Recognising Kosovo*

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On Friday, the Catalan Parliament unilaterally declared independence from Spain. Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy responded by dismissing Catalan premier Carlos Puigdemont, and imposing direct rule on the region.

It’s hard to say what will happen next, but it is very likely that Catalonia is in for a rough ride as it seeks self-determination. Rajoy has shown he isn’t afraid to spray and pepper rubber bullets along Las Ramblas. The USA, the EU, France, Germany and the UK have all said they will not recognise an independent Catalonia. The reaction of others will likely shape what place Catalonia would take if it enters the world stage, solo.

The last European country to take the plunge was Kosovo. On 17th February 2008, it announced it had split from Serbia and was now going it alone.

Catalonia is not Kosovo. The circumstances are very different. But the response of the nations of Earth to Kosovo highlights how the recognition of new nations has far more to it than the situation itself in the region in question.

 

No, Never, Not in a Million Years

Kosovo independence

Source: Telegraph

Many nations have viewed Kosovo’s declaration with vanity, fear and loathing. Might Kosovo’s audacity encourage dastardly separatists within our own borders?

WE CANNOT ALLOW THIS!

Nations with diverse regions that varied cultures, languages, religions and fortunes have been especially vulnerable to this way of thinking, as are those whose borders hid ancient tensions brushed under the rugs of history. Spain sits in both categories, and refuses to recognise Kosovo. On the record, this stance is in stern defence of international law and the UN Charter. Spain, as it showed the other week, takes such things very seriously. It is a poorly-kept secret that it is worried that Catalonia and the Basque Country might call foul on any concession to a secessionist movement outside of Spanish borders. In 2012, Rajoy even said that Spain refuses to recognise Kosovo because “it is what suits the general interest of the Spanish.”  The way things are going in the Pyrenean shadows, don’t expect a birthday card from Madrid soon, Pristina.

They weren’t alone in this. China, Argentina, Israel. Moldova, Georgia, Cyprus. Many of these ghosting characters are linked by their involvement in what some call “Frozen Conflict Zones” – geographical war hangovers – unresolved political disputes permafrosted upon land, homes, societies. They might have longstanding claims upon groups that have sought to govern themselves as autonomous, or else might be part of a geographical tug-o-war with another nation-state over the sovereignty of a region, whose own ideas of to which flag they pledge their allegiance are but a sub-plot. Imperial borders were often drawn on sand, and reinforced only by the bayonet. Sudanese or Yugoslav fractures exhibit what can happen when the coercive rug of the metropole is pulled out from under foot. A conglomerate state like China views separatism with great caution.

And the Kingdom of Spain? Founded under the marriage of Castile and Aragon. Strengthened in the inquisition and expulsion of those not bound to Christ. Made rich by Cortes’ sword that cut open golden Aztec veins, but eventually chased back into Iberia by forces that left Spain in dust. Perhaps, for many a Spanish patriot, a Catalonian schism would represent the last act in this retreat, a final nail in Spain’s imperial coffin, the confirmation that their pride in a nation past is no longer present.

Why hang onto a nation, for nostalgia’s sake?

 

This fence I’m sitting on is really comfortable…

Artsakh – Source: news.am

The region of Artzakh is currently drawn on the Azerbaijani map. It is 95% Armenian, and its flag resembles the Armenian banner, altered by a thick brush on Microsoft Paint (RIP). Formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, it essentially rules itself. Azerbaijan, however, has not recognised it, and it is therefore unsurprising that it has turned a blind eye to the Republic of Kosovo as well. What’s weirder is that Armenia hasn’t recognised Artzakh or Kosovo either.

Geopolitical allegiances have a huge part to play in the recognition of nations. There’s quite a club of countries that has refused to acknowledge Kosovo out of respect to its good ol’ pal, Serbia. Some of these might be expected, such as Belarus or Cyprus. But perhaps others might surprise you. Algeria, Angola, the DRC, for example.

“We are our Mountains” – Artsakh. Source: Armenpress.am

Who knew Serbia had so many friends?

Again, we cannot forget how the very existence of Kosovo reverberates back onto so many nations with fragile pasts. Alongside, some nations may wish to tread carefully to avoid stoking Serbia’s gigantic neighbour to the northeast. Armenia, for example, publicly welcomed Kosovo’s step, but avoided granting an official welcome to the family of nations so as not to irritate Azerbaijan, Russia, or Artzakh. Better to recognise everybody at once, rather than pick and choose.

