The Least Worst Way Forward

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands that have connected them with another . . . they will do so while solemnly swearing to respect in every particular the conditions of the E.U., the OSCE, NATO, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and the comprehensive proposal of the U.N. special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, “including through priority adaptation of the legislation included in its annex XII.” The American colonies in 1776 and Europe’s colony in 2008: compare and contrast.

Amid all the kerfuffle around Kosovo’s declaration of independence February 17, few have paused to note what an extraordinary document it is. It is so hedged about with conditions, obligations, and reservations, many of them concerning protection for the remaining Serbian minorities, so replete with commitments to consult, honor, and obey the province’s international patrons, that it is also a declaration of dependence. Its last paragraph begins: “We hereby affirm, clearly, specifically, and irrevocably, that Kosovo shall be legally bound to comply with the provisions contained in this declaration, including, especially, the obligations for it under the Ahtisaari plan.” You can almost hear the Western adviser dictating over the Kosovan draftsman’s shoulder. This is less a case of “with one bound, Kosovo was free” than “with one bound, Kosovo was bound.”

The Kosovan Albanians, having taken an important stride toward selfgovernment, had something to celebrate on the streets of Pristina, their new capital. Their history textbooks, even those produced with E.U. subsidies, will tell a glorious though mythical story of centuries of national struggle culminating on that February day. The reality on the ground will, of course, be rather different from the fine words on paper. I would not like to be a Kosovan Serb living in one of the enclaves south of the Ibar River in the years ahead. I mourn for those beautiful Serbian monasteries, at Decani, Pec, and Gracanica, that will now, more than ever, be islands in an alien sea.

The Serbs’ position north of Mitrovica’s bridge over the Ibar is a different story. The reality of their daily social, economic, and cultural integration with Serbia will continue. De facto, Kosovo is already partitioned. And so it will surely remain until, once Kosovo and Serbia are finally both members of the European Union, it may gradually aspire, probably over a span of decades rather than years, to a situation comparable with that of Belgium: a country formally united, in practice largely divided, but with peace and freedom for its citizens secured in a larger framework. Indeed, if things go well in Europe’s southeast and badly in its northwest, Belgium and Kosovo may yet converge: the Balkanization of Belgium meets the Belgianization of the Balkans.

The unique European context does make this story different from that of most would-be breakaway territories elsewhere in the world. In effect, the European Union is moving seamlessly from empire mode to enlargement mode. Here is the twenty-first-century European style of decolonization: from protectorate to E.U. member state, without ever achieving full, sovereign independence in between. And, at least on paper, the Kosovo Albanians have accepted the price. In case they are tempted to renege, there will be thousands of European officials present—and, as a backup, NATO troops—to steer them back to the path of virtue.

This internationally coordinated declaration of dependent independence, light years from 1776, is the least worst outcome. Those who protest that it brings new instability to the region ignore the fact that the limbo in which Kosovo has lived, ever since the war of 1999 ended with U.N. Resolution 1244, was itself unstable and unsustainable. No one in his right mind would invest serious money in this limbo. A fragile peace was punctuated by riots. Unemployment is over 40 percent. Nothing stable and permanent could be built without this resolution of Kosovo’s status. And for neighboring Macedonia, the country most directly affected because of its Albanian minority, a more independent Kosovo is a stabilizing factor.

For all the atrocities of the years when Slobodan Milosevic ruled Serbia and oppressed Kosovo, the settlement is not wholly just. But in the end, it is the least worst outcome for Serbia too. It’s horrible to lose a gangrenous arm, but that is sometimes the precondition for recovery. In their hearts, many Serbs know this. And it was in Belgrade, not Pristina, that I heard this joke: the Serbs will do anything for Kosovo except live there.

If things go well in Europe’s southeast and badly in its northwest, Belgium and Kosovo may yet converge: the Balkanization of Belgium meets the Belgianization of the Balkans.

For now, there will be a paroxysm of anger and mourning. So it must be. But then Serbia has a choice: sulk for decades in impotent resentment, like Hungary after the treaty of Trianon, or take the European road to national reconstruction, like Hungary today. And Europe, for its part, has a solemn obligation to keep that road open.

It will be many years yet before Kosovo takes its seat at the United Nations between Kiribati and Kuwait (or Kurdistan, if it gets there first). Russia, as a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, can and will block it. But many Kosovans, having spent time in Switzerland, may recall that the ancient and fiercely independent Alpine republic became a member of the United Nations only in 2002. What matters, in the first place, is the reality on the ground and the extent of recognition by other states. (The United States, Britain, and Germany are among those who have recognized or declared an intention to recognize Kosovo.) Membership in international organizations will follow, with U.N. membership probably bringing up the rear.

Is this a precedent, as some fear and others hope? Of course it is. Every declaration of independence is a precedent. Russian-backed leaders in South Ossetia and Transnistria are muttering about following the example of the American-backed Kosovans. Basque and Catalan separatists take note; the Spanish government reacted against the declaration of independence with startling sharpness—partly because it was in the middle of a hardfought election campaign. Also paying close attention is UNPO, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, which has sixty-nine members, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.

It’s horrible to lose a gangrenous arm, but that is sometimes the precondition for recovery. Many Serbs know this. And it was in Belgrade, not Pristina, that I heard this joke: the Serbs will do anything for Kosovo except live there.

“Kosovo is a special case,” says Kosovo’s declaration of independence, going on to insist (hear the adviser’s whisper again) that it is not a precedent. But all the sixty-eight other UNPO members are special cases too. Liberals have universal rules for the treatment of individuals; they have always got in a tangle about groups—both about the position of groups inside a country (witness the debate around multiculturalism) and about which group is entitled to exercise the right of self-determination. They have no consistent answer to the nationalist’s question: “Why should I be a minority in your country when you could be a minority in mine?” Kosovo’s declaration of dependent independence is the least worst way forward, but let’s not deny that it is a precedent. Both statements are true: Kosovo is unique, and there will be more Kosovos.