Kosovo’s parliament approved a declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17, and the following day the United States recognized Kosovo as Europe’s newest country. The majority of the nations of the 27-member European Union – including Britain, France, and Germany – have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Slovakia, and Romania have not. Serbia’s ally Russia has warned that Kosovo’s declaration of independence could rekindle conflicts elsewhere – from the Russian-backed enclaves in Georgia to the Taiwan Strait. Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, oppose an independent Kosovo. On February 21, rioters in Belgrade attacked the embassies of Western countries, including the United States. A week later, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence told a Senate committee that Washington has “good information” that the Serbian government ordered police not to interfere with rioters who attacked the embassy.
In fact, Kosovo has been at the center of conflict in the Balkan region for about 20 years. Elez Biberaj, director of VOA’s Eurasia Division, says that the “Kosovo problem,” in a nutshell, is a conflict between two nations over the same territory to which both Serbs and Albanians have historical claims. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s Encounter program, Mr. Biberaj notes that, after the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, the Kosovar Albanians were incorporated into Serbia – and into what later became Yugoslavia – by force. Under President Tito, Kosovo gained autonomy through the constitution of 1974. After Tito’s death in 1981, the Kosovar Albanians, who represented about 90 percent of the population, demanded equal status with the other six republics of Yugoslavia, which Belgrade refused. And in 1989, Kosovo was stripped of its autonomous status by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. Elez Biberaj notes that the idea of an independent Kosovo goes back to the early 1990’s, replacing an earlier demand by its ethnic Albanian majority for union with neighboring Albania.
But Obrad Kesic, senior partner with TSM Global Consultants who has been working for more than a decade with government leaders, businesses, and non-governmental organizations in southeastern Europe, says the Serb view of this shared history differs. For Serbs, he emphasizes, Kosovo is the “cradle” of Serb civilization and the Serbian Orthodox Church. Mr. Kesic explains that the “mythology” of Kosovo is essential to Serb “identity” because Christian Serbs were “subjugated” for centuries under the largely Muslim Ottoman Empire. During the wars of the 1990’s the former Yugoslavia began breaking apart, and in succession Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro declared independence. Regarding the status of Kosovo, two principles are at odds with one another, Obrad Kesic says – the right to “territorial sovereignty” guaranteed under international law and the right of nations to “self-determination.”
In 1999, NATO took military action to halt a Serb campaign of oppression against the Kosovar Albanians, forcing Serbia to pull its troops from Kosovo. Since then, Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations. In recent years, former Finnish President Martti Ahtissari led a UN-sponsored effort to broker a separation agreement, but it failed. Obrad Kesic says that, although Belgrade never accepted the plan and it was never ratified in the UN Security Council, the Ahtissari plan – which calls for “supervised independence” – ultimately became the “blueprint” for managing Kosovo’s independence. But Elez Biberaj argues that, given the incompatible positions of both Belgrade and Pristina, the Ahtissari plan represents the “best possible compromise.” It calls for a multiethnic society in a democratic state, with extensive rights for ethnic minorities and a “special relationship” between Belgrade and the Serb communities of Kosovo. Obrad Kesic disagrees, noting that Serbs reject the idea of tying the issue of self-governance to a change in international borders – and that is the “heart of the issue.”
Mr. Kesic says Kosovo is likely to dominate Serbian politics for the “foreseeable future,” which may weaken the push for integration into the European Union. On the other hand, Elez Biberaj says EU membership is very important to the Kosovar Albanians, but it is “far, far into the future.” Throughout the world, Mr. Kesic warns, a number of separatist movements are already looking to Kosovo not only as a precedent but also as a model for achieving independence.
For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.