A new country limped onto the world’s stage on Feb. 17: It is Kosovo. And, true to its Balkan heritage, Kosovo is a problem for most of Europe and Russia. It is also a problem for the United States, which is expected to recognize Kosovo, though mutedly.
Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia has infuriated Russia, which immediately called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council. Some European countries, including Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia, have told the European Union that they will not recognize Kosovo—in essence a successful separatist movement in Europe.
Serbia is predictably apoplectic. It claims that Kosovo is “the heart of Serbia,” although less than 20 percent of Kosovo’s 2-million population is Serbian. Serbia blames the United States, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for the loss of Kosovo. In fact, these entities have been tirelessly trying to find an answer to the Kosovo question. No one wanted to see the last remnants of Yugoslavia broken up, not least because of the fuel Kosovo’s independence provides to other separatist groups. Think Scotland, Northern Ireland, Spain’s Basque region, France’s Corsica or Canada’s Quebec province.
Another problem is that Kosovo will be the first Muslim country in Europe. Much of its population was converted to Islam under Ottoman Turkish rule. And European security officials worry that Kosovo will provide a safe haven for Muslim extremists across Europe.
The new government says that minorities will be protected in Kosovo. But it was the Kosovar authorities’ disinclination to protect minorities that gave rise to the atrocities against the Kosovars by the Serbians under Slobodan Milosevic. This, in turn, led to the bombing by NATO and the de facto independence of Kosovo as a U.N.-administered territory. Now the U.N. will withdraw its forces, and a EU peacekeeping force will go to Kosovo.
Russia’s anger derives both from its fight against separatists in Chechnya, the mainly Muslim region that borders Georgia, and its historic alliance with the Serbians. The Russians are hinting that they will now give material support to two breakaway regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Transdniestria, which split from Moldova. Russian rhetoric toward the West heated up it became apparent that many Western countries would recognize an independent Kosovo.
A big country, with many ethnic divisions like Russia has reason to fear the whole concept of separatism. It is not just that the Russians want to make trouble for the West: They genuinely believe that there is mortal danger for Russia if the concept of separatism gains international acceptance. Even in the time of the tsars, a primary goal of Russian administrations was to hold Mother Russia together. Moscow has been fighting Chechen separatists for 150 years.
The Balkans are yet another test for the U.S. policy of embracing any democratically expressed will without regard to historical alignments or future viability. Sickly Kosovo, with its endangered Serbian minority and its history of intolerance, is not a credit to democracy, even though the democratic will of the people is for independence from Serbia. Kosovo is the current sick man of Europe: poor, resource-challenged, and with a bitter ethnic history. Unfortunately, Kosovo sees the United States as its vaccine against the Serbs and the Russians.