In other cases, the decision not to recognise may be guided by nowt but a noble sense of loyalty to the Serbs,
which is sweet kosovo text 1
if perhaps not the romantic gesture one would like to see in the realm of high global politics, where blind loyalty to anything can get you up all sorts of creeks.

On the other hand, some of Kosovo’s earliest friends benefited from its independence, alongside those who sincerely believed in its self-determination. The USA and the UK quickly backed it up, alongside much of NATO, having played a key part in the Kosovan war and the defeat of Milosevic.

Legacy management 101 – look! What a lovely intervention! We made a state out of it, dontyaknow.

If Catalonia goes it alone, it might find friends in odd places, and gain unexpected enemies. A lot of this may have little to do with Catalonia itself.

 

I’ll do it this afternoon!

Flags yes

All those who have recognised Kosovo.

That brings us to our last group. Those who haven’t quite got round to it yet. The most recent country to recognise Kosovo was Bangladesh, in February of this year. There has been a steady trickle of recognitions after the initial flurry of ’08. As of October 2017, 111 countries consider Kosovo a sovereign nation. This tally matters. Some nations, including Spain, have in the past often justified their refusal by noting how few nations had done the deed. The higher that figure goes, the less valid that argument has become. In recent years, some nations have recognised Kosovo declaring that they have changed their minds over the matter, or else citing that the trend has changed in favour of Kosovan independence and they don’t want to miss out before all the good yoyos have been bought.

This change has allowed Kosovo to find its feet somewhat on the international stage, helped somewhat by the backing of large swathes of NATO and the EU, and the USA. Although Serbia officially still considers Kosovo part of its territory, it has largely accepted the 2013 Brussels Agreement between the two groups and has largely normalised relations with Kosovo. This has allowed Kosovo to participate more easily in UN activities, albeit often placed with an asterisk next to its name, to give the word “Kosovo*” a dual symbolism, representing either –

the Republic of Kosovo,

or

Kosovo, a really really autonomous part of Serbia

– depending on your persuasion. Even Russia has softened its stance, although this has much to do with its activities in South Ossetia, and in the Crimean Peninsula, wherein Moscow argued that if Kosovo had the right to unilaterally declare self-determination, so too did the Crimea (which was of course, unilateral. No Russians here, what Russians, where?)

kosovo text 2Perhaps the remaining collection of nations are merely waiting for the herd to decide when it will cross the river. Perhaps they’ve got better things to do, or more important things to worry about, than recognising a diminutive, landlocked nation in South-East Europe. The weight of numbers, however, is very important in a nation’s journey to global recognition. Certain nations, such as the USA or Russia, are triple word scores.

 

Lines in the dirt

Source: World Atlas

It might all sound like a board game played on a 1:1 scale map. But the verbal barrages can so quickly beget rubber bullets, and rubber can soon itself turn to lead. Some may understandably point toward the fear that nations may continue to exponentially slice themselves in two, on ethnicity, religion, history, or economics (ever since 2008, for example, there has been talk that the Serbian-dominated North Kosovo may seek autonomy from Pristina). Is it only empire, they might ask, that forces communities to co-exist and intertwine?

Others may look at how the world is growing increasingly uncertain at the same time as it pulls itself closer together through technology and the border-sapping forces of neoliberalism. Groups may look out at the window at the gathering clouds and think, at this instance, it’s better to go at it alone.

Or maybe it’s all too facile to think that another line in the dirt, this time between Barcelona and Madrid, will necessarily lead to further divisions in a fracturing Europe. Kosovo’s ongoing journey to recognition shows that there’s a great deal going on under the surface in any separatist movement, and its burgeoning relationships with the world outside. Perhaps Kosovo shows that most nations are more concerned with what separatism might represent than what it actually causes.

Flags no

Those who have not recognised Kosovo, or are yet to do so.

Perhaps we should be less wed to the notion of the permanence of borders. Perhaps it is just as parochial to insist that the map remains the same as it looked when we were children than to draw new lines and erase others.

Some borders, such as along the shore of the Etang Saumâtre between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, change daily as the water levels rise and fall. There are many still disputed. Some are deliberately porous, others are guarded with lethal force, or else are to be marked by great walls. But even the most ancient of borders have crumbled many times. Human societies never sit still. Nearly every society in history has been host to travellers, migrants and traders, explorers and conquerors alike, who continually puncture or remodel the little barriers we like to draw between ourselves.

