March 6, 2008

The Question of Kosovo

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A lot happened in Versailles in 1919. Germany was crippled economically and began down the path towards the rise of the Nazi Party, the state of Iraq was born out of three dissimilar Ottoman provinces and Yugoslavia was created as the state for the South Slavs of the Balkans. The errors of Versailles have haunted us for a century, and with the independence of Kosovo, one of those mistakes has been settled. Independence in Kosovo has been conceived as the first of a series of dangerous “dominos” of unilateral declarations of independence by separatists across the world, from Quebec to Georgia. To me, however, Kosovo’s independence is the not the beginning of a wave, but instead one of the closing lines in the bloody and tragic dissolution of Yugoslavia.
The original Yugoslavia was conceived as a monarchy under the Serbian royal family. The new state was politically unstable and during World War II conflicts arose between Serb and Croat fascists and the partisans under Tito. In the post-war era, Yugoslavia was a federation of the republics of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and the autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. Within this federal structure, each ethnic group should have had a home and some control over its destiny. But under Tito, the strong-arm of the state that kept ethnic tension in check also stifled the growth of any unity across ethnic groups, besides the cult of personality around Tito.
Yugoslavia, too, has often been used as a vehicle for Serb nationalism, rather than as a genuine attempt at a union of all the South Slavs. Christopher Hitchens discusses the self-defeating nature of Serb nationalism in one of his articles. As to the argument of historical continuity that opponents of Kosovo’s independence like to reference, Hitchens reminds us that from the 1300’s until 1912, Kosovo was held as part of the Ottoman Empire. At the time that Serbia first lost Kosovo, the King of England was still claiming large parts of France as his domain. But alarmists continue to say that Kosovo is the first domino in a series of nascent states, as separatist groups around the world will be encouraged to intensify conflict.
Why do so many people consider Kosovo to be the first domino? It is not the first part of post-Balkan war Serbia to declare independence. After all, just last year Montenegro voted in a referendum to strike its own path and commentators had nothing controversial to say. Before Montenegro, the rest of the Yugoslavia’s republics also broke away. The unique history of Yugoslavia makes it unlikely that the Kosovo situation is one that will be repeated elsewhere. In fact, it is the last domino, not the first. The first domino fell when Slovenia voted for independence over seventeen years ago. Slovenia, which is now a member of NATO and the EU, is a model for the Balkans that both the Serbs and Kosovars should consider when contemplating their moves in the current dispute over independence. When considering the Balkans, it is important to remember that Yugoslavia is not Canada and Kosovo is not Quebec.