In reading the Wikipedia article on Kosovo independence precedent, one thing I noticed is that it treats the Kosovo situation as a precedent. This is surprising to me because there's obviously a precedent-to-the-precedent in the Confederate States of America (CSA), which also attempted to declare independence against the will of the original country. Funkily enough as well, the CSA's declaration met a very different fate internationally from Kosovo's declaration.

Did anyone of the era cite the CSA as an example for why Kosovo should not be allowed to become an independent country? Alternatively, did anyone cite reasons why the CSA's declaration of independence should not be taken as a precedent for the Kosovo situation?

I'm looking for something similar to the multiple comparisons I've found for Kosovo's declaration of independence and Crimea's declaration of independence (e.g. this). I couldn't find anything from a simple search.

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    International relations are governed less by precedent and more by the parties self-interest.
    – MCW
    May 15, 2020 at 12:04
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    Is there any particular reason you are making this comparison with the CSA? There have been many other prominent unilateral declarations of independence.
    – Brian Z
    May 15, 2020 at 12:37
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    @BrianZ it was the first one to come to mind, that's all.
    – Allure
    May 15, 2020 at 13:03
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    Why would the CSA any way relevant in international politics more than 100 years later? Things changed a lot after the two world wars.
    – Greg
    May 16, 2020 at 17:35
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    For one thing, Kosovo didn't explicitly list the right to own and keep slaves as primary motivation for secession. Maybe that makes it a more socially palatable precedent. May 17, 2020 at 15:56

5 Answers 5


Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun

When NATO (led by US) started intervention against Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, they simply had no equal match in firepower and economic power, especially in that part of the world (SE Europe) . Although many countries and individuals doubted their reasoning and causes for war (and those doubts are growing even today), none could do much about it except organize protests, sign petitions etc... Countries that did not support intervention (and still today do not recognize independence of Kosovo) like Russia, China, India etc ... did not have enough strength and interest to do something concrete about it. All they could is offer verbal political support, and trough diplomatic fight arrange a comprise in a United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, which legalizes occupation of Kosovo by NATO forces but also confirms that Kosovo is still part of Yugoslavia. Note that when Western countries & allies started recognizing independence of Kosovo from 2008 onward, this resolution served as a sort of shield for countries that refused to do so. Diplomatic fight over Kosovo is still raging, with some countries revoking recognition, but more on that later.

What about CSA ? In a diplomatic sense, they were in a worse position then FRY . Although more evenly matched towards US in terms of firepower, they were not independent country prior to war. There were countries that were sympathetic to them, especially Britain and France, but those two didn't find enough reason to go to war over it, although intervention was pondered. Note that all of this happened after bloody Crimean war (1853-1856), Prussia and France were sliding towards major conflict (happened in 1871), UK was involved in smaller colonial conflicts at that time etc ... Intervention would certainly force British and French navies against USN which was growing power at that time and close to home. It would also open front in Canada, possibly invite Russia to intervene in US favor (they had good relations then, and wanted to avenge loss at Crimea) etc ... Therefore, when intervention didn't materialize, all of these countries took wait and see approach. Since CSA lost the war, they simply acted as it never existed.

In a political sense, problem of Kosovo is an old problem of might vs right. Countries that do not have hard power (guns, money ...) usually attempt to advocate rule of law, rights etc ... And usually it is less effective. Countries that do have hard power simply find excuses (in case of Kosovo supposed atrocities) to do what they want. Then they call it a precedent. Ironically, when balance of power shifts, that precedent could be used by other countries in a similar manner - one example is Russian takeover of Crimea. US could protest against that, but there is little they could do on the ground, same as Russia could not stop US in 1999 over Kosovo. On a world stage, power of US is slowly but consistently dropping since 1999. This affects Kosovo - as mentioned before, some countries did revoke recognition. Considering current COVID-19 recession, and worsening of China-US relations, question of Kosovo would depend on who emerges victorious from all of this, and not on some supposed moral principle.