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Everybody’s Biggest Fan

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You were my friend, and a better friend than I realised. You were everybody’s biggest fan. You would talk about me to anyone who was interested, and I’m told you would speak with pride about my writing, my research, and my activism. In my own eyes, these are at best but minor things, but you were proud still, proud of any and every little thing I achieved. I wasn’t alone in this. When I saw you, you would tell me stories of other friends of ours, and how well they were doing. Even if they were completely in the hole, you would pick out an ounce of something worth celebrating, run with it, turn it into a pound.

There wasn’t an ounce of flattery in you. You fully believed in the praise you were giving. You were a loyal supporter of all you admired, from shitty punk bands from New York bedsits to friends who had fallen upon hard times. Too loyal, some might say, but you’d give people hell if you thought they had it coming. You could cut them down to size in an instant – you could be cruel. But when I saw this, you’d usually be defending a friend, or calling somebody out on some bullshit – a myriad of which you must have heard in your short time – and some things you made sure to never let slide.

You were a constant in your later years, a fixture in that cigar shed, a face I knew would be welcoming me in if I was passing through town. From talking about The Smiths on a DT school trip, to singing along to No Surrender together this December, for over a decade you would always appear and (only now I notice) you would always brighten my day. In that way, I took you for granted, and it was only this week that I realised that I missed you more than I knew. I too often wish that I’d shown you but a pinch of the support that you had there, waiting for me. I wonder if there was anything you needed that I could have done for you. I think about the last time we spoke – without romanticising it, it was an absolute pleasure – and I remember you telling me how you were climbing back up and putting your passion into something wonderful. I think about how much you still had in store to give us, and my head drops into my hands.

Where does that leave us, those who said goodbye? We carry grief with us – it’s immediate for months – and it usually scars with the passage of time, rather than heals, in a reminder of what we have lost, and of our love which continues in your absence. But that is not all we carry with us. The support you gave me; that was free, and that is permanent. I will carry that support with me, I will harness it to fuel everything that I do, to recall your belief that our talents should not be spared but spent completely on the betterment of everybody’s lives, and I will continue to try and make you proud for as long as I live. It’s the very least I can do.

“You were a kindness, when I was a stranger.”

 

“Her Name Hail Far and Wide:” Fiji at the Olympic Games, 1956-2016

Small islands are much maligned. They are often of poor resource and sparse population, vulnerable to the forces of a hurricane, or an aggressive, expansive Great Power. The Pacific Islands are especially exposed. Distant and shallow, they have since their “discovery” played the role of the exotic paradise – servants of literary profits, Australian tans, and anthropological careers. Their residents have often been cast as the very model of primitivism, images to be exploited to proclaim their supposed racial inferiority, or the “purity” of a simple existence.

In reality these islands are none of the above – instead they are home to sophisticated societies with rich cultures that can nod to multiple ancestors. Fiji, the most populous of these islands, is home to a myriad of indigenous communities, as well as the descendants of those who came to Fiji as a consequence of British and Antipodean colonialism; indentured servants, missionaries, and agents of empire. But the colonial imagination of Fiji as a backwater, backward paradise continues to hang over its head.

Throughout the 20th Century global sport has created an arena in which the dominant narratives of international relations have been reinforced, and challenged. Nowhere is that more true than the Olympic Games, despite its thin pretense of being “above politics.” The Cold War carved itself onto the Olympic movement in 1980 and 1984, as the USA and USSR boycotted each other’s Games. Yet the African boycott of Montreal 1976 helped to challenge the appeasement of South African Apartheid in global affairs, and strengthen the anti-Apartheid movement worldwide. The Berlin Games of 1936 infamously served as Hitler’s great advertisement to the world of the superiority of Nazi Germany and the Aryan Race, but the Führer’s grand plan was upended by the great African-American Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals, as well as his friendship with his German rival Luz Long, formed a powerful and public challenge to white supremacy and racial separation.

jessie and luz

Jesse Owens and Luz Long. Source: npr

For small nations, the Olympics provides an opportunity to demonstrate that they are not an afterthought in world affairs and should not be treated as such. The Jamaicans, as they are wont to do, have led the way in this regard. The dominance of Jamaican sprinting in the 21st century have returned this island nation of two million people to the forefront of the world’s attention. Usain Bolt adorns our billboards and TV screens – he is now the first sprinter to win three Olympic 100m golds in succession, the sporting equivalent of a superhero. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was unable to match this feat, but the great sprinter was felled by a new Jamaican sensation, Elaine Thompson. Jamaica has built a sprinting dynasty – belying its size and resources, the Caribbean country is feared as a world-beater. Jamaica, often portrayed as an easy-going, fun-loving place – not to be taken seriously – is recast in these moments as the pinnacle of strength, power and potential.

