with Serbia (despite its own recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia). While Kosovars have realized that their international recognition relies - at least to a great degree - on perceptions, necessitating an image war that can, at least, attempt to attract smaller countries such as Nauru or Malawi. The hope is, perhaps, that achieving a majority acceptance within the UN General Assembly will provide the ground for greater legitimacy (since many of the arguments against independence are indeed based on International Law, and since the International Court of Justice is currently looking into the case).


As I already said, the Kosovo issue is complex, and I don't want to get into a discussion on the legitimacy of its independence. What I found noteworthy, however, is an online paper by André Aprigio, where he analyzes the importance of public diplomacy for Kosovo, and its recently launched nation-branding campaign. He rightly points out that in circumstances where conducting traditional diplomacy is impossible - due to international factors, as well as lack of strong domestic institutions - public diplomacy can play the role of a viable substitute, and perhaps even provide Kosovo with a comparative advantage in the international sphere (since the techniques rely on new media and the Internet, particularly on facebook, YouTube, and Twitter). For a nation that made the latest alteration to Europe's political map (even if acceptable to just 65 countries around the world), where the people are still struggling to recover and rebuild, and where the average age is about 26, a brand motto "Young Europeans" seems to be more than just appropriate. [Image courtesy of Kosovo: The Young Europeans]



[The official branding video made by Saatchi & Saatchi, who are in charge of the campaign]

The problem, however, is that a positive image cannot really be built on weak foundations (local population's skepticism attests to that), and therefore, Kosovo will need a much faster and stronger economic and social recovery. It has to have something to put on the negotiating table - a bargaining leverage - and unfortunately, soft power or a "positive image" alone cannot provide it. This is alarming, since the West seems to be getting increasingly wary of unconditional economic aid, largely due to the financial crisis, but also due to corruption and the government's inability to deliver sufficiently rapid reforms.



[Although a year old, this video from Eurinfo captures many of the problems that are still relevant today]

Universal recognition, although a major issue, should not be the only priority for Kosovo at the moment, as it has to secure its livelihood, first and foremost. Recognition will require a lot of time, especially when it depends on passionately-held identities and national myths. Even if there are some 21st-century "Great Power Politics" still at play, the actual challenge is convincing the people in the region (immediate, and not-so-immediate) to get over their history, essentially. It has happened in the past, largely through force and oppression. The big question now is whether it can happen again, but this time without any further bloodshed.

Happy Birthday, Kosovo!


[UPDATE] Given the time difference, here are some updates from today:

- An interesting article on TIME about re-branding Kosovo.

- The full text of President Fatmir Sejdiu's speech to the Kosovo Parliament.

- The Russian take on the matter.

- The latest statement from the Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic on Al Jazeera:




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