Serbia, Kosovo, and the End of History

In a huge positive step for each country’s efforts to join the EU (Serbia is now an official candidate), Serbia and Kosovo reached agreement on a deal to normalize relations almost exactly 1 year ago. There is a touch of absurdity to the entire process. Assuming both countries sincerely do want to join the European Union, and assuming both countries are eventually successful, there will come a day when Serbians can live and work in Kosovo and Kosovars can live and work in Serbia with access to the same minimum standard of rights. Each country will have implemented the EU acquis communautaireand somebody from Vojvodina will be able to move to Pristina or Kosovska Mitrovica without the need for a work permit. It would be the functional equivalent of a Slovakian moving from Bratislava to Prague, and so at least at first blush one kind of has to wonder, “if you’re both going to end up in the EU anyway, does it really matter what form that takes?”

Obviously this is too simplistic, for a number of reasons. First, in 1999 nobody was considering potential EU membership for what remained of Yugoslavia or its constituent bits broken off as independent states. And certainly after 1999 (if not before) and absent the prospect of EU membership, it is not hard to understand why Kosovars would be less than enthused about remaining within a larger Serbia or why Serbians in Kosovo would prefer not to live in an independent one.

Second, even if EU membership had been a immediate possibility in 1999, the acquis doesn’t explicitly address minority rights: “While non-discrimination is a well established EU norm, minority rights are a contested norm and not enshrined in the acquis communautaire.” You don’t have to look much further than Europe’s Roma population to see how being an EU citizen might not be much use if your host country is intent on marginalizing your population group.

And third, people invest sovereignty for their claimed national grouping with all kinds of psychological components that can seem rather pointless but nevertheless retain significant power to shape behavior.

Nevertheless, the hint of absurdity informing all of this does suggest one thing; Francis Fukuyama wasn’t too far off. It’s easy to point at the continued existence, and in some places (China, Russia depending on the week?) actual popularity of non-democratic forms of government and say, “Psh, what was he smoking when he wrote that?” But that kind of response entirely misses the point, which was to suggest back in 1992 that the collapse of the USSR represented, “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Is it a bit hubristic to suggest that in the next thousand years of human existence no better alternative will emerge? Sure. But for all the talk during the financial crisis of state capitalism as an alternative political model, nobody is out on the streets demanding the imposition of Chinese-style governance. And take Serbia and Kosovo – neither country is pursuing an alternative to basic Western liberal democracy, the end goal for both is the same (EU membership), and their recent antagonisms don’t come down to fundamentally different conceptions of how society should work. Unfortunately sometimes that on its own isn’t enough.