Kosovo's lessons for underdogs

NATO's success may rally ethnic groups across Europe to redouble

As peacekeepers enter a ravaged Kosovo, and with the West trying to resolve a surprise Russian deployment of troops there, uncertainty exists over the rules, precedents, and expectations emerging from a new kind of war - one waged on behalf of a group long denied basic human rights.

The NATO intervention represents the first time in modern history, as Czech President Vaclav Havel notes, that human rights outweighed the sovereignty of state borders. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called it "moral intervention."

Kosovar Albanians - who actually make up a 90 percent majority of the province - have been jubilant over NATO prevailing. "I am very happy," said Avni Grainca, an ethnic Albanian student as he stood by the side of the road 10 miles south of Pristina, the Kosovar capital, to welcome NATO troops. "NATO has stopped the killing in Kosovo." Small children nearby chanted "NATO, NATO," while their beaming parents flashed the victory sign.

Yet in the larger interplay among nations, does Kosovo actually represent an anomaly - a one-of-a-kind intervention to stop "ethnic cleansing"? Or might it give greater succor to leaders of aggrieved national minorities in Europe and elsewhere?

The answer may be both.

Other ethnic aspirations

In the Hungarian parliament, a former playwright, Istvan Csurka, who now leads a nationalist party, is asking for part of Vojvodina, a region of Serbia with 350,000 ethnic Hungarians - to be "annexed" to Hungary. In Macedonia, a grass-roots ethnic Albanian movement seeks to divide that country along ethnic lines. Serbian leaders in Bosnia say that if Kosovo becomes a de facto independent entity tied to Albania proper, their Serb Republic enclave should be allowed to join Serbia.

Most European politicians, for their part, see Kosovo reflecting a need for greater European integration into a civil society. They want minority grievances reified and resolved by prosperity, cooperation, and the security brought by large multilayered alliances like NATO and the European Union.

But for these politicians, the threshold for action is extremely high: on a par with the "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. "No governments want an avalanche of minority claims, and they are going to keep the lid on," says Albert Rohan, a senior Austrian Foreign Ministry official in Vienna. "There is an enormous reluctance for Western and European countries to allow Kosovo to become any kind of precedent."

Yet many of the universal principles and values espoused by EU and NATO leaders are lost in the popular discourse on the street. If the Albanians in Kosovo, why not us?, is the logic often heard from politicians like Mr. Csurka in Hungary.

Concerns are quietly being voiced around the Continent that Kosovo may rally minorities ranging from Basques in Spain, Hungarians in Romania, Circassians in France - as well as by Albanians in several countries - to redouble their efforts for autonomy or separation. For now, the most aggrieved minority, the Kurds of Turkey and neighboring countries, are sidelined in the wake of the capture and trial of rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Only the beginning

"This isn't the end of the story; this is the beginning," says a Hungarian diplomat in Vienna, citing the 2.5 million Hungarians in Romania who desire cultural autonomy and the teaching of their language and history in schools.

"A lot depends on the speed with which these countries are taken into European integration," says Miklos Derer, secretary-general of the Hungarian Atlantic Council in Budapest.

The Serbian region of Sandzak may also present new difficulties in the wake of Kosovo. A sliver of land bordering Bosnia, the Sandzak has a compact majority Muslim population that is unhappy with its lot. For much of this decade the residents, tired of an intrusive Serbian police presence, have wanted a mainly Muslim administration. But, as in the past in Kosovo, Serbian authorities have inserted a rulership more loyal to Belgrade.

The war in Kosovo will have lasting meaning, argues Mr. Havel, only if it heightens a common understanding that people's identity and their basic human rights cannot be limited or constrained by ethnic or national definitions - be they Serbian, Albanian, or other. "The notion that it is none of our business what happens in another country, and whether human rights are violated in that country, should vanish down the trapdoor of history," Havel stated recently.

Yet Kosovo is far from a past lesson; many issues remain to be resolved. Despite their enthusiasm for the implementation of the NATO presence, most Kosovar Albanians are fearful that retreating Serbian forces may attempt final acts of fury.

And the fear is mutual. Among many Serbs there is the fear that the Kosovo Liberation Army will seek vengeance and that the NATO force will not protect them.

Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson, commander of the KFOR implementation force, has pledged to build a "secure environment for all people of Kosovo, whatever their ethnic background," but the words are unlikely to impress them.

*Lucian Kim contributed to this report from Pristina, Yugoslavia.

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