One would have thought that Serbia would have gotten the message by now — nobody wants to cohabit with Belgrade. One by one, all the former Yugoslav “sister” republics left Serbia to start a life on their own. The first to walk out on the Serbs were Slovenia and Croatia. They left as fast as they could from the clutches of the troubled Yugoslav federation on June 25, 1991. These two republics were quickly followed by Macedonia, which declared its independence and peeled away in September of the same year. It was followed by the secession of Bosnia-Herzegovina in March 1992. Next in line was Montenegro, the smallest republic of the Yugoslav federation — and now only Kosovo is left waiting in the wings, standing by to join the entire region to attain what Charles Kupchan calls a “degree of finality.”

Montenegro’s secession from the Republic of Serbia was lawful and peaceful — a Czechoslovak-style “velvet divorce.”

On May 21, 2006, the majority of the people of the Republic of Montenegro voted in a referendum to secede from the state union with the Republic of Serbia. Their choice for independence had two very positive characteristics: First, as expected, it was lawful. With a record high turnout of 86 percent, the highest in any election since democracy arrived in the Balkans, the Montenegrin citizens followed the rules of the referendum established at the behest of the European Union, which required a majority of at least 55 percent for Montenegro to leave its union with Serbia. Second, it was peaceful — another Czechoslovak-style “velvet divorce.” This is all the more important in light of the blood that accompanied the secessions of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s.

There is little doubt that the majority of Montenegrins who cast their ballots for independence were not merely playing by eu rules. They were also proclaiming their wish to apply for accession to the European Union unencumbered by a Serbia that has been moving very slowly with its reforms and has failed to deliver to the un tribunal at the Hague the fugitive Serb general Ratko Mladic. The feeling that Montenegro and its eu aspirations were being held hostage to a nationalist and problematic Serbia was widespread among the Montenegrins.

There was, of course, no contradiction between Montenegro’s vote to strike out on its own and form an independent state and, at the same time, seeking to enter the European Union, which requires surrendering much of the newly gained national sovereignty to this 27-member megastate. In point of fact, the prospect of joining the European Union and nato was probably the main impetus that led to Montenegro’s choice for independence.

The solid “yes” vote for independence has restored Montenegro’s statehood, which was abolished by Serbian annexation and the great powers at the end of World War i. Many governments, including the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China, immediately recognized Montenegro’s independence and warmly welcomed the newest Adriatic republic into the family of sovereign nations.

Although small in size and population — even though bigger than Malta and with a population similar to that of North Dakota, Vermont, or Wyoming in the United States — Montenegro has all it needs to become politically and economically viable and, very soon, a candidate for both nato and eu membership. There is hardly anybody today who questions that Montenegro’s independence and progress will further improve stability and good neighborly relations in the western Balkans. On the contrary, it is generally expected that the recent events and further progress in Montenegro will potentially have positive effects on Kosovo and Bosnia, the two regions that have suffered most from the bloody wars of the breakup of Yugoslavia.

One of the fears and uncertainties related to the outcome of Montenegro’s referendum was the precedent its independence would establish for other secession-minded territories in Europe. How would states seeking to hold together fragile multiethnic societies react to such a precedent? Many assumed that if Montenegro voted for secession from Serbia and won international recognition as an independent state, such an outcome would reverberate not only in the Balkans but across Europe and in other parts of the world. There were those who believed that Montenegro’s choice and the willingness of the European Union and the United Nations to respect the verdict of the Montenegrins would stir up separatist groups in the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain, among the German-speaking separatists in the Tyrol region of Northern Italy (who seek separation from Italy and annexation by Austria), and even the Turkish Cypriots, who have been separated from the southern part of the island for decades.

In point of fact, Montenegro’s choice was immediately applauded by all these groups as a validation of their own aspirations and campaigns for self-determination. Meanwhile, Armenian leaders, who have for over a decade been caught up in conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, as well as the breakaway republics of Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia in Georgia, warmly welcomed the outcome of Montenegro’s referendum as a confirmation of the precedence that should be given to the principle of self-determination over that of the territorial integrity of nations.

The last province

Most observers believe that it is in Kosovo, however, where the impact of Montenegro’s vote for independence will have the strongest impact. We disagree. It is true that Kosovo’s Albanian leaders have long seen the independence of Montenegro as encouragement for Kosovo’s international recognition as an independent state, in the name of which much blood has been shed by the Kosovar Albanians. It is also true that Kosovo never had the status of a republic within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, even though it was the fourth most populous unit of the Yugoslav federation. “Kosovo-Republic!” became the political motto and demand of numerous massive — and peaceful — demonstrations by Kosovo Albanians, especially in 1981. Belgrade’s response to that peaceful movement for national emancipation was to send tanks to Kosovo to harass its civilian population, crushing the student movement and revoking Kosovo’s substantial autonomy, which Milosevic repealed outright a few years later.

