“Kosovo: About to Blow?”
Remember Kosovo? We went to war there a decade ago. Since then the place has mostly been off our front pages. But tensions are mounting ominously, and could soon come to a head.
Now, as then, Kosovo is a short fuse, at risk if being lit by ethnic conflict between Serbs and Albanians, overlaid by geo-power rivalry between the United States and Russia.
A province of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo is viewed by Orthodox Christian Serbs as their nation’s Valley Forge, the sacred ground where centuries ago they defeated the Turkish infidels. But today 90% of Kosovo’s two million people are ethnic Albanians, nearly all Muslim.
After the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, the ethnically Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, demanding independence, used terrorist tactics against the Yugoslav army. In 1999 Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic unleashed his troops, who proceeded to massacre ethnic Albanians and to engage in ethnic cleansing.
Under the United Nations Charter, threats to international peace and security are supposed to be dealt with by the Security Council. But then as now, the Council could not act. The US insisted on protecting Kosovo from Serbia, but the Russians stood by their Serbian allies. Since both Washington and Moscow have veto power, the Council was stalemated.
The Clinton Administration then decided to bypass – or more precisely to violate – the UN Charter. It led NATO forces in a 78-day bombing campaign of Serbia. A hapless Russia stood by. Milosevic finally threw in the towel.
Ever since then Kosovo has been occupied by NATO peacekeeping troops, while a UN civil administration runs everything from police and schools to banks and even the post office.
Legally Kosovo remains part of Serbia – but not, it seems, for much longer. The majority Albanian population has lost patience and demands independence. Meanwhile the Serbs equally insist on holding on to Kosovo – not only for its historical symbolism, but also because in 2004, ethnic Albanians attacked Kosovo’s Serb minority. Nineteen Serbs were killed and 900 injured. Hundreds of Serb homes, together with 30 churches and two monasteries, were destroyed.
Last year a diplomatic troika of the US, Russia and the European Union tried to broker a peaceful settlement. By late November the talks failed. Both Albanians and Serbs demand sovereignty over Kosovo. Each side had powerful backers in the US and Russia. Neither would budge.
Kosovo’s new provincial government – led by a former Kosovo Liberation Army leader – has agreed to postpone any announcement of independence, but only briefly, so as not to sabotage the pro-western candidate in this Sunday’s run-off presidential elections in Serbia.
Both candidates in Serbia – incumbent President Boris Tadic, who favors Serbian integration into the EU, and Radical Party challenger Tomislav Nikolic, who whips up Serbian nationalism against the West — vehemently oppose independence for Kosovo. But they differ in their probable responses to the seemingly inevitable declaration.
Tadic threatens to take to court any country that recognizes an independent Kosovo. Good luck. The most likely defendant is the US, which reportedly has given up on a negotiated solution and promised the Kosovars independence.
Nikolic is more likely to support the use of force in one form or another. If so, regional conflict could re-ignite. Bosnian Serbs may seize the moment to declare their independence from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
All this, in turn, could lead to severe international tensions. Fifteen thousand NATO peacekeeping troops remain in Kosovo. A resurgent Russia will look for ways to support Serbia. As the major supplier of natural gas to western Europe, with its economy now booming from oil revenue, and under the proud leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia today has far more leverage than in 1999, when it was humiliated by its impotence.
The coming confrontation also creates strains within NATO and the EU. Spain, for example, faces separatist movements in the Basque country and Catalonia. Spain is not eager to endorse self-determination for Kosovo. Where would one draw the line? If Kosovo gets to break away, are ethnically distinct provinces elsewhere entitled to declare their independence, too?
Theorists argue that Kosovo is a special case, because it was victimized by massive human rights violations committed by the country from which it wishes to separate. However, ethnic Kosovars, too, have committed atrocities, not only in 2004, but also in the 1999 war. One former leader of Kosovo is now on trial in The Hague for war crimes.
Kosovo’s new leader, Hasim Thaci, promises reconciliation. In his inaugural remarks this month he went so far as to address Kosovo’s 100,000 Serbs in their own language. But they are not buying it: only 2,000 of them voted in Kosovo’s recent elections, and none in the Serb enclave in the north, along the border with Serbia.
The status quo, warned UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this month, “is not likely to be sustainable.” He called on all parties to reaffirm their commitments to “refrain from any action that could endanger peace, incite violence or jeopardize security in Kosovo and the region.”
Such somber words would not have been spoken if prospects were bright. Perhaps President Tadic will win this Sunday’s run-off, and then, when Kosovo makes its provocative declaration, somehow persuade his compatriots to keep their powder dry. But don’t count on it: the unfinished business of 1999 may be about to blow up in our face.
Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.