Someone should erect a monument in Pristina to Slobodan Miloševic as the godfather of the new country. If he had not abolished Kosovar autonomy, practiced a form of apartheid for a decade, and rounded it off with a brutal episode of ethnic cleansing and mass murder, Kosovo would not likely have declared independence on February 17. Nor would its European neighbors and indeed so many of the most important countries of the world have recognized its independence so promptly.
Amid the joy of long-delayed self-determination, Kosovars face serious obstacles. Serbia and its Russian ally continue to oppose independence. There are some lingering doubts in certain European capitals and the new state has some persistent political and economic dysfunctions. But Kosovar independence is now a reality, and the international community will soon get used to it.
Supporters of Serbia have objected to Kosovar independence on many grounds – often contradictory. Perhaps the most contradictory has been Belgrade’s newfound attachment to international law. Both Moscow and Belgrade can make a limited case in international law with respect to sovereignty. But neither in recent history has been scrupulous about respecting boundaries or over-scrupulous concerning the sovereignty of their neighbors.
Indeed, neither country has shown the slightest contrition for Miloševic’s crimes against international humanitarian law and their active or tacit support for them. There is a ghoulish form of revisionism among Serb nationalists and their supporters that either totally denies or downplays the murder of thousands of Kosovars, many of whose rotting corpses were later excavated and removed to destroy the evidence. Belgrade’s forces drove almost a million Kosovars across the borders and out of their homes.
The Serb nationalist claim to Kosovo on historical grounds is not likely to get far in any international tribunal, Israeli fanatics’ claims from Moses notwithstanding. It is a sort of diplomatic neutron bomb that claims the land and disposes of the people. Belgrade’s supporters have failed to explain how Serbia would in any way exercise effective sovereignty over an overwhelmingly hostile population, whose recalcitrance has, if anything, been reinforced by the Serbian leader’s intransigence. A close parallel would be London deciding to take back Ireland based on a much longer political history of continuous sovereignty than Serbia can demonstrate over Kosovo.
Self-determination has been one of the bedrock principles of modern times, strongly emphasized by the International Court of Justice in its ruling over Western Sahara. Various Balkan nations, including the Serbs, invoked that right earlier against the Ottoman Empire.
Any rational point of view would suggest that such atrocities by Belgrade extinguish any residual claim of sovereignty over or loyalty from the Kosovars. There is in fact a recent example, which could indicate the direction that the international community will take.
Pakistan was originally formed by the voluntary union of what is now Bangladesh and what is now left of the country in the West. You may note that, in contrast, no one asked the Kosovars about their incorporation into Serbia in 1912, or at any time since. When in 1971 the Pakistani army staged mass killings and rapes of the Bengalis in East Pakistan, and foolishly took on India, it lost and Bangladesh seceded. Bangladesh became a member of the Commonwealth, recognized by almost 90 countries. It joined many of the UN’s subsidiary bodies even before its first application to join the UN became the occasion of Beijing’s first veto, since the PRC and Pakistan were close allies against India and the USSR. In the end, reality triumphed, and China and Pakistan dropped the veto in 1974.
When the Security Council passed Resolution 1244 in 1999, which put Kosovo under interim UN administration, Miloševic’s regime was already under UN sanctions and had been the subject of over 50 UN Security Council Resolutions and innumerable statements. The Council unanimously set up an International Tribunal to try the perpetrators of what they agreed had been egregious war crimes. Only months before NATO’s bombing of Serbia, the Security Council endorsed Miloševic’s agreement to reduce troop numbers in Kosovo – and to stop killing and expelling Kosovars. He broke the agreement and the UN resolution.
In fact, Security Council resolution 1244, despite its tendency to bury the facts under diplomatic verbiage, pointed firmly at independence. Its purpose was to legalize NATO’s victorious intervention while saving Moscow’s feelings. The UN was charged with setting up an autonomous administration and holding democratic elections in Kosovo, “pending a final settlement,” which would help in developing “substantial autonomy and self government.” The resolution’s small print refers to the Rambouillet accords, which were sold to the Albanians on the basis of an implied promise of a referendum after three years. Kosovo’s independence had to wait an additional five years.
