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Analysis & Opinion
26.02.08 A Precedent After The Fact
Comment by Sergei Markedonov

On Feb. 17, Kosovo’s Parliament declared itself independent, shedding its status as a former autonomous region of Serbia. However, this event could hardly be called a sensation. It has been anticipated for a long time.

The Kosovo issue has been one of the most complicated and intricate ethno-political problems in the Balkan Peninsula for the past two decades. The leaders of the Kosovo Albanian movement proclaimed independence once back in 1991, but at that time the problem was localized in the Balkan region. Albania was the only country to support Kosovo back then. Later, the idea of unifying two Albanian states was taken off the political agenda.

Then a new generation of Kosovars – Albanians who have become involved in the political struggle against Belgrade – began considering independence not as an “interim” measure but as the ultimate goal.

The NATO Operation Allied Force (which lasted 74 days March until June 1999) led to a de-facto secession of the ex-Serbian autonomous region. The issue of a new independence declaration for Kosovo was bound to come up again. It was only a matter of time.

Belgrade did not (and still doesn’t) have the strength or resources necessary to “Serbize” the region, no power, no ideological nor political resources. The official authorities (of Yugoslavia, at first) agreed to withdraw their troops from Kosovo and bring the multi-ethnic international forces under the aegis of NATO – the Kosovo Force.

Today, Belgrade is protesting the EU’s decision to bring in European police forces, but it’s obvious that the status quo is a consequence of the 1999 events. Now, European bureaucrats and politicians intend for 1,800 police officers and judges to create the foundation for a constitutional state in Kosovo.

No matter what anyone says today, the Serbs are not ready to coexist with Albanians in the context of a joint state. We are not talking about the Albanian minority inside Serbia itself, but about getting along with the Albanian-populated region that has survived years of ethno-political opposition to Serbs. Considering a territory without considering its population can’t be done today without support and sympathy from the “mighty of this world.” There is no such support for Serbia today. There is also no understanding of the fact that the offer to exchange Kosovo for EU membership will not be accepted.

The radicalization of the Kosovo Albanians’ demands has but one effect. Even opponents of Milosevic, who represent the Democratic powers of Serbia, are becoming more and more nationalist before our very eyes. Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s Prime Minister, is the best example, while Boris Tadic, whom many people in Russia unjustifiably call a “nationalist traitor” is actually trying to protect the state’s territorial integrity.

A rational, unemotional look at the problem reveals that Belgrade is unlikely to be able to drastically change the situation. A military solution to the problem would lead Serbia to an open confrontation with most of the rest of the world. A political solution is even more unlikely, because both states – Serbia and Kosovo – were founded on the principles of ethnic nationalism. This is a fact, although the leaders of both nations refuse to admit it. And ethnic nationalism, even if it is camouflaged, makes a long and successful existence of a state with a poly-ethnic population impossible. Yugoslavia is a demonstrative example, as the nationalists of all the republics (from Milosevic to Tudjman and from Izetbegovic to Rugova) tore the once integral state to pieces, first ideologically, and then practically, too.

Much more liberal states have also proved this thesis. Take Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1938, for example. As Czech philosopher Emmanuel Radl justly noted, “The Republic of Czechoslovakia (RCS), as was its official name, was such only by name. In reality, it was a failed attempt to create a Czech state.” The poorly covered Czech ethnic nationalism led to the fact that at some point the Sudeten Germans came out with the idea of “going back home to Germany.” This was followed by the separation of Slovakia, which led to the Second World War.

While avoiding direct parallels with the year 1938, recent events lead to the following conclusion: the principle of ethnic self-determination comes in the central problem. It was the same at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, the “nations’ right to self-determination,” or the two versions of it (the liberal one by Woodrow Wilson and the Bolshevik one by Vladimir Lenin) became the cornerstone of global structure. The only problem was that all nationalist elites had their own, diverse images of their own land and their own country.