Montenegro and Kosovo may have much in common to justify comparison. However, there is indeed little direct correlation between events in Montenegro and the future status of Kosovo. Kosovo’s future as an independent state would not have been compromised had the referendum in Montenegro failed to satisfy the 55 percent “yes” vote required for secession.

While the Kosovar Albanians’ claim to independence is fully legitimate regardless of the outcome of Montenegro’s referendum, demands by Bosnian Serbs to follow Montenegro’s example for their entity of Republika Srpska, which along with the Muslim-Croat Federation has made up postwar Bosnia, are dangerously provocative. One can expect that Montenegro’s secession from the union with Serbia might also encourage the large minority of Hungarians in Vojvodina to renegotiate their status with Belgrade. Due to repeated concerns by all neighboring states — especially Hungary, Croatia and Romania — resentful Vojvodinian voices from within this Serb-dominated province may no longer be ignored. However, Vojvodina’s status has never been — and  most likely will never be — put on the international agenda when Serbia embarks on her path to join the European Union.

Given the unspeakable atrocities they have suffered, Kosovars cannot be forced to live under Serbian rule once again.

Kosovo’s political future will be resolved through a different rationale and in a different institutional context than Montenegro’s. However, we do not subscribe to the idea that Kosovo is “a much bigger problem than Montenegro.” In all respects, Kosovo has the same legitimate right to independent political life as Montenegro and all the other constitutive parts of the former Yugoslav federation. The independence of Kosovo, with its ethnic make-up, population size (almost four times larger than Montenegro’s) and past and recent histories of bloody confrontations with Serbia, is more critical to the stability of the Balkans than the independence of Montenegro. As a matter of fact, moving Kosovo toward democratic self-rule and the resolution of its final status is long overdue. The truth is as simple as this: Given the unspeakable atrocities they have suffered in the past and the virtual political, economic, and territorial separation from Serbia they have been enjoying for the past seven years, Kosovo and its people cannot be forced to live under Serbian rule once again. Hence, any attempt to impose even the mildest form of Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo would be highly provocative and futile.1

By now, it is in Serbia’s best interest to let Kosovo go, especially as Kosovo has de facto already left Serbia’s orbit. This is not a totally alien concept among moderate politicians and common citizens in Serbia. Privately, many Serb politicians have come to acknowledge that Kosovo’s independence may be unavoidable.

Hopefully Serbian leaders have come to realize that they must not continue to keep Serbia’s future hostage to medieval ghosts — or to an invented past by claiming Kosovo as “Serbia’s Jerusalem.” This is what Milosevic did in the mid-1980s. This is what Kostunica repeated when he privately — and very provocatively — visited the Serbian monastery at Gracanica (Kosovo) in June 2006.

Rather than continuing the rhetoric of extreme nationalists and political demagoguery, what Serbian leaders need to be doing today is talking about the day after separation and preparing the public accordingly. Serbia without Kosovo can concentrate on what are Serbia’s far more vital goals: reforming her economy, politics, and society and resuming talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Brussels — which were suspended last May — so that Serbia can attain nato and eu membership at the earliest possible dates. In other words, it is in Serbia’s interest — as well as in the interest of everyone else — to simply let Serbia be Serbia. At the end of the day, Serbia faces but two choices: integration into Europe or further isolation from it.

The time has come to end the current state of limbo and grant Kosovo its much-coveted independence.

Even though the international community has so far been unable to decide Kosovo’s final status, we firmly believe that independence for Kosovo will follow shortly. We also believe it will be yet another surprisingly peaceful event, perhaps partially due to the presence of U.S. and nato troops stationed there. The time has come to end the current state of limbo, which has continued several years under the international trusteeship, and grant Kosovo its much-coveted independence. Since fall 2003, the United States and its European allies have embarked on an intensive diplomatic campaign to resolve the final status of Kosovo. Several scenarios have been thrown out for discussion and as possible solutions to this issue. Various options of independence, however qualified — “conditional independence,” “sovereignty with limitations,” or “monitored independence” — have been under consideration. Much has been debated about the Serb proposition on “less than independence, more than autonomy.” Yet, as Charles Kupchan very persuasively advocates, of all possibilities, “harsh realities on the ground make independence for Kosovo the only viable option.”2 This is an opinion that largely dominates the political minds in Washington, especially among prominent leaders in the U.S. Congress. Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should declare its support for the independence of Kosovo, House Resolution 24, introduced January 5, 2005 by two of the most respected representatives on Capitol Hill, Illinois Republican Henry Hyde and California Democrat Tom Lantos, emphasized that as “autonomy has failed time and time again,” “there is every reason to believe that independence from Serbia is the only viable option for Kosovo.”

