The Ghosts of the Balkans (World)

On 17 February, after almost a decade of legal limbo and two years of unsuccessful international mediation, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. The US moved swiftly to recognize the new country, and nearly 2 million ethnic Albanians celebrated their long-awaited freedom, dancing in city streets, releasing fireworks, and waving flags. Having bristled under Serbian rule and then UN administration, Kosovars were elated by the prospect of at last controlling their own affairs.

The Serbs weren’t quite so thrilled. On 21 February, hundreds of thousands protested in Belgrade, chanting “Kosovo is Serbia” and holding placards that read, RUSSIA, HELP. Rioters set the US embassy on fire; Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin vowed never to recognize Kosovo and threatened to support secessionist movements in Georgia and Moldova—a threat the Russians would keep in August.

The US embassy was unguarded when several hundred demonstrators attacked it following the protest rally. At that event, the sharp divisions that typify Serbian politics were nowhere to be seen, as leaders from across the spectrum united in a massive show of force to protest Kosovo’s secession. The protest turned deadly when several hundred hooded protesters broke away from that 500,000-strong crowd. The smaller group hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at the Croatian and US embassies. Flames licked up to the second floor of the old brick building, which is located in the heart of the capital. Serbian paramilitary police, arriving in Humvees, dispersed the crowd using tear gas. Speaking at the United Nations, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad condemned the attack, saying he would seek a UN resolution “reminding the Serb government of its responsibility to protect diplomatic facilities.”

Not so long ago, the scenes of unrest would have inspired fears of the kind of ethnic violence that devastated the Balkans in the ’90s. But these are different times. Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders belatedly tried to extend an olive branch to the province’s aggrieved 120,000 Serbs. In addition to allowing Serbs in northern Kosovo to have their own police, schools, and hospitals, Kosovo’s new prime minister, Hashim Thaci, did the unthinkable: he delivered part of his inauguration speech in the hated Serbian language. The gesture failed to quell the Serbs’ discontent, but in reality, Serbia was in no position to cut ties with the West. The EU supplies 49% of Serbia’s imports and buys 56% of its exports—a far more valuable trade relationship than Serbia enjoys with its primary ally, Russia.

Kosovo matters to America’s future because it underscores three alarming features of the current international system. First, it exposes the chill in relations between the US and Russia. Putin, who stepped down from his leadership role in the Kremlin only three months after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, used the standoff in Serbia as yet another excuse to flaunt his petro-powered invincibility, sending his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, to Belgrade to sign a gas agreement. If a firm international response is to be mobilized toward Iran, The Sudan, or other trouble spots in the coming years, the US will have to find a way to persuade Russia to become a partner rather than a rival in improving collective security.

Second, the 27-country EU, which is bitterly divided over Kosovo, lacks an overarching defense or security vision. After Kosovo declared independence, Britain, France, and other countries offered recognition, while Spain, Romania, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Slovakia refused to do so. Keeping peace in Kosovo will require European nations to put their citizens at risk. Unfortunately, the stated desire of many European countries to reduce their commitments to the NATO effort in Afghanistan does little to bolster confidence in Europe’s eagerness to maintain international security.

Finally, the disagreements over Kosovo exposed the world’s fickleness in determining which secessionist movements deserve international recognition. A claimant has a far stronger claim if, like Kosovo, it is relatively homogeneous and not yet self-governing, if it has been abused by the sovereign government, and if its quest for independence does not incite its kin in a neighboring country to make comparable demands. Not all secessionists can clear that bar. Iraq’s Kurds, for instance, are clamoring for independence. But the Kurds are already exercising self-government, and their independence could have the destabilizing effect of causing the Kurdish population in Turkey to try to secede.

Taking Sides. The modern world isn’t divided between capitalism and communism; it’s divided in part between nations done dealing with their secessionists and those still fighting. When Kosovo declared its independence, Sri Lanka sided with Serbia, mindful of its Tamil rebels. Even Spain opposed Kosovo’s claim as a precedent that could threaten Madrid’s sovereignty by encouraging separatists.

In August separatist problems in the former Soviet republic of Georgia led to outright war. On 8 August, as the world’s attention was focused on the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Russian tanks rolled into Georgia’s disputed territory of South Ossetia, which has long sought to break away from Georgia and become a province of Russia, after Georgian forces attempted to establish control there. On the 11th, Russian forces invaded Georgia through the disputed territory of Abkhazia in Georgia’s west, opening a second front. Several weeks of fighting and Russian occupation ensued, and hundreds of civilians and troops were killed. Russian forces had largely withdrawn to the two separatist territories by the end of August. On 26 August Russia recognized the independence ofSouth Ossetia and Abkhazia. US Pres. George W. Bush and other NATO leaders strongly denounced the incursion, but no troops were mustered. The world, once again, was taking sides. There’s a reason they call it “Balkanization.”

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