Kosovo is preparing to declare independence with American support. Although the Bush administration apparently expects nothing much to happen, the process is likely to be both divisive and destabilizing.
Relations among Europe, Russia, and America could sour. Serbian politics may lurch further to the nationalist right; the Radical Party’s Tomislav Nikolic led the first voting round for president Sunday before last. Another Balkans war is possible, though thankfully unlikely.
Friends of Kosovo’s independence argue that stability isn’t everything. The U.S. has no intrinsic interest in Kosovo’s status and would be best served to stay out of it, but that ship sailed long ago.
Washington spent most of the 1990s working overtime to break up Serb-dominated Yugoslavia while forcing ethnic Serbs to remain in the newly independent states. The new countries Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia were allowed to form, but Serbs locked in Bosnia and Croatia, in particular, were expected to cheerfully accept their fate.
The U.S. applied the same policy to Kosovo, a constituent part of Serbia. In 1999 Washington led NATO in a military campaign to aid the ethnic Albanian forces, eliminating Serb authority over the territory.
The Bush administration has built on the Clinton administration’s policy. After presiding over unproductive faux “negotiations” predicated on Kosovo’s ultimate independence, the administration now plans to recognize the new nation even if it fails to win United Nations approval.
Of course, Washington insists that all ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo must remain in the new state. As before, secession from Serbs is okay, but secession by Serbs is prohibited. Sound fair?
GRANTED, SORTING THROUGH the conflicting claims involving Kosovo ain’t easy. Once Serbian heartland, it hosts the site of the Battle of the Blackbirds, where the Serbs lost to the Ottomans in 1389 (the loss probably shaped Serbian consciousness more than would have a victory — such is the way of the Balkans).
Over time the population shifted to an ethnic Albanian majority, in part due to Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito’s efforts to dampen Serbian nationalism in the multi-ethnic communist state.
In the 1980s it was Serbians who complained of misconduct by the ethnic-Albanian majority in Kosovo. In 1982, the New York Times reported on “almost weekly incidents of rape, arson, pillage and industrial sabotage, most seemingly designed to drive Kosovo’s remaining indigenous Slavs–Serbs and Montenegrins — out of the province.”
That all changed after Slobodan Milosevic used an appearance in Kosovo in 1987 to ignite Serb nationalism and leapfrog into national leadership. With his rise, Belgrade reasserted Serb control over Kosovo.
When Yugoslavia broke up, the secession of Bosnia and Croatia produced particularly gruesome conflicts, since both of those provinces contained many ethnic Serbs who wished to remain independent if not in Serbia.
Although ethnic Serbs may have been responsible for the bulk of atrocities, Bosniacs and Croats also freely murdered Serbs and each other. The largest single episode of ethnic cleansing prior to the Kosovo war was conducted against ethnic Serbs in Croatia’s Krajina region, where the battle damage remained evident for years. Most of Krajina’s ethnic Serb residents have yet to return.
Serb-Albanian relations in Kosovo also deteriorated as the 1990s proceeded. Serb rule was heavy-handed; Albanians, who made up the vast majority of the population, created alternative government and social institutions; the Kosovo Liberation Army (labeled a “terrorist” group by the U.S.) began attacking Serb officials and Albanian “collaborators”; the Serbian government responded brutally; fighting expanded and casualties increased.
EVEN AS 1999 dawned, the war, though tragic, was minor as ethnic and sectarian conflicts go, costing perhaps two thousand lives over a couple of years. About the same time a quarter of a million people were slaughtered in Sierra Leone. But the Clinton administration, led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, decided to go to war against Serbia, and American bombers forced a quick surrender.
Since 1999 the territory has been run by the UN and NATO, more or less. After the allied victory ethnic Albanians kicked out 200,000 or more Serbs and other minorities, such as Roma. Kosovo’s guerrillas took over as leaders — of both the political system and abundant criminal enterprises. Three years ago ethnic Albanian mobs arose to murder and displace ethnic Serbs, and to burn and wreck Serb homes, churches, and monasteries.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, the U.S. and Europeans want to be done with the mess that they helped to created. Desultory negotiations over Kosovo’s status occurred over the last two years, but the outcome was never in doubt. The allies made clear to the ethnic Albanians that independence would result if no accord was reached, so no accord was reached.
The Serbs refused to be bought off with the promise of European Union membership and the Russians said no to another Western fait accompli. So now Kosovo plans to declare independence, perhaps in days, and the U.S. and most Europeans say they will recognize the new state.
The most sensible policy for Washington would be to step back and indicate that there will be no recognition without genuine negotiations, that is, talks without a predetermined outcome, between Kosovo and Serbia.
On the table should be all options, including overlapping citizenships (Kosovo, Serb, EU), and secession within secession, that is, allowing the ethnic Serbs concentrated to Kosovo’s north, principally around Mitrovica, to remain in Serbia.
THE U.S. SHOULD halt the independence bandwagon, though not because Washington has an intrinsic reason for objecting to Kosovo becoming a separate nation. In principle the status of this particular piece of real estate should not matter much to America. Whether the ethnic Albanians or Serbs rule in Pristina is intrinsically irrelevant to U.S. interests.
However, Washington has spent more than a decade unbalancing the Balkans. By accelerating the break-up of Yugoslavia with the early recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence, the allies short-circuited negotiations, most importantly over the status of minorities within the breakaway states. U.S. diplomats also discouraged early settlement of the Bosnian conflict, further bloodying allied hands.
Washington and Brussels have done the same in Kosovo. Starting in 1998 the allies took the side of the ethnic Albanians, encouraging their intransigence in ensuing negotiations. Maybe a peaceful outcome was never possible. We will never know because of U.S. and European intervention.
After the 1999 Kosovo war, the allies essentially promised the ethnic Albanians independence and dismissed any compromise, such as allowing ethnic Serbs to secede from Kosovo. All the while the West blamed Belgrade for refusing to accept the ethnic Albanian position. Now those same allies are greenlighting a declaration of independence by Pristina.
The outcome of this strategy is not likely to be pretty. There will be a new, violent, and unstable state, permeated by crime and possibly open to terrorists, in the Balkans.
This will push Serbia away from Europe, conceivably leaving a large economic and political hole in the Balkans. The allied approval of Albanian self-determination will encourage other secessionist movements in the Balkans and elsewhere as ethnic and political minorities demand the same “right” of independence. Western dismissal of Russia’s interests will make Moscow more antagonistic and assertive. Failure to resolve the status of Serbs within Kosovo risks triggering conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, and possibly Kosovo and Serbia.
Nice work all around.
Washington still has time to say no and mitigate some of the consequences of its past meddling in the Balkans. But, at this point, the odds aren’t good.
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