How to make sense of the Kosovo/Kosova independence issue?


Kosovo is diplomacy’s elephant’s graveyard, a bleak place where our best hopes and strategies and principles forlornly creep away to die.


There is nothing uniquely special or principled or even self-evidently fair about the Kosovo Albanian majority’s demand that a new independent state dominated by them be set up in Europe within Kosovo’s current borders. What is undoubtedly remarkable is the single-minded way that community has focused on this ambition in recent decades, and how stunningly and consistently inept the Serbs have been in dealing with the problem.


The ethnic mix of the Kosovo population has ebbed and flowed down the centuries with different empires and wars and consequent rounds of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Nor has there been a consistent delineation of the territory defining Kosovo. But at least for most of the past 100 years most of Kosovo has been recognised by the rest of the planet as part of Serbia, albeit with an ethnic Albanian majority. Numerous historic Serb monasteries and other sites are there, attesting to long earlier periods of Serbian rule and Slavic civilisation. So history does not suggest that a ‘winner takes all’ Albanian victory now is obviously the right one.


I came on the case in February 1981 a few months after the death of Marshall Tito himself when I walked into HM Embassy Belgrade as the squeaky clean new Second Secretary Political/Information, to be told that there had been ‘disturbances’ in Kosovo – a startling development in the harmonious communist world. Kosovo at that stage was (like Vojvodina) an ‘Autonomous Province’ within Serbia but with most of the attributes of a full Republic within communist Yugoslavia, including eg a Kosovo representative in the convoluted eight-person collective SFRY Presidency.


These student-led disturbances were mobilised under the slogan ‘Kosovo – Republic’. Not a claim to independence as such, but an obviously handy step in that general direction. If ever Yugoslavia broke up, a republic was better placed to gain full independence than a mere province.


Some months after the disturbances I was one of the first foreign diplomats allowed back in Kosovo. I picked up a genial local Albanian hitch-hiker, who explained it all succinctly. “There are far more Albanians than Montenegrins. They have their republic. Why can’t we have ours too? Our policy is simple. We are going to have lots more babies than the Serbs until they have to give us a republic!”


The local demographic trends did of course strongly favour the Albanians. A fact not lost on Serbia’s leading writer and philosopher Dobrica Cosic, who back in 1984 told me that Serbia should aim for a painful deal on Kosovo: “better to cut off a cancerous leg to save the body”.


The official Serbian default position alas was not to think. Instead crass oppression, partly in the form of an extended series of communist show-trials: after farcical hearings lasting only a couple of days sizeable groups of Albanians young and old would be sent to long terms of imprisonment for their part in the disturbances. Such blatant injustice in this human rights black hole in Europe not far from Rome helped create the radicalised Albanian militants of the late 1990s.


Not that anyone other than the inordinately freedom-loving Great Leader of Albania Enver Hohxa and the Kosovo Albanians objected. Everyone from Western conservatives through European social democrats and Marxist pseuds to Chinese/Soviet communist hardliners and on to ‘non-aligned’ Third World dictators (albeit for quite different reasons) wanted ‘stability in the Balkans’, featuring above all the ‘territorial integrity of post-Tito Yugoslavia’. If that meant the uppity Albanians (and their nasty calls for an ‘ethnically pure Kosovo’) getting a severe thrashing (again), so be it.


But the Cold War ended. Yugoslavia ceased to be a ‘pillar of stability in the Balkans’. Non-MTS.


Now the Kosovo Albanians could point to the unrelieved ghastliness of Slobodan Milosevic and start to turn parts of world opinion in their favour. However, let’s remember that through their successive electoral boycotts they helped both create and sustain Milosevic’s power, deliberately following a hard-core painful policy of ‘the worse, the better’.


This explains why the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniacs) have little if any sympathy for the Kosovo independence cause – they suffered horrible losses from the Kosovo Albanians’ studious passivity in the early 1990s, which allowed Milosevic and his villainous allies to hammer away at Bosnia without fearing a ‘second flank’ against him in the south.


When Albanian insurgents/rebels/militants/terrorists (pick your epithet) did open that front in 1998, they knew they could count on a violent and excessive reaction from Milosevic. It happened.


And lo!, thanks to Milosevic it came about that for the first time in a thousand years the prospect of Albanians Winning and Serbs Losing in Kosovo started to gain some international approval. NATO intervened militarily against Serbia in 1999 to stop Serb forces achieving a knock-out victory. This opened the way to the placing of the Province under UN control but effectively on Albanian terms, thereby giving a de facto green light to Kosovo independence claims.


These claims rely on a strikingly ruthless and un-European single-mindedness. Serbia’s former Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic in 2000 told me how an elderly Albanian in southern Serbia had put it to him straight: “Mr Covic, you have two children. I have six. I am prepared to sacrifice two of my children to the cause. How many of yours are you prepared to sacrifice?”


This sort of thing is not what today’s European leaders supported by the foppish naifs who inhabit EU Working Groups are able to understand, let alone confront. So instead they park on the argument that because Kosovo’s Albanians doff their caps and sign every human rights commitment we serve up to them, Kosovo’s independence will be another beautiful expression of European modern multi-culturalism.


If Kosovo does declare independence in the coming days or weeks, let’s at least be honest.


This development will give some two million people a fair chance to run their own affairs after many decades of wretchedly incompetent and violent rule or attempted rule from Belgrade. Good.


But it also will be an act of substantive ethnic partition of a democratic country in modern Europe, plus a formidable triumph for the most hard-line Kosovo Albanians and their relatives’ extended organised crime networks. Above all, after we rightly plonked a Monty Python foot on Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia this will be a victory for ‘Greater Albania’. And maybe not the last one.


So appropriate congratulations to Albanian Will, ably exemplified by steely self-sacrifice, wily use of force and bravura political marketing and manipulation.


This development also will represent a deeper radical change in Europe’s post-Cold War logic. After having started disastrously when Yugoslavia began to collapse when the Cold War ended, Europe (viz Western Europe) eventually lifted its game. In close and often rancorous but at least intelligent partnership with the United States and Russia we together helped contain the crisis and then imposed a settlement on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s warring communities plus Serbia and Croatia. This helped us all manage various messy situations dotted around the former Soviet Union.


Kosovo’s independence by contrast probably will be achieved without clear EU unity (in itself a sign that something is not quite right) and in the face of strenuous if cynical opposition from Moscow. What exactly that portends for Russia’s policy elsewhere and how we all react to it remains to be seen. But something important will have been lost.


It did not have to be this way.


In Bosnia we said to the three hostile communities “Look, stop fighting! Get along with each other in a moderate way in a single state framework. No more Balkanisation!” Just down the road in Kosovo we have said “Er, oh dear, if you Albanians want to leave a democratic Serbia, who are we to stop you? Indeed, have lots of our taxpayers’ money, with very few strings attached!”


Why is our former Yugoslavia policy dealing with the break-up of that modestly sized European country not based now on even minimal common sense policy consistency?


This is more a psychological than political question.


It would have been reasonable to play this one very long – to tell the Serbs and Kosovo Albanians that there would be no discussion of status until both had lifted their game and moderated their behaviour towards significant European standards as part of a shared trajectory towards full EU membership.


Or we could have accepted Reality with a small dash of Fairness (sometimes a wise approach) and said that neither side wins all of Kosovo, so the territory has to be shared somehow, eg through formalised EU-supervised power-sharing. Or negotiated border changes. Or the creation of ‘Entities’ as underpinned the Dayton outcome in Bosnia. Or maybe something based on Swiss-style cantonisation.


The Serbs have put all these ideas and more forward, drawing on Europe’s own myriad successful examples. They invariably have been treated with EU/US disdain as a cheap trick intended to promote ‘mono-ethnicity’.


More importantly, the Albanians/Kosovars have made clear that they would not respect any such nuanced approaches and indeed would simply brush them (ie us) aside. Neither Europeans nor Americans have been prepared to stand up to this blackmail. Nor have we been ready to allow Serbia to do so.


Thus it is that another notable building-block from the Versailles Treaty following WW1 finally falls away. Will independence settle the Kosovo Question? Yes. Exactly like the Versailles settlement did.


While we all wrestle with the fearsomely complex policy issues surrounding Kosovo, one overwhelming fact has to be faced.


It is that successive Serbian leaders unerringly backed by stupidly populist Serbian media have gone out of their way to offer the Kosovo Albanians, their fellow citizens, nothing but contempt.


Back in 2001-03 I tried to explain to then President Kostunica and his entourage that it made no sense to insist that Kosovo was part of Serbia but make no meaningful gestures towards its population. In principle they should be addressed as potential voters, not rabid sub-human enemies.


When, for example, a truck containing the bodies of Albanians massacred by Milosevic’s forces was found in the Danube, I urged Kostunica’s team to aim to win international praise by eg organising a decent high-profile ceremony in their honour and sending personal messages to all their relatives. I tried to get through to them that some sort of civilised European human gesture would be right in itself, plus a strong sign that post-Milosevic Serbia understood the way international opinion was formed and wanted to be a nimble part of it.


Back came the appalling answer. “There are many mass graves in and around Belgrade from WW2 – what difference does another one make?”.


Sometimes it happens that others get things they don’t fully deserve. But when that happens you can’t credibly complain much if you do get exactly what you deserve.


As far as Kosovo is concerned, having accepted and applauded this sort of leadership for a very long time Serbia is likely to end up with exactly what it deserves.