Sparks that risk igniting another Balkan war

One response to the results of this week’s parliamentary elections in Kosovo will be: why should