What about all the other Kosovos?

Published on February 19, 2008, International Herald Tribune

Category: Growing International Opposition to Imposed Solution

HONG KONG: The Balkans may be a long way from Asia but the word "Balkanization" is still etched in the minds of many leaders, particularly those who lived through the years of instability that followed decolonization.

Though the issue of Kosovo is not attracting too much public comment in Asia, it is a worry for those who ponder the implications for countries struggling with separatist minorities of their own.

They note that while the original break-up of Yugoslavia resulted from internal forces, the independence of Kosovo was made possible because the United States and the European Union supported this dismemberment of Serbia. Whether this is the result of idealism or is regarded as punishment for Serbia's actions during the Milosevic era does not matter from the point of view of those not directly involved.

Indonesia and Sri Lanka have said that they will not recognize Kosovo's independence. China and Vietnam insist that any solution must not compromise the territorial integrity of Serbia. Most other Asian official reaction is similarly likely to be negative.

There are two issues here from an Asian perspective. The first is how far the principle of self-determination should be taken. Kosovo is a landlocked state of 2 million people, 10 percent of whom are Serbs strongly opposed to its independence.

The second is to ask when and where the process of dismemberment of former empires will end. After all, the very word "Balkanization" derives from the break-up of the Balkan territory of two empires, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, into 10 states.

It may be that the nature of the European Union can allow many mini-states to exist within a broader political entity, and that Kosovo is as viable as Luxembourg. Just possibly, the EU can be successor to the former Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, embracing all states of the Balkans, big and small.

Possibly. But none of that is much consolation to other regions of the world which do not possess equivalents to the EU. Since 1945, if not earlier, they have mostly lived with two concepts: First, the nation state as accepted by their peers at the United Nations; second, borders defined by their histories as parts of Western empires.

Thus far there have been remarkably few post-colonial formal splits. The major one was the creation of Bangladesh out of an untenable Pakistan divided by a thousand miles and an equally large cultural gap. Singapore's separation from Malaysia was peaceful. Eritrea's from Ethiopia was not.

But African and Asian nations still worry deeply about national integrity. The end of formal Western empires (most recently the Russian one) is still far too close for successor nations to be confident that their borders will survive. So they are particularly sensitive when they find the West instinctively supporting separatist movements, even if only verbally.

Whether the issue is Darfur, West Papua, Nagaland or the Shan states, the old colonial powers are often seen on the side of difficult minorities opposed to the central governments the powers themselves created.

Nor does it appear, at least from a distance, that an independent Kosovo offers even a sensible solution to the problem of linguistic nations divided from their national state. Logic would surely be the partition of Kosovo between Albania and Serbia, rather than the creation of another mini-state with another disgruntled minority.

Many in the rest of the world do not even credit the West with good intentions, noting that some influential voices in Western capitals would be happy to see Iraq divided into three states, Shiite, Sunni and Kurd.

Even if they appreciate that the European Union and the United States are trying to solve problems rather than introduce new divide-and-rule stratagems, they worry.

Take Sri Lanka. Kosovo logic suggests that the Tamils in the north deserve a separate state, an eventuality that would have huge implications for an India which can only exist if its major constituent parts - be they Tamil, Sikh or Bengali - accept an overriding identity and the benefits of diversity and size.

None of this is to argue that minority rights do not matter - that China can suppress Tibet and (Turkic) Xinjiang, that Russia can brutalize Chechnya, that Thailand can submit its Malay/Muslim minority to alien laws and language, and so on.

But for most of Africa and Asia the issue is sustaining states capable of delivering administration and a stable basis for development. As Kenya shows, even in states without overt separatist problems and with some success in economic development, the over-riding problem remains integrating diverse peoples into states.

Kosovo's independence may be the last act in the Balkanization of former empires. But it also looks like a victory for tribalism and creates a principle which can only exacerbate problems in other countries. In place of acceptance of minority autonomy within a single state structure there will be fights to the bitter end between centralism and separatism.

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