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Kosovo: the Balkans’ last independent state

Marko Attila Hoare
12 February 2007

A decaying multinational Balkan state reacts brutally to a secessionist movement by a national minority. Guerrilla action by the separatists is met by massacre and ethnic cleansing by the oppressor. Europe is slow to react, and there is widespread sympathy among its statesmen for the oppressor's right to preserve its territorial integrity. But international public outrage helps compel a military coalition to intervene: Britain and France participate, despite their traditional friendship with the oppressor. The coalition defeats the oppressor's forces, rescuing the rebels from catastrophe and allowing a newly independent Balkan nation-state to come into being under the guidance of the international community.

It is the 1820s, the oppressor is the Ottoman empire and the new state is Greece. In the same period, another Balkan nation-state emerges as an autonomous principality under the Ottoman sultan: Serbia. Nearly 200 years after the Greeks and the Serbs pioneered its emergence, the Balkan family of independent nation-states looks set to acquire its final member, bringing the history of its formation to a belated end.

Marko Attila Hoare is a senior research fellow at the faculty of arts and social sciences, University of Kingston (London). Among his works are The Left Revisionists (2003), How Bosnia Armed: The Birth and rise of the Bosnian Army (Saqi, 2004), Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943 (Oxford University Press/British Academy, 2006), and The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day (Saqi, forthcoming [2007])

Also by Marko Attila Hoare in openDemocracy:

"Slobodan Milosevic: the spirit of the age"
(15 March 2006)

Kosovo and Serbia: the background

On Friday 2 February 2007, United Nations special envoy Martti Ahtisaari unveiled his plan to resolve the status of the disputed province of Kosovo, up till now internationally recognised as part of Serbia, but populated overwhelmingly by ethnic Albanians who support independence. The plan was announced to Serbian and Albanian statesmen in Belgrade and in Pristina, the capitals of Serbia and Kosovo respectively.

Although it avoids using the word, the plan sets Kosovo firmly on the path to independence, granting it the right to join international organisations, conclude international agreements, and acquire all the trappings of statehood, including an army, constitution, flag and anthem. However, restrictions will remain on Kosovo's sovereignty: the province will pass from United Nations to close European Union supervision and will be banned from seeking union with neighbouring Albania or seeking to redeem Albanian-inhabited enclaves in neighbouring Serbia, Macedonia or Montenegro. The rights of the Serb minority, approximately 100,000-strong, will be protected by the establishment of six new Serb-majority autonomous municipalities.

The Ahtisaari plan amounts in large part to a restoration of the rights that Kosovo enjoyed as a constitutive and semi-sovereign member of the Yugoslav federation. Kosovo was an Albanian-majority territory of the Ottoman empire until 1912, when it was conquered, though not formally annexed, by Serbia. The Serbian army engaged in large-scale ethnic-cleansing designed to alter the demographic character of the population. After Serbia and Kosovo joined Yugoslavia in 1918, the Belgrade regime attempted to colonise Kosovo with Serb and Montenegrin settlers. When Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy dismembered Yugoslavia in 1941, they dismembered also Kosovo, which was partitioned between Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria.

The occupying powers and their quislings subjected Kosovo's peoples - Serbs, Albanians and others - to a reign of terror. Tens of thousands of Kosovo Serbs were killed or driven from their homes by Albanian quislings and collaborators, and Serbs spearheaded the Kosovo partisan resistance to the Axis order, but Albanians also participated to produce a genuinely multinational movement. The Kosovo partisans rejected the dismemberment of Kosovo as well as the anti-Albanian policies of interwar Yugoslavia, and reconstituted Kosovo as a unified and autonomous oblast - a constitutive element of the new Yugoslavia.

In 1945 the Kosovo assembly voted, formally of its own free will, for Kosovo to join the People's Republic of Serbia as an autonomous oblast - only at this point, and on this basis, did Kosovo become part of modern Serbia. Kosovo was under harsh Serbian police rule until the late 1960s when the Yugoslav regime began to liberalise and Albanian national rights acquired some substance. By Tito's death in 1980, Kosovo enjoyed semi-sovereignty, with its own constitution, assembly, flag, state symbols, territorial defence and representation in the Yugoslav presidency and other federal bodies - a status virtually equivalent to that of the Yugoslav republics of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and others.

