The Balkans have always been a flashpoint, the clearest example of which was the start of World War I, sparked by an assassination in Sarajevo to procure the independence of Bosnia from Austria-Hungary. In the current crisis the nations involved, which again is pretty much everyone, are showing admirable restraint. It would have been better for them to show more, including the United States.
Instead, on Monday the U.S. government extended recognition to Kosovo after it declared independence from Serbia. It may have been more intelligent to wait even if, as President Bush said on Monday, the United States was acting in concert with the nations of Europe on a “well-planned” strategy.A
What brought on Kosovo’s declaration was the failure of talks on the future of the region. That was in November, and its ethnic Albanian leaders then vowed to declare independence. It is considered the heartland of Serbia although the population, one of the poorest in Europe, is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. Kosovo was the center of the Serb empire until the 14th century when the Ottoman Turks conquered the area, and Kosovo wasn’t controlled again by Serbs until 1913. Serbs and Albanians struggled for control of the region until the 1960s, and in 1974 the province was made autonomous under Yugoslav’s Tito. That ended in 1989, and subsequent persecution of Albanians by Serbs led to a NATO intervention in 1999.
Serbia has labeled Sunday’s independence declaration illegal and vowed to oppose Kosovo’s independence and admission to the United Nations. In this it has the backing of Russia and China. Russia has separatist groups nibbling at its frontiers and wants to reassert its power, and China still considers Taiwan as a province, and neither Russia nor China want this independence idea to become popular. The U.S. government assured everyone that it was only recognizing Kosovo, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Serbia that it was still our friend. Serbia recalled its ambassador to Washington.
Still, Serbia is also showing admirable restraint in saying that it will not respond militarily. That didn’t stop a mob of Kosovo Serbs from attacking two border crossings in protest on Tuesday, nor will it prevent angry young men from picking up their Kalashnikovs and joining a movement to “liberate” Kosovo.
It would have been preferable for the United States and its European allies to discourage Kosovo’s declaration of independence. The region has been under U.N. administration since the conflict of 1999, and it could have remained there until diplomatic talks restarted, or it could have become an autonomous district of Serbia as it once was and as the Kurdish area of Iraq is now. Talking, after all, does not cause collateral damage. Instead we chose to fan the fires of independence in an area where ethnic and nationalist tensions have a long history if not as long that of the Middle East.
We supported the dramatic gesture. History, President Bush said, will declare this was the correct move. History, however, has a way of not moving in the ordered, linear manner favored by chief executives and laid out in textbooks. Life is messy and erratic before it is reduced to the measured sentences of scholars, and dramatic gestures have a way of inspiring reciprocal dramatic gestures which are unpleasant. This gesture in the Balkans may do the same although it may be only a guerrilla war which will prove more difficult to see and harder to extinguish.