As Kosovo’s Parliament declared itself a “democratic, secular and multi-ethnic republic” and unveiled a new flag which purports to be an ethnically neutral symbol, celebrations on Pristina’s streets demonstrated a different reality. The flag with which the towns and cities of Kosovo have been festooned is the Albanian flag and the celebrations have seen an ethnic Albanian Diaspora pouring into the Serb province to hail the creation of another “Albanian state”.
In Mitrovica, where a Serb majority still predominates north of the Ibar River, police supervised by French soldiers needed to restrain Albanian celebrations on the south bank, as attempts were made to cross the river in order to taunt Serbs. It is little wonder that the residents of Serb enclaves have little faith in rhetorical commitments offered by the ex-terror chiefs in Pristina that they will protect their community after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.
While NATO troops remain ostensibly to help secure Kosovo’s borders and to provide support to the nascent security services of the province, there is widespread recognition that their role is a disincentive for open displays of ethnic violence against the Serb minority. Kosovo is a region central to Serb self-conceptions of history and identity, scattered with historical sites significant to Serbs and Serbia. However the main concern of most young Serbs who live there is to leave.
As much of the west prepares to recognise the province as a state, other regions with local ethnic majorities are taking encouragement that their aspirations to establish ethno-nationalist states and gain international recognition may be successful. Nagorno Karabakh has a much more compelling case for official recognition of its separation from Azerbaijan than does Kosovo from Serbia. The ethnically Armenian province has little historical link with Azerbaijan other than a pragmatic Soviet decision to administer it from Baku rather than Yerevan. Armenians in the province suffered ethnic violence from Azeri forces comparable to that suffered by Kosovans under Slobodan Milosevic. There is little wonder that Karabakh’s Armenians see parallels between their own situation and that of Kosovo. The subtle difference is that Azerbaijan is an American ally which is important to the US strategically and as a result of its oil wealth.
In the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia local majorities oppose the Georgian authorities and have set up functionally autonomous governments. The EU and the US have been staunch in defending the territorial integrity of Georgia, but how can recognition of Kosovo not undermine their arguments? Similarly, in Moldova Transnistria functions as an independent state, with the assent of the majority of its population, but remains unrecognised.
It might be expedient for western governments to recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence, particularly given the support it is receiving from key players such as the US, Britain and France, but whilst pragmatic hypocrisy may be an easy solution in the short term, in the long-term it can have consequences. Arguing that Kosovo is an exception and that recognition of the province’s statehood does not create a precedent may seem a neat way to side-step tricky ethical debate but it will not cut any mustard with the various ethnic separatist movements now keenly watching developments in Pristina.
Neither is the argument that Slobodan Milosevic’s cruelties to ethnic Albanians were enough to differentiate this conflict from any other sustainable. Leaving aside the equivalence of Albanian on Serb terrorism, leaving aside the fact that Milosevic’s worst excesses were a direct result of NATO intervention in the region, leaving aside the consideration that countless ethnic squabbles have been treated differently despite similarly appalling atrocities, is the way to heal ethnic divisions and right perceived wrongs really to respond to such things by establishing separate states for those ethnicities? By such a solution are we not merely perpetuating the problems which we are purporting to solve? One perceptive commenter raises historical precedent in the thread below. Have we not been down this route before?
It is no accident that those European countries prepared to dissent from the western consensus that Kosovo should be recognised, are those who most directly feel the effects of separatist movements. They should be applauded for at least attempting to show consistent thinking and not allowing the remoteness of Kosovo to let thoughtless pragmatism prevail. Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Slovakia know from bitter experience that the simplistic arguments of ethnic nationalism are deceptive and facile. They appreciate that splintering nations along majority ethnic lines is not a solution and that compromise, tolerance and accommodation should not be so easily jettisoned.