Some critics of Kosovar independence point out that the country risks being a dysfunctional state, with a limited economy, a severe crime and smuggling problem, and undeveloped institutions. That puts it on a par with about half the membership of the UN! Consider the wars that Belgrade has visited on its neighbors, the black-marketing and profiteering that Miloševic made the bedrock of the Serbian economy, the assassination of the most democratically minded prime minister Zoran Djindic, and its failure to reform its security apparatus to the extent of arresting war criminals. Yet no one calls into question Serbia’s right to be a state.
A more serious problem concerns ethnic minorities. Many Serbs in Kosovo were complicit in the persecution of their Albanian neighbors. Some, but not many, stood up for them. When the tables turned, many Serbs fled, expecting to be paid in like coin. Many Kosovars saw it as payback time. Some stood against it, but not many. There can be no justification for the attacks on Serbs that some Albanians have perpetrated. But those who now so strongly emphasize what happened to the Serb minority in Kosovo forget that such attacks have been the work of individuals, while what happened to the Kosovar Albanians before was the work of the organized forces of the state. Nonetheless it is very wise of Kosovo to accept the plan of UN Special Envoy Marrti Ahtisaari, which allows for years of tutelage to help build institutions and protect minorities.
It is reassuring that the declaration of independence specifically calls for friendship with Serbia “with whom we have deep historical, commercial and social ties that we seek to develop further in the near future.” Indeed, the very fact that the declaration refers to Kosovo, instead of “Kosova,” is a step forward from the early days when Albanians tried to insist on using the latter, as the Albanian spelling.
Recognition of Kosovar independence has started with the United States and most of the European Union. Most Islamic countries will probably follow suit, along with many non-aligned states. So far Belgrade has blustered and threatened to downgrade relations with the dozens of very important neighbors who will recognize Kosovo. But after the multiple defeats that Miloševic caused for Serbs, fortunately there is little appetite for military action.
But whatever the atavistic pan-Orthodox pan-Slavic ties invoked between Belgrade and Moscow, Serbia needs better relations with the EU, whose members and associates surround it. Selling former state assets to Russian companies at knockdown prices may give vengeful satisfaction to anti-Western politicians in Belgrade, but Serbia’s economic future is with Europe.
Not only is the EU much more generous than Russia with funds, it has been extremely successful in making old boundaries obsolete and transforming fortified frontiers into administrative divisions. Less noticed has been the EU’s advancement of the rights of minorities, both in its original and aspirant members. Both should blunt the more atavistic forms of nationalism that still haunt the Balkans.
Brussels should indeed wave its juiciest carrots at Belgrade. However, the Netherlands and Belgium have, quite rightly, stopped the EU from offering Serbia an accession package unless it fulfils its own promises and its legal commitments to hand over indicted war criminals, notably Mladic and Karadjic, to The Hague. Until they do, Miloševic’s undemocratic and criminal coterie will still control Serbia’s security forces. It would be like admitting Turkey without provisions for freedom of the press and rights for Kurds and other minorities there.
For both the EU and the United States, firmness but respect should be the formula for re-establishing relations with both Moscow and Belgrade. It would be a good gesture, for example, for the United States to abandon the provocative anti-missile and radar stations on Russia’s door-step in Poland and the Czech Republic. Without condoning Putin’s moves to authoritarianism, the United States and EU should treat Moscow as a partner rather than an undercover enemy. As the Europeans point out, Kosovo is a special case. Any attempt by Moscow to generalize it to Abkhazia or Trans-Dneister could have serious blowback in Chechnya, for example.
During the Balkan wars, Moscow became progressively more intransigent in its support for Serbia. Partly this derived from pan-Orthodox sentiment. But Moscow also liked the idea of using the threat of its veto to try to get some respect from a disdainful Washington, whose denizens persisted in treating it as a defeated power In the best-case scenario, neither Serbia nor Russia will be able to use the politics of resentment to prevent Kosovo from entering the community of states.