The Washington Diplomat / February 2011
By Larry Luxner
On Jan. 18, the black, white, green and red flag of Palestine was hoisted for the first time atop the PLO mission in Washington — a symbolic milestone on the long road to full diplomatic relations. Some 110 countries from Bolivia to Bangladesh now recognize Palestine as a sovereign nation, even though its borders have yet to be defined and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, has not issued a unilateral declaration of independence — not yet.
The Republic of Kosovo — born out of the collapse of Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia and later Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign — formally declared independence three years ago this month. But it still struggles for international acceptance, with 74 out of 192 United Nations member states recognizing Kosovo as a nation, including the United States and much of the European Union but excluding countries such as Russia and China.
At the other end of the spectrum are Georgia’s two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are recognized by only four countries worldwide — most notably Russia. Then there’s the dubious Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a political oddity with exactly one official friend in the world: Turkey.
And in a quasi middle state is Taiwan, which has found itself more and more diplomatically isolated over the years, yet comfortably remains a global player (whose influence may even grow now that Taipei and China have called a truce to their resource-draining race for diplomatic recognition).
As southern Sudan races toward its own independence following last month’s referendum — in which voters overwhelmingly chose to secede from Africa’s largest country — some observers predict the world is about to enter a dangerous new phase of fragmentation.
Dominique Moisi, author of “The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World,” says the splitting of Sudan could set a precedent, leading Somalia, Côte d’Ivoire and even Nigeria to give birth to new states as well.
“The brutal behavior of the Sudanese regime based in Khartoum has made the country’s evolution towards partition both inevitable and legitimate. The main question now is whether partition will be held up as a model and a precedent elsewhere in Africa,” said Moisi. “In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, former President Laurent Gbagbo takes inspiration from Zimbabwe’s autocratic President Robert Mugabe, clinging to power after his clear defeat in the last presidential elections. As a result, the country’s division on a partly ethnic and religious basis along north-south lines is no longer unthinkable; on the contrary, it is increasingly likely.”
Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, also predicts a torrent of new states rewriting the world map and the artificial boundaries created by imperialism and colonialism.
“This year will almost certainly see the birth of a new country named Southern Sudan. It might also witness the creation of an independent Palestine…. And within a couple of years, a sovereign Kurdistan might emerge from a still-brittle Iraq. We could be entering a new period of mass state birth: Imagine an independent South Ossetia, Somaliland, and Darfur too. The trend is nothing new, but it’s picking up steam again. The most recent sovereign entrant was in 2008, when Kosovo emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia; nine years earlier, in 1999, it was East Timor gaining independence from Indonesia,” Khanna wrote in a Jan. 13 article for Foreign Policy.
“Because of this wave of self-determination culminating in sovereignty, there are today more autonomous political units in the world than at any time since the Middle Ages of a millennium ago. Within a few decades, we could easily have 300 states in the world.”
But don’t put away your world map just yet. Many other experts point out that Sudan’s partition is based on the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement — a previously negotiated, internationally binding legal pact signed by governments in both the north and south — and the declaration of independence is based strictly on that agreement, as opposed to the kind of unilateral declarations made by Kosovo and other territories. Therefore, even southern Sudanese officials argue that their unique case does not set a legal precedent for rebel movements in Darfur or elsewhere.
Likewise, despite Kosovo’s diplomatic gains, the number of countries that recognize it still only represents less than 40 percent of U.N. members. Today, Kosovo also struggles with deep-seated problems that reveal the limits of what nationhood can solve, from endemic poverty and unemployment to crime and lingering ethnic hostilities — a fate that surely awaits the southern Sudanese as well.
Still, as with southern Sudan, the idea of an independent Kosovo was once unthinkable as well — especially to Serbs, who since medieval times have considered Kosovo the cradle of their civilization. Yet on Feb. 17, 2008, after years of bloodshed and ethnic hatred, the predominantly Muslim, Albanian-speaking Kosovars declared their independence from mostly Christian Orthodox Serbia (also see “Nations Worry Kosovo Split May Inspire Other Breakaways” in the March 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
In its first 24 hours of existence, Kosovo was recognized by Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Costa Rica, France, Great Britain, Senegal, Turkey and the United States. Others followed suit, and in early January, Qatar and Guinea-Bissau became the 73rd and 74th nations to offer Kosovo diplomatic recognition. El Salvador and St. Lucia are likely to add their names to that list in the near future.
“We expected more recognitions once the International Court of Justice ruled that our declaration of independence did not violate any rule of international law,” said Kosovo’s clearly disappointed ambassador to the United States, Avni Spahiu. “But we’re still waiting. It’s an agonizing process.”
Interestingly, Kosovo doesn’t appear to be too eager to pursue relations with Taiwan, even though Taipei was quick to recognize Kosovo’s independence, while China — with its potential for hundreds of millions of investment dollars — has held back, much to the Balkan nation’s dismay.
“We haven’t had any contacts with Taiwan,” Spahiu remarked. Asked why his country is snubbing Taipei’s friendly offer of relations, he diplomatically replied, “We don’t want to do anything that would upset somebody.”