Yet in the 1980s, Kosovo's autonomy became the target for a Serbian nationalist backlash. In the late 1980s, the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic effectively ended Kosovo's autonomy and divested the Albanians of most of their national and human rights. Milosevic's repression culminated in a massive ethnic-cleansing campaign in 1999 - for which Nato intervention provided a cover and a pretext - in which 800,000 Albanians were driven from their homes and thousands murdered. Yet Nato's victory in the 1999 Kosovo war ended Serbian rule in Kosovo and passed responsibility for the province to the international community.

The only choice

Martti Ahtisaari's plan has been welcomed by Albanian leaders, with some reservations, but rejected by the Serbian side. Yet in supporting the moves toward Kosovo's independence represented by the plan, the leaders of the United States and the European Union had little choice. Following the 1999 war, western leaders have never been prepared to allow a return of Serbian forces to Kosovo that would inevitably involve a renewal of the bloodshed. There has never been any basis for compromise between the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia. The Albanian majority is unwilling to countenance any link with Serbia, however symbolic - understandably, in light of the virulent anti-Albanian racism widespread among Serbia's governing classes and the latter's refusal to revoke or apologise for Milosevic's anti-Albanian measures.

The Albanians have also become increasingly restless at the slowness of their progress toward independence - had the international community opted simply to leave them in constitutional limbo indefinitely, they would have increasingly responded with unrest and rioting, setting the UN authorities on a collision course with the population they were governing and leading inevitably to bloodshed.

Serbia's leaders, for their part, view Kosovo as a "Serb land", the Albanians as an alien "minority" in this "Serb land" rather than as the inhabitants of their own country, and themselves as the representatives of the Serbs against the Albanians, rather than as the representatives of all Serbia's citizens - Serbs and Albanians alike. This was bluntly demonstrated in a referendum for a new Serbian constitution organised by the Serbian government in October 2006 for the sole purpose of reaffirming the Serbian claim to Kosovo.

In an outright case of electoral racism, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were banned from voting, while the new constitution referred to the province as "Kosovo and Metohija" - even though the Albanians reject the name "Metohija" for their province, which in the years before Milosevic was simply "Kosovo" (more precisely: the "Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo").

The new Serbian constitution likewise treats the autonomy of Kosovo as a mere administrative convenience, marking a substantial demotion of its status even in relation to the Titoist Yugoslav period. Faced with such Serbian obduracy, the international community was left with little choice, even had the Albanian side been more flexible.

The independence effect

Independence for Kosovo is, indeed, the only way to turn the resentful, impoverished population of Kosovo into a pillar of an international order in which they will have a stake and the same rights as other European nations. With their status and borders guaranteed, with their advancement in Europe conditional on their good behaviour, the Kosovo Albanians will have a strong incentive not to pursue any destabilising policy vis-à-vis the Albanian minorities in neighbouring countries - both Macedonia and Serbia proper experienced Albanian uprisings in the period following the Nato entry into Kosovo, a situation that the lack of definite borders only encouraged.

The Kosovo Albanians have had a very poor record where treatment of the Kosovo Serb minority is concerned, involving, in the orchestrated riots of March 2004 in particular, pogroms and the burning of Serb homes and churches. Yet with the Kosovo Serbs no longer representing a barrier toward independence, there is some reason to hope that Albanian behaviour toward them will improve.

The Islamophobic propaganda of Kosovo's enemies notwithstanding, the province was never a hotbed of al-Qaida or Islamist activity. On the contrary, Albanians are noted for their extremely moderate version of Islam; Kosovo was probably the only Muslim-majority country where the population demonstrated in favour of the US intervention in Iraq - as Saddam Hussein was widely viewed as a counterpart of the hated Milosevic. Independent Kosovo will not be a threat to European security.