In rugby, the small(er) nation of Fiji has played a similar hand. Rugby was brought to the Pacific Islands by antipodean missionaries, and the colonial administration initially hampered the game by insisting on racially-segregated matches. Once this was lifted, the islanders took the game, and in their unique style of dynamic, jolting, running rugby, made it their own – their spirit embodied in the challenge of the Cibi, that connected this imperial sport to ancient island traditions.

sport360

Source: Sport360.com

In men’s rugby sevens, Fiji has been at the top for decades – and the Fijian women, late arrivals to the game, are gaining strength, finishing 8th at this year’s Olympics, beating the USA along the way. The Rio Olympics provided a massive opportunity for Fiji’s men’s team to win gold, and become champions with the world’s eyes glued to the games. Once again, this year’s games reflect the dominant mores of global society. In 2016, that means an Olympics backboned by ubiquitous sponsorship (from peddlers of heart disease and diabetes) and poorly-paid, transient labour. An Olympics shadowed by political protests and state-sponsored doping scandals and the silencing of a Zika epidemic. A global society that renders small islands “open for business,” sold to the highest bidder, told that their only hope for ‘uplift’ is in the welcoming of foreign capital and the suppression of wages. But as in 1936, the Games gives such nations the window to challenge those narratives that would keep them down. The athletes of the Refugee Olympic team, as Shireen Ahmed has so gracefully explained, are not there for our consumption, but so that the ten competitors can “run, jump, kick and swin alongside other world class athletes,” whilst “their sheer presence can bring attention to stories that seem so far away.”

Fiji’s men, in their demolition of Great Britain in the Sevens final, won the country’s first ever medal. In this moment, their team – close-knit, powerful, and creative – carved their names into the history books, and loudly demonstrated that this small nation could overcome the most-talented and well-resourced teams the world has to offer. Fiji has been through it recently. Their country is reeling from the devastation of Cyclone Winston, that killed 42, left over 50 000 homeless and without water, and caused an estimated $460m worth of damage. Ten years ago, Fiji was rocked by a military coup – the coup leader turned elected president, JV Bainimarama, was present at Deodoro on Thursday night, back home pursued by the charge that he has imprisoned opponents without trial, and that his Fijifirst party is working to marginalise indigenous communities and culture.

At the final whistle, the team banded together in a circle, and sang (rather beautifully) the Pentecostal Hymn “We Have Overcome” (from Revelation 12:11, for those who are interested). For a brief moment, Fiji’s team provided not only solace from these issues, but embodied the continued strength of the Fijian people – Stronger Than Winston – showing the world that they will not be cast as just another small island, only of beaches, hurricanes and political instability. Like Jamaica, Fiji is much more than that.

See it here – http://bbc.in/2aOt477

Its Olympic tradition too is richer than solely this victory. To ignore Fiji’s other achievements reduces this success to an exception to a rule, and patronises not only the victorious team but Fiji’s previous competitors, framed instead as amateurish invitees, there only to make up the numbers – just small-time competitors from small islands. This is flawed. Fiji, although without medals, in fact have a distinguished record in the Olympics dating back to 1956.

*

tony philp

Tony Philp. Source: Wikipedia

Fiji sent five competitors to their first Olympics in Melbourne 1956, fourteen years before it gained independence from the UK. Their first athlete, Mesulame Rakuro, qualified for the final of the men’s discus, where he finished 15th. Prior to 2016, Fiji’s greatest Olympian was the windsurfer Tony Philp. He competed at five Games, beginning at Los Angeles in 1984, aged just 15, becoming the longest sailor to compete at the Olympics. Philp was from a sailing family – his father Colin and his brothers Colin (Jr) and David also representing Fiji at Olympic level. In Barcelona and Sydney he finished tenth, the best ever result by a Fijian prior to Rio, but was also a four-time World Champion in windsurfing, and one of only two Fijians (alongside Vijay Singh) to top the world rankings in his sport. A recipient of Fiji’s highest honour (Member of the Order of Fiji), and flag bearer at Sydney 2000, Tony Philp was no also ran.