But Kosovo’s unilateral declaration certainly upset plenty of countries, particularly those threatened by the possible flare-up of separatist movements of their own, such as Russia, China and Turkey.
“They have their own reasons. Some countries compare the situation of Kosovo to their own internal issues, which is unfortunate because we think Kosovo is a special case,” Spahiu told The Diplomat.
“Kosovo was part of a country that disintegrated — the former Yugoslavia — and in that country we had an equal federal status. After Yugoslavia collapsed, Kosovo had the right to become a country like the other federal units of former Yugoslavia. But Milosevic suspended Kosovo’s federal status and made it part of Serbia.”
Four of the five former Yugoslav republics that broke with Serbia to become independent countries — Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Macedonia — have since recognized Kosovo. Only Bosnia — plagued by its own internal divisions — has held off for the time being.
Even so, Spahiu said he’s heartened by the fact that the United States and nearly all of the European Union’s 27 members enjoy excellent relations with his country. Only five EU holdouts remain: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain (many home to restive minorities).
Kosovo’s ambassador concedes that Spain’s reluctance to recognize his country is related to ongoing ethnic tensions with Spain’s sizeable Basque minority. But he quickly discounts any parallels between the two situations.
“Kosovo had a federal status, which was not the case with the Basque region, and Spain still exists,” he said. “It has not disintegrated, and there was no genocide taking place against the Basques in Spain.”
Yet even the lack of official relations doesn’t preclude the possibility for cooperation, Spahiu notes. Greece, for example, has no formal ties with Kosovo — largely out of sympathy for Serbia, a fellow Christian Orthodox country — yet Athens has “very good relations” with Pristina and recognizes Kosovar passports.
Yet the notion that “special” or unique historical circumstances justify Kosovo’s separation — widely accepted among its supporters — can be a risky narrative. After all, you don’t get much more special or unique than the Israeli-Palestinian saga and the aspirations of the Palestinians for their own state, which has both captivated and confounded the world for more than 60 years.
Ironically, many of the same countries that oppose Kosovo’s declaration of independence — including Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela — have raised their voices the loudest when it comes to supporting an independent state of Palestine.
In February 2008, former Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana blatantly said: “If we were to recognize Kosovo, which has declared its independence unilaterally, without an agreement with Serbia, we would set a dangerous precedent that would seriously threaten our chances of a political settlement in the case of the Malvinas [Falkland Islands].”
In fact, the Palestinian Authority is rushing to nail down as much recognition as possible between now and September, when it plans to call for a U.N. vote. It’ll initially seek Security Council recognition but, failing that — which is almost guaranteed, since the United States would undoubtedly veto such a move — will turn to the General Assembly, where the decisions are not legally binding, but there’s no veto to worry about.
In addition to the ongoing efforts by Prime Minister Salem Fayyad to build the foundations of a functioning state, this so-called “Plan B” approach, Palestinian officials say, has been born of frustration — and in part desperation — over Israeli intransience on settlement growth, and American inability to address the issue. Washington did restart direct peace talks in September 2010, but those fell apart just weeks later when Israel’s temporary freeze on settlement building expired.
Construction has since forcefully picked up in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. Already, 500,000 Jewish settlers live on occupied land in violation of international law, while a security barrier that has greatly diminished terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens has also been widely criticizing as a “land grab” for snaking deep within Palestinian territory.
These so-called “facts on the ground” are the driving impetus behind the recent recognition campaign. Experts say that while Palestinians realize a U.N. General Assembly vote won’t magically create a new state the next day, the key is to get as much international backing for the 1967 borders as the basis for drawing up the contours of a future state — while constraining further Israeli settlement expansion, which many fear are making a two-state solution impossible.
“Such recognition would create political and legal pressure on Israel to withdraw its forces from the land of another state that is recognized within the ’67 borders by the international organization,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki told reporters last month in Ramallah.
(On that note, although Chile recognized Palestinian statehood, it specifically did not mention borders because an endorsement of the pre-1967 boundaries might undermine Chile’s own position in a dispute with Peru over its maritime border.)
Both Israel and the United States oppose the new Palestinian tactic, arguing that direct negotiations are the only legitimate venue to achieve statehood. In December, the House of Representatives urged the White House to “deny any unilaterally declared Palestinian state” and “veto any resolution by the U.N. Security Council to establish or recognize a Palestinian state outside of an agreement negotiated by the two parties.”
Maen Rashid Areikat, chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Office in Washington, said the new policy is simply a result of his government getting tired of peace talks going nowhere.
“The Palestinian people have always received international support and sympathy, even from countries that did not officially recognize us — countries whose policies were anti-Palestinian and pro-Israeli,” he told The Diplomat.“But our friends in Asia, Africa and even Europe are watching the situation in the Middle East closely, and they’re fed up with the lack of progress.”
