The latest country to find its place on the map is sending shockwaves around the world.
Kosovo’s declaration of independence 17 February brings the number of statelets born out of the former Yugoslavia, population 23 million, to seven — Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and now Kosovo, which boasts an impressive two million.
Statistics are trotted out to justify independence from Serbia. Ninety per cent of residents are Albanian, it is said, though this excludes 250,000 Serbs who fled when the NATO invaded. Some 120,000 plucky Serbs remained and a brave 18,000 have trickled back in recent years — under armed escort — to hostile neighbourhoods, to reclaim homes seized by Albanian squatters when NATO troops occupied the province. But demographic shifts are no reason to dismember a country.
The province was the heartland of the Serbian Kingdom in the 13th century until conquered by the Ottomans in the 15th century, and only by the end of the 19th century did it have a slight majority of ethnic Albanians for the first time. It suffered mass population transfers of both Serbs and Albanians over the years and finally achieved quasi-state status within the Yugoslav Federation by the 1960s. In the 1970s, the demographic balance was 75-25 Albanian-Serbian. Milosevic owed his rise to the presidency to his defence of Serbs in Kosovo after the death of President Josip Broz Tito in 1980, whose motto was “a weak Serbia means a strong Yugoslavia.” Kosovo’s nationalists were demanding full republican status within the federation by then, and in 1990 its parliament even declared independence (only recognised by, surprise, Albania). This dissolving of the delicately balanced federation would have been suicide and the movement was suppressed, as similar movements have been in Spain, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and many, many other countries, with nary a whisper of protest by the “international community”.
Milosevic’s attempt in the 1990s to resettle Serbian refugees from civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia prompted the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1995, a rag-tag rebel group financed by drug, arms and human trafficking, which made it to the US State Department’s prestigious list of international terrorist organisations in 1998 — Osama bin Laden made three visits to Kosovo 1994-96, but which the West nonetheless supported in the “liberation” of Kosovo in 1998-99. The denouement — Milosevic being served up to the International Criminal Court by Serbia’s current prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica — did nothing to reverse what was by now a clear policy by the West to carve a new, compliant state out of the remains of Yugoslavia.
As for who threatened who in the lead-up to the current declaration of independence, the 10,000 casualties of the upheaval of 1998-99 included Serbs, Albanians and Roma, with no one group faring much better than the other, and despite intensive efforts by NATO forces, no proof of mass murder of Albanians — the excuse used to justify the NATO bombing — was ever found. Eerily similar to the aftermath of the US pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. In any case, with the invasion, it was the Serbs who ended up fleeing rather than the Albanians. The last major outbreak of violence was in 2004 and was against the Serbs.
Kostunica argues that the Serbs should not be held to account for Milosevic’s supposed sins, that self-rule for Kosovo within a federation is an acceptable compromise, that creating such a statelet benefits no one, least of all ordinary Kosovars, and merely acts as a dangerous precedent on the world stage, but only Russia, China and a few others appear to be listening. He vowed the nation would never accept this “gross violation of international law” and angrily pointed the finger at the US, which was “ready to violate the international order for its own military interests”. Even pro-Western Serbian President Boris Tadic said, “I will never give up the fight for our Kosovo.” Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called for the United Nations to annul the move, demanding an emergency meeting of the Security Council 18 February. No resolution on Kosovo’s independence was made, with members China, Russia and Indonesia making it clear this was a stillborn child as far as they were concerned.
Western hypocrisy is so thick it can be cut with a knife: EU officials issued a statement acknowledging Kosovo’s independence declaration without explicitly endorsing it, thanks to Spain’s distaste. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance would respond “swiftly and firmly against anyone who might resort to violence.” US President George W Bush in Tanzania produced his usual inimitable sound-byte: “The Serbian people can know that they have a friend in America.” The US was low-key, calling on all parties to “exercise the utmost restraint and to refrain from any provocative act”, though it provocatively proceeded to recognise the new republic, along with Britain and France.
But then, why bother to toot one’s horn? US Albanian immigrants did that in any case, streaming into Pristina to dance in frenzied jubilation. Beating drums, waving flags, shooting guns in the air and throwing firecrackers, they chanted: “Independence! Independence! We are free at last!” An outpouring of adulation for the US was evident everywhere, in sharp contrast to the despair, anger and disbelief that gripped Serbia and its ethnic enclaves in northern Kosovo.
Europe has been busy in the Balkans since it helped destroy the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Most recently it welcomed Slovenia to its fold in 2004 and promises Croatia membership next year. NATO has been flexing its muscles, too, having swallowed up Slovenia in 2004 and promising Croatia membership this year. The plan is to bribe Serbia into acquiescing to the loss of Kosovo by giving it a nice, wet Euro-kiss. While Serbia is wise to NATO, it is not clear if its wrecked economy and exhausted people will give in to the lure of euros. In addition to the 16,000 NATO troops, the EU has parachuted in 2000 police, judges and administrators into Kosovo, but insisted Kosovo’s independence will be severely circumscribed. A wise move, that, considering the KLA and Kosovo’s reputation for terrorism and all kinds of trafficking, and the new prime minister’s deep mafia connections. In a faux show of magnanimity, the KLA political leader and Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, called on displaced Serbs living outside Kosovo to return, guaranteeing them full rights. Thaci was a founding member in 1993 of the Marxist-Leninist oriented People’s Movement of Kosovo, which advocates Pan-Albanianism; his sister just happens to be married to Sejdija Bajrush, the top Albanian mafioso.
The fallout from this latest chapter of Balkan intrigues is already accelerating. At least three shiny new border posts have been burned down and three bombs exploded near Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe offices in northern Kosovo. Demonstrators there demanded that the Serbian army mobilise to keep their territories, which make up 15 per cent of Kosovo, part of Serbia. The northern part of Kosovo already has parallel institutional structures and does not recognise the authority of the Kosovo government. Misha Glenny, an expert on the Balkans, warns, “Whatever the outcome of Kosovo’s independence, everyone knows we are heading for de facto partition. But no one is willing to admit it.” Serbian police officers have deserted the multi-ethnic Kosovo police force and given their allegiance to Belgrade.
Next door, Serbian separatists in the Muslim-Croat Federation have stepped up their threats to secede from Bosnia. Macedonia, which has the misfortune of bordering Kosovo, Albania and Serbia, and has a substantial restive Albanian minority to boot, will wait for at least 15 EU countries to recognise Kosovo first. Biljana Vankovska from the Institute for Peace and Defence Studies in Skopje said, “the perspectives of the Kosovo market are a cold comfort for Macedonia’s economy.” Serbian President Boris Tadic says that Serbia will recall its ambassadors from countries that recognise an independent Kosovo, which already include the US, UK, Germany and France. Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania are not planning to recognise Kosovo any time soon. Even Poland is having doubts.
Kosovo’s independence will inevitably lead to separatist efforts by other dissatisfied territories around the world. The very day of the declaration, presidents of two Georgian breakaway provinces — Abhazia’s President Sergei Begapsh and South Ossetia’s President Eduard Kokoity — met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and received a commitment for continued support. All residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were granted Russian citizenship after heavy-handed Georgian attempts to cow the independent-minded territories in the 1990s. “We are told all the time: Kosovo is a special case,” Putin said recently. “It is all lies. There is no special case and everybody understands it perfectly well.” After his official meeting with Lavrov, Bagapsh said, “Abkhazia will soon ask the Russian Federal Assembly and the UN Security Council to recognise its independence.”
Despite the tragedy of Chechnya, such enthusiasm to team up with Russia by Muslim border states suggests that religion is really not the issue here at all. There are also Trans-Dniester, sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh, the breakaway Armenian district in Azerbaijan, and farther afield, Taiwan, Kurdistan, Baluchistan, the Tamil Tigers, and many, many other would-be countries and terrorist groups all of which have gained a new lease on “independence” from this latest Balkan intrigue.