Did Kosovo open up Pandora’s Box?

If the international community intends to keep the floodgates to secessionist movements closed, it w

In February 2008, Kosovo’s parliament unilaterally declared itself independent from Serbia. Tens of thousands crowded the streets of Pristina against a backdrop of fireworks and firecrackers.

These celebrations were not repeated in the Kremlin. Even as Western states moved to support Kosovo, Russia's President Vladimir Putin branded the declaration “immoral and illegal”.

Then war erupted in the Caucasus and two tiny Georgian enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, were recognised as independent by Russia and Nicaragua. It was the West's turn to fume.

Some commentators have been quick to conclude a new Cold War is inevitable. Elsewhere there has been growing alarm that the fireworks in Kosovo - and now the Caucasus - will lead to new waves of unilateral declarations of independence and self-determination.

The panic is ill-founded for a number of reasons. For one thing, secessionism is not new. Since 1990, almost 30 new states have been created, mostly following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.

Indeed, since 1945, the United Nations has grown from 51 members to 192 today as independence movements took on life even as colonial empires disintegrated. Naturally, state boundaries change as geopolitics and power balances evolve.

For a secessionist movement to be recognised by other states is quite different to it be represented in diplomatic relations and become an active player in international processes. Taiwan, enjoying diplomatic relations with 23 states, cannot be said to be an active party in the international community until it gains representation at the United Nations and in its agencies. Until Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia gain this representation, they remain in state limbo.

Thirdly, Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are very different from the majority of secessionist territories in the world. Kosovo was under UN authority for nearly a decade prior to its independence, the statement of which emphasised that Kosovo was a “special case” after the volatile breakup of Yugoslavia. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have operated as functional de facto governments since the early 1990s, with a stable, independent government structure and a functional judiciary.

And indeed, secessionism is little more than a blanket term for a diverse grouping of political movements around the world. The Kurds, with 30 million dispersed across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, hardly face the same challenges as the South Ossetians, numbering 70,000. Secessionist movements in South Tyrol, Flanders, and Scotland may all operate within large, western European, well-established political administrations, but their histories and political situations stand in stark contrast to one another.

Even within states, secessionist movements can differ enormously. Indonesia has seen two very different major movements – East Timour was granted independence in 1999 whilst separatist calls in Aceh have been largely muted as the region enjoys increasing internal autonomy. The election of the Kuomintang Party in Taiwan has seen a political cross-Strait truce since March 2008, whilst pre-Olympic crackdowns in Western China saw demonstrations and increasing support for autonomy amongst Tibetan and Uyghur groups.

It is far too early to say what effect the international recognition of Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia will be on these movements. Indeed, it is too early to predict whether these de facto states will be represented in international forums in the near future, or whether they will remain in de facto limbo.

But for all that can be said about the differences amongst secessionist movements, one important issue is shared by most. The bulk of Abkhaz grievances, for example, stemmed from the fact that despite being a nearly two decade-old de facto government, it has been cast in political and economic isolation.

Unrepresented internationally and with no diplomatic relations to speak of, the Abkhaz government counted on Russia as their only supporter, who happily granted Russian passports to their citizens.

This happened whilst the international community was put to a stalemate, paralysed by fanfares of respect for the territorial integrity of Georgia, and failed to even attempt addressing Abkhaz calls for recognition. It is in this stalemate that Abkhazia found itself in complete diplomatic seclusion. For over a decade, Abkhaz authorities spoke of the deprivation of its peoples’ rights in their exclusion from international human rights treaties and debates.

The international community should consider this carefully. Self-determination movements around the world call for autonomy because they are isolated from decision-making processes. States must find a way to actively engage these unrepresented groups without violating the territorial integrity of the state which they are in.

In the case of Abkhazia, avoiding isolation could have been as simple as an invitation to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty 1997. After decades of skirmishes, Georgia and Abkhazia are amongst the most mine-affected communities in the world. The Abkhaz government has openly expressed readiness to address landmine issues, but cannot sign the Mine Ban Treaty as it is not an internationally recognized state. A simple invitation to participate in or attend any of the annual meetings of Mine Ban Treaty signatories may have sufficed in lulling Abkhazia out of isolation and into the international community, and undermined Russia’s appeal as Abkhazia’s sole ally.

The lesson here is important. Not only did the international community’s decade-old failure to engage Abkhazia in mine ban dialogue likely result in grave humanitarian consequences from continued mine use, it injected Abkhazians with a growing sense of indignant isolation and anger. The lesson should be widely applied to secessionist movements across the world. From Kurdistan, with 30 million unrepresented and isolated peoples, to Taiwan, with a distinct political system and history to China, states around the world must recognize the need to address the right of self-determination without relinquishing to territorial integrity as a trump card above all other consideration. The choice has little to do with territorial integrity; it is between isolation and engagement.

All in all, did Kosovo open a Pandora’s Box of unilateral declarations of independence? All things considered, no. However, if the international community intends to keep the floodgates of secessionist movements closed, it would do well to learn from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The international community must move away from black-and-white conceptions of statehood – the choice is not between independence and territorial integrity. Dare we say, the choice should be to think a little outside the box.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood