De facto states in the Balkans: Shared governance versus ethnic sovereignty in Republika Srpska and Kosovo1

Rick Fawn, Oliver P. Richmond

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Introduction The state of representation of de facto entities in the Balkans, in particular the Republika Srpska (RS) and Kosovo before its unilateral declaration of independence on 17 February 2008, indicates that such entities have capacities that belie their lack of formal sovereign status. Indeed, ascribing only states with representational capacity is misleading, as local actors may develop tools that can be used to simulate governance and sovereignty in material ways often deemed not to be part of their repertoire or role. Furthermore, their relationship with international actors forms a crucial part of their identity, both in its exclusionary and in its more pluralistic forms. These issues have been of essential importance in the management of peace in both Bosnia and Kosovo. Far from being eased or eradicated in, respectively, more than twelve or eight years since open war, the de facto state quality of the RS and of pre-independence Kosovo remains strong and challenges regional order. The prospect of EU accession for the whole of the West Balkans - now often seen as the panacea for regional peace and prosperity - is at best a project to be fulfilled in the coming decade, as the European Commission acknowledged in its 2007 enlargement report (European Commission 2007). And as the likelihood grew that Kosovo would be recognized by several major Western states, but not by the UN Security Council, the importance of who recognizes de facto states and how they function in the Balkans has also increased. Though the continuation of Herceg-Bosna - an ethnically Croat de facto state in wartime Bosnia - as an entity was blocked by international pressure, the RS and Kosovo have presented far more difficult challenges. They were not legally sovereign, but nevertheless have functioned similarly. This is a phenomenon we term ‘ethnic sovereignty’, where entities may develop or simulate as many of the qualities of formal sovereignty as possible given international constraints. The ways and reasons for these entities to function as such represent part of their efforts to attain a level of sovereignty recognized by the international community. This means they both defend their current status, and try to attain more status by direct and indirect means. Indeed, this recognition game (Mitchell 1992: 277) - whereby each party seeks a high quality of international recognition so as to simulate de jure sovereignty, while also working to undercut the ability of their counterpart to do the same - colours their internal development as well as their relationship with the international custodians of their settlements. Conversely, actors to which sovereignty has already been ascribed, such as Croatia, Albania and Serbia, are active differently, either to support ethnic sovereignty, or to curtail it, according to which entity is being dealt with. Even where actors are recognized sovereign states, without any direct trusteeship or shared sovereignty from international actors, a recognition game continues to prevent the dissolution of their juridical sovereignty. This complex dynamic surrounding sovereignty in the Balkans disguises the continuing fragility of the regional peace process where vertical relationships with internationals are more significant than horizontal relationships among local actors. Whether the ‘post-modern’ courtship between the EU and Balkan actors will alter this remains uncertain, though international actors regard themselves reluctantly as indispensable in the region in the long term (Diez et al., 2008). Ethnic sovereignty in the Balkans means that the relationships between local states, entities and internationals are riven by inconsistencies that slow progress on peace. Shared sovereignty between local and international actors and the predominance of forms of trusteeship and shared sovereignty means that relations between the entities are generally, though of course not entirely, ignored. Entities focus far more on their relations with influential international actors, such as British or American diplomats and donor governments, the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), international financial institutions (IFIs) and UN agencies, at the expense of local relations. The RS and Kosovo present related but still illustratively different cases; neither was meant to have any foreign relations, or indeed even foreign presence of its own, and yet each has managed some. Kosovar leaders even exploited international peacemaking institutions to strengthen the case for sovereignty. In both cases, such strategies have disrupted the peace process and even destabilized it. Simultaneously, particularly in Kosovo, developing the entity’s relations with regional actors is integral to that peace.2 Both the fact of the efforts of non-state entities in Balkans to engage in foreign relations and the prescription that they, particularly Kosovo, before any international recognition, do so to enhance regional peace raises a conceptual problem with Krasner’s shared sovereignty framework between local elites and international organizations and actors. This framework expects local actors to follow international prescriptions for peace without contesting their roles or international objectives, which is unlikely. Instead, we propose a corrective notion called ‘shared governance’, where an additional focus is on the local actors’ relations with each other. The relation of local actors with internationals should therefore be conditional upon shared governance - accepting a level of interdependence with neighbouring entities - in order to prevent an exploitation of the international presence, or devious objectives related to long-term spoiling or revisions of the original peace settlement.3 This does not, of course, bypass the deeper problem posed by international actors that exert hegemonic and conditional influence in locales of which they have only limited understanding, though it is assumed here that the developing practices of international intervention and peacebuilding cannot be rejected, even on these grounds. International actors need to become aware of the dynamics caused by their relations with local actors, which may outweigh regional connections. Indeed, the continued predominant form of shared sovereignty in the region might cause a dependency of local actors on internationals and competition, fair or foul, for their attention. Making local and regional relations the key focus of international peacebuilding approaches, rather than shared sovereignty, would make local peace settlements far more durable. International custodians have both denied de jure sovereignty while also contributing to the conditions for de facto sovereignty. They have also denied some aspects of governance for local actors (such as foreign policy), and have failed to emphasize the need for local interaction between entities in their efforts to develop good relations between themselves and local entities. This creates an under-explored paradox that discourages local ethnic entities from collaborating or even communicating with each other. This situation creates significant obstacles for the implementation of peace settlements because the entities are primarily concerned about their international relations. It also represents a complex situation that requires, but has lacked, detailed or systematic investigation, and that carries implications for other post-conflict settlements, given the widespread dependence upon international custodianship for the development of a new, liberal peace. This varies according to which actor is examined: for example, in Kosovo prior to independence, local representatives regarded the EU as significant in their goal of statehood, but generally saw UNMIK and the UN Security Council as obstacles, both to this and to self-government. These entities’ situations and their aspirations for sovereignty can be determined by examining, where relevant, their political and material resource bases and their interaction with outside actors, including kin states, NGOs and international organizations. This process contrasts with the intended practices of the international custodians for Bosnia and Kosovo, including the OSCE, the EU, NATO and the UN. While other studies have concentrated on ‘democratization’ in Bosnia or on international trusteeship there and in Kosovo, we concentrate on ethnic and shared sovereignty, and their implications for the peace settlement. We analyse the role of international custodians in this controversial process of state creation/simulation.4 The following sections examine the relevant theoretical arguments on ethnic and shared sovereignty, and point to a new framework of ‘shared governance’ in the context of an empirical analysis of sovereignty in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationKosovo, Intervention and Statebuilding
Subtitle of host publicationThe International Community and the Transition to Independence
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages34
ISBN (Electronic)9781135169213
ISBN (Print)9780415561679
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2010

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2010 Selection and editorial material, Aidan Hehir; individual chapters, the contributors.


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