Nearly unreported in the American media is the imminent culmination of one of America’s modern wars: in this case, the 1999 Kosovo War, in which NATO attacked Serbia on behalf of a Kosovar Albanian guerrilla movement, and forced a de facto – though not de jure – cession of the province to an international force under a United Nations mandate. According to all available reports, in exactly one week – February 17th – Kosovo will declare its independence as an Albanian-dominated statelet under the aegis of the Western powers. Contrary to the benign apathy with which our media and policy communities will greet it, this is a malign development on several levels.
The 1999 war itself was a strange replay of the “cabinet wars” of earlier centuries, commanding little popular support in any of the participating nations, and motivated almost entirely by an elite consensus in the West that the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic had to go. Indeed, that regime did more than its share to solidify that consensus with its rhetorical ineptitude and its sponsorship of the bloody-minded Serb war in Bosnia. The Western elites, including the Clinton Administration, were for their part embarrassed by their years of inaction in Bosnia, and as such were hypersensitive to replays of that situation elsewhere – and concurrently eager to show, if only to themselves, that they had learned its lessons. Kosovo’s simmering conflict between Serbs and Albanians struck all the right chords, down to the main villain.
The flaw in Western thinking lay in the assumption that the Bosnian horrors were provoked by basic Serb intolerance of ethnic minorities. This was inaccurate. The Serbian forces in Bosnia (and, to a lesser extent, in Croatia) did not perpetrate their barbarous cruelties simply to erase other ethnicities per se: rather, it was done when those other ethnicities were perceived to be equal or superior threats to Serb communities. This is not to excuse what was done, but to contextualize it. Serbs felt threatened by superior Croat numbers in the Krajina and Slavonia, and by superior Bosniak and Croat numbers in Bosnia proper. This was not an issue within Serbia itself, where, if ethnic minorities were not necessarily tolerated in the Western, liberal sense of the world, neither were they dispossessed or systematically slaughtered. Even at the nadir of the Bosnian atrocities, Muslims within Serbia were living in the Sandzak, Hungarians were living in the Vojvodina, Montenegrans were living in, well, Montenegro – and Muslim Albanians were living in Kosovo. (A 2002 map of ethnicities in Serbia is available here.)
Things went awry in the latter province after the end of the Bosnian war, when the Kosovo Liberation Army began its guerrilla campaign against Serbian authorities. The provocation for this campaign lay in the decade-long campaign, under Milosevic, to curb local autonomy and reassert Serbian cultural dominance in the heartland of Serb national identity. (The province of Kosovo contains within it the site of Kosovo Polje, the “Field of Blackbirds” upon which Serbia lost its independence for nearly five hundred years to the advancing Turks.) This provocation, though, was not inherently subject to solely violent resolution, as evidenced by the existence of “mainstream” Kosovar Albanian political figures who pursued change through peaceful means. The KLA therefore pursued a strategy drawing from lessons in Ireland and Palestine, assassinating Serbs who tolerated Albanians, and Albanians who tolerated Serbs, and innocents from both groups. The clumsy and ham-handed Serbian authorities responded as the KLA wished, deploying regular army units against guerrilla forces, neglecting political amends, and progressively alienating an already suspicious and ill-disposed West. By the time of the Račak massacre, the truth no longer mattered: all the West saw was Serbs killing non-Serbs, again, and war was inevitable.
In the two-and-a-half months of war in 1999, Serbian authorities did terrible things to Kosovar Albanians. The war precipitated the very crisis that the West imagined, but had not actually come to pass: the “ethnic cleansing,” via mass expulsions, of Kosovo of its Muslims. But in the nine years since, Kosovar Albanians have done terrible things to their Serb neighbors — and it is no exaggeration to state that a Serb in post-1999 Kosovo is worse off than an Albanian in pre-1999 Kosovo. To our shame, this situation is a direct result of our intervention — and has evolved under our watch.
