Monday, February 18, 2008

Thoughts On Independence

Western Europe and the States are the cradle of modern democracy and the rule (and respect) of law and so I find it particularly shameful that I am having to agree with the Russian government (experts in corruption, extortion, bullying, blackmail and oppression) when it comes to its stance on what looks like the newest country in the world: Kosovo. On Sunday the Kosovar parliament, minus its Serb deputies, unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia - a move which has already been recognised by America, rejected by Russia and on which the EU is dithering as always. That doesn't mean that I am against self-determination of peoples, but the ham-fisted and myopic way in which this was handled by the NATO powers (i.e. America with the UK in tow) causes far more problems than it solves and displays the hypocrisy that is rampant among our political rulers in matters of foreign policy.

From the very start of the West's involvement in this sorry saga (which is by no means the start of the dispute, and is indeed akin to turning up at a football match at the 85th minute) sides were taken that reflected the political situation at the time: not only was Slobodan Milosevic the man the West loved to hate in ex-Yugoslavia, but the Serbs had also temporarily gained the ascendancy in the province. NATO were then duly sent in to help save the plucky Kosovars (most ethnic Albanians of Kosovo prefer to be called Kosovars rather than Albanian to distinguish themselves from their western cousins, who they often feel aren't as cultured as they are). And it is true that the help was indeed needed as the Serb paramilitaries, as well as, to a lesser extent, official Serb forces, were carrying out atrocities against the Kosovar population in response to KLA guerrilla attacks, with the mass killings of civilians, desecration of mosques and Catholic churches (some Kosovars are Catholic whereas Serbs are almost exclusively Orthodox) and rape occurring throughout the region. Such violence seems to characterise the periods of transition when ascendancy in Kosovo switches from one group to the other (during the Tito years the Kosovars were in control). It also seems ironic to me that the Serb authorities were calling the KLA a terrorist orgnisation, a moniker which didn't catch on at the time, although had the events unfolded post 9/11 I'm sure that the Western reponse would have been more firmly behind the Serbs.

Obviously something needed to be done to stop the violence that had led to an exodus of around 800,000 Kosovars to neighbouring countries, but the aerial bombing campaign adopted by NATO was the worst possible response. Instead of getting "boots on the ground" the risk-averse bombing strategy only made matters worse: massacres increased after the bombing started as enraged Serbs took their frustrations out on Kosovar civilians; there was a good deal of "collateral damage" affecting civilians as the NATO forces quickly ran out of military targets and started bombing civilian structures instead (with lethal cluster bombs no less), such as TV stations, electricity stations and ordinary bridges in Vojvodina province some 500km away from Kosovo. When the Serbian forces finally withdrew and NATO forces finally arrived they just stood by as the Kosovar retaliatory attacks escalated (although you didn't need to be a genius military tactician to see that reprisals were a certainty NATO forces had no plans in place on how to deal with them) and forced 164,000 Serbs to flee. Demographics, as any expert in international conflicts will tell you, is a vital plank in territorial claims. The Serbs have been losing that battle for quite some time now: immediately prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia they constituted 10% of Kosovo's population, post WWII they formed 25%, and at the end of the 19th century there was parity between the Serb and Kosovar populations. Prior to the Turkish conquest of the Balkans Kosovo was not only exclusively Serb but also the heart of their empire, and that is one of the main sticking points in the dispute and why Serbs are so loathe to give up Kosovo (so what is the statute of limitations when considering such cases?). Entwined with the historical aspect is the cultural one - the most important work in classical Serb literature is a series of epic poems known as the Kosovo Cycle, it's stories and heroes a part of the national psyche and an indivisible part of Serb culture. To lose Kosovo would be, for the Serbs, like depriving the French of wine or the Greeks of the Parthenon.

But the thing that worries me most about the situation is the precedent that is being set whereby international law is being trampled in the dust. When NATO intervened in 1999 it was to protect a minority from the violence whipped up by a dictator going far too far in responding to a separatist movement. A laudable goal in anyone's book. But because of the West's antipathy to Milosevic they became fixated with the idea of independence for Kosovo, even after Milosevic was ousted. This emboldened the Kosovars to hold out for independence and precluded any possibility of a negotiated settlement. And so, after 9 years of not putting much effort into negotiations and understandably not coming up with an agreement from both sides, we now have this unilateral declaration of independence which goes against the tenets of international law which require a consensus agreement to the drawing of new borders. First of all 9 years is a pitifully short time in which to hold up your hands and say "we tried as hard as we could but it just didn't work". There have been border disputes and sovereignty arguments that have been going on for many decades, and though they may seem intractable that has not caused one side to unilaterally declare independence. Secondly this sets a very dodgy precedent whereby any crackpot secessionist movement can now be justified in claiming its independence. And trust me, there are over 250 such separatist movements (more than one for every official country) ranging from the borderline loonies to the well-organised regimes that run de facto states such as Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, the Tamil Tigers, Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Kurdistan, Transnistria and Taiwan (the latter being so state-like that most people don't realise that it isn't one). Apologists claim that Kosovo is a unique case, but I cannot see how it is more deserving than Tibet, East Turkestan, Kurdistan, Somaliland, Khalistan or a host of other worthy causes. Indeed in most cases the policy of the Western powers is to call for the maintenance of the status quo and the sovereign rights of nations. The only difference is that Kosovo was close, small, and controlled by a relatively weak power that would be easy to beat (as a friend of mine put it, "they had probably made too many bombs and needed to get rid of them"), so that "liberating" it would be quick, easy and relatively painless. And it is this hypocrisy which is unbearable to me. If NATO cared about the humanitarian aspect and the suffering of minorities why do they not invade China to help the poor Uighurs, or Israel to protect the Palestinians, or India to help the Nagas, or Russia to help the Chechens? As always politics has been dressed up in the language of altruism to disguise its baseness and lack of scruples and ordinary people ultimately suffer. In the end this can very easily come back and haunt us as it will embolden the separatists in places where unrest will have much more widespread consequences.

Personally I would have liked to have seen a solution that granted a great deal of autonomy for the region within a Serb federation - a solution that is possible because it already exists in Serbia's northern region of Vojvodina with its large Hungarian minority and 26 separate ethnic groups that manage to live together in peace. Because this solution does not actually resolve the fundamental problem which was the animosity between the two communities, and despite the eloquent statements and grand ideas of equal rights for all ethnic groups in the independence speech, I don't think anything will change. At the moment Serb monuments and churches have to be protected around the clock by international troops, public transport doesn't stop in Serb towns and villages and there is no contact between the communities. This is no basis for a properly functioning state with the trust of all its citizens. I don't blame the Kosovars for the situation as they were just trying to get the most out of situation in which they started off with the weaker hand, but ultimately I believe the blame rests with America and its NATO allies who once again have shown their inability to comprehend the ramifications of their actions on world politics. Now that the genie has been let out of the bottle I don't think it will be possible to "undo" the declaration, but to defuse the situation the West ought to be ready to give one mother of a sweetener to the Serbs to stop the rancour from spreading and also keep a close eye on the Kosovars to ensure that they hold true to their promises of equality. I'm afraid we may not have heard the last of this particular saga.

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