probert

Carl Probert at Sydney 2000. Source: Olympians.com

makalesi

Makalesi Bulikiobo Batimala. Source: fijivillage.com

Carl Probert matched Philp’s achievement in 2008, when he swam in his fifth Olympic Games in Beijing. His best result was in the 100m freestyle at Sydney (the event where Eric the Eel found fame) – Probert registering 36th place (out of 73). This year Probert joined the World Olympians Association Board, in recognition of his “proud Olympic history and his commitment to the Olympic movement.” Fiji’s “Sprint Queen” Makelesi Bulikiobo Batimala qualified by right for the 400m in Beijing, and carried the flag in the opening ceremony. She is also a seven-time gold medallist at the South Pacific Games. Leslie Copeland became the first Fijian to throw over 80m in the men’s javelin, and missed out on the 2012 Olympic final by just 20cm. Keep an eye out for him in Rio. (***UPDATE*** – It didn’t go so well for Copeland in Rio)

In fact, the men’s sevens team are Fiji’s first able-bodied gold medallists, but four years ago Fiji gained Paralympic precious metal. In the 2012 Paralympics in London, Iliesa Delana was entered into the F42 High Jump competition, for athletes with above-knee amputations or comparable lower limb impairment. He was Fiji’s eighteenth Paralympian, and the only Fijian present at the games. Delana took gold with a National Record of 1.74m. Watch below.

Delana won the Paralympic gold for any South Pacific nation. He was welcomed back to Suva a hero. Iriarte, MoConkey and Gilligan describe the homecoming.

A big event was hosted in Suva, with a grand parade through the city by people of all ethnicities, school students, women and men, young and old. Iliesa Delana was accorded the highest traditional welcome only accorded to a Fijian high chief and honoured with 50 gun salutes by the military government… Iliesa Delana’s gold medal leap at the Paralympic Games was worth $90 000 and counting [2013] – the biggest payout to any individual in the history of amateur sports in Fiji. Furthermore, for his great achievement, his winning jump is engraved on Fiji’s 50 cents coin.

Delana’s achievement was a huge moment for this nation. An example that a man from a rural village in a supposedly inconsequential country, who lost his leg in a bus accident when he was three years old, could rise to become the very best in his field. The grandeur of such an achievement was not lost on the military government. President Nailaikau proclaimed that Delana had brought “a sense of unity and pride…greatly needed at this point in time and in pursuit towards democratic governance.” The following year, Delana stood for the ruling FijiFirst party, becoming an MP before being appointed to Bainimarama’s cabinet as Assistant Minister for Youth and Sports, and supporting the impressive Fiji team at the recent Australian Deaf Games.

50-Cents-Iliesa-Delana-back

Source: Colnect.net

Both Delana and Bainimarama travelled to Rio to witness the achievements of the Sevens teams, and to ensure Fijifirst could share in the victory. Fiji’s proud Olympic tradition is a story of overcoming a lack of resources and opportunities, to challenge, and now defeat, the world’s best. Like Jamaica (and many others) alongside them, Fiji’s athletes demonstrate through sporting prowess that small islands can mould and shape global narratives. But Delana’s rise through the ranks of the controversial Fijifirst party indicates that as sport can influence politics, so too politicians can recruit athletes in the quest for power. The presence of the cabinet officials in Deodoro that night, as well as Delana’s very rise to office, highlight that the prominence Fiji’s athletes have achieved is not lost on its politicians, who hope to command the achievements of their sports stars to cement their nation-building projects, alongside their own position in office.

In the cauldron of the Olympic Games, sport and power inevitably entwine.

***UPDATE*** Yesterday Frank Bainimarama announced that, following the victory of the men’s sevens team, he was to abandon his plans to alter the Fijian flag. This effort, announced in February last year, had proved deeply unpopular among many Fijians, and according to Opposition leader Mick Beddoes, protests against Bainimarama’s designs had been organised by young Fijians. Bainimarama’s plan, ostensibly to form a break from Fiji’s colonial past by removing the union flag from its own banner, has been criticised as a  hollow distraction from Fiji’s problems, and a nation-building project that aims to undermine the power of Fiji’s indigenous communities. The blue of the flag, the shield and peace are nods to the Supreme Chief Ratu Cakobau, who flew this banner in 1870 before the British arrived. Fans adorning sky blue, wrapped in flags, were commonplace in the Deodoro as the Fijian teams took to the field, and in the celebrations of the gold medallists and their fans both in Rio and in Suva, the flag took centre stage. The eternal relationship between sport and power is not one-way traffic: as politics can influence sport, so too sport can temper and mould the actions of agents of power.