April 1, 2008  

Flashpoint: Separation anxiety

Kosovo’s split with Serbia fuels regional tensions

While it was welcomed in some parts of the world — including Washington, London, Paris and Berlin — many other capitals viewed Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in mid-February as nothing if not controversial.

Kosovo’s earlier-than-expected secession sent shivers up the spines of the leaders of countries with their own concerns about independence movements as they braced for a tidal wave of renewed separatist sentiment.

As the recently elected, pro-West president of Serbia, Boris Tadic, cautioned: “Who guarantees that parts of your countries will not declare independence in the same way?”

Balkanization, a term used to describe the fragmenting of a larger state into a number of (often hostile) smaller states, such as in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, has found its latest textbook example — not surprisingly, once again, in the Balkans.

But the real concern is that the breakaway of the province of 2 million will not only shake the international system but also rattle an already fragile region, where the interests of major powers — including the U.S., Russia and Europe — collide.

Serbian Sorrow

Calling Kosovo’s independence a historic injustice, Belgrade says it will not give up its claim to the predominantly ethnic Albanian province, a region the Serbs consider the cradle of their culture and Orthodox Christian faith, going back to the 14th century.

The attachment is also grounded in an epic battle the Serbs fought in Kosovo against the invading Turks in 1389, and the many (even older) historic and religious structures located there that hold significance in the history of the Serbian people.

The current Serbian government also feels victimized, believing its democratic government is suffering retribution for the acts of the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who marched into Kosovo in 1999, ostensibly to drive out the Kosovo Liberation Army.

During the conflict, the Serbian Army’s mission turned into an ethnic-cleansing campaign, forcing roughly 1 million ethnic Albanians to flee Connecticut-sized Kosovo. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 were killed before a NATO air campaign ended the fighting.

Since then, Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations and protected by NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) under an interim agreement. (Milosevic was overthrown in 2000 and died as a war crimes defendant at a tribunal at The Hague in 2006.)

So far, the level of violence has been low, including demonstrations by both sides in Kosovo and attacks on the U.S. and other embassies in Belgrade in late February that Serbian police turned a blind eye to initially. But things could easily get much worse. Although Tadic told a Spanish newspaper that “we are not going to relinquish Kosovo. We are going to utilize all of our diplomatic and political recourses in defense of this, but without violence,” not all Serbian politicians agree.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, closely aligned with Moscow, wants a rollback of Kosovo’s new status, proclaiming: “As long as we live, Kosovo is Serbia.” Other Serb nationalist leaders have promised violence if the Kosovar capital, Pristina, moves to exert control over the Serb-populated north.

This could be the case: Testifying before the Senate in late February, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said that some level of violence over Kosovo is probable — without giving specifics as to what that level might be.

There is reason for concern. Between 100,000 and 200,000 ethnic Serbs live in Kosovo. Many have ignored the independence declaration, promising to cut off contact with Pristina and instead establish diplomatic ties with Belgrade.

The Kosovar Serbs also have threatened to establish their own government, or even declare independence themselves, separate from Serbia and Kosovo. (Washington quickly rejected any further dividing of Kosovo, while pledging to protect the rights of the Kosovar Serb minority.)

In another sign of a deepening divide, Serb officers in the Kosovo police are leaving the force or failing to report for duty. Heretofore, the police force had been a positive example of multiethnic cooperation in Kosovo.

Some are also concerned about the possibility of ethnic cleansing by the majority Albanians against the minority Serbs in Kosovo this time. (Nor should anyone forget the nightmare in Bosnia involving the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, i.e. Bosnian Muslims, in the early 1990s with the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.)

Sensing vulnerability, the Kosovar Serbs called for a return of Russian peacekeepers to the area, perhaps concerned about the reliability of the 16,000 largely European, NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers already deployed to Kosovo to protect their interests.

Although Russia withdrew its troops from Kosovo in mid-2003 after a four-year deployment, its involvement at some level in this issue likely is far from over.

Russian Roulette

The Russians and the Serbians have a special kinship, sharing similar cultural, linguistic and religious origins, so it was no surprise when Moscow demanded that Kosovo’s break from Serbia, a country of over 10 million, be declared “null and void.”

Outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the decision, likely with Chechnya in mind. Kosovo, he said, is a “terrible precedent. In fact, it breaks up the entire system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries.”

Later, on Russian state television, Putin said of Kosovo and its supporters: “They have not thought through the results of what they are doing. At the end of the day it is a two-ended stick, and the second end will come back and hit them on the head someday.”

Russia’s new ambassador to NATO, nationalist Dmitry Rogozin, said Kosovo’s independence bid was a “strategic mistake” and warned NATO not to overstep its peacekeeping mandate there. A threat to use “brute military force” in Kosovo was later retracted.

