Monday, September 27, 2010

The power of trust

Gerard Gallucci has written an article about how the Ahtisaari Plan could be adapted in the present negotiations. In general he proposes to give some powers that are now allocated to the Pristina government to the internationals. I admire Gallucci for his knowledge of details and his balanced view of the Ahtisaari Plan. But I have a fundamentally different view of autonomy.

Modern democratic government with its separation of powers is based on the notion that it is a bad idea to concentrate all powers in one government. Many countries have embraced decentralization as a means to further improve the democratic character of their society: most recently France. Even in the US and Germany - where regional ethnic groups don't constitute a problem - the regional government jealously guard their powers. Decentralization where possible, centralization where necessary is the slogan in many Western countries.

Keeping countries together with the threat of violence carries a high cost. Trust works much better and that is how Western societies are organized. I find it a stupid idea that the EU and the US are promoting centralization as the best way to govern countries in the Balkans. It is no coincidence that the Federation in Bosnia is its least functional part: the power is not decentralized according to the ethnic composition and this dysfunctional organization invites abuses. A logical way to achieve more coherence would be a split of the Federation. Similarly it would be logical to give northern Kosovo - with its own language - the power to arrange its own affairs. It is a lack of (recognized) decentralization that gives people influence on the affairs of others and it is that what leads to the ethnicalization of political life. It is not the partition in entities that leads to ethnic parties in Bosnia: it is the continuing attempts to undermine the entities and the refusal to recognize the underlying principles and create a Croat entity that make ethnicity a problem in Bosnia.

Take Kosovo schoolbooks. Ahtisaari gives Pristina a veto right on Serb schoolbooks. In my view Pristina should have the rights to ask that some Kosovo-specific subjects are included in the curriculum, but the Serbs should be free to choose their own schoolbooks. Could this right be abused to include anti-Albanian comments? Sure! But Serbs have nothing to say about Albanian schoolbooks. In that context giving Albanians the right to censor Serb books amounts to denying the equality of Serbs and Albanians. There is no need to do so either: the Serb enclaves in the south are close to Albanian settlements. Anything inappropriate in their schoolbooks would raise indignation from their Albanian neighbors and harm the inter-ethnic relations on which those Serbs depend. That will be enough feedback to prevent excesses. In my own country - the Netherlands - freedom of education is established in the constitution and it would be unthinkable that the government violated the rights of the schools to select the books they use.

Another example is the police. The internationals are insisting on a unitary structure - both in Bosnia and Kosovo. But this is a militaristic idea of how a country works. Many countries - also in the EU - don't have central control of the police. In some places in the US the head of police is even elected. In fact for most of the police tasks - keeping order, regulating traffic and solving little crimes - local control works very well. Only for some specialized work like environmental laws and laboratory forensic research is centralization helpful.

Or take Kosovo's telephone networks. There is nothing that prevents the Kosovo government from recognizing the Serbian mobile and fixed line networks. In fact Kosovo's insistence that all connections should be disconnected and the Serb provider should start a new endless registration procedure can only be described as criminally racist. These providers have historic rights and their treatment by both the internationals and now the Kosovo government most probably wouldn't stand in an international courtroom. Of course some issues still have to be worked out - like taxation - but there is no reason for extraordinary hurry where the Kosovo government has shown itself very lazy in other areas.

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