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    Comment only - not a criticism per se: Your answer and comments above are general highly revisionist with respect to the general body of international public opinion. If you recognise this and believe that your points of view are correct and the majority are wrong then no problem, but see below. If you are not aware of this you may wish to examine other points of view more widely. This does not mean 'all the rest are right" or that a wider examination may change your views. It may, however, move you towards couching your statements as opinions rather than revelations of fact. Or not :-). May 17, 2020 at 3:19
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    @RussellMcMahon There is no general body of international public opinion about Kosovo, there is a official POV of Western countries (now disputed even there), and there is opinion in the East (Russia, China, India ...) that considers intervention illegal. As for US civil war, all facts that I presented are mainstream (i.e. Britain and France considered helping CSA but decided against that) .
    – rs.29
    May 17, 2020 at 7:41
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    @RussellMcMahon It is so strange to assume that a thing like the "general body of international opinion" exists and univocal.
    – Greg
    May 17, 2020 at 15:39
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    @RussellMcMahon Ignoring China, Russia, India and even some Western countries (Greece, Spain) that didn't recognize independence of Kosovo leaves your "general body" rather hollow (less then half of world population). Facts on the ground are that in last 20 years things have changed. West is no longer so dominant, lot of countries do not agree with unilateral change of internationally recognized borders. Same with Trump - roughly half of US population supports him, half oppose him. But ignoring him is not possible.
    – rs.29
    May 18, 2020 at 6:52
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    @AndrewGrimm Russia, China etc ... usually advocate non-interference in internal matters of other countries, they are usually against unilateral military interventions, especially without mandate of UN Security Council (Iraq, Yugoslavia, Libya, Syria etc ...) Of course, they are far from angles , but on international scene more often then not they are legalistic powers, while US always does whatever it wants (except when met with heavily armed opponent like North Korea) .
    – rs.29
    May 18, 2020 at 6:56

The difference is that while Kosovo broke away from a country which had tried to exterminate its inhabitants, the slave states broke away so that they could continue to enslave some of their inhabitants.

As some repondents have pointed out, whether a breakaway or revolutionary state is considered legitimate depends on only

  1. whether foreign countries are sympathetic to the breakaway and its goals
  2. whether the breakaway can actually control the territory it claims.

Ultimately only 2) matters. But lots of 1) can get you to 2).

To take most well known example, many aristocrats in Britain favoured the slave states and influenced British foreign policy to help them. But efforts to recognise them as a legitimate belligerent were foiled by, among other things, public opinion, which in Britain was strongly opposed to slavery.

The extent to which right and wrong influences foreign policy - i.e. less than primarily but more than negligibly - explains why Kosovo gained recognition but the slave states were denied it.

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    Great answer, it really boils down to the above mentioned two counts. Take for example Syria, many countries wanted to see Assad gone and replaced by some kind of moderate, reasonable group. Unfortunately no moderates managed to actually take control of the territory.
    – Ivana
    May 15, 2020 at 14:36
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    @Ivana In which NeMo's 1) is relevant. As much as many countries wanted that, none wanted it enough to put weapons in the hands of those moderates, never mind putting boots on the ground to help them. Kosovo most likely would have fallen into the same situation, except that the UN already had boots on the ground after the Yugoslav civil war and Serbia's role in war crimes meant that it was already under sanctions.
    – Graham
    May 15, 2020 at 15:19
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    -1 for blatant propaganda in first sentence. There is no proof about extermination of Albanians, in fact, opposite is quite true - after they won Albanians killed Serbs wherever they caught them and sold organs : telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1584751/…
    – rs.29
    May 16, 2020 at 5:51
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    @rs.29 both Serbs and Kosovo Albanians were product of the same governing culture of Jugoslavia and they are not to be expected to act differently in similar situations. Both groups did ethnic cleansing on the scale it was at all possible for them. It is up to you to sympathize to either group (they both don't deserve much). Creating Kosovo was a bad way to limit the death toll - except for no one having a better (and workable) plan.
    – fraxinus
    May 16, 2020 at 8:27
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    Crimes plausibly committed by the KLA do not disprove crimes definitely committed by Milosevic. Nonetheless, whether you acknowledge the latter is irrelevant to the question and my answer. OP asked why Kosovo was recognised and some other separatist states aren't. The point is not whether you or I think that Kosovo was right to break away. The point is that powerful foreign countries thought so and were willing and able to back that up with force.
    – Ne Mo
    May 16, 2020 at 11:32

'Precedent' is a more or less meaningless word in international relations. Don't make the mistake of thinking that international relations are governed by any kind of set rules or that international law is like law in any meaningful sense.

Countries - some countries - may subscribe to international law, but that essentially amounts to mutual voluntary agreements. Nations agree in certain acceptable behaviours on the basis that the stability and predictability it brings outweighs the occasional limitations it requires on acting in their own interests. But this is only enforceable in the sense that the political or economic (or military) consequences would be worse than compliance.

The point is that regardless of 'international law' , countries are free to act in their best interests, weighing what they can get away with in terms or their own public opinion and relationships with other countries.

In that light, the idea of 'precedent' here is nothing like the legal term. It has no legal force, because there isn't really any such thing as law, certainly not in an enforceable sense. Instead international precedent basically boils down to "this is the kind of way we've acted in the recent past, so it's a useful guide to how awe might act in the near future". In the question's link to the Wikipedia article, you can see the arguments in this light. It is really just nations arguing that that do/don't like this kind of thing, not any kind of legal argument.