The KLA and its associates in Kosovar politics, in radicalizing the situation to provoke the 1999 war, thereby made it impossible to return to a situation of peaceful coexistence. Whereas the intervening West envisioned — if they envisioned anything at all — a tolerant, multiethnic Kosovo along the lines of what was sought on Bosnia, Kosovar Albanians envisioned their own ethnic cleansing, of Serbs from Kosovo. What the NATO allies waded into was not a rescue of a wronged party as such, but a party determined to wreak precisely the evils upon its foe that its foe perpetrated upon it. Under NATO occupation and UN administration, this goal is met with appalling thoroughness. A brief and far from comprehensive list of crimes should suffice to illustrate the process underway:
* In the aftermath of the Serb surrender in June 1999, the victorious KLA seized the opportunity to drive approximately 200,000 non-Albanians — overwhelmingly Serbs, but also Roma — out of the province. Human Rights Watch reported that this flight was motivated largely by concrete threats and the occasional local massacre, with a reported total of one thousand Serb men, women and children murdered.
* In February 2001, an IED planted by Albanians destroyed a bus carrying Serbs to family gravesites at the Gračanica monastery.
* In August 2003, Serb boys swimming were machine-gunned from a riverbank.
* In March 2004, a deliberate anti-Serb pogrom claimed dozens of lives, and further ghettoized the remaining Serbs in their northern enclaves.
* Perhaps most distressing from a cultural standpoint is the deliberate and systemic destruction of Serbian Orthodox Church parishes, properties, monasteries, and art throughout Kosovo since 1999. Students of the 20th century will recall the Nazi efforts to comprehensively erase Jewish culture from the Continent, which included the demolition of synagogues and the use of Jewish headstones as paving: since then, only the Kosovo Albanian program to exterminate Serbian culture in Kosovo compares in European history. In the summer following the Serbian defeat, the KLA demolished the Church of the Holy Virgin at Musutiste and St Mark’s of Korisa Monastery. Sadly, they did not stop there. In lieu of the long list of churches and cultural sites destroyed by the Kosovar Albanians since 1999, is it enough to note the documentation here, here, here, here, and here.
Your tax dollars at work.
What is astonishing about these atrocities, aside from their plain brutality, is that they are perpetrated by a segment of Kosovo’s population that enjoys every advantage. Albanians constitute 90% of the population; they control the politics of the province; they have foreign sponsorship and foreign armies for protection; they are definitive victors in the late civil conflict; and they enjoy the overwhelming bulk of patronage from official sources. The persistence of organized violence against the Serbs now is not the guerrilla campaign of 1995-1999, but an actual state persecution of a minority. Self-pity is a recurring and malevolent feature of Serbian nationalism, and it is important to not lend credence to it — but we must nonetheless acknowledge these facts for what they are.
With all this in mind, we return to the baleful reality of the imminent declaration of Kosovar independence under Albanian rule. The declaration is happening for several reasons, but the major one is that the Kosovo Albanians feel they can get away with it with minimal repercussions. Having tested the limits of their Western sponsors’ tolerance, they found those limits were extensive: the 2004 anti-Serb pogroms conclusively demonstrated that little if anything could sour their relationship with the West, and with the United States in particular. They know that Putin’s resurgent Russia is still unable to bring meaningful pressure to bear; and they know that a NATO embroiled in Afghanistan, and a United States mired in Iraq, will take the path of least resistance. Lurking behind all this is the unstated possibility that the KLA would be willing to launch a guerrilla campaign against a NATO unwilling to validate its aspirations. In this light, when Kosovar Albanian leaders boast of “100 nations” willing to recognize their new state, they are probably not exaggerating. A world weary of conflict, and with bigger strategic headaches than the Balkans — so 1990s, that — is almost certainly willing to sacrifice the Serb remnant in Kosovo to the predations of their Albanian neighbors.
For all this, the United States should not accede to Kosovo’s independence. The reasons present themselves:
* Kosovo is not politically ready. A would-be state with a pervasive internal culture of violence and persecution is a disaster-in-waiting. Imagine, for example, granting statehood to the Gaza Strip: its political culture would make a mockery of the very term, and the fiction demanding co-equal status between it and, say, France would ill-serve all concerned. Until Kosovo can function as a reasonably inclusive democracy with reasonable guarantees for its minorities, and have regular, peaceful transfers of power, it does not merit statehood. The province, for many reasons, is simply not there yet.
