The Importance of Being Balanced: Lessons from Negotiated Settlements to Self-determination Movements in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo

Author: Erin Jenne is a professor of international relations and European studies at Central European University in Budapest. Beáta Huszka is assistant professor at the Department of European Studies of ELTE University, Budapest.

On every continent, self-determination movements have challenged state governments for statehood, yielding a proliferation of de jure and de facto states extending from the former socialist republics of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia to South Sudan, Eritrea, and East Timor. Elsewhere they have produced “quasi-states” with limited international recognition, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia; Northern Cyprus; Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan; Somaliland; and Transnistria in Moldova. Today separatists the world over press for greater political independence from existing state governments—sometimes through violence, other times through popular referenda. Examples of the former include Kurds in northern Iraq and Russians in eastern Ukraine; examples of the latter include Scots in the United Kingdom, Québécois in Canada, and most recently Catalans of Spain. Once activated, movements for self-determination often recur periodically in tandem with regime transition and other institutional changes. 

Self-determination movements are potent sources of political destabilization, leading in extreme cases to violent conflict when the majority and minority fail to find a compromise that each would prefer to taking up arms. The preferred solution of the United Nations and other peacemaking organizations is complex power-sharing agreements from which no party prefers to defect unilaterally. This means successful settlements must at a minimum achieve an acceptable division of political power between majority and minority groups in the state while laying the foundation for a functional state over the entire territory.
The international community favors negotiated solutions to such conflicts for a number of reasons. First, cooperative solutions avoid the moral hazard of rewarding secessionist organizations with statehood while forestalling further fragmentation. Second, inducing a compromise agreement is believed to be the best way of protecting vulnerable minorities against retaliation by a hostile government or ethnic majority. Third, negotiated solutions are consistent with the Westphalian norm of sovereignty, increasing the legitimacy of the solution in the eyes of the target state population. Finally, cooperative agreements represent a relatively cost-effective method of settling territorial wars at least risk and cost to the interveners. To be successful, such settlements should be based on minority autonomy, either through devolution or decentralization.
Critics warn, however, that immediate benefits of negotiated settlements can obscure long-term costs. Although satisfying minority demands for autonomy, the conferral of such institutions may inadvertently reinforce separatist impulses while giving secessionist organizations the material and symbolic resources needed to mobilize for independence down the road. Research indicates that minorities with a history of territorial autonomy are more likely to mobilize for independence than those without. A recent analysis suggests these effects are probably overstated, but also shows that territorial autonomy alone is unlikely to achieve success unless the minority also has a stake in the center. Achieving a balance between “power-dividing” elements (such as territorial self-government) and “power-sharing” elements (such as a grand coalition in the central government) lies at the heart of consociational models of conflict management.

The West Balkan region presents a natural laboratory with which to illustrate this simple principle. Despite their common origins, different settlement logics were used to resolve the violent self-determination struggles in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia), Macedonia, and Kosovo. Their common origins are clear. All three states once were part of Yugoslavia. Each conflict was resolved with the intervention of NATO and Western powers, which sought an acceptable division of power between rival groups that would also stabilize state institutions. None is a re sounding success, but each post-conflict trajectory is a predictable consequence of each settlement’s design.
We argue that while scholars have long recognized the importance of achieving a balance between competing interests at the domestic level, they often underestimate the impact that regional conflict dynamics can have on the fate of such settlements. Peacemakers must consider whether sufficient safeguards are built into institutions to protect against regional destabilization of fragile ethnic settlements, a problem compounded in chronically unstable neighborhoods.
This is a chapter in Independence Movements and Their Aftermath. Please click here for more.