He adds: “Everybody knows what the end game is going to be: a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. So they’re just telling the world that they plan to recognize this outcome without prejudicing Israel’s right to exist. In all their statements of recognition, these countries are making sure to tell the Israelis, ‘We’re not doing this at your expense. We’re just trying to be even-handed.’”
Areikat sidestepped questions on whether recognition of Palestine creates a dangerous precedent for other, possibly less historically valid, movements of national liberation to move forward. Instead, he argued that Palestine — like Kosovo — is a special case due to historical circumstances rooted in the 1947 U.N. partition of Palestine and the subsequent war of independence that led to Israel’s birth a year later, as well as the 1967 war that gave Israel control over the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.
“We are against any oppression directed by one country against another. We have historically supported these movements. Each one of these nations has their own special circumstances and conditions,” Areikat said. “I don’t know if this will have a domino effect on the others, but in our case, it’s been a long struggle because our adversary is so powerful and has so much influence.”
For now, the PLO has made Latin America its chief diplomatic priority. Cuba was the first to recognize Palestine back in 1988, followed more recently by Nicaragua and Venezuela. But in the last few months, six countries in the region — Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Peru — have done likewise.
In one of his last official acts as president, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, with Abbas at his side, presided over the inauguration of the new Embassy of Palestine in Brasilia. Uruguay and Paraguay are expected to fall in line in coming weeks; so might El Salvador and Honduras, both home to sizeable ethnic Palestinian communities. (Incidentally, Honduras also recently recognized Kosovo.)
“Brazil started all this, and it’s what Lula and [former Foreign Minister Celso] Amorim wanted to do before leaving office — part out of a desire to show independence and distance from Washington, to put Brazil in a place where it can be a more effective player in the Middle East,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “Once Brazil did that, others took the cue.”
Shifter says though he doesn’t see anything particularly sinister about these countries rushing to recognize Palestine.
“Latin American governments are pursuing an independent foreign policy, and they’re diversifying their relationships. This is just a reflection of that,” he said. “It’s not like Honduras — not to mention Ecuador or Brazil — needs to check in with Washington.”
Yet all this recognition is as much about business as about anti-imperialist solidarity, suggests Alex Sánchez, a research fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
“The direction of Latin America’s recognition policy is not that surprising, since Latin America has a growing commercial and political link with the Muslim world. Hence, recognizing Palestine is as much a political gesture as an economic move aimed to please Islamic leaders in order to cement strong trade relations,” Sánchez wrote in a paper titled “Latin America and State Recognition: Palestine, the Caucasus, Kosovo, and Taiwan.”
While Brazil’s embrace of Palestine is hardly surprising — after all, some 9 million Brazilians are of Arab descent — neighboring Argentina’s decision to establish relations with the PLO raised many eyebrows. Last June, Héctor Timerman, the former Argentine ambassador in Washington, became the country’s first Jewish foreign minister. Argentina is also home to Latin America’s largest Jewish community, estimated at around 200,000.
But in recent years, as Sánchez pointed out in his report, “Buenos Aires has carried out several initiatives with the Arab world, including an agreement with Algeria over nuclear cooperation.… Argentina is also Egypt’s second-largest trading partner in Latin America. The region’s growing ties with the Arab world come at a time when Washington seems to be increasingly frustrated by developments with the West Bank settlement standoff.”
Business also clearly explains why two leftist-leaning Latin American countries last year joined Russia in extending diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two separatist territories at the center of Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia.
“It could be argued that recognition of the two tiny territories by Venezuela and Nicaragua was due less to any particular sympathy for their cause (or even some fundamental understanding of the conflict’s roots) than to Caracas and Managua wanting to court Moscow as a possible source of weapons sales and clients for their commodity exports,” Sánchez contends.
“In the past several years, Venezuela has purchased several billions of dollars worth of Russian armaments, with President Hugo Chávez becoming a frequent flier to Moscow. In 2008, a visit to Caracas by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was arranged to coincide with the arrival of Russian naval units to carry out naval exercises with their Venezuelan counterparts. This marked the first time since the advent of the Cold War that the Russian Navy had entered Latin American waters. And Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, has been an ally of Moscow dating back to the 1970s.
“While its current policies have not included a particularly effusive rapprochement with Moscow, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia are today committed to being in Russia’s good graces in order to receive trade benefits, market access and privileged financial and military sales opportunities,” Sánchez concluded.
As for Nauru — the fourth country to recognize Abkhazia — that recognition came with a hefty price tag: $50 million. The world’s tiniest republic, an eight-square-mile dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, once enjoyed fabulous wealth thanks to exports of phosphates formed by bird droppings. But today, those exports have largely dried up, and Nauru’s 11,000 people will take help wherever they can get it.
Sergei Markedonov, a Caucasus specialist at Moscow’s Institute for Political and Military Analysis, told the New York Times that the Nauru agreement was a real achievement for Abkhazia, population 215,000.
“There is no question of morality here,” said Markedonov. “It’s the smallest country in the world. It has no potential, just to trade in independence. Independence is a commodity — people will trade it.”