So what might Russia have in mind? Russia has not ruled out returning peacekeepers to the region, possibly to protect, or back, ethnic Serbs in areas that resist Kosovar Albanian rule, although the presence of KFOR makes that a risky undertaking without prior agreement.

As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council with veto rights, Russia certainly could support Serbia by blocking diplomatic efforts at the U.N., such as the seating of Kosovo in the General Assembly.

With Moscow’s support, Belgrade will attempt to make Kosovo an issue of international law and try to retain the U.N. Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo in an effort to somehow symbolize that Kosovo is not yet independent. The Russians also could attempt to turn up the heat over Kosovo by fomenting separatism among pro-Moscow groups in possible future NATO member Georgia’s South Ossetia or Abkhazia regions, or in Moldova’s Transdniester.

Geopolitical Jitters

The response to Kosovo’s succession was initially underwhelming — to say the least. Only about 30 of the 192 U.N. members recognized the new state early on — likely out of concern about the possible international law precedent.

Many states expressed concern about the lack of a U.N. resolution authorizing Kosovo’s independence, which could open the door to any number of secessionist movements and their characteristic political strife, violence and refugee flows. Spanish Minister for Europe Alberto Navarro, undoubtedly thinking of Madrid’s Basque and Catalan concerns, told the BBC: “Many people have many doubts about the international legality of what it is going on about this declaration of independence.”

Regional neighbors such as Bulgaria and Greece also are expected to decline to recognize Kosovo. Cyprus is now more worried about unification prospects for the island. Romania fears its own Hungarian minority will get agitated.

The Europeans are not the only ones fretting.

Azerbaijan is concerned about new problems in the Armenian-contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Sri Lanka has its issues with the Tamils. China worries about how the “Kosovo precedent” will affect the politics of its cross-strait rival, Taiwan.

In addition, will Kosovo stir the Quebecois in Canada toward independence? What about the Palestinians in the Middle East? Could the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland, the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, push for their own state? U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon skirted the question, noting that the world body would support Kosovo’s transition, but “the recognition of states is for the states and not for the U.N. Secretariat. … I’m not here to say if it is legal or illegal.”

Others have expressed concern about the new state. Kosovo is impoverished and landlocked with an unemployment rate between 40 percent and 60 percent. The prospects for a marked improvement soon are not good, especially after Serbia cuts off trade and electricity.

Drastic scenarios for a new — possibly failed — state include rampant lawlessness, a possible sanctuary for Islamic radicals and terrorists, or a global hub for organized crime, plagued by drug- and arms-trafficking and widespread corruption.

In the end, there will be consequences — both intended and unintended — of Kosovo’s split with Serbia. Serbia likely will try to control the territory of those Kosovars who do not want to join an independent Kosovo, making ethnically divided towns such as Mitrovica and border crossings potential flashpoints. The European Union will try to salve Serbia’s open wounds with talks of early accession to the Brussels-led group, closer political ties, generous aid, increased trade and an easing of visa requirements, among other enticements.

While the prospect of Serbia joining NATO at any time in the near future dims, the real challenge will be trying to keep Belgrade from falling fully into Moscow’s sphere of influence. The Kremlin is already making its own overtures.

Russian leaders have made a number of high-level visits to Serbia since Kosovo’s independence to show solidarity, including Dmitry Medvedev, then a deputy prime minister but now Russia’s president-elect. Moscow also brokered a $1.5 billion Gazprom natural gas pipeline deal with Belgrade, including a project known as South Stream, which will compete directly with an E.U. and U.S.-backed Nabucco pipeline project.

Kosovo also will strain U.S.-Russian relations, which are already pretty frosty because of the U.S.-proposed missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and Russia’s nuclear ties to Iran, among other matters.

While some optimistically see the resolution of Kosovo as the last unanswered issue in the troubled history of the former Yugoslavia, others believe there easily could be even more Balkanization in the Balkans. For instance, a quarter of neighboring Macedonia is ethnic Albanian, with ties to Kosovo. Bosnia is also a fragile state, politically divided between Serbs on one side and Bosniaks and Croats on the other, as agreed under the 1995 Dayton Accords.

But after years of failed diplomacy, many decided that Pristina’s independence was the only reasonable outcome, especially considering the horrors of 1999 and its alienation from Belgrade. Others are not so convinced, despite Kosovo’s uniqueness.

While conflict, or even violence, is possible, the battle for Kosovo likely will be more political and economic than military — all the time bearing in mind the admonition that history is filled with wars people said would never happen, especially in the Balkans. AFJ