* Kosovo is not culturally ready. The campaign of brutalization against non-Albanian and non-Muslim minorities has been addressed at length here. Suffice it to say that this is not a polity ready for just self-governance; and suffice it to say that we ought not be a party to cultural erasure.
* Kosovar independence would generate instability elsewhere. The old Wilsonian idea that a geographically-bounded majority population deserves its own sovereignty dies hard. In this decade, with American foreign policy predicated more than ever on quasi-Wilsonian principles, it is especially formidable. It is also a recipe for disaster: with the United States engaged in two wars in multiethnic states, to explicitly affirm this precedent in Kosovo invites more serious problems and bloodshed elsewhere. With Kosovo independent, what grounds do we have for dissuading the independence aspirations of the Kurds, the Pashtuns, the Baluchis, the Assyrians, the Arab Shi’a, et al.? Furthermore, what prevents Russia from seizing upon this precedent to cause trouble in the Caucasus and Moldova? (They say they won’t — for now — but why give them the leverage?) Contra the rhetoric of some neoconservatives, we ought not be in the business of redrawing borders, nor sponsoring particular ethnic groups for their own sake.
* Kosovar independence would reverse progress in the Balkans. Memories are short, but in the 1990s, the Balkans were a cauldron of bloodshed and horror. If they are peaceful now, and if Sarajevo has a tourist industry, there is nothing inherent or irreversible about this. Since the last Balkan war in 1999, Serbia has modernized, liberalized, and moved toward the European Union; Bosnia has been, if divided, at least quiescent; and we’ve not seen Albanian irredentism cause an international crisis apart from an abortive 2001 insurgency in Macedonia. Kosovo independence threatens all this: the imminent declaration of independence has already damaged Serb-EU relations; the rationale for the existence of the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina fades dramatically if the three parts believe they may simply separate; and Albanian irredentism receives a massive boost. The history of the Balkans in the past century has been the history of nations either pursuing irredentist aims, or reconciling themselves to abandoning those claims. Albania, with claims against each of its neighbors — Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Macedonia — is also the only Balkan nation with a shot at making good on significant portions of them. Kosovar independence is thus the worst of all possible worlds for the Balkans, in reviving one source of Balkan instability in a resentful Serbia, and with the Albanians rewarding precisely the sort of irredentist sentiment that has repeatedly plunged the peninsula into savage war.
* Kosovar independence would further strain the US-Russian relationship. This relationship is already under sufficient pressure thanks to Vladimir Putin’s decision to reclaim much of the old Soviet-era paranoia and tension as Russia’s own. This is, to be sure, mostly Russia’s own doing — but it defies reason to assume that the United States ought to therefore aggravate it further. The American relationship with Russia is self-evidently more important and enduring than the American relationship with Albania, to say nothing of Kosovar Albanians. The Russians have warned us repeatedly of their profound reservations over Kosovar independence: in being sensitive to their sensitivities, we lose nothing, and stand to gain in the long run.
So much for what ought to happen: what will happen? This is regrettably easy to predict: on Sunday, February 17th, 2008, Kosovo will declare its independence. Many if not most of the remaining Serbs will migrate to Serbia proper. Some Serbs will stay and try to force a partition of the province; this will swiftly degenerate into violence as the Kosovar Albanian government seeks to extend its writ to the full territory it now claims. The NATO forces in place will be forced to act as the gendarmerie of a sovereign state, or to oppose that state in its quelling of Serb resistance. Neither are good options. Within Serbia, the citizenry will ask themselves what exactly rapprochement with the West has brought them and theirs. Within the coming few years, the issue of Kosovo’s political union with Albania will come to the fore, and this will draw in Greece at minimum, and Turkey and Russia at worst. From benign if cruel stasis, the Balkans will again remind us why the word is also an adjective.
And we Americans will feel quite blameless about it, no doubt.