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 the deepening involvement of Russia in the crisis, and with anti-Serbian United States policies, they have become a menace, especially to their own people.

Let me begin with the policies of the United States. At some point in 1998, or perhaps earlier, the State Department decided to take the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army—whose members were being armed from Albania, where the US already had a military and CIA presence—off the US list of terrorist groups, and to describe its forces instead as an insurgency. The change most likely had more to do with the aim of maintaining a US military presence in that part of the world than with outrages committed by Serbs in what they saw as revenge for the gunning down of their policemen and civilians. The moment Kosovo was liberated by NATO forces in 1999, after weeks of US bombing of not only Kosovo but also Belgrade and other parts of Serbia, the US started building Camp Bondsteel on 955 acres of farmland near the Kosovar town of Urosevac, on what was then still Serbian territory. The US strategists clearly expected that this area would never again be part of Serbia.

As a result, when Serbs and Kosovars later sat down to negotiate the future status of the province, the Kosovars knew that it was a farce, since Kosovo’s future had already been settled in Washington and a Serbian offer of complete autonomy could be rejected out of hand. The European Union’s motives were different. They realized better than the United States how important Kosovo was to the Serbs and that therefore the Serbs could not solve the problem by themselves. The Europeans wanted them to be “realistic,” offering them as an inducement the possibility of membership in the EU on the condition that they first deliver the wanted war criminals Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadzić to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. In the months before Kosovo’s declaration of independence, even that requirement was shelved.


Serbs were wary. They could see the hypocrisies, the double standards, the failures of the Western countries to be honest brokers. In 1999, the Western countries had insisted that Kosovo first had to become a tolerant, multi-ethnic state before being granted independence. But for the most part, the US and European negotiations with Serbia ignored the heinous ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Serbian population, the destruction of Serbian churches and monasteries, and the inability of most of the remaining Serbs to live anywhere safely, except in enclaves guarded by foreign troops. They greeted with much skepticism the plan for protection of minorities in Kosovo by the UN Special Envoy Marti Ahtisaari, which would grant them the right to run their own municipalities, have their churches and properties protected, be educated in their own language, and carry two passports—promises that were to be implemented after the declaration of independence. In response to such plans, the Kosovo Serbs observed that they still couldn’t move about safely among the Kosovars and that newspapers in Europe and the United States continued to depict them as collectively guilty for the crimes of Milošević and the sole cause of all problems in the region.

Even worse, as far as the outcome was concerned, Serbs have been led at home in the years since the 2003 assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjić by a coalition of three and sometimes four democratic parties of unequal strength and different political ideas that, as recently as the presidential elections this February, have been either unwilling or too weak to make a clean break with the past.

Outside the government, but having the largest number of representatives in the parliament, is the ultra-conservative Radical Party, whose former leader, Vojislav Šešelj, is currently on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity, and whose membership consists of a few right-wing intellectuals, thousands of disgruntled workers who lost their jobs after the fall of communism, and hundreds of thousands of Serbs who were ethnically cleansed from Croatia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and live in dire poverty in Serbia. The Radicals are a party of anger and resentment, with, as far as I can tell, not a single concrete idea about how to improve the lives of their followers. They adore Putin’s authoritarian style, love the way he has silenced the opposition in Russia, and hope to do the same in Serbia when they get a chance. But their present leader, Tomislav Nikolić, lost his bid to become president, if only by a narrow margin.

The man who was reelected, Borislav Tadić, leads the largest pro-Western party. He is a sensible though extremely cautious politician trapped in a marriage of convenience with Vojislav Kostunica, the leader of a small, democratic, nationalist party, who is the prime minister of the country and who wields the real day-to-day power. Even before Kosovo became the one and only issue in Serbian politics, this government didn’t function well. Everything from improving Serbia’s relationship with the European Union to the promise to deliver the remaining war criminals to The Hague was sabotaged by Kostunica, who like Milošević is incapable of dialogue and compromise. If he hasn’t yet formed a government with the Radicals, it is because there are still members of his own party who find themselves uncomfortable in that company. Nevertheless, we can see from the events of recent weeks how that coalition of reason and madness works in Serbia. While some ministers incited the burning of the US and other embassies and the looting of foreign business with their statements, other ministers in the same government did their best to calm the situation.

Who or what will prevail? The alliance with Russia of some of the Serbian political parties that hope to secure its help in settling scores with their domestic opponents adds a sinister and unpredictable dimension to the crisis. Both Kostunica and Nikolić have said, more or less openly, that they would welcome becoming a satellite of Russia in order to keep Kosovo. Tadić has said that he still hopes to join the EU and that it would be foolish for Serbia not to do so. The people who voted for him and for closer union with Europe expect no less from him; but with nationalist passions and the threat of violence running high, they are staying quiet. This is a far from reassuring atmosphere for foreign capital and for domestic companies seeking open markets.

The political and economic consequences of such behavior will surely be considerable. “Life must stop until Kosovo is returned to Serbia” is how a friend described the message Kostunica had for his people, following the declaration of independence. He’s demanding, for instance, that countries that recognized Kosovo annul their decision or Serbia will have nothing to do with them. In other words, either history is reversed and the past restored, or we’ll go into isolation, mainly supported by Russia. A nation unable to look at its present—what could be more tiresome and pointless to the rest of the world?


Kosovo will thrive, barely workable as a state, its bills paid by the European Union and the United States, its electrical power and food sold to it by Serbia. The northern part with its Serbian population of more than 40,000 people will try to secede and will be told by the international community that the territorial integrity of Kosovo must be respected. Unless force is used, the new state will remain partitioned. As for the two thirds of the Serb population that lives south of the Ibar River, which separates the Serbian enclave in the north from the rest of Kosovo, I’d be surprised if many of them still remained there a few years from now. Some of the biggest monasteries and churches, with their beautiful medieval frescoes and the few attendant priests, monks, and nuns, will be cared for by NATO.

As for the rest—God knows! That it all should have been settled more sensibly and fairly twenty years ago is something that the most perceptive observers of the conflict would probably agree on—but that, too, would have been another pipe dream. As long as national identity is defined almost solely by the hatred of others, the unhappy will outnumber the happy among peoples in the region.

—March 6, 2008

This Issue

April 3, 2008