Be Wise on Kosovo

Over the past few months a number of Western leaders, including senior United States figures, have lent their support to separating the province of Kosovo from the Republic of Serbia, based on the fact that a majority of the inhabitants in the province, ethnic Albanians, wishes this to be done.

The U.S Secretary of State and European top diplomats have been working on the assumption that the ultimate outcome of the crisis should be to see another new Republic emerging in the Balkans from the rubble of former Yugoslavia. Their participation in the UN-sponsored negotiations, along with Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Russia, has been heading toward the endpoint of breaking one nation state's territory into two states, ignoring the historical context, consequences, and important principles, with far-reaching unpleasant consequences when these principles serve as precedents elsewhere.

Underlying all of this is a not-so-hidden agenda: an anticipated so-called diplomatic dividend for pleasing the Muslim world. A prominent US legislator declared over the summer that granting Kosovo its independence would please the Muslim world and would show that America is not anti-Islamic. The Kosovo affair has this assumed extra importance in this precarious post 9/11 era, as a token. But it risks kindling a chain reaction of explosive crises around the world.

As a potential unilateral declaration of separation by the local government of Kosovo province may take place, it is imperative that Washington and Brussels be wise on Kosovo, and carefully think through the implications.

Basic Principles

The right of self determination for peoples considering themselves as distinct national groups is and always should be recognized. No higher right can be substituted for the will of the ethnic or national community wishing to fulfill its destiny. World history has taught us endless lessons about the consequences of obstructing the desire of peoples for free expression and choosing their way of life. However two necessary conditions must be fulfilled to guarantee this inalienable right:

1) not to cause injustice to others; and

2) not to abuse this right for the sake of totalitarian ideologies.     

Two stories      

The Ethnic Albanian separatists claim that as a "distinct" national community, they form a numeric majority in one of Serbia's provinces, and thus they have the right to separate and create a new state.

The Serbian Government responds that this province is a geographical entity that is part of the national territory of the Serbian people. It argues that the ethnic Albanians have migrated into the territory and concentrated their settlement so that inside the province they now form a majority.

So far this is a classical case of ethnic conflict over land, although it presents its own special characteristics. Unlike many regimes in the Middle East which deny the cultural difference of their minorities, Serbia doesn't argue with the fact that Kosovo's Albanians are distinct from the Serbian cultural identity. The crisis is rather about the right of this minority (within Serbia as a whole) to separate on the ground that in one province of that state (Kosovo), it constitute a majority. Here is the heart of the matter, but unfortunately this classical ethno-crisis was transformed into a conflict affecting justice to others and has been manipulated by international radical ideologies.

Unequal treatment

The first striking injustice in treatment is clearly seen inside what was formerly the Yugoslav Federation. The bloody wars of the 1990s ended with geopolitical realities that affect the question of Kosovo today. While the independence of Slovenia from the Yugoslav Federation, following the brief Ten Day War, went somewhat smoothly for lack of a "minority question," the separation of Croatia and Bosnia caused bloody wars, massacres and ethnic cleansing.

The international community, led by the US and Western Europe, immediately recognized the right of separation for the two breakaway Republics, but at the same time opposed the same right for self-determination for the Serbian national minorities within these two newly recognized countries. The following question has never been answered:

Why can Croats and Muslims separate from Yugoslavia while Serbs cannot implement that same right toward Croatia and Bosnia?

Each side will say their cause is more legitimate than the others but this doesn't supply any solutions.

The end result was that with the help of the West in 1995, both Republics separated and formed new states and were accepted in the United Nations. The Serbs inside Bosnia, forming about 31 percent of the country, were denied a state of their own.

In 1999, ethnic Albanians, who are 14 percent of Serbia (but a majority in Kosovo Province), called for forming a state of their own. Strangely the United States and Western Europe rushed to accept statehood for a group (Albanians) accounting for 14% of a country (Serbia) but rejected the same treatment for another group (Serbs) which accounts for 31% of another country (Muslim Bosnia).

The ethnic Albanians are indeed a numeric majority in the province they claim, but so are the Serbs in the Province/Republic they've claimed in Bosnia. Hence according to the fundamental principle of equal treatment, if the Albanians of Kosovo are to be granted self determination, the Serbs of Bosnia should be granted the same right. Such an equation would be fair and would open a path for global reconciliation in the Balkans.

Equal Protection of Minorities

In addition to equal treatment for Serbs and non-Serbs, minorities on both sides should be protected under international law. The non-Serbs in the "Republika-Serpska" should be granted their fundamental rights and the same principle should be applied to the Serbs inside Kosovo. If ethnic enclaves exist and refuse to separate from their ethnic kin, they should be given the option of forming administrative areas linked to the original nation state of their choice. For if self-determination is to be applied to the separating entity, the same principle must be applied to smaller enclaves who wish to separate from the separating provinces.

In the case of Kosovo, if a global Balkans agreement is reached (including independence for the Republika-Serpska) ethnic Albanians should accept that the ethnic Serbian populations also can secede from them and choose their destiny. Furthermore all historic places with great value to all parties must be protected by international law and the UN.

A dangerous Jihadi-like agenda

With such a web of mutual recognition and guarantees to all parties, resolving the conflict should be possible. So why is it that Washington's and Brussels' policies are applied unfairly in this particular crisis? Why is it that the US seems to side automatically against one particular group regardless of their claims? In Bosnia the Serbs were denied separation from the Bosnian Muslims and in Kosovo the Serbs are being forced to accept separation of the Albanian Muslims.

