Why Kosovo Still Matters
The United States and Europe stood up to Serbia. Can they stand up to North Korea and Iran?
The impressive decision last week by the International Court of Justice in The Hague—to reject the claim submitted by Serbia that Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence was unlawful—was mostly either ignored or reported in articles festooned with false alarmism about hypothetical future secessions. Allow this precedent, moaned many, and what is to stop, say, Catalonia from breaking away?
This line of thinking is wrong twice. To begin with, there is no actual or theoretical world in which Kosovo could possibly have continued to be ruled from Belgrade, let alone considered part of Serbia. In the first place, the international treaties that originally recognized Kosovo as a constituent of Yugoslavia did just that: It was a member of a wider post-1918 federation and not a segment of just one province of it. (For the legal details of this crucial distinction, see Noel Malcolm's Kosovo: A Short History.) Even the old-style Yugoslav Communists granted Kosovo the status of an autonomous region in their 1974 constitution. It was the great crime—one of the many great crimes—of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to negate both these previous agreements. Almost as soon as he seized power in 1989, he repealed the autonomy of Kosovo. And he went on to destroy the entire Yugoslav federation in a mad and genocidal effort to put a conquering "Greater Serbia" in its place. The independence of Kosovo is the closing act in the defeat of that wicked and crazy scheme. The Albanian majority would no more agree to a restoration of Serbian sovereignty than Poland would seek to fuse itself with Russia or Germany.
As for the question of "precedent," which is constantly and hypocritically brought up by Russia and China, one is forced to ask, "What precedent?" Moscow and Beijing were the protectors and armorers of Milosevic while he sought to bring ethno-fascism to Europe, and both of them have restive minorities within their own borders or territorial claims against near neighbors. Would their line on Tibet or Georgia really change if the ICJ had ruled either way? The question answers itself. It's risible enough that either regime pretends to take any notice of international law.
What, then, of Catalonia and the Basque region and Quebec and Scotland? These are very ancient and complex questions, none of them having anything at all in common with the recent history of the Balkans. Experience seems to teach us that nations within larger nations do not embark on the course of secession lightly. If Spain or Canada or the United Kingdom were now treating their minorities with anything like the violence and bigotry and contempt with which Serbia handled Kosovo, then there is more than enough in the history of the Catalans and Basques and Quebecois and Scots to suggest that they would have rebelled unstoppably by now. What seems to "brake" this nationalism, at least in the European cases, is the continued appeal of membership in a larger European Union that requires member states to respect smaller nations and remote regions. And this opportunity is now available to both Serbia and Kosovo as well, in a way that it could not have been while the Milosevic regime was violating every known principle of law. Meanwhile, the idea of Catalans or Scots rallying for independence under the slogan "Remember Kosovo" is barely even a fanciful one.
Apart from the peaceful and uncontested separation of the Czechs and Slovaks in the early 1990s (also conducted within the framework of potential European integration), in recent history I can only think of two actual "secessions" on what you might call European soil. Both were completely fraudulent and lawless. The first was the creation of a Turks-only statelet on the territory of Cyprus in 1983, and the second was the proclamation of a Serbs-only statelet in the territory of Bosnia a decade later. Neither "coup" was in any way the work of the inhabitants: Both were made possible only by the presence of invading and occupying troops. Neither ever secured, or will ever secure, international recognition. So much for "precedent."
There is no need to romanticize the Kosovo state. At least two aspects of it need real and critical attention: its policy toward the Serb-majority enclave around the city of Mitrovica, and its attitude toward the treasury of Serbian religious and national architecture that stays on its soil. But the international community is in a far better position to safeguard and negotiate these matters than any fantasy of restored Serbian "sovereignty."
We lose something important if we forget Kosovo and the harrowing events that finally led to the self-determination of its nearly 2 million inhabitants. Long deprived of even vestigial national and human rights, then forced at gunpoint onto deportation trains and threatened with the believable threat of mass murder, these people were belatedly rescued by an intervention that said, fairly simply, there is a limit beyond which law cannot be further broken and conscience further outraged. There is no oil in Kosovo. The state interests of Israel were not involved. There were no votes to be gained; rather to the contrary, in fact. A large proportion of the victim population was and is Muslim. The least embarrassing way of phrasing this is to say that American and European honor was rather hastily saved, and a horrible threat to the peace of the region removed. Many brave and principled Serbs have good reason to recognize that a menace and an insult to their country, too, was abolished in the process.
That was then. Now it seems incautious to speculate how far a rogue regime can go, and still feel itself immune from reprisal or consequence. The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have sapped and eroded our confidence. The dictators in Iran and North Korea sense this, and probe, and often find only mush. And as in the case of Kosovo then and now, Russia and China can be counted on to provide the protection and the excuses.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Slobodan Milosevic by Fred Ernst/AFP/Getty Images.