The Serbian parliament condemns Kosovo's declaration of independence. Angry Serbs throng the streets of Belgrade in protest, and rioters break into the U.S. embassy. Just another spasm of ethnic bigotry in the Balkans? It's not so simple.
When Serbs argue that Kosovo's leap to independence has no legal sanction, they have a point. When they say it sets an awful precedent, they have an even better one.
Let's remember how all this came about. In 1999, an ugly little civil war was under way between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a province of Serbia.
Western governments saw a repeat of the ethnic cleansing that had plagued the Balkans through the decade. They ordered Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to stop oppressing the Kosovo Albanians or face the consequences. When he proved un-co-operative, they bombed targets around Serbia. Albanians fled Kosovo in the hundreds of thousands, arousing the sympathy of the world. After 10 weeks of conflict, Mr. Milosevic capitulated and pulled his troops out of Kosovo. NATO troops moved in and have been there ever since.
This was viewed at the time as an example of humanitarian intervention that worked. A nasty man, Mr. Milosevic, had been brought to heel (and eventually forced from power). The Albanians had been saved and could return to their homes to rebuild their lives.
But NATO's intervention was never intended to back the Kosovo Albanians' fight to break away from Serbia. That, after all, would have meant intervening on the side of a secession movement fuelled by ethnic nationalism, hardly the sort of thing liberal Western countries want to get into. The idea, they insisted, was merely to head off the ethnic cleansing and rescue the refugees, with political solutions to be left for later.
The United Nations resolution that came out of the Kosovo war explicitly recognized the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia (in today's terms, Serbia, Yugoslavia's recognized successor state). That clearly meant that the UN was not endorsing the secession of Kosovo. Yet, the U.S., Britain, Italy and France have all recognized the breakaway Kosovo state. No wonder the Serbs feel angry and betrayed. They are losing a large part of their already diminished country. They are seeing many of their ethnic kin in Kosovo, the 120,000 remaining Serbs, marooned in a hostile Albanian sea.
Western governments argue (with considerable logic) that the horse has bolted the barn. The Kosovo Albanians are never going to agree to live under Serbian rule again, and every attempt at reaching some Serbian-Albanian compromise, such as autonomy for Kosovo within Serbia, has failed utterly. They say (again with logic) that, after nearly a decade in limbo, Kosovo has to be left to get on with its life as a free nation. As U.S. President George Bush put it, "The Kosovars are now independent."
But have they really thought through what this means? Other ethnic secession movements certainly have. "I salute the independence of Kosovo. No people can be forced to live under the rule of another," said Mehmet Ali Talat, leader of the Turkish Cypriots. The Basque regional government in northern Spain hailed Kosovo's independence as "a new example of the right of self-determination." Leaders of breakaway movements from the Transdniester region of Moldova to South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia chimed in, too. Even the Bosnian Serbs, who were the centre of the worst of the Balkan bloodshed in the 1990s, claim that Kosovo's secession justifies their own bid to be free of Bosnia-Herzegovina - the patched together federation that the West has tried for years to keep from coming apart.
Western governments can't just dismiss these as the wild claims of woolly foreigners. Many have secession movements close to home. Britain has Scotland, which has been part of the United Kingdom for a mere 300 years, considerably less than Serbia's claim to Kosovo. Spain has the Basques and the Catalans. That is why Madrid has refused to jump on the bandwagon and recognize Kosovo. It argues, quite rightly, that Kosovo's independence has neither the consent of both parties involved nor the assent of the Security Council (which is deadlocked on the issue).
Let's not even speak of Quebec. Canadian warplanes took part in the campaign against Serbia in 1999, a campaign that has resulted in the secession of a province on the basis of its people's demand to be maîtres chez nous. Is this what was intended when the West cheered victory in Kosovo?