Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
If Kosovo’s suffering challenged the world’s humanity, last Sunday’s declaration of independence is a reminder of the opportunism that passes for diplomacy. It has a special resonance for India where separatist movements can range from the comic (Kolhan) to the terrorist (Kashmir). India knows too, as the responses to Kosovo reconfirm, that swaraj may be a birthright, but is also an excuse for political one-upmanship.
Beleaguered minorities everywhere, whether Chakmas or Okinawans, must envy the fait accompli that drives a further nail into the coffin of the United Nations security council’s authority. The haste with which the Americans recognized the new state, disregarding the absence of UN approval, suggests prior planning on cutting a re-emerging Russia down to size. Bill Clinton’s intervention in 1999 saved ethnic Albanian Muslims comprising more than 90 per cent of Kosovo’s two million population from Serbia’s genocidal fury. But was he looking, even then, at long-term strategy vis-à-vis the adversary in Moscow? Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has warned of reprisal. The Russians may not be able to foment anti-American mischief in Latin America but can incite Russian minorities in Georgia and Ukraine, both firmly within the Western sphere of influence, to destabilize their pro-North Atlantic Treaty Organization governments by demanding legal recognition of the de facto independence they already enjoy.
It would be tragic if Kosovo is again reduced to a football, this time between even bigger players. Or if the urge for freedom is strangled in the name of stability. Either way, the situation presents the world with extremely uncomfortable choices. But sympathy with the Kosovars, whose enclave is still juridically Serbian, should not obscure an elementary lesson of history: right becomes wrong and wrong becomes right if you dig far enough. Muslim Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo are relics of the Ottoman conquest in the heart of Christendom. Testament to the power of religion, Kosovo is reaching out to Indonesia, which remains unreconciled to the loss of Timor Leste and where further secession might be brewing in any of the 14,000 islands. Logically, Hindu Bali should be ripe for separation from the world’s most populous Muslim nation, but it is embedded in the midst of the archipelago with no political or military skills to match a benign culture.
Religion is not the only spur. Separatist movements are based on language, race, economic conditions and ideology, or a combination of any of these factors, though the Armenian Christian Nagorno-Karabakh republic in Muslim Azerbaijan also indicates that religion most often fuels dissent. No imagined community can claim such esoteric roots as the Kolhan estate in Chhattisgarh and its invocation of the rules framed by a 19th-century East India Company official, Thomas Wilkinson. That sufficed in the early Eighties for the Kolhan Raksha Sangh to insist it spoke for a republic linked to the British Crown and Commonwealth and to send an envoy to the UN in Geneva. Kolhan must be the size of a pocket handkerchief, but size was never a determinant of sovereignty. On the contrary, size can be a disadvantage unless a country is monocultural. If size is not a precondition, neither is affluence —witness Bangladesh, the archetypal basket case. Landlocked Kosovo is desperately poor, and dependent on arch-enemy Serbia for essentials.
The original UN plan resembled the Camelot of world governance: its special envoy for Kosovo, Finland’s former president, Martti Ahtisaari, devised the imaginative formula of “independence, subject to international supervision”. Kosovo would have its own national symbols, including flag and anthem, and could seek membership of world bodies. An “international community representative” mandated by the UN and the European Union and backed by Nato and EU forces would ensure minority Serb representation in parliament, the police and civil service, and protect the Serb language and Orthodox Christianity. Partition was ruled out because the Serb and Albanian enclaves are too closely interwoven. Ahtisaari’s ban on Kosovo joining any other state sought to exorcise Serbia’s bogey of a Muslim “Greater Albania” absorbing the cradle of their civilization where Serbs and Turks fought an epic battle in 1389. Lest that seem irrelevantly ancient, let it be remembered that Greeks (even diaspora members in Australia) will do nothing auspicious on a Thursday, the day on which Byzantine Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.
Had Ahtisaari’s plan worked, it might have helped to resolve many problems of religious and ethnic dissidence from Sulu to Xinjian, Quebec to Pattani, Chechnya to Darfur, Tibet, Kashmir, Okinawa, Spain’s Basque country, the Chittagong Hill Tracts and of Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. His formula for sharing responsibility with the EU might have been a model for similar arrangements with the Association of South-east Asian Nations or the Organization of American States. But reality falls short of theory, and heaven forbid that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation should ever be endowed with similar responsibility for Tamil Eelam, the North-West Frontier Province, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, or, horror of horrors, Kashmir. Ahtisaari’s blueprint called for consensus, goodwill and a sense of responsibility, qualities whose conspicuous absence created the problems in the first place.
It’s a road that has been trodden before. Lord Mountbatten had something resembling the Ahtisaari plan in mind when he thought Kashmir might accede to both India and Pakistan. Jawaharlal Nehru’s hopes of a subcontinental confederation might have saved bloodshed, bitterness and a savage drain on resources. The original Palestine mandate envisaged sharing between Jews and Arabs. Gibraltarians rejected Britain’s offer of joint sovereignty with Spain. Such experiments are possible only with the cooperation of supervising governments and indigenous peoples. The Franco-Spanish principality of Andorra, today’s best-known example of shared sovereignty, survives because of its inconsequence. Other condominiums (Anglo-French control over Pacific Vanuatu or the Sudan’s former Anglo-Egyptian administration) were only euphemisms for colonial rule.
Kosovo’s declaration places India in a quandary. Withholding recognition would displease the United States of America and India’s latest ally, France, whose president was the first EU head of state to write to the president of Kosovo. Recognition would please the Arabs who are gloating over the idea of another Organisation of the Islamic Conference member, and from Europe too. That partly avenges for them the surrender on January 2, 1492, by Granada’s last Muslim king to Spain’s Catholic monarchs, ending 800 years of Moorish rule in the Iberian peninsula. Now, the Muslims are creeping back, albeit on the other side of Europe. But can India afford to acknowledge that without encouraging all the Kolhans and Kashmirs in the diversity under the unity of our nation?
Every demographic crisis has a personal, a political and an international dimension. Okinawa’s travails poignantly highlight the personal. It is in effect an exploited Japanese-US colony, spurned by the Japanese who look down on the people and their doomed Uchinaguchi language, and, as current controversies confirm, brutalized by the American military. But as an Okinawan friend says, the alternative to “Japanification” would be to lose their identity altogether in the tide of Americanization that has overwhelmed Hawaii. Politically, the idea of “Sikhistan” had to be abandoned in 1947 because, like Serbs in Kosovo or Bosnia, Sikhs were everywhere but not in a majority anywhere. The drama between China and Taiwan illustrates the international dimension. Not surprisingly, Taiwan, struggling to square its own aspirations with practicality, was one of the first to hail Kosovo. Predictably, it drew a prompt and sharp rebuke from China.
One is relieved for the Kosovars. But the action establishes no principle. No government considers a minority’s plight. The US smiles at Tibet only when it wants to frown at China. The weak and the vulnerable count themselves lucky if they can make the most of big-power ambitions and carve out a niche for themselves in the interstices of superpower machinations while the grinding of axes threatens to drown the rattling of skeletons in hidden cupboards.