Now, after the fall of the Soviet Union and soviet Yugoslavia, ethnic nationalism has gained new strength and vitality. However, as Russian political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov justly notes, “As a rule until now, multi-national countries fell apart on their own. All there was left to do for the world community was to attempt to minimize the costs after the fact. This time, the mighty of this world must assume responsibility for creating a new state. They do not believe that a multi-national Serbia is possible. But they also don’t believe in the possibility of a multi-national Kosovo. It is not accidental that the principle is ‘first come the humanitarian standards, and then comes the status,’ which was a founding principle for the UN 1999 resolution on settling the Kosovo crisis, has been replaced by a different, opposing principle. And it happened at a moment when the Serb pogroms sweeping across the region proved that humanitarian standards are out of the question.”

The question is not who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Both the Serbians and the Albanians can present long lists of complaints against each other, as well as lay claim to the territory. It is not the fault of the ethnic groups, but of the principles and approaches. Ethnic nationalism in its extreme forms can lead to a “Kosovo incident,” when Europe gains a not entirely valid state with a government headed by a former militant, nicknamed the “Serpent.” Will the “Serpent” truly be able to solve the everyday problems of his compatriots?

Before, everything could be blamed on Serbian scandals and the evil will of Belgrade.

Tomorrow, the leaders of Kosovo will have to assume responsibility, establish a court system, catch and punish corrupt bureaucrats, yesterday’s brothers-in-arms, and fellow fighters in the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The question of whether Kosovo sets a precedent is also left without an answer. It’s obvious that anyone who is willing can see the precedent without any formal jurisprudence. And the Kosovo matter is not a legal argument. It is a formation of principles. If ethno-nationalism is allowed in the Balkans, why can it not be allowed in the Caucasus Mountains or the African desserts and tropics?

So far, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is playing for the independent Kosovo. But there is no joy for the Serbian population – not inside Kosovo itself, and not inside the rest of Serbia. Instead, there are multiple “fifteen-minute-meetings of hatred” taking place. And that’s why Beethoven’s music today becomes a symbol of triumphant ethnic nationalism. Now, the matter of recognizing Kosovo’s independence is becoming a target of interpretation. The independence of Kosovo will not unite great powers, as the recent voting at the UN Security Council clearly demonstrated.

At first glance, everything or almost everything has already been said on the matter of possible use of the “Kosovo incident” by the unrecognized republics in the territory of former Soviet Union. At the same time, emotions aside, neither the Kosovo incident nor the will of the Kremlin have a decisive role to play in determining the future of post-Soviet unrecognized republics.

Today, the political ambitions of Abkhazian, Karabakh, Ossetian or Transnistrian leaders are usually considered in the context of Kosovo’s development. And it seems like they are just waiting to announce their sovereignty, right after the ex-Serbian autonomous region’s declaration of independence. But this was the case long before Kosovo became the focus of world politics.

Transnistria declared its independence from Moldova in 1990; South Ossetia did the same at almost the same time. Karabakh held a referendum on its independence on Sept. 2, 1991. Thus, three out of the four unrecognized republics announced their claims to national sovereignty when the Soviet Union still existed. Abkhazia was able to achieve de-facto sovereignty from Georgia after the armed conflict in Tbilisi from 1992 to 1993. At that time, Kosovo had no bearing on this self-determination, because back then the situation in Kosovo was looked at in the all-Yugoslavian or Serbian context, or in the all-Balkan context at most.

Thus, Abkhazia or Karabakh need Kosovo only as a tool for international legitimization of their ambitions. It is just a pattern for justification of their actions of 10 or 15 years ago. The internal situation in the region, as well as the dynamics of Serbian-Albanian relations, is not of much interest to the leaders of Eurasia’s unrecognized republics. Even if Kosovo did not exist at all, the fight of the Abkhazian or Ossetian leaders against Georgia or the Karabakh Armenians against Azerbaijan would continue.

However, no matter the outcome – even if the Kremlin refuses to support them and if Kosovo never receives universal recognition – the Georgian-Abkhazian and the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts will demand their own principles of conflict resolution.

Moscow’s actions are secondary. Moscow can sponsor the elites of unrecognized unions, or it can declare a blockade of Abkhazia like it did in 1995. The Kremlin might “universalize” the Kosovo case, or it might not. Until the elites of the unrecognized republics become convinced that a peaceful resolution is most advantageous, the process will not get off the ground.
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