Here is a major piece I have written for Aeon on the way states emerge or de-emerge, and the specific case of Kosovo/Serbia.


Miloševi? had some good points, but his willingness to use violence against his neighbouring republics repulsed those Western nations that might have accepted his logic. In any case, the international community had no appetite for rummaging around in the region’s messy history to try to negotiate new borders that gave enough self-determination to every Balkan community. Where to start? How to get eggs from an omelette? Plumping for what looked like the easier option, western governments joined with post-communist Moscow to work out a plan based on Yugoslavia’s existing internal republics…

… There is one fact in Kosovo that everyone accepts: Kosovars heavily outnumber Serbs. After the Second World War, the Yugoslav authorities’ attempts to improve the lot of the country’s Albanian-speaking population led to a sharp drop in child mortality without a correspondingly speedy reduction in family size.

A boom in Kosovar numbers now ripples down the decades. Each year some 15,000 more Kosovars are born than die. Each year in Serbia some 33,000 more Serbs die than are born. The numbers currently are roughly 50,000 a year in Kosovo’s favour.

These discrepancies don’t sound large, but they mount up. Less than a generation from now the population difference between Serbia (currently some seven million) and Kosovo (currently approaching two million) is likely to shrink by nearly one million people.

You see the difference. Kosovo is scruffy bustle, full of young people running kiosks and workshops or just moving around. Cross into Serbia and the scene abruptly empties out: lush meadows and tidy little farms, but eerily few humans. Sooner or later Kosovars will be trying to make lives for themselves across that border. A de facto ‘greater Albanian space’ will seep outwards into Serbia.

For decades successive leaderships in Belgrade have watched this demographic drama unfold. Dobrica ?osi?, the Serb nationalist writer who later became president of the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, feared that these demographic forces would leave Serbs outnumbered not just in Kosovo but in Serbia as a whole. He told me in 1983 that Kosovo had to be cut off to prevent greater losses: ‘Sometimes you amputate the cancerous leg to save the body.’ No Serbian leader has dared take on this grisly task…

Thus today’s diplomatic stalemate that divides the planet. Kosovo in effect vetoes Serbia’s European Union bid. Serbia makes it clear that, without its blessing, Kosovo won’t join the EU or the UN. This deadlock over territory and allegiance is one that the wily princes, dukes and bishops drafting the Peace of Westphalia would easily recognise.

No diplomat can be surprised that so many capitals round the world refuse to follow the clumsy lead of the US, London and Brussels on this issue. The vast majority of the countries that have not recognised Kosovo don’t care about Kosovo or Serbia. For these countries it’s not about Balkan bickering — it’s about their own security. Yes, some minority communities want to run their own affairs. But territorial integrity underpins the way the whole world works: grave dangers come from trashing that fundamental principle in the face of serious international objections.

It’s one thing to amputate parts of your gangrenous leg yourself. It’s quite another for NATO to lunge in, wielding a rusty hacksaw. Good grief, who might be next? Syria?

Indeed. And as Washington dithers over what to do in or with Syria, the arguments for ‘territorial integrity’ (and by implication the case for no external ‘intervention’ even when there is a strong humanitarian case) are holding up as well as ever as the basis for all international order.

Read the whole thing.

Conclusion? Kosovo will  stay becalmed for the foreseeable future, existing as a state for many purposes but not not enjoying full international recognition.

Does this bother Kosovo and the general cause of ‘Greater Albania’ that never quite dares proclaim itself but never quite disappears? Not really.

He whose sheep are on the Balkan mountain own the mountain. And with Serbia having a truly alarming demographic profile – it is right towards the bottom of the main global rankings for population growth – Albanian sheep look to be in rude health in that corner of Europe.