The last of the pieces that once made up Yugoslavia has broken off. On Feb. 17, Kosovo – the tiny province with the giant geopolitical footprint – declared independence from Serbia. It may mark the end of the Balkan subdivisions, but will that building style spread to other regions?
Russia warns that the Kosovo example will encourage restless populations in volatile regions such as the Caucasus. Indeed, rebels in the Russian republic of Chechnya – over which Moscow fought two wars since 1994 to finally gain control – immediately expressed solidarity with the new nation.
That Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population, now have a country to call their own is still no guarantee that geographic divorce is a thing of the Balkan past. Will unhappy Serbs in Bosnia catch the spirit? What about Albanians in Montenegro? The Serb government itself may split and fall over the issue of Kosovo independence.
The scenarios for division abound, and on a large scale. What if Moscow uses Kosovo's independence – which it considers illegal because it was not approved by the UN Security Council – to drive a deeper wedge between it and the West, or as an excuse to shore up control over its "near abroad"?
But hold on a minute. Several things need to be remembered.
First, about Russia. One concern involves potential breakaway regions in the former Soviet state of Georgia. It's thought that Russia might perhaps want these regions back on its side of the border, though it has toned down its rhetoric on this lately. It may prefer an unstable Georgia – unattractive to NATO membership for this very reason – to the retaking of territory on its southern flank.
Another point to remember is the unique history behind the birth of the new Kosovo nation: Serb ethnic cleansing of Albanians, a NATO war with Serbia in 1999 to protect the Albanians, the deployment of NATO troops to secure Kosovo and a UN provisional government to run it, and years of painstaking UN negotiations to work out Kosovo's future and protect the Serb minority and its cultural icons in Kosovo. Those negotiations produced a fair plan – rejected by Serbia and Russia.
Which brings to mind another point. With negotiations failed, with Kosovo's Albanians determined to break from their aggressors, and with a desperate economy made worse by limbo, the status quo was untenable.
The United States and most of Europe wisely recognize this and have planned for it – sending 2,000 European Union police and judicial experts to Kosovo, keeping NATO troops in place to protect the Serb minority, and having Kosovo agree to uphold the UN plan even without Serbia's and Russia's blessing. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, Kosovo will be under the West's political tutelage and require economic help.
The way to avoid division over Kosovo's independence is for the Albanians in this new nation to live up to their promise to be a multiethnic society, and for the EU to continue to entice all the Balkan entities in its direction. Economic and democratic unity can ward off ethnic and political division.