Monday, 18 February 2008

The world's newest country

It’s official, Kosovo is now an independent state. Or is it?

On Saturday a long-awaited vote by Kosovo’s parliament declared it to be an independent state and no longer part of Serbia. In reality, Serbia hasn’t controlled Kosovo for nine years. The territory has been run by the United Nations and NATO since 1999 when NATO intervened to stop a Serbian crackdown on the separatist movement there, a crackdown which sometimes took the form of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Kosovo is today dominated by ethnic Albanians, but is the historic heartland of the medieval Serbian state.

However the road to nationhood isn’t as simple as just a proclamation. Serbia vehemently opposes the move, and its leaders say they will fight to the end to prevent Kosovo’s independence. Serbia filed legal charges against Kosovo's leadership Monday for creating a "false state" and vowed to block any attempts to allow Kosovo to join international associations. It has also declared the new state invalid and illegal. Serbia’s traditional ally Russia has said it also rejects the move and will use its seat on the UN security council to block the body from recognizing the country. The US, Britain, France and Germany are expected to recognize the state within days.

Across the world today countries took sides on the Kosovo issue, but their stances had much more to do with their domestic situations than the reality on the ground in the Balkans. It has generally worked out that any country that has a problem with a separatist ethnic minority in one of their regions has opposed the move, and any country without that problem has approved it. China, which has dozens of ethnic minority regions which would like to secede, came out full force against the independence saying it was “deeply concerned” about the move and hinting that it would use its security council position to thwart it. Russia, which also has many separatist regions - the bloodiest and most problematic being Chechnya - said it would also block independence. Spain, which has been battling a separatist movement among the Basques of the country’s Northeast for decades, has also opposed Kosovo’s independence. And Indonesia, still reeling from the secession of East Timor (which up until Saturday was the world’s newest country) and dealing with other separatist movements, also came out strongly against it.

It is an immense problem for the world community. Serbia cannot keep Kosovo by force because it is under UN protection. The UN can’t recognize the state’s independence because this would be blocked by Russia and China. The UN can’t police a non-state forever, yet it can’t hand over an ethnically Albanian territory back over to a country that tried to massacre its citizens. To do so would send the message that no ethnic minority region can have its own country if it doesn’t already have it today, simply because China and Russia don’t like the idea.

The EU may try to resolve the issue by offering Serbia membership in exchange for clamming up about the Kosovo issue and letting it go. But such an outcome is unlikely because the Serbs are so vociferously against the notion of Kosovan independence. Several thousand university students marched through the center of Belgrade Monday to oppose an independent Kosovo. On Sunday there were angry protests across Belgrade and clashes with riot police that left about 50 people injured.

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