That faint ticking sound you hear may be that of Kosovo, ready to explode. At a time when America’s collective foreign-policy awareness has been directed at events in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Venezuela, it is no wonder that the Balkans have received little media attention.
During the 1990s, however, the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars that it spawned were front-page material. After several years of relative quiet — emphasis on “relative” — the region appears ready to burn again. Even more tragic is that the American foreign-policy apparatus has shown little interest in taking the steps needed to prevent it.
Kosovo is a Serbian province, but it has a predominantly ethnic Albanian Muslim population. Its leaders are poised to declare independence in the coming weeks, but Serbian Christians consider the soil sacrosanct and many are prepared for a fight. The nationalism may be traced in large part to the Battle of Pristina in 1389, when badly outnumbered Serbians inflicted grievous casualties on invading Ottoman forces in an otherwise-losing battle. The province has been the site of inter-ethnic conflict ever since. More recently, as a result of the 1999 war that featured atrocities on both sides, NATO forced Serbian security forces out of Kosovo, which was then placed under U.N. administration.
The results of this Sunday’s presidential runoff will have significant implications. The contest features the pro-Moscow Serbian Radical party’s candidate, Tomislav Nicolic, who captured nearly 40 percent of the recent first-round voting, and the liberal Democratic-party incumbent and pro-Western reformer, Boris Tadic, who finished second with 35 percent.
Tadic rose to prominence in the wake of the overthrow of dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Since becoming president in 2004, he has pursued friendly relations with the United States and the European Union, and he actively champions the growing business links between Serbia and Israel. Despite the rise of nationalism around him, a re-elected Tadic is more likely to guide his country to full European Union membership, increase its cooperation with the West on anti-terrorism efforts, and bring war criminals still wanted for crimes against Bosnians, Croats, and Albanians to justice.
In contrast, Nikolic, a former speaker of parliament, belongs to a party whose chairman and founder is on trial for war crimes at the Hague. Nikolic served under Milosevic and was a paramilitary in the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia. He has railed against the West and raised the prospect that Serbia could use force to prevent Kosovo from declaring independence. Although both Tadic and Nikolic oppose the province’s secession, the latter has used fiery rhetoric, ominously vowing to “fight like a lion” to keep the province from becoming independent. He has strong ties to the Kremlin and has even gone so far as to promise to invite Russia to construct military bases within miles of the province.