Precedent is a useful guide to how nations are likely to act in the near future, because as a rule the interests and values of a nation only change slowly over time. How one acted 20 years ago is unlikely to be radically different to how it would act now. Plus there is the additional factor that many people directly remember what was done 20 years ago, and there are now likely to be negative consequences for hypocrisy and double standards.

Conversely, most nations are rather different to how they were 100 years ago, in terms of national interest, common values and concerns (the things that drive the choices nations make), and the state of the world changes a lot on that time scale. How a nation acted 100 years ago doesn't tell you a whole lot about what it will do now.

So the reason the CSA precedent had no bearing on the Kosovo situation is partly because if was a long time ago in a different context, but mostly that none of the countries driving events had an interest in bringing up the comparison: that wasn't what they wanted to achieve. And 50-100 years from now, Kosovo will still have precisely no bearing on what happens in similar situations. It will once again be driven by the interests of the nations with the greatest ability to force events to their liking, and any use of precedent will at most be used to offer justification for what they were going to do anyway, or ignored if it is inconvenient.

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    This is basically a statement of opinion that international law doesn't matter. It's not well supported and it doesn't address the question.
    – Brian Z
    May 15, 2020 at 14:25
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    -1. This is definitely contrary to the state of scholarship in international relations. It doesn't appear to be informed by anything other than speculation. May 15, 2020 at 16:06
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    @BrianZ From Taiwan to Kosovo, from Transmoldavia to Crimea, the whole history of border drawing in Balkan, everyday politics show that international law is much less strict and formulaic than 'normal law', and much more depending on the size of the armies / perceived aggressivity of the countries who are willing to defend their "legal opinion" on the battlefield, too, than legalities. 100 years old cases may matter in civil code law (in Anglosaxon legal systems, nowhere else), but not in international law.
    – Greg
    May 17, 2020 at 2:27
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    Kosovo was one of many successor states of Yugoslavia. A fair case can be made that the relevant precedents were the prior independence of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia in the years before, not the CSA in a previous century. But the fact that you can argue which precedent should apply is not surprising; as this answer shows the notion of precedent in international law is quite fuzzy.
    – MSalters
    May 18, 2020 at 11:01

The precedent the article talks about is that Kosovo was recognized as an independent state by major powers very soon.

No country ever recognized the Confederacy as an independent country.

  • I will clarify the question.
    – Allure
    May 15, 2020 at 6:16
  • A recent separated country being recognized by major countries very soon was not really a novelty in 2008; e.g. Baltic states in 1991 or East-Timor in 1999 spring to mind.
    – Evargalo
    May 15, 2020 at 9:03
  • In case anyone else is wondering what I was (is this true?) Britanica confirms that the Confederacy failed to gain foreign recognition.
    – Brian Z
    May 15, 2020 at 13:15
  • @BrianZ For what it's worth, ironically, the Catholics and Indians somewhat did. The Papacy sent a pro forma reply giving Jeff Davis his full claimed title and the Choctaw and the Chickasaw recognized the South and fought alongside it, for those who consider Amerind tribes to be sovereign peoples (obv not the US's own legal principle).
    – lly
    May 17, 2020 at 5:50
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    @Evargalo Baltic states is a bad example becauese 1) Many countries did not recognize their incorporation in the USSR in the first place, 2) The USSR itself recognized their independence.
    – Anixx
    May 17, 2020 at 21:51

Let's be clear about what happened with regards to Kosovo. In 2010 the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion at the request of the United Nations General Assembly. The key conclusion of this opinion was that "international law contains no 'prohibition on declarations of independence'." This is not based on any historical precedent, just the letter of international law. It is also very different from saying that international law protects declarations of independence in a positive sense. Multiple scholars of international law have raised concerns that the advisory opinion will encourage independence claims. Its not at all clear that this has happened in practice.

There have been many unilateral declarations of independence before Kosovo. Some of these, unlike the Confederacy, were actually successful in gaining international recognition. The International Court of Justice makes no substantial reference to any of these historical precedents in its advisory opinion.

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    The International Court didn't consider precedent when determining what international allow allows/prohibits? That would be very surprising, since precedent is a key source of law. May 15, 2020 at 16:11
  • I'm not a legal scholar and I've only skimmed through the opinion itself. Of course it deals with legal precedents, but these don't seem to be of decisive importance, particularly not in the way the question is asking about. It does give passing mention to claims by Quebec in paragraph 55, but only to say that it's not really relevant.
    – Brian Z
    May 15, 2020 at 16:58
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    @indigochild Precedent is revered in Common law systems, to wit, former British empire mostly. Continental Europe and much of South and Central America uses civil law system, which go back to Roman law and which don't attribute much weight to precedent at all.
    – Gnudiff
    May 16, 2020 at 22:32

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