Though we recognize that Kosovo still has a lot to do to develop and consolidate its political and legal institutions and deliver on all objectives set up by the international community, there is no realistic alternative to full independence for Kosovo. The argument that Kosovo’s independence could hearten demands for secession by other groups in Europe is not without merit, but fears that Kosovo’s independence could trigger more violence, instability and further unraveling in the Balkans or in other territories around the world pursuing independence — what Tim Porter untenably calls “a potential Balkanization of the entire world”3 — are exaggerated. On the contrary, Kosovo’s independence, “simply drawn and given quickly, offers the best hope for stability in the region.”4 Denying or delaying it indefinitely is a recipe for disaster; this can only cause more confusion, more frustration, a return to disorder and internal violence, and more recrimination among Kosovar Albanians.

Kosovo’s situation is unique. It is very different from the situations in the Basque and Catalan regions, Turkish Cyprus, Chechnya, Nagarno-Karabakh, southern Sudan, Tibet, Xinjiang or Inner Mongolia. Just as it is unrealistic and dangerous to apply simplistically narrow concepts to different national and regional contexts, so is it unrealistic and dangerous to generalize about various situations existing in various geopolitical contexts. Statistics based on thousands of individuals cannot per se tell a physician what to do about a given case.5 Solutions that may be appropriate for an individual country, say Kosovo or Taiwan, may not work in any other particular region, that is to say in Yunnan or West Papua. Therefore, to use Brzezinski’s language, “cultural conditioning and specific circumstances”6 should be taken into account to a far greater degree than what has often been proffered in a rather dogmatic way by policymakers and bureaucrats who apply generalizations formalistically. This said, neither Montenegro nor Kosovo can help to explain other particular situations or trigger solutions for regions that are far away, ethnically very differently composed and unique in their own merits.

Fixing a historical blunder

Who will decide on the future of Kosovo? The United States aside, Kosovo’s political future will be decided basically by the same major powers that dealt so poorly with the “Albanian question” in the early twentieth century. Back then, these powers were Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Austria. They made up the core of the European Concert of Powers from 1815 to 1914. The London Conference of their ambassadors in 1913 recognized, among others, the newly independent state of Albania and its international frontiers with Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece. The redrawing of the maps of the Balkan states by the European powers left whole regions inhabited almost entirely by ethnic Albanians — Kosovo among them — outside Albania’s state borders and their population scattered throughout the region. The 1913 London Conference of Ambassadors determined Kosovo’s fate. Once invaded by — and part of — the Ottoman Empire, Kosovo, which has always been almost homogeneously ethnically Albanian, along with what is today Macedonia, was annexed to Serbia in May 1913.7 That decision made by Europe’s major powers of the time has been largely responsible for the historical injustices and sufferings of the Kosovo Albanians for the past hundred years and perhaps for the balkanization of the entire region.

Delaying Kosovo’s independence indefinitely can only cause a return to disorder and violence.

Today, five of the six major powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Italy) that deal with Kosovo under the aegis of the Contact Group and that most likely will propose to the United Nations independence for Kosovo as its final status are the same powers that certified the annexation of Kosovo to Serbia almost a century ago. These world powers today must undo what they did wrong in Kosovo in 1913 — without allowing the unification of Kosovo with the other Albanian territories in the Balkans. The world powers should allow Kosovo to become independent from Serbia.

The sixth member of the Contact Group is the United States. The U.S., the world’s sole superpower today, is the only power untainted by the actions of the 1913 London Conference. By virtue of its military power and as a nation “without history” in the region — except for its leading role in the nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 — the United States remains uniquely positioned to provide the necessary leadership and support to guarantee not only a final solution for the status of Kosovo but also lasting peace, stability, and democratic consolidation in the region.

Kosovo’s independence should no longer be held hostage to Serbia’s inability to come to its senses.

There is general agreement among the members of the Contact Group, which includes four of the five permanent members of the un Security Council, that (a) there is no way to convince or force Kosovo again into some form of state relationship with Serbia; (b) the status quo, established since the end of the Kosovo War in June 1999, with Kosovo having some form of de facto independence while preserving de jure the territorial integrity of Serbia, is deplorable and no longer sustainable; and Kosovo’s independence should therefore no longer be held hostage to Serbia’s inability to come to its senses; (c) there should be no redrawing of boundaries along ethnic lines, meaning no territorial partition of Kosovo, no union of Kosovo with any neighboring states or territories (that is, no union with Albania to form a “Greater Albania”), and no union with Albanian-dominated territories of neighboring Macedonia or Montenegro to form a “Greater Kosovo.”

