Sovereignty and secession: Kosovo’s false independence

By Brenda Kay Zylstra

Several weeks ago Kosovo formally declared its independence from Serbia. Kosovo, an international protectorate of the United Nations since 1999, means little to most Americans beyond a vague connection to Slobodan Milosevic and a buzzword for the negatives of Balkanization. Thus the news coverage has been scant and skewed.

Disturbingly absent from mainstream news coverage of Kosovo is any sense of historical perspective. Few have acknowledged that this conflict stretches further back than the dissolving of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, further than postwar Europe’s communism, further than the boundaries drawn after the Great War.

Kosovo has been part of greater Serbia dating back to the seventh century, when the concept of Serbia first emerged. The strong Albanian presence began in the early 17th century under the Ottoman Empire, when the ruling Turks encouraged Albanian migration into Kosovo as one means of persecuting Serbia. Orthodox Christian Serbia was a natural ally of Russia (a relationship which survives today); therefore a Turkish enemy. In 1875, the Serbs reclaimed their independence from the Ottoman Empire and after a series of wars from 1912-1918, they were the leading nationality in the brand-new Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Not only was Kosovo part of Serbia, it had a clear majority Serbian population.

Hitler invaded Yugoslavia in 1941; Croatia and Albania supported the Axis and worked with Germany to cleanse as many Serbs as possible from the region via deportation, assimilation and concentration camps. Serbians were reduced to 50 percent of Kosovo’s population. After the war, Western-supported communist dictator Tito split Kosovo out as a separate province, placed Albanians in high government positions and continued encouraging Albanian migration into the area. In addition, Kosovar-Albanian women had the highest European birthrate, and the Serbian demographic decline in Kosovo progressed.

Milosevic came to power in the 1980s and attempted to reverse the 80-year trend of Albanian demographic gains in Kosovo. The Serbs had finally found their lobbyist, but he was a murderous dictator who was later indicted at the Hague for ethnic cleansing. The world watched in disgust as Milosevic’s Yugoslavia tore itself apart, border after border becoming drenched in blood and bombs.

In 1999, at the behest of President Clinton, NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign against Belgrade for the mistreatment of Kosovo. This clinched the loss for Serbia.

The West had chosen its side and the Kosovars knew it. Though the Kosovars waited nearly a decade to officially declare independence, they knew once they had the backing of the West they would be able to; the Serbians would be powerless to fight back. Once bitten – or bombed – twice shy.

The new recognition of an independent Kosovo by the United States and most of the European Union flies in the face of the crucial principle of state sovereignty as established in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.

But the West still harbors a (self) righteous anger at Milosevic’s blood-soaked tyranny, and the effectual giving away of a province that for all rights and purposes belongs fully to Serbia is little more than a back-handed punishment.

This is not to deny the wrongs done to the Kosovars by Milosevic’s regime, nor to belittle their many grievances up to the present day. But the scenario too often presented has been that of the sore loser Serbians versus the long-oppressed Kosovars. Only in the last century has the Albanian minority become the majority in Serbia. For more than 1,000 years previous, Kosovo had without question belonged to Serbia. More than 1,000 years of historical and emotional ties lie within Kosovo’s borders, perhaps most notably the seat of the first Serbian Orthodox Church.

Recognizing Kosovo’s independence sets a perilous precedent, not only for other aspiring breakaway provinces themselves, but for the way in which the international community approaches these situations. Kosovo’s independence is essentially in name alone. It will require thousands of international troops and billions of dollars in aid for an indeterminate amount of time. The Serbian/Kosovar border will remain unstable and dangerous. Imposing false solutions on ethnic conflicts merely serves to mitigate Western feelings of responsibility while upsetting international balances and increasing – not lessening – injustice for those involved.

The Western backing of Kosovo is not a matter of deep principles, just an almost arbitrary sense of wielding economic and military power. The propensity of the West to interfere in the affairs of certain countries but not others is as confusing as it is frustrating and frankly unfair. The statecraft of negotiation, once again, has been abandoned, and even the past two weeks of Serbian riots and (sadly, often misplaced and violent) anger are evidence of the endurance of this problem. Nothing has been solved. Nothing is certain, except the continued hubris and historical amnesia of many Western powers.