1 March, 2004Issue 3.2EuropePolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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The Empty Stage

Dominik Zaum

Michael Ignatieff
Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan
Vintage, 2003
96 pages


On a cold Saturday morning in November 2003, I drove through Firaje, a small Albanian village near the Serb-populated skiing resort of Bresovica. During the war, Serb paramilitaries razed most of the village to the ground:

…a group of some 15 paramilitaries in black uniforms, some of them masked, set three houses on fire on 20 March. The witness says that these paramilitaries returned every evening until 28 March, and continued to loot and set fire to houses. On 28 March the Serb police commander [of the municipality] came to the village to tell the people to leave within two hours, threatening death to anyone who refused to leave. All the villagers left. Another witness stated that on 1 April he saw that ‘the village was burning’1

After the war, Firaje’s citizens returned to their burned out village. Now, four years later, all the houses have been rebuilt. Most of them are neat, two-storey structures, many of them still without any paint, and often inhabited only on the ground floor. Most houses of families with members working abroad in Germany or Austria are relatively large, with the elaborate and ornamental decorations that characterise the ‘Diaspora houses’ all over Kosovo: small porticoes with Roman columns, dolphin statues, or painted palm trees on the walls. They appear too large, too elaborate, and too new for a village at the end of a muddy gravel track, without phone lines and without a sewage system.

In a nameless mini-market, one of Firaje’s two shops, six men sat around a small stove in the corner, warming their hands at the fire. They smoked cigarettes, drank coffee and beer, and talked. They had all the time in the world to talk about the events of the past, and about their precarious situation today. ‘People used to work in the factories in Ferizaj [an industrial town 30 minutes from the village] but no more’, said one of the men. ‘There are 150 households’, added another man, ‘but only 20 men have jobs these days’. The others live off their fields, or rely on support from family members working abroad. ‘Around 30 families have relatives abroad’, explained one who has a son working in Germany, ‘but they bring back less and less money every year. If you have money, you can live. Otherwise – ’ and he shrugged his shoulders.

A few days later, a taxi driver in Prishtina, Kosovo’s bustling capital, outlined his panacea for all Kosovo’s problems while he navigated the frantic traffic: Kosovo needs to become a state. When I asked him how this would resolve Kosovo’s dire economic situation and create jobs, his agitated reply was that, as a state, Kosovo will be able to borrow. With this money, Kosovo could modernise its ailing socialist industries and develop its agriculture, which has reverted to subsistence farming over the last decades.

Though it is true that Kosovo’s government cannot borrow any money, it is doubtful that statehood and sovereign lending alone could alleviate its economic problems. Still, the taxi driver is on to something: the policy of statebuilding without statehood has inhibited all the efforts of the UN to build a democratic and prosperous Kosovo. It has constrained the transfer of authority to democratically elected institutions and has inhibited the resolution of essential issues such as property rights. Furthermore, the strategy of ‘standards before status’ that the international community has adopted to address the issue of Kosovo’s future makes the discussion of its future status conditional on the fulfilment of a set of internationally defined standards. It provides only limited incentives for Kosovar co-operation, and focuses international attention almost exclusively on the development of Kosovo, not on Serbia, which continues to claim authority over Kosovo, and whose sovereignty over the territory has been confirmed by the UN. Currently, the international statebuilding efforts in Kosovo seem to resemble an elaborate curtain, concealing an empty stage. What will happen once the curtain is lifted remains one of the great uncertainties threatening the future stability of the whole region.


On the 10th of June 1999, after weeks of quarrelling about Nato’s war in Kosovo, the members of the United Nations Security Council agreed to pass Resolution 1244, which established the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK). UNMIK became an institutionalised version of what the Canadian writer and academic Michael Ignatieff, in his recent book Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, calls the ‘new humanitarian empire’,2 in which the world’s powers – or the Western powers – assemble to establish order and rebuild war-torn societies on the principles of democracy, human rights, and a free market economy. Accordingly, UNMIK was mandated

to provide an interim administration for Kosovo under which the people of Kosovo can enjoy substantial autonomy within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and which will provide transitional administration while establishing and overseeing the development of provisional democratic selfgoverning institutions to ensure conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants of Kosovo. (my emphasis)3

UNMIK was therefore mandated to govern Kosovo and build democratic institutions of self-governance. The mandate aims to combine the imperial task of governance with the anti-imperial task of self-determination. To resolve this contradiction, the administration has to be temporary (thus an interim administration), only bridging the time until the rightful institutions are built and can take over authority. This, however, is only possible when the political status of a territory is clear, and the questions ‘who owns it?’ and ‘who will govern it?’ are unambiguously answered.

Resolution 1244 was drafted within the tight political constraints that prevailed in the wake of the Kosovo war. The Western powers were unwilling to concede independence to Kosovo as a result of a war fought under the label of a ‘humanitarian intervention’. After all, the war aimed at ending human rights violations, not advancing secession. In addition, the two permanent Security Council members who had objected to the war from the outset, Russia and China, would have vetoed any resolution that had not asserted Yugoslavia’s sovereignty over Kosovo. Addressing Kosovo’s final status was therefore postponed indefinitely in the hope that time and the reality on the ground would present a solution.

Ironically, it was only as long as Slobodan Milosevic remained in power in Serbia that this plan could have worked. With the advent of reformist and outwardly pro-Western Djindjic government, however, the situation changed, and contacts and co-operation between UNMIK have increased to the extent that it is clear there will be no solution without Serbian participation.

Resolution 1244 represents a mandate to conduct statebuilding without statehood. This approach might have seemed workable from the perspective of diplomats on the East River and the national capitals involved, who wanted to find common ground on the issue of Kosovo and avoid further divisions. But UNMIK’s mandate has imposed a major liability on the work of those tasked to administer and democratise Kosovo, because it leaves the basic questions of ownership and governance unanswered, deferring their resolution to an unspecified date in the future.


The policy of statebuilding without statehood has constrained democratisation efforts in Kosovo in various ways. At the outset of the mission, there were no recognised local political institutions, and all authority was centralised in and exercised by UNMIK. But the wartime structures of the KLA provided the foundation for illegal Kosovar institutions of governance, which existed parallel to the UN structures. Especially in the municipalities, where UNMIK was hardly present during the first six months after the war, ‘mayors’ appointed by the KLA collected taxes, ‘policed’ the streets, appointed the heads of socially owned enterprises, and collected the garbage. In the Serb-populated municipalities in the north of Kosovo in particular, the old, Serbian administration simply continued to run local affairs.

To establish full control over Kosovo, UNMIK agreed with the Albanians at the beginning of 2000 to dismantle these parallel structures and to increase Albanian participation in running Kosovo’s administration. The Serbs on the other hand refused to participate. Even today UNMIK’s power fails to reach fully into the predominantly Serb areas. Belgrade continues to finance a parallel administration in these municipalities, including schools, hospitals, and a university. Most of the Serb villages and towns in Kosovo do not pay for their electricity, and use the Serb phone company and postal services.

The transfer of responsibilities to Kosovars proceeded with local elections in October 2000, the drafting of a provisional constitution (carefully called the ‘constitutional framework’ – after all only states have constitutions) in the summer of 2001, and elections for a Kosovar government in November of that year. In February/March 2002, when the Assembly finally voted on a government, the internationally-run administration was replaced with the ‘Provisional Institutions of Self-Governance’ (PISG). The internationals who used to run the departments took up advisory positions to the new ministers. UNMIK, however, did not relinquish all responsibilities. All laws passed by the elected Kosovo Assembly still have to be signed by the head of UNMIK. Similarly, he has to approve the budget of the Kosovar government. Furthermore, so-called ‘reserved’ powers were not transferred. These cover all foreign policy and security issues, control over police and judiciary, and control over public and socially owned enterprises and their privatisation and regulation. Thus, many of the core features of a state, such as the monopoly on legitimate violence, and the ability to determine property rights in its territory, remain under UN authority.

The existence of these reserved powers is not a problem per se. Indeed, there are good reasons for keeping the police and the judiciary under close UN control, to prevent cronyism and corruption, for example, and to guarantee the rule of law for all inhabitants of Kosovo. Undoubtedly, the ongoing gradual transfer of authority from the UN to Kosovar institutions is the most sensible way of proceeding, and the only way to ensure that key state institutions like the police and the judiciary don’t become fiefdoms of political factions, and that functioning control mechanisms for them do exist by the time they are handed over. However, because of the uncertainty about Kosovo’s future political status, democratisation cannot be achieved.