The Serbs have a special problem: they are dealing with "Islamic claims", or technically "claims of Muslims". Statements made by US legislators arguing that helping in the formation of a Muslim state in Europe would send a positive message to the Muslim world and serve America's image in the War on Terror make this point Such assertions, in addition of being legally unfounded, are also dangerous.

There is no basis in modern international law for forming states to satisfy a religious bloc of states.  This strange logic, instead of weakening the Jihadist view of the world, would further strengthen al Qaeda and its ilk. The United States is not the Byzantine Empire, nor is the Organization of the Islamic Conference a Caliphate, and they should not behave as if they were.

The international Salafists want the world to respond to theologically-motivated world power dynamics instead of the present set of international conventions. Washington has no right to trade favors with oil powers on the basis of satisfying ideological ambitions here and there.

If the ethnic Albanians have the right of self-determination in Kosovo, it should be granted fully under international law, not as a result of PR attempts to mollify a virtual Caliphate. These pre-9/11 attitudes can be very dangerous. Linking partitions and breakups of countries to American success in rallying Muslim diplomatic support could bring great harm elsewhere around the world.

Will the US also please the Wahhabis by forcing India to relinquish Kashmir, the Philippines to let go of Mindanao, Russia to cut Chechnya loose, Cyprus to abandon its Turkish north and last but not least, Israel to slice out half of the Galilee to its own Muslim minority?

Playing this Jihadi-inspired card would ultimately strengthen al Qaeda's lexicon of "Islamic causes" at the expense of potential legitimate causes for ethnic minorities, including those who happen to be of Muslim background. Western gaming of these crises with an Islamic dimension, including Kosovo, can only backfire and cause even more tension.

If Washington initiates a world-religious parameter on the issue of Kosovo, it will open a Pandora's Box worldwide. Other enclaves forming in Europe would demand secession within existing liberal democracies based on their majority status in many suburbs of big cities, such as the reently riot-torn Parisian banlieues. Will the US press a future French (or German, Dutch or British) heads of state to concede secessions on their own soil to please Riyadh, Khartoum or eventually Tehran?

This logic applied in Kosovo will serve as a precedent to be applied to force Sharia enclaves everywhere else in the West and beyond. The leaders of any ethnic minority, including the Kosovars themselves, should not allow their cause to be seized by the Wahabis or catered-to by Western politicians seeking accommodation with them. It is too dangerous for everyone.          

Kosovo: a benchmark for a new era

On a much greater scale, the Kosovo separatist crisis opens the floodgates for rethinking the whole international process of granting full independence to minorities and ethno-national groups seeking breakups. This is not only one of the oldest problems in international politics, it is also the most abused and dangerous to peace and progress.

The principle should always remain a relentless support for self determination, a value honored by Woodrow Wilson, and later recognized by the UN Charter's Chapter One, second paragraph. There should not be a return to the times of oppression and obstruction in this early stage of the 21st century.

But selectiveness among favored and dis-favored groups would be damaging and hurtful to the principle. Indeed, why would Kosovo separation be accepted and not the Republika Serpska? In addition to the cases I mentioned earlier, think also of southern Sudan, Darfur, Algeria's Berbers, Biafra, the Sahara, southern Thailand, China's Uighur, the Maluku and Celebes islands in Indonesia, Sri Lanka's Tamils, Ahwaz Arabs in Iran, the Kurds of Turkey, Chechnya and Dagestan, and a plethora of other potential crisis. But also think of Northern Ireland, Corsica, the Basques, the Belgian linguistic conflict, the Scots in Western Europe.

On the Eastern side of the continent no country is spared: Germans in Poland, Poles in Ukraine and Russia, Russians in the Baltic countries, Moldova, Rumania's Hungarians, Bulgaria's Turks and many other ethnic labyrinths. Even in the Americas, think of Quebec, Chiapas and the multiple ideological claims over the Southwestern parts of the US.

In short, Kosovo is not the first, nor would it be the last separatist phenomenon to be addressed. But it certainly could become the beginning of a new era, where rights would be granted equally among seekers of self determination if addressed fairly, equally and smartly.

Avoid a faux pas      

The United States and Western Europe must avoid a faux pas in Kosovo, that is unevenly forcing Serbia to accept a territorial loss without reshaping the entire peace process in the former Yugoslavia in a way to address the ethnic rights of all groups and in a manner to contain the rise of future Jihadism in several zones backed by Western policies. To be successful, the following are few guidelines:

1)      Equate self determination for the Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo with self determination for the Serbs in Bosnia. Grant equal rights to both communities, from the farthest autonomy possible to potential independence, on the basis of negotiations and mutual referenda. If Kosovo's Albanians will reach statehood so should Bosnia's Serbs.

2)      Insure internationally protected rights to non-Albanian minorities in Kosovo, including a reciprocal right of self-determination.

3)      Organize a conference for the Balkans including the US, Europe, Russia and the three republics of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, with representation from all ethnic minorities locked in the region's crisis.

4)      Reach a US-Russian understanding on the Balkans as an umbrella to secure the new regional agreements.

5)      Sign a treaty between the members of the new Balkan conference, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and the newly autonomous territories, for an alliance against the Jihadi terrorists and deny access to these countries to Salafi and Khomeinist networks and funding.

The crisis of Kosovo is a crossroads with two directions. Either the Western alliance will acquiesce to wrong policies and end up being responsible for future ethnic violence and the spread of Jihadi forces in the region; or a new democracy alliance would become enlightened enough to find the appropriate solutions to all ethnic crisis in the former Yugoslavia on the one hand and stop the advancing Jihadi tentacles from reaching the belly of southern Europe. 

Dr Walid Phares is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy. He is the author of The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracies.
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