Those who, for some reason, watched the entire parade of nations during the Olympic opening ceremonies this past week would have seen three rather unique delegations take the floor in Rio de Janeiro. Most notably there was Team Refugee, a team compromised of ten athletes from four countries representing the over 65 million refugees throughout the world today. There are also two other countries competing for the first time in the 2016 games. South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, will compete for the first time in an Olympics, represented by three track and field athletes. And then there is Kosovo.
Kosovo is an interesting place to look at when one wants to consider the question what actually makes a country. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, and while it has received recognition from the United States, most of the European Union, and many other countries, Serbia has refused to recognized its independence, saying Kosovo remains an integral part of Serbia’s sovereign territory. Since 2008, 112 of the 193 member stated of the United Nations have recognized Kosovo. If you want to see which countries recognize Kosovo’s independence, you can go to the website where Kosovo thanks each and every individual country that has recognized it, in that country’s language.
So, is Kosovo a country? Well, that’s a complicated question with a complicated answer. According to the 112 countries that have received their personalized thank you messages, yes, Kosovo is a country. You can travel to those countries with a Kosovar passport; there are diplomatic relations with Kosovo, and Kosovar embassies. However, if you ask Serbia, Russia, or several other countries, the answer is no. Serbia is adamant that Kosovo is a central point of Serbian identity, culture and religion. However, many Kosovar Albanians felt that the region was a national homeland, and sought independence after a long history of ethnic and religious violence. When the Provisional Institutions of Self Government of Kosovo declared independence, it was a unilateral move, meaning Serbia had no say in the matter when a southern province declared national independence. In 2010, Serbia brought its case before the International Court of Justice. The ICJ ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not illegal, but said in its decision that the issue of recognition remained a political one. So, the leaders of Kosovo, supported the majority Kosovar Albanians, had every right to declare independence according to the ICJ, but that didn't make a country. This ruling has placed Kosovo in a geopolitical limbo, even as its Olympic delegation competes in Brazil.
So, Kosovo had the right to declare independence, but that did not guarantee its recognition as a country. Kosovo is not one of the 193 members of the United Nations, but its statehood is on much firmer ground than many other independence movements. And this year, for the first time since it declared independence in 2008, Kosovo marched in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. So how does the International Olympic Committee determine what it means to be a country? In 2014, Kosovo was granted provisional status to compete in the 2016 games. This decision by the IOC was protested by Serbia, which was backed by Russia and China. However, the IOC felt secure in their decision that Kosovo met all the requirements of the Olympic charter, and could therefore compete as an Olympic team without incident. So, what are the criteria for the Olympics that make a country? Countries compete in the Olympics through organizations called National Olympic Committees, or NOCs. There are plenty of criteria that NOCs have to follow, but these deal mainly with bureaucratic procedure, sports competitions, and promotion of the Olympic values. When it comes to the matter of recognition as a country, the Olympic charter has one brief sentence of criteria. The charter reads “the expression ‘country’ means an independent State recognized [sic] by the international community.” Kosovo has its own NOC which follows all the many criteria set forth by the Olympic charter; what upsets Serbia and its supporters are the vague criteria that the IOC has for country recognition. For example, there’s no clarification of what the IOC means be the terms “independent” or “recognized [sic] by the international community.” For example, Palestine competes at the Olympics, but one could easily make the argument that Palestine is far from independent. And what is the threshold for international recognition? A majority of UN members recognize Kosovo (even more recognize Palestine). This is part of what prompted the IOC to recognize Kosovo. For years, Serbian and Russian protest had prevented Kosovo from competing in the Olympics, but by the time the IOC made it’s decision, 55% of UN member states had extended recognition to the Balkan country and received their personalized thank you’s. But the benchmark for international recognition for the IOC is different than what it takes to receive recognition as an independent state in many major international bodies, perhaps most importantly the United Nations. The different requirements for IOC recognitions and total political recognition of independent states is sure to be an issue in these games and future ones as well.
Kosovo’s status politically and internationally is still on the rocks. While the majority of countries around the world recognize it as an independent state, opposition from Serbia, Russia, and other countries keep it from enjoying full membership in the family of nations. Besim Hasani, the head of Kosovo’s Olympic committee, acknowledged the significance of the moment, stating that the IOC’s decision to allow Kosovo to compete was “the greatest news for Kosovo sport.” Yet IOC recognition has not led Serbia to throw in the towel, and it does not ensure that Kosovo will be able to join the UN General Assembly any time soon. The spirit of the Olympics is supposed to set aside political conflict in order to promote unity among nations through sport. It’s unclear whether recognizing Kosovo facilitates or impedes this goal. We may be treated to more angry rhetoric from Serbia, or to images of Serb and Kosovar athletes chumming it up at the Olympic village. One thing is for certain; if Rio can pull of these games without a major hitch, then anything is possible.