The decision of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and a number of other countries to break with international law, which regards the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states as sacrosanct, and to permit Albanian separatists in Kosovo to declare independence from Serbia was an act so extraordinary in international relations that it had to take place outside the United Nations, where its illegality would have been hard to justify. The excuse given for this initiative is that the ethnic cleansing and humanitarian catastrophe caused by Serbia in 1999 exempted the countries that hurried to recognize Kosovo on February 17, 2008, from the rule stipulating that international borders can be changed only with the agreement of all parties.
After congratulating the Kosovars on their independence, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained that this was to be “a special case,” the sole exception ever to the rule of territorial integrity of nations under international law, and that separatists elsewhere ought not to look upon this act as a precedent. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Slovakia, Malta, Bulgaria, and Romania—nearly a third of the member states of the European Union—were unimpressed by her explanation and have so far refused to recognize Kosovo. They also doubt that the brutal treatment of Kosovars by former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević is the only reason for the United States’ decision. As is almost always the case when it comes to the Balkans, a local dispute has been used by the great powers to advance their own national interests, which have little to do with the desire to have justice done.
“Had Kosovo declared its independence two years ago, when the Russians barely cared about what was going on in the Balkans, the process would have been easier,” an Albanian wrote to The Boston Globe the other day. He’s right. The Serbian loss of Kosovo was inevitable, not because Serbs do not have legal and historical rights to the province, but because Albanians, after their own turn at ethnic cleansing since 1999, outnumber them there ten to one and have no intention of being ruled by them ever again. Moreover, a lot of Serbs know, though they won’t say it publicly, that having two million Albanians who hate your guts under the same roof is not a sensible option.
Other Serbs continue to delude themselves that with the help of Vladimir Putin they can prevail. How the dead horse of Serbian Kosovo is to be brought back to life is not spelled out, but it’s not hard to guess that some sort of violence would be involved in its resurrection. Like our own American lunatics who dream of bombing more and more countries, these Serbs do not consider the consequences of their actions. The simple truth that sooner or later you may have to pay for killing women and children and chasing hundreds of thousands of blameless people out of their homes is beyond their comprehension. Yes, two years ago their voices were not so loud. Today, with…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.