Kosovo is the world’s newest state, and it is likely to prove a pain in the neck. As in the case of Palestine, two quite different peoples claim it. The huge majority of the two million population are Albanian and Muslim, while one in ten, or even fewer, are Serb and Orthodox. Ethnic and religious differences like these would test the identity of any nation-state.
The Serbs under the late and stupid Slobodan Milosevic made the fatal mistake of using force to incorporate into the rump of Serbia as much as possible of former Yugoslavia. Serbian nationalism proved criminal, taking the form of ethnic cleansing of the neighbouring Croats and Bosnians, massacres, destruction of historic places, and so on. President Clinton eventually did what the supine Europeans couldn’t, and stopped Serbia. Taken over by NATO, probably in defiance of international law, Kosovo became a special sort of protectorate, governed and policed by Westerners. Under this umbrella, or more accurately fig-leaf, the local Albanians have lived a different life, with crime and corruption running more or less untrammelled.
As with an illegitimate and unwanted child, nobody could think what to do with this province. NATO could not be responsible forever. Understandably, the Kosovar Albanians refused to have Serbia back after the Serbs’ abominable use of force and wicked disregard of human rights. But they themselves were, and still are, also incapable of governing fairly or competently. To grant them independence may have been the least bad course, but it is risky at several levels.
The Muslim world is naturally delighted to have a new member country, and one in Europe, what’s more. The United States and NATO are equally pleased to have the Kosovo problem off their hands. So there is a U.S.-Muslim entente, unusual to say the least. The Europeans are too supine to declare openly that they do not relish a Muslim state arising on the continent. But some of them, led by Spain with Romania and Slovakia and Cyprus in tow, are willing to oppose the independence of Kosovo on other grounds, namely that ethnic breakaways of the sort are existential threats to the nation state and its integrity. If Kosovars can do it, so can Basques and Catalans in Spain, Hungarians in Slovakia, Tamils in Sri Lanka – many a nation-state comes into this danger zone, and they are lining up by the dozen against Kosovo. The European Union exists to break up the nation-state, of course, so support for the new nation-state of Kosovo from the likes of Javier Solano, the EU foreign affairs boss, is particularly ironic, indeed rich to the point of absurdity. But that’s Europe for you in this age of political pygmies.
No country is more threatened by ethnic and religious separatist movements than Russia. So Russia is doing what it does best, turning a dangerous weapon away from itself onto others. President Putin is encouraging Abkhazia and South Ossetia to declare independence against Georgia, and he backs Serbia in its refusal to accept what the Serbian prime minister likes to call “the sham state” of Kosovo. If really it is a sham state, where does that leave its Serb minority? Is the new Kosovo to be a state for all within it, or a state just for the Albanian ethnicity? In his present mischief-making mood, Putin has an opening here for working against stability on the widest scale, and it will be a matter of luck if he chooses not to provoke another Balkan crisis.