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On Kosovo's independence
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 02 - 2008

As Russia tries to regain prestige lost since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kosovo's declaration of independence marks a challenge, writes Galal Nassar
In the latest change in Europe's map since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kosovo's parliament declared independence from Serbia on 17 February. Since World War II, Kosovo had been part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Serb-dominated union founded by Josep Broz Tito. Kosovo is bordered by Serbia to the northeast, Montenegro to the northwest, Macedonia to the southeast and Albania to the south. Its capital, Pristina, is inhabited by 2.3 million people, 90 per cent of which are Muslim Albanians.
Kosovo is a landlocked region, with a mountainous, verdant terrain. With unemployment at 50 per cent and over 15 per cent of the population living under the poverty line, many question the feasibility of Kosovo as an "independent, democratic, and sovereign country" on both economic and political grounds.
The current crisis with Serbia goes back six centuries, when Kosovo served as a bridgehead for advancing Ottoman troops who later occupied Serbia. As of the 14th century, many Albanians emigrated into Kosovo where they received favourable treatment from the Ottomans, a matter that ignited ethnic tensions between Albanians and Serbs. The Serbs had the chance to avenge themselves during the Balkan wars, ultimately regaining control over Kosovo in 1912. Since then, Kosovo has been imbued with emotive symbolism among Serbs.
When Kosovo's ethnic Albanians sided with the Nazis during World War II, hostilities flared. The Serbs wasted no time liquidating Albanian leaders after the war, and in 1946 annexed Kosovo. In 1974, Kosovo's status was elevated when it became a full member of the Yugoslav federal government. When the Soviet Union began to fall apart, many nations in East Europe sought independence, including Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia, all former members of the Yugoslav federation. Kosovo has been trying to do the same ever since.
To understand the international reaction to Kosovo's independence, one has to keep in mind two things: history and geopolitics. At the two ends of the spectrum are Russia and the United States. The latter wants to create a new international order that suits its interests. The former, led by Vladimir Putin, wants to restore some of the faded glory and influence of Russia's Soviet past. The Chinese have so far taken the Russian side.
It is to be recalled that this wasn't the first attempt at independence on Kosovo's part. In September 1991, the Kosovo population held a general referendum and voted for independence. In May 1992, Ibrahim Rugova was elected president, but the republic never gained international recognition. The failure to gain international recognition didn't dishearten ethnic Albanians. They asked Europe and the US to sponsor negotiations with the Serbs. The latter were reluctant to participate in talks, claiming that their differences with the Albanians were an internal affair. As the dispute continued, Turkey and Albania sided with Kosovo's Albanians, while Greece and Bulgaria opposed independence. The rest of Europe generally straddled the fence. What tilted the balance eventually was American insistence on eradicating the last vestiges of the Soviet era.
Under the pretext of protecting Albanian civilians, the US administration under Clinton threatened Serbia with sanctions and generated international pressure that culminated in military action. France, the UK, and other Western countries took sides with the US. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation resisted US policies, considering them flagrant interference in its traditional geopolitical domain. The Russians continued to see Kosovo as part of their zone of influence, although the collapse of the Soviet empire left them with limited room for manoeuvre.
The Russians used quiet diplomacy to get the Europeans and -- at least for a while -- the Americans to recognise the importance of the territorial integrity of Serbia. In other words, Kosovo was to remain a part of Serbia until a new formula regulating the relation between the two sides was found. But this didn't stop the US and its allies from trying to liquidate the last remnants of Soviet legacy in Europe.
The Russians see developments in Kosovo as an attempt by the US and Europe to undermine their influence. This is why Putin was so incensed at the declaration of independence. For now, Moscow is moving on two fronts. It is trying to get the UN Security Council to annul the declaration of independence. And it is standing fully with the Serbs.
The independence of Kosovo is yet another chapter in the geopolitical unfolding of the post-Soviet Union era. It is the latest revision of the map world leaders drew up in Malta 60 years or so ago. What will this lead to? One possibility is that the US and Europe have their way, and Kosovo remains independent. Another is that the Cold War resumes, albeit in a new form, and that independence for Kosovo is understood as a challenge to the sphere of influence re-sought by Russia.


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