Beware Kosovo's offspring

Published on February 23, 2008, The Japan Times Online

Category: Growing International Opposition to Imposed Solution


Last Sunday, Kosovo formally declared independence to the accompaniment of festive celebrations by the good citizens of the world's newest country. We can but wish them well as they chart a new course inside a new Europe free of the distracting conflicts that had ravaged the continent until the middle of the 20th century.

The two iconic cases of international intervention in 1999 were Kosovo and East Timor. Canada was involved in the first, Australia led the second.

As the recent attempted assassinations of East Timor's President Jose Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao show, the euphoria of independence is not enough to sustain the structures and practices of a civic community and viable polity. It would be naive to believe that centuries-old history of Serbian-Kosovar conflict has been brought to a closure. The Serbs venerate Kosovo as the cradle of their nationhood dating back to the war with the Ottoman Empire in 1389, which they lost. Their sense of victimhood and grievance has deep historical roots that will likely outlast Sunday's "setback."

Like East Timor, Kosovo may prove to be a postmodern "sovereign" state dependent for economic survival and territorial integrity on outsiders: "an entity that may be sovereign in name but is a U.S.-EU protectorate in practice" (John Laughland, The Guardian, Feb. 19).

The EU will underwrite the country's economy and security and its high representative can override decisions by Kosovo's government, as in Bosnia. Thus power will be fatally disconnected from responsibility. The same, we might note, is true of East Timor. Why else, more than eight years after independence, would they be casting stones at the failures of Australia and the United Nations with respect to the attacks on Ramos Horta and Gusmao?

There is a larger question for outsiders. Do we really want to take on the burden of determining by force the quest for independence by all the world's wannabe secessionists?

Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia was guilty of ethnic cleansing and unspeakable atrocities against Kosovars. His quest for Greater Serbia produced the opposite effect of continually shrinking borders as more and more territorial units peeled away along ethnic fault lines: a classic example of the enormous disconnect between the goals sought, the means used and the results achieved.

This still does not mean that the blame lay 100 percent with the Serbs and that the Kosovars were nothing but innocent victims. Lawrence S. Eagleburger, the former U.S. secretary of state (1992-93) and a former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia (1977-81), in an International Herald Tribune article not exactly friendly to Milosevic, wrote that "The Kosovo Liberation Army earned its reputation as a terrorist group" (April 5, 1999). NATO became the tool for the KLA's policy of inciting Serb reprisals through terrorist attacks in order to provoke NATO intervention.

How many Western countries had the KLA on their security watchlist as a criminal and terrorist organization before 1999? The liberation of Kosovo by NATO was followed by reverse ethnic cleansing of Serbs and Romas — on NATO's watch as the security guarantor — which did not receive anywhere near the matching coverage that Serbian atrocities against Bosnians and Kosovars did in the international media.

Since 1999, while many mosques have been built in Kosovo (with Saudi and Iranian funding), many churches have been burned. Will Europe and NATO stand in the way of the quest for Greater Albania across Kosovo, southern Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro — perhaps even Greece?

Then U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged in 2000 that his call for a debate on "the challenge of humanitarian intervention" had led to fears that the concept "might encourage secessionist movements to provoke governments into committing gross violations of human rights in order to trigger external interventions that would aid their cause."

Indeed. By one estimate, in rough figures, there are about 20 broadly homogenous nation-states, 200 states and over 2,000 nationalities in the world today. To support, or give the impression of international encouragement to, armed secessionists is to risk unleashing the most violent phase of human history ever.

Let's start with the more than 100,000 or so remaining Serbs inside Kosovo. Will they accept Kosovo's new status? Why should they? The rest of the world is not short of secessionist and irredentist movements, including in Europe.

Will separatists in Basque and Catalan be encouraged or discouraged? Have independistas in Aceh, Kashmir and Taiwan been delighted or perturbed? It's hard to see after this why the Turkish Cypriots will accept reunification of Cyprus under any formula, or why Sri Lanka's Tamils should not lay fresh claims on the world's conscience for a northeastern enclave of the island nation. Similarly, the Kurds might be encouraged to step up their campaign and move beyond peaceful means.

Unlike Australia, Canada, conscious of its own difficulty in Quebec, has not rushed to recognize the new country. The online edition of The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, announced Kosovo's independence declaration with "Proud, independent and free" (Feb. 17). The next day, a correspondent from Quebec City asked the paper to please keep the headline in "the archives and use it to announce the independence of Quebec, when it happens."

Do-gooders must accept responsibility for the unintended but predictable consequences of their actions. Much as they might like to think otherwise, the overriding message from the Balkans to the rest of the world, including Russia, China, Indonesia and India, is that might is right.

Maybe the collapse of colonial era borders and the dismantling of dysfunctional states is an irresistible force of contemporary world politics. If so, if bad borders mean mounting bloodshed, our most interesting times are just beginning.

Ramesh Thakur, a distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, Canada, is co-editor of "Kosovo and the Challenge of Humanitarian Intervention."

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