Kosovo and the Balkans: Afterthoughts on Independence

Protestors display placards reading "Kosovo is Serbia" on March 5 in Bratislava, Slovakia—one of the countries that have refused to recognize Kosovo's independence. (Photo: Samuel Kubani / AFP-Getty Images)

In the time since Kosovo declared independence events are generally following the predicted course. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, at a ministerial meeting the other week in Brussels, expressed his content with the fact that no major disturbances followed the declaration of independence.

Under the United States' lead, major European states recognized Kosovo as an independent state. The first country to actually recognize Kosovo's independence was Afghanistan.

The bitterness in Belgrade is, of course, immeasurable. Protests have ended with several embassies burned; McDonald's was demolished; a young protester lost his life in the mob attack on the United States Embassy; Kosovo Serbs have. Belgrade started recalling ambassadors from countries that recognized Kosovo, possibly pushing itself into a new self-isolation.

Serbs protested in Kosovo too, burning border posts separating the Serb-populated northern part of Kosovo from Serbia proper—a move, for the time being symbolic, toward de facto partition of Kosovo—and clashing with peacekeepers.

Serbia declared the incoming European Union mission in Kosovo illegal, and Serbs from Kosovo suggested that Russian troops (which Russia withdrew from the international forces in Kosovo in 2003) be invited back into parts where Serbs live.

Russia is furious. Its ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, even suggested recently that Russia might have to consider using "brute military force" to maintain respect against the breach of international law by the West. Nicholas Burns, from the United States State Department, promptly called the statement "highly irresponsible." Some of Rogozin's Russian colleagues downplayed the tone.

However, the situation does not show signs of possible escalation.

Several moments concerning Kosovo's independence deserve to be reviewed at this point.

Is there a chance that Russia will clash with the West over Kosovo as some suggest?

That is very unlikely. And that was surely the major assumption in the United States' decision to recognize the province—that Russia would not engage beyond political means.

But Russia will definitely (try to) fortify its presence in the region, as long as Serbia, humiliated as it is, turns its back to the West. Russia and Serbia just signed a pipeline deal of potential long-term importance for regional (and wider) energy security—an area the European Union is very sensitive to. Russia has a very strong economic presence in Montenegro.

Recently Russian military experts rejected as tactical nonsense the rumor of Russia possibly deploying missiles in Serbia. If Russia did decide to make a move in that direction, tension would definitely explode.

The cards on the table are the de facto partition of Kosovo, and what happens with the Republic of Srpska, the Serbian entity in the Bosnian Federation. The tables could well turn in that the West may have to engage in preventing a secession of the Republic of Srpska in the near future. Secession does not seem viable at this particular moment, but time is a critical dimension. If political tension subsists over a 6 to 12 months period, what seems unlikely today might seem perfectly possible then. Macedonia, with a sizeable Albanian community, cohesive for the time being, might also come under increasing pressure by radical structures.

Will Kosovo open Pandora's box?

The answer to this one, again, is that it is unlikely. Kosovo will definitely be used as an argument by each and every secessionist movement on the planet. Basque and Scottish nationalists have already stepped forward. The countries that refuse to recognize Kosovo, such as Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Georgia, and so forth, cannot recognize it because they know that would give a strong political card to the secession aspirations of their own minorities.

However, it is unlikely that Kosovo will open the way for new independent states because the moment of wide international support could not be replicated. The only reason Kosovo is getting a chance—it still has a long way from full-fledged international recognition—is because of the strong consensus of the United States and major European states, and the fact that the next closest major power, Russia, is still at a safe distance. If Kosovo was hypothetically, between Russia and Ukraine, easily no force on Earth could have guaranteed its independence. Similarly, can one imagine independence for Kosovo without a consensus between France and Germany?

With all these factors put together—the context of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the fact that in 1999 Serbs practically cleansed it ethnically by forcing a million Kosovars out as refugees, and by doing that, the argument goes, lost their moral right to the province—Kosovo has already been waiting some 20 years to get where it is now. And the job is far from done.

Finally, why did all this take place?

Why did the West want to go through all this trouble only, according to some, to create a new zone of instability in the Balkans and, potentially, the wider international environment?

Complex theories abound, from Kosovo's alleged rich mineral resources, the need to appease the Muslim world, bureaucratic inertia, the desire to corner Russia, and the inevitable pipelines.

In reality, the truth (as usual) is quite simple. The United States, which clearly took the burden of the decision on this one, and it was not an easy call by any means, essentially believed an independent Kosovo would increase the chances for stability in the Balkans. This is all there is to it. The decision has to be taken at face value. When President Bush says, "the United States supports this move because we believe it will bring peace," this is exactly what the United States believes. And so do the Europeans.

This is so because all the possible scenarios for the region's stability arising from Kosovo's independence, as gloomy as they get, still seem less probable than the alternative, which is keeping Kosovo in the limbo and maintaining its undefined status.

That scenario led to violence in the province in 2004, which was the moment when the West actually got a grip on itself and intensified talks.

It had become clear that maintaining the status quo meant the eruption of new violence was only a matter of time. So yes, the West recognized Kosovo because it thought it would bring stability.

If tension continues to dwindle over the next period, they are likely to be proven right.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Risto Karajkov.