Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Borders - a Classic Source of Conflict

Serbia’s Prime Minister Kostunica recently declared that "Preserving Kosovo and (Bosnia's autonomous) Serb Republic is now the primary goal of our state and national policy…." That statement was not well received in the West, and it shouldn’t be.

Similarly, on a recent visit to Turkey, I heard the official statement that the primary objective of Turkey’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq is to maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity. Here, in my opinion, the Turks are diverging from their founding father’s principle: “Peace at home, peace abroad”. The chief objective of foreign policy should be just that: peace. And the purpose of borders should be to provide the best and most expedient way of organising populations so as to preserve peace and guarantee prosperity. To the extent that a nation or a movement has an agenda for a certain demarcation based on other considerations , it is a threat to peace.

Last year, I confronted a secular democrat from Iraq (living under constant threat in Baghdad) with the hypothetical choice of continued civil war or a peaceful but divided Iraq. While stressing his strong will to preserve the current borders of the country where he grew up, he admitted that peace was more important.

On the one hand, politically recognised borders should be in line with reality on the ground; on the other, the international community should not reward military aggression. Yet it is hard not to; usually those invited to peace talks will be the faction leaders with the most military muscle. Furthermore, deals are often struck far above the heads of constituents. Referendums that give constituents a voice would seem to be the civilised way of resolving territorial disputes, but there may be controversy on who gets to vote. The dispute over Western Sahara, where there are settlers from Morocco, is one example of that problem; another is Abkhazia, but for the opposite reason – the province had an ethnic Georgian majority before the war.

On the Kosovo question, the pride and principles of the two sides collide. Endless wrangling has postponed resolution of the issue for years. Most recently it has become an element in multitopical deliberations between the US and Russia, together with missile defence, nuclear weapons and the treaty on conventional forces in Europe. Unfortunately, there appears to be no consensus at present. The scenarios we face are status quo and continued postponement, or division of the world’s nations into two camps -- those who recognise an independent Kosovo and those who don’t. The positions of Russia and the US are clear; relations within the EU are more complex. Europe would be greatly embarrassed if its diversity of views erupted into a rift, as on the US invasion of Iraq. But the Union survived that crisis. Those with far more to lose are the populations of Kosovo, Northern Iraq, Puntland, Somaliland, Northern Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniestria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Western Sahara and the Palestinian Territories, all of whom face an uncertain status and in many cases isolation.

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