Also in openDemocracy on Kosovo’s conflicts and future status:

Scarlett MccGwire, "In Kosovo, statehood is the solvent for war"
(7 June 2001)

John Dyer, "No going home to Kosovo"
(12 October 2005)

James Walston, "Kosovo: the end of the beginning"
(24 October 2005)

Julie A Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility" (16 March 2006)

Peter Lippman, "Kosovo: approaching independence or chaos?" (30 October 2006)

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice"
(2 February 2007)

There remains the question of how Serbia will react to the eventual emergence of an independent Kosovo that its politicians have almost unanimously insisted they will not accept. A lot has changed in Serbia since Milosevic's heyday, and Serbian politicians can no longer mobilise mass popular nationalist feeling over the Kosovo question. This was demonstrated by the Serbian constitutional referendum - more truly a vote on whether Kosovo should remain part of Serbia. Even after it had disenfranchised the Kosovo Albanians, the Serbian government barely scraped past the 50% turnout threshold required to validate the referendum.

Furthermore, this number was reached only at the very end of a two-day ballot, amid a quite unprecedented level of propaganda from all sections of the political elite and media pressurising (indeed morally blackmailing) Serbian citizens to vote. The tactics included door-to-door canvassing and mass text-messaging; saturation media coverage of "patriotic" examples of the elderly, invalids, priests and others voting; and "patriotic" television programmes about the 1389 battle of Kosovo. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the Serbian people voted in favour of Kosovo's independence. They are resigned to it; there will be no Serb-nationalist backlash against it.

More dangerous, however, is the intransigence of the Serbian government, which may attempt to obstruct the process indefinitely, in part through attempting to amputate the northern, Serb-held part of Kosovo centred on the city of Kosovska Mitrovica. This territory was overwhelmingly Albanian-majority until the war of 1999, but Serbian leaders may attempt to repeat the strategy of territorial dismemberment previously attempted by Milosevic unsuccessfully in Croatia and with partial success (and massive human cost) in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the very least, they may try to weaken the new state to the maximum, create as much regional instability as possible and extract the maximum concessions from the international community.

Whether the Serbian leaders succeed will depend upon the resolution of the international community in insisting on good behaviour. The UN already agreed, at Serbia's request, to postpone the announcement of Ahtisaari's plan until after the January 2007 parliamentary election in Serbia, out of fear that the plan would encourage support for the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party. Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica and President Boris Tadic then unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the international community to delay the plan's announcement further until a new Serbian government had been formed.

Western leaders understandably want to appear receptive to Serbian concerns, but they may also realise that Serbia's dead-end policies toward Kosovo can only prolong regional instability. With Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece already in the EU and Nato, and Croatia set to join soon, Serbia naturally belongs in both organisations, but it will be a better member of both if it drops its unrealisable claim to Kosovo - much as Romania dropped its claims to parts of Ukraine and Moldova as the price for Euro-Atlantic integration.

Serbia's readiness to create trouble will depend to a large part on the role of Russia, which is using Serbia as a pawn in its own imperial game, and looks set to withhold UN recognition from Kosovo unless it receives concessions elsewhere - possibly over the question of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, formally autonomous entities in Georgia that broke away in the 1990s with Russian support, and whose reintegration into Georgia Russia is preventing.

Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's constitutional relationship to Georgia superficially resembles Kosovo's constitutional relationship to Serbia, yet there is no reason why the US and EU should conflate the two issues and permit Russian interference in a region - the western Balkans - that was not in the Russian sphere even during the cold war, and that is now entirely encircled by Nato and EU members.

Opponents of Kosovo's independence argue that it will set a precedent and trigger a chain reaction of conflicts over other secessionist territories that would then demand independence - according to Serbian foreign minister Vuk Draskovic, these would include northern Cyprus, the Basque country, Corsica, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South Ossetia, Chechnya and Taiwan.

This rather comical argument ignores the fact that throughout its history, Europe has embraced the emergence of newly independent states, from Switzerland and the Netherlands in 1648 to Montenegro in 2006; indeed, most states in Europe today originally seceded from a larger entity - as indeed did the United States. The emergence of new states has never meant the collapse of the international order or a free-for-all, but is simply an inevitable, unavoidable and ultimately desirable part of Europe's evolution.

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