In 1947, when India gained independence, the unthinkable happened to the British: The sun began to set on their empire. It took them years to get used to the idea that their imperial days were over. Nearly a decade after losing India, for instance, they dug in their heels over control of the Suez Canal, then were forced to retreat under US pressure.
As the British example shows, downsizing gracefully is not easy for a power that controls other peoples. That's an important point to keep in mind as two former empires - Russia, as the largest remnant of the former Soviet Union; and Serbia, as the power behind the former Yugoslavia - still face challenges to their regional dominance more than a decade after their empires collapsed.
"I see Russia now as being like Britain in the 1950s," says Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution. Back then, she says, "Britain was a surly, not-too-happy country.... It took an awful lot of time to get rid of that imperial hangover."
Two events this week are a reminder of this ongoing adjustment. In the Russian province of Chechnya on Tuesday, rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was killed when Russian forces raided his hideout. On the same day, Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj resigned to face indictment by the war crimes tribunal at The Hague. Even though the largely ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo has been under UN control since NATO planes drove out Serb troops in 1999, it's still part of Serbia.
The events are not connected by anything other than a date, but Moscow and Belgrade are probably wondering the same thing: Will they spark new violence in these rebellious areas, and bring simmering separatist sentiments to an uncontrollable boil?
It's difficult for empires, large or small, to give up territory. Russia and Serbia (now officially the country of Serbia and Montenegro) still entertain visions of greatness. It was, thank you very much, Russia which saved Europe from the Mongols, and turned back Napoleon and the Nazis. This required huge sacrifices of life and treasure, for which many Russians feel they've never gotten proper credit.
Exactly, many Serbs nod along; wasn't it Serbian power that helped repel the Turks in the 14th century, and, in modern times, united a disparate group of ethnicities in the single Communist state of Yugoslavia?
Now, Moscow has lost its former western playground to the European Union, its Slavic birthplace of Ukraine to an Orange Revolution, and its southern soulmate of Georgia to a Rose Revolution. It's cost Russia two wars and horrific terrorist attacks to hang on to Chechnya, and it doesn't want to encourage other ethnic regions to split off from the Russian Federation.
In Belgrade, the question is what will be left of Serbia's old Yugoslavia if it gives in to the demand for independence pushed by the majority Kosovo Albanians? It's already lost Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Slovenia. This summer the international community is scheduled to review Kosovo's final status, while still trying to protect the rights of the Serb minority in Kosovo.
One factor that will influence the willingness of either Russia or Serbia to grant these two chafing provinces their right to self-determination is the degree to which each country embraces democratic values like rule of law and representative government.
Serbia-Montenegro is being hauled in that direction by the economic pull of the EU, which demands democratic and market reforms from countries that aspire to join that club. The EU is leaning on Serbia-Montenegro to hand over suspected war criminals from the wars of the 1990s before beginning talks on closer ties, and Belgrade is now responding.
It's not hard to imagine that, given time and incentives, all of the former Yugoslavia will eventually find a new identity as part of an "EU empire." In that new kind of empire, common democratic values can eventually erode ethnic divisions.
Russia doesn't have this option. But it can itself become a regional influence for peace and prosperity, and do much to calm the tension in Chechnya and elsewhere in the Caucasus - if it were to move more solidly in a democratic direction of openness and tolerance. This is just one more reason why the West must persist in preventing a backsliding in Russian democracy.