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20 SAIS Review Journal of International Affairs 111 (2000)


Serbia has two autonomous provinces, with nearly identical constitutional and political claims: heavily Albanian Kosovo and ethnically diverse but Serb-majority Vojvodina. One is headed towards some form of internationally recognized independence; the other almost certainly is not, even though calls for its autonomy have been mounting. What makes the difference?

This article examines what the reasons for these different outcomes show about the changing content of self-determination in an environment of persistent ethnic claims. The defining characteristic of self-determination today is its indeterminacy, which allows policymakers to pursue a broader range of policies than was possible in the era of decolonization. These policies are only limited by the ability of states to define their actions consistently with past practice or to claim new rhetorical ground in the name of self-determination. This in turn will give rise to a new orthodoxy. To achieve a positive outcome in Kosovo, policymakers have adopted rhetorical and legal positions that will shape self-determination as a legal claim and policy option, and will do so in ways that partly revive its original, Wilsonian rationale.

Consistent application of the principles that appear to underlie the West's preferred solution in Kosovo should logically encourage similar outcomes in Vojvodina - yet this is a result few parties desire, so policymakers have to distinguish these claims. Efforts to do so inevitably have to address the different ethnic makeup of the provinces which underlies their different treatment. In disfavoring similar treatment for Vojvodina - and finding it easy to do so - the international community implicitly acknowledges that an ethnic criterion, long disfavored, has definitively reentered the legal and political analysis of self-determination.