Democratisation means more than just establishing elected and accountable institutions. It means transferring authority to those institutions which have been legitimised by democratic processes. But four years into the statebuilding process, a study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Kosovo has shown that most Kosovars are confused about which level of government is responsible for what, and to which institutions they should address their concerns. Elections do not seem to matter when elected officials can be overruled by democratically unaccountable UN officials. Over the three elections from 2000 to 2002, voter turnout has fallen from 79% to 54%. As long as democratic institutions are not able to act without the acquiescence of an unelected ‘benevolent despot’, they will seem powerless to the public.


The experience of the Kosovo Trust Agency (KTA), which has been in charge of the privatisation of Kosovo’s enterprises, provides an acute example of how the approach of statebuilding without statehood affects the rebuilding of Kosovo. The well-reported divisions in the KTA Board, between government and EU representatives, and the inability of the government to advance its position of immediately resuming privatisation after it had been suspended by the EU, have undermined the trust of Kosovars in the gradual democratisation process promoted by UNMIK. Privatisation, as a reserved power, has been the responsibility of the EU Mission in Kosovo. Kosovo’s unresolved status has meant that property rights (which concern who owns Kosovo’s enterprises and has a right to the proceeds from their sales, and whether UNMIK actually has a right to sell these enterprises) are uncertain. Unlike the EU and the US, which were strongly in favour of a quick privatisation, the UN was much more cautious about the changes in property rights this would have involved, and which it considered to be beyond its mandate. As a result, it took more than three years to develop a legal framework for privatisation, quite remarkable for a policy that has always been presented by the international community as the centrepiece of any economic reform and as necessary for Kosovo’s economic development. In the meantime, local strongmen illegally ‘privatised’ many of the socially owned companies to their own, private advantage.

After a successful start to the privatisation process in July 2003, the EU suspended it a few months later because of litigation fears ultimately arising from the uncertainty about property rights. Even though privatisation is about to be resumed early this year, the perception that UNMIK does not necessarily pursue Kosovo’s interests with regard to privatisation persists in Kosovar public opinion.


The contradictions within the ‘standards before status’ policy, which is supposed to provide an exit strategy for the international community in Kosovo, provide another object lesson in the problems associated with statebuilding without statehood. In spring of 2002, Michael Steiner, the head of UNMIK, coined the phrase ‘standards before status’. This phrase describes a system that made any talks about Kosovo’s future status conditional on its fulfilment of a set of benchmarks with regard to democratisation, human rights, effective administration, and the establishment of a free-market economy. The policy has been endorsed by the Security Council, European institutions, and the US government. By the end of 2003, an eight-page list was published by UNMIK detailing conditions considered necessary to create

A Kosovo where all – regardless of ethnic background, race or religion – are free to live, work, and travel without fear, hostility or danger, and where there is tolerance, justice, and peace for everyone.4

The idea of making political status conditional is hardly a novel one. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, European states applied a ‘standard of civilisation’ to determine whether a society was ready to become a state and a full member of the international society, or whether it would have to remain a colony and under the tutelage of a ‘civilised’ (i.e. ‘European’) society – a habit Michael Ignatieff describes as imperial narcissism: ‘the incorrigible self-satisfaction of imperial elites, the belief that all the variety of the world’s people aspired to nothing else but to be versions of themselves.’ Today’s standards are not couched in the language of racial superiority, and the colonial ‘white man’s burden’ has given way to the liberal ‘responsibility to rebuild’. Still, the standards applied then to mark out a civilised society are remarkably similar to those applied to Kosovo by the UN today. However, there is one major difference between the standards then and now: their political consequence. While in the 19th century, fulfilling the standard was the condition for being granted a certain political status, for Kosovars the standards mark out the conditions required before they can even talk about their political status. Giving the UN what it wants does not guarantee Kosavars will get what they want: independence and statehood.

Unless the policy of ‘standards before status’ is based on the implicit assumption that ‘status’ inevitably means independence and statehood, it provides a weak incentive for Kosovars to fulfil any standards. Why should they make the effort if the outcome might be the reintegration of Kosovo into Serbia? UN administration might not be the ideal political outcome, but from the Kosovar Albanian perspective it is certainly preferable to renewed Serb rule. Furthermore, a number of the standards that Kosovo is supposed to fulfil are either reserved powers – such as privatisation – or are under the control of Belgrade, such as the dismantling of its parallel administrative structures in predominantly Serb municipalities. The ability of Kosovo Albanians to meet these standards is therefore limited by the actions of Serbia and UNMIK – irrespective of the Kosovars’ will to implement the standards, and their commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

Any discussions about political status will have to involve Serbia, even if these discussions lead in the end to Kosovo’s independence. As long as it remains a realistic possibility that Serbia will one day again have political authority over Kosovo, even if it is granted substantial autonomy, then Serbia, too, should attain certain standards to guarantee a Kosovo ‘where all […] are free to live, work, and travel without fear’. Currently, however, no ‘standards before status’ policy is applied to Serbia, because it is a sovereign state and not under UN authority. The recent elections in Serbia, in which the ultra-nationalist party of the indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj gained the largest share of the vote, raise important questions about the extent of change among the political class of a country that denied Kosovars the right to live, work and travel without fear for a decade.


Four years after the Western powers went to war against Slobodan Milosevic under the NATO banner, the province has returned to what it has always been: a rural backwater, poor and sometimes quarrelsome, viewed by the international public with ignorance, or at best benign neglect. After the cameras left to look for mass graves elsewhere, after the debates about humanitarian intervention retreated from the front pages and prime-time discussion panels to the sombre réduit of academia and think tanks, the attention of people not directly involved with Kosovo’s affairs moved on as well. The question of Kosovo’s future, and with it the question of the region’s future stability, remains unsolved.

The statebuilding project in Kosovo has come to a point where important issues cannot be addressed without resolving the underlying question of its status. Democracy in Kosovo remains incomplete. The international community’s ‘standards before status’ exit strategy cannot resolve the dilemma of statebuilding without statehood because it fails to link real progress in Kosovo and Serbia explicitly to the question of who will govern Kosovo in the future. Without addressing this issue, the legitimacy of the whole statebuilding project is in peril.

The privatisation crisis has lifted the edge of the curtain, and has revealed that the stage of Kosovo’s political status is empty. If the stage remains empty when the curtain rises on status talks, Kosovars will direct their disappointment at UNMIK and the extensive, and expensive, international efforts so far – more than $4 billion has been spent running UNMIK and on reconstruction and development.5 Making talks about status conditional is merely an attempt to rationalise an unwillingness to engage in the necessary political processes. Real progress towards a democratic and prosperous Kosovo can only be made by making its actual status, be it independence or autonomy within Serbia, conditional on the achievements of certain standards by the relevant authorities.

Only this way can any international statebuilding effort be successful. Only then will everybody involved know the stakes and what they are working towards. Only then can UNMIK establish sensible benchmarks which have to be fulfilled before locals can assume authority as the international community gradually withdraws. If UNMIK continues the way it is going now, it risks losing everything. Kosovars will no longer trust the promises of the international community and will take matters into their own hands. If they resort to force, they will take the stage and burn the curtain.

Dominik Zaum is Rose Fellow in International Relations at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and is finishing his DPhil on statebuilding in Kosovo, Bosnia, and East Timor. In 2003, he worked for the EU Mission in Kosovo. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations and the EU.


  1. OSCE, Kosovo/Kosova – As Seen, as Told, Volume I, October 1998 – June 1999, Prishtina, 05 November 1999, p. 637.
  2. Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan (London: Vintage, 2003).
  3. United Nations Security Council, UNSCR 1244 (1999), 10 June 1999, UN Document S/RES/1244 (1999).
  4. UNMIK, Standards for Kosovo, UNMIK Press Release, 10 December 2003. Available at www.unmikonline.org.
  5. The costs for UNMIK have amounted to ca. $2 billion from 1999 to the end of 2003. Furthermore, more than $2.5 billion worth of aid was committed to Kosovo from 1999-2002.