Kosovo and the dark side of democracy

by Chris Bertram on February 29, 2008

Further to my post the other day on Kosovo, and whether or not it sets a precedent for other would-be secessionist movements, I’d just like to note a very interesting piece by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express, which I found thanks to Chris Brooke at the Virtual Stoa. Mehta draws on Michael Mann’s work on “the dark side of democracy” to argue that the Kosovo case does indeed threaten future instability. On the immediate political pragmatics, whilst Mehta is surely right to argue that the backing of the US and other Western powers meant that the Kosovo Albanians were under no pressure to negotiate a solution that fell short of independence, defenders of independence can reply that, given what has gone on since 1990, they would have had no reason to believe anyway that remaining within a Serb-dominated state would given them even basic safety, let alone more extensive human rights guarantees. That disagreement aside, Mehta makes a good deal of sense on the connections between democracy, ethnic homogenization and the disastrous doctrine of national self-determination:

bq. In the 19th century, there was a memorable debate between John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton. John Stuart Mill had argued, in a text that was to become the bible for separatists all over, including Jinnah and Savarkar, that democracy functions best in a mono-ethnic societies. Lord Acton had replied that a consequence of this belief would be bloodletting and migration on an unprecedented scale; it was more important to secure liberal protections than link ethnicity to democracy. It was this link that Woodrow Wilson elevated to a simple-minded defence of self-determination. The result, as Mann demonstrated with great empirical rigour, was that European nation states, 150 years later, were far more ethnically homogenous than they were in the 19th century; most EU countries were more than 85 per cent mono-ethnic. Most of this homogeneity was produced by horrendous violence, of which Milosevic’s marauding henchmen were only the latest incarnation. This homogeneity was complicated somewhat by migration from some former colonies. But very few nation states in Europe remained zones where indigenous multi-ethnicity could be accommodated.