The truth of the matter is that “Greater Albania” may be an objective of some in the diaspora, yet few Albanians in the region deem it realistic or worth a fight. In line with Washington and European Union policy — and contrary to those who claim or believe in a conspiracy of a “Greater Albania” or “Greater Kosovo” — the Albanian government and the ethnic Albanian political parties in Kosovo and Macedonia have rejected any changes of borders in the Balkans, including Macedonia.

But what are the stakes and positions of the major powers — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — on this issue? There’s no doubt the United States and the United Kingdom are the strongest proponents of independence for Kosovo. France, regardless of its previously manifest pro-Serb stance, will most likely vote with the first two powers for independence.

Russia may be adopting a Bismarckian stance not to enter a conflict with the other major powers over Kosovo.

Russia, which has been arguing against any “hasty” decision on Kosovo, is more unpredictable. However, even though Serbia has always hoped for Russian support — assuming that Russia would oppose Kosovo’s independence for fear that it could set a precedent for its break-away territory of Chechnya — Russia may be adopting a hard-headed Bismarckian stance not to enter a conflict with the other major powers over Kosovo, which they may think is not worth the trouble. It is also possible that Russia may regard Kosovo’s independence from Serbia as “a model for resolving the stalemated conflicts in Georgia and Moldova, where the West is insisting on territorial unity and Moscow is supporting the separatist enclaves.”8 So it is very likely that Russia may decide not to oppose Kosovo’s independence by either voting in favor of it or abstaining.

As far as China is concerned, it has certainly closely followed the developments in the Balkans in the past 15 years, particularly the bloody collapse and disintegration of Yugoslavia. China may fear that, if granted and internationally recognized, Kosovo’s de jure independence might establish a precedent for the future of Taiwan or Xinjiang, her westernmost region of the ethnically Turkic Uighurs, or other separatist-minded provinces. However, because China has no compelling interests in Kosovo, we assume that Beijing will be flexible and ratify whatever final-status arrangements are reached by the other members of the Security Council. Kosovo is not a global concern to deserve China’s full attention as a global power, which is how China sees itself. Most American observers assert that China, like Russia, to paraphrase British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, would not risk a clash with the West “for the people of a far away country of whom we know little.” Marsh and Gvosdev argue persuasively that Beijing will most likely play no active role “in frustrating independence for Kosovo” or actively oppose U.S. plans for the former Yugoslav region, for it “will not actively risk its relations with the United States over an issue that is not directly central to its Asian agenda.” In their view, which we unreservedly share, there should be “no illusions that what happens in Kosovo does not have consequences halfway around the world.”9

The United States cannot solve every problem in the world and may not be interested in every region. However, the United States has direct strategic interests in Kosovo and in the Balkan region as well as the political capital to get Kosovo’s independence granted. In addition, the United States has a large and vocal number of Kosovar immigrants now living there, and American politicians — Republicans as well as Democrats — have found that they tend to be politically active and generous campaign contributors. In the case of Kosovo, both Washington and Brussels seem already to have resolved the broader policy dilemma on how to balance a people’s right to self-determination and their call for independence with the desire to maintain the territorial integrity of existing states. Both capitals have come to realize that, in spirit as well as fact, the job of defending high humanitarian moral principles in Kosovo, which they began with nato’s intervention in 1999, should now find a pragmatic solution, which realistically seems to be nothing short of independence.

Although it is difficult to imagine that either Russia or China would make serious trouble over the future of “a small tract of land that has no oil, no nuclear weapons, and a gdp of less than $3 billion,” as Kupchan puts it, one cannot rule out the possibility that Russia or China — or both — oppose Kosovo’s independence in the Security Council, in which case, one can only think of a messy scenario: Kosovo being recognized bilaterally by the United States, Great Britain, and other individual countries, but not all, at the frustration of Russia and China. This, however, will not be the case if Serbia itself somehow consents to let Kosovo go.

Balkanized no more?

The balkans have finally come to the most crucial point in their history and probably the “last” chapter of their “Balkan” history, which until very recently could be described, to use Otto von Bismarck’s language, as the history of “places of which no one ever heard before [World War i]” and which were “not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian musketeer.” From now on this southeastern peninsula of Europe will be part of the future Europe or Europe’s future. Kosovo might actually become the last province (or bridge) to connect the Old Balkans with the New Europe, or the chapter that will conclude a thousands-years-old bloody history to open an era the Balkans have never known before.

