A Precedent After the Fact

Russia Profile, Russia
Feb. 26 2008

A Precedent After the Fact

Comment by Sergei Markedonov
Special to Russia Profile

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,

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

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

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.

Sergey Markedonov, PhD, is the head of the Interethnic Relations
Department at Moscow’s Institute of Political and Military Analysis.



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