In early 1999 my TV was constantly filled with scenes of Kosovars fleeing to Albania and Macedonia with carts loaded with however many of their possessions they could carry. I don’t know how many Americans saw these pictures — I was living in France at the time, and this humanitarian nightmare seemed to be happening in my backyard.
Then in 2004 I had a chance to visit Kosovo in person. It was a profound experience to be somewhere where history was unfolding before your own eyes. Most of European history hangs in museums, but in Kosovo it was happening in the streets.
It was very clear, though, even back in 2004 that the status quo in Kosovo had remained unchanged for far too long. After the 1998-9 conflict subsided, Kosovo became a de facto separate entity from greater Serbia, if not also de jure. In other words, even though no international law would recognize them as separate countries, for all intents and purposes they were. Serbia no longer controlled the territory; instead it was governed by UNMIK — the UN Mission in Kosovo, or UN peacekeepers. Initially this arrangement was a good deal for the Kosovars, as it protected them from further Serbian aggression. However, it wasn’t long before the situation naturally showed signs of strain.
For one thing, international peacekeeping is not a panacea. Peacekeeping missions are made up of multinational forces, forces that are frequently culturally unfamiliar with each other if not also openly hostile. And they can be plodding and inefficient, often at the expense of their mission. While UNMIK largely protected the local Kosovars from Serbian aggression, it did a terrible job protecting the remaining local Serbian minority from Kosovar aggression. Both a few months before and a few months after my 2004 trip were several tragic examples of riots and destruction against the remaining Serbian cultural presence, which UNMIK should have prevented.
The other problem, the perhaps more glaring one, was that under the status quo Kosovo was in a permanent state of limbo. Neither part of Serbia nor an independent state, Kosovo was stuck. While over the years some rebuilding took place, it was all funded by external sources. Kosovo’s own economy was nearly non-existent, since in this state of limbo, with no recognized government, ownership of property couldn’t be assured, and with property ownership unclear, no financing could be procured. As a result the local infrastructure (including major utilities like electricity and water) remained in its state of ruin long after the war, and long after people had returned home and needed it. Meanwhile unemployment remained rife, as there were no homegrown industries to provide jobs. Arguably it is this situation which sowed the seeds of unrest that boiled over in 2004. While violence is never tolerable, the frustration the situation created was such that it is at least understandable.
This weekend the Kosovars finally declared their independence. While the world anxiously wrings its hands over this, it needs to recognize that it was inevitable. Despite what Serbia says, Kosovo could never again be part of Serbia. Though Serbia lays claim to the territory, it never could lay claim to the people. Even during the Yugoslavian period Tito had come to recognize that the character and culture of Kosovo required the province to be granted more autonomy than other regions within greater Serbia necessarily needed. The war in the late 1990s resulted when, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, that independent character began to more greatly reassert itself. Serbia’s response, to take assertive steps to ethnically cleanse the region of that character, created too much distrust for the local Kosovars to ever again acquiesce to Serbian rule. They had tolerated it for quite some time, up until the reign of Milosevic, even going so far as speaking the slavic Serbo-Croatian language, but following the war they stopped teaching it to their children and instead raised them to speak the local Kosovar Albanian tongue. Their time as willing Yugoslavs was over.
But if Kosovo couldn’t be part of Serbia, what else could it be? It could not stay a ward of the world forever. It had already been dependent for too long. For the region to ever be healthy, for it ever to find peace and prosperity, it had to finally assert its own independence.
Serbia, of course, does not see it that way. Serbia sees Kosovo’s secession as a violation of its own territorial integrity. It’s a viewpoint that even America can be sympathetic towards — notice how hard the Union fought to keep the Confederacy from splitting off. But Serbia’s claim to Kosovo is based on strikingly ancient history and stands in the face of clear ethnic and historical divisions. Furthermore, its attack against the local people might fairly be seen to have waived its right to rule the region, for had it not done so then perhaps a political solution uniting Kosovo with greater Serbia to everyone’s mutual benefit could have been possible. It can’t possibly seem reasonable to anyone that a country should be able to attack a local people and then expect those who managed to survive to remain willing citizens.
The rest of the world is also holding its breath following Kosovo’s declaration of independence. All over the planet various regions and ethnic clusters are threatening secession from whatever larger geopolitical entity they are currently part of, and should they all achieve it, it would cause chaos and instability. Kosovo independence need not be regarded as so dire a precedent, however. For one thing, the historical origins of both the territorial claims and ethnic divisions are surely differentiable from those in many other locales. Secondly, the Kosovar declaration of independence, rather than inviting an unlimited flurry of further separatist movements, may instead stand as a model of what other legitimate movements should be like.
Too often independence movements are driven by terrorist insurgencies, who may not even speak for all they purport to represent and who may employ unforgivably violent means in their attempt to advance their cause. Whereas in Kosovo, there is more hegemony of local political opinion regarding secession, and, while the 2004 and occasional previous and subsequent riots can’t be excused, there also has been much less violence than seen in other separatist movements. Indeed, it is in the interest of the world to recognize Kosovo, because to do otherwise would be to show that the carrot offered to its separatists was only illusory. If we do not want separatist movements to lobby for their causes by means of violence, then we must show having largely laid down arms to have been a more effective alternative. Kosovars have been notably patient under the circumstances, playing by the rest of the world’s rules in not trying to violently seize its own autonomy. Given the inevitability of its independence, though, to glibly ignore its good behavior would send a counter-productive message to this region and to others.
Not that independence will be a panacea either. Kosovo contains a sizeable Serb minority population, whose interests must also be protected. Perhaps not to the extent of allowing them to veto independence, but certainly enough to be secure in their lives and livelihoods within Kosovo’s borders. Ironically, however, it may only be through independence that their security can be achieved, as only with autonomous rule can Kosovo become stable enough politically and economically to maturely handle this deep cultural division. In the pervasive ruins of violence and hate old antipathies could only continue to flourish.