What once used to be not only the geographical center of the Balkans but also the historical, political and, one could almost say, metaphysical heart of their tragedy — Serbia — will now have to come to terms with herself. “Greater Serbia” has entered the annals of history. Podgorica’s union with Belgrade was the last remnant of the former Serbian-ruled Yugoslav federation. Montenegro’s vote for independence finally sealed the death of Yugoslavia and with it the end of Serbia’s old claim for supremacy in the Balkans. Having been the largest and the predominant of the six republics of Yugoslavia, Serbia is abandoned by all. It is now left on its own, sallying forth in search of its place in the new political constellation of southeast Europe and the European scene.

For all the Balkan peoples, particularly the Serbs, this is the time when they must finally understand that the key to a prosperous future is not the revival of “historic memories” or the use of force in settling past accounts, but the building of political, economic, and social conditions that foster peaceful resolution of disputes and support open societies and democratic political systems. In this context, Kupchan rightly points out, “Kosovo’s independence is the best hope for finally settling one of the most intractable feuds in the Balkans, defeating the remnants of extreme nationalism in Serbia, and laying the foundation for a Balkan politics that focuses on the opportunities of the future rather than the wrongs of the past.”

Difficult as it might seem, the people of the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere in the Balkans seem to have chosen to detach their minds from what for so long has bonded them negatively and harmfully with their past. Their recent progress unfalteringly shows that the past can and must be transcended in the name of — and the hope for — a better future. By the same token, the wisdom of citizens and their governments in this part of Europe will be measured by how effectively they can overcome their troubled past and strengthen the foundations for a better, prosperous future.10

One must not underrate the difficulties and the uncertainties. Obstacles and challenges remain in the Balkans, but the region is no longer “the eye of a storm” or a “powder keg” at the heart of Europe. Problems in the Balkans are neither new nor to be solved quickly. But all the evidence available indicates that progress in the region is real, considerable, and encouraging.

Palpable desire to make up for lost time is evident throughout the region. This was clearly manifested in Montenegro’s vote. But this is also the desire of most citizens of Serbia. Heavily scrutinized by Europe and virtually separated from her for most of the past decade, they can now embark on an expedited path to European integration. In today’s dynamic era of globalization, interconnectedness, and increasingly irrelevant borders, most citizens in the western Balkans view inclusion in the European Union and nato as necessary to secure their countries’ future. This basic agreement implies an underlying willingness to accept general European standards, despite the difficulties this adaptation entails. No doubt, the hope of eventual inclusion in nato and the eu has become one of the strongest incentives for domestic and regional democratic development in Europe’s southeastern peninsula today.

Provided that every effort is made locally and that Washington and Brussels remain focused on this still unsettled part of Europe, it is reasonable to hope that we will soon be able to see a Europe whole, free, and at peace, a Europe in which apathy or anarchy — or, conversely, statism and nationalism — will never return.

The burdens of the past are not heavier than the promises of the future, and the challenges faced by the countries of the western Balkans are not obstacles, but opportunities. This time for the Balkans is one of those rarities, what Hegel called history’s “unique moments.” And the uniqueness of this moment in the lives of the Balkan peoples is that it might be the end of the blood, burdens, ghosts, and baggage of Balkan history.

1Richard K. Betts, “The Lesser Evil: The Best Way Out of the Balkans,” National Interest 64 (Summer 2001).

2Charles A. Kupchan, “Independence for Kosovo,” Foreign Affairs 84:6 (November/December 2005).

3Tim Porter, “Conflict Conundrums,” National Interest 83 (Spring 2006).

4 James C. O’Brien, “Brussels: Next Capital of the Balkans?” Washington Quarterly 29:3 (Summer 2006).

<<sup>5 The late Seymour Martin Lipset offered this perspective in his article “The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited,” American Sociological Review 59:1 (1994).

6Zbigniew Brzezinski, “The Great Transformation,” National Interest 33 (Fall 1993).

7Since then Kosovo has been a province of Serbia (1913–1918); a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (1918–1929), later to become the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929–1944); an autonomous province of Serbia within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945–1991); and the eighth federal constitutive unit of Yugoslavia from 1974 until Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989.

8Dmitri Trenin, “Russia Leaves the West,” Foreign Affairs 85:4 (July/August 2006).

9 Christopher Marsh and Nikolas K. Gvosdev, “China’s Yugoslav Nightmare,” National Interest 84 (Summer 2006).

10Fatos Tarifa and Jay Weinstein, “Overcoming the Past: Decommunization and Reconstruction of Post-Communist Societies,” Studies in Comparative International Development 30:4 (Winter 1995/96).

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