Kosovo, Ireland, Palestine – the complexities of recognition and lines in the sand between words and arms

In a conflict situation, political compromise is impossible. This is because conflicts situations occur when political stability breaks down – the war is the continuation of politics by other means, or Arafat’s “War is a loud voice for policy”. This mistake that governments often make is to assert a sharp distinction between small groups involved in violence, and large moldable populations which would accept a reasoned settlement if the extreme group can be successfully defeated. But political violence in conflict situations, even if it is carried out only by a small group, can be a symptom of the breakdown of a political process. This is clearly true in situations like the north of Ireland in the 1970s where the IRA was able to operate effectively due to a measure of cooperation from the nationalist community at large. The fact that there is mass cooperation with the extreme group demonstrates that the loss of faith in the political process is not a marginal problem, but the mainstream problem.

When violence breaks out as a symptom of a popular loss of faith in the mainstream political process, it’s a categorical truth that the situation can not be solved within the bounds of the mainstream political process. People don’t lose faith because things aren’t going exactly their way – this happens only if the bounds of mainstream politics become completely out of joint with the feelings of the popular mass of people. What can be done in such a situation is not to talk of solution, but only to talk of changing the situation such that solution is possible. At this point it becomes essential to talk not only of military might and security considerations, but also the structure of the emotive discourse that characterizes the different parties in the conflict.

The current situation in northern Kosovo is a possible example of the breakdown of a political discourse to the point where it could become again an active conflict situation. Serbs in northern Kosovo will not accept the existence of an independent Kosovo, however, their chief negotiator implicitly recognizes that Albanians will not accept a non-independent Kosovo. The solution they propose is to create status-neutral institutions that can serve Serbs inside Kosovo and can man the checkpoints between Kosovo and Serbia. It is essential that Serbs not be forced to recognize the existence of the Kosovo state, but also essential that the form of their non-recognition does not preclude Albanians from recognizing an independent Kosovo. Status-neutral does not mean only that the institution does not recognize the territory as independent Kosovo, but also that it does not recognize the territory as Serbia – individual communities and persons can recognize the sovereignty they wish to recognize, but that sovereignty will not be instituted into state institutions.

At least, that is the situation as Borislav Stefanovic sees it. The current military reality is one of the Albanian state in Kosovo attempting to impose non status-neutral institutions at the borders between Serbia and Kosovo. In response to this, Serbians found alternative routes going through the backwoods that permit them to travel between Serbia and their homes without passing through a checkpoint which institutes a border between Serbia and Kosovo, and recognizing the Kosovo independent state. In response to this, Nato troops in Kosovo have set up checkpoints on these alternative routes.

The situation is complex and dangerous. If the Serbs in Kosovo will not accept the imposition of institutions on the border between Serbia and Kosovo that recognize an independent Kosovo, then they could be pushed entirely out of the peaceful political discourse, and war could start again. This would not be a war of a few extremists, but paramilitaries well supported by the will of the people. Belgrade could be drawn into the fray, and the situation could get very bad indeed – possibly resulting in more ethnic cleansing and the transfer of Serbs across the Nato-backed boundary between Serbia and Kosovo.

Listening to the president of Kosovo it would seem that the Albanians want to act carefully and not provoke the border communities. They are talking about redrawing the border, but this will not satisfy Serbs living in enclaves deep in Kosovo. This may resolve the problems in Northern Kosovo, but will not satisfy the Serbian communities deep in Kosovo – whereas maintaining status-neutral institutions would potentially satisfy both the communities.

The situation in Kosovo/Serbia bears an interesting analogy to the situation in Palestine. Serbs in Northern Kosovo have already found a solution to live in peace with an Albanian administered Kosovo district by way of not recognizing and not being demanded to recognize the independence of Kosovo. And, Kosovo/Nato today is using force to prevent a political settlement along these lines of limited mutual recognition/mutual peaceful non-recognition. In Palestine since 1988 the PLO has agreed to recognize Israel so long as they are not required to perform that recognition explicitly as a symbolic gesture. And, similarly, Israel has used force since 1988 repeatedly in an attempt to pressure Palestinians to perform the symbolic recognition of Israel, including most blatantly their demand to recognize Israel as “the Jewish state”. This in effect is demanding that Palestinian leaders become zionist.

Between warring parties, peace does not come from the use of force against those who will not perform the symbolic act of defeat. Rather, demanding symbolic acts of defeat, like recognition by the Serbs of the independent state of Kosovo, or recognition by Palestinians of the Jewish state of Israel, or recognition by Irish Nationalists of the sovereignty of the Queen in Ireland, these are symbolic acts of war – almost declarations of war. They are at least attempts to draw lines in the sand, lines after which discourse ends and force begins.

The insight which I hope I’ve been able to offer here is the connection between the “line in the sand” and the use of force: the symbolic performative act that demands from the enemy the performance of its own defeat is not only a call for violence, it is an act of epistemic violence that closes the realm of discursive politics to the enemy, and allows the enemy a response only by way of force. It is, in other words, a declaration of war – a declaration that the discursive political space between the parties has disappeared, and if there remains a conflict it will continue by way of force. This force is predicted, obviously, in the performance itself – such demands for performance of defeat are not said lightly but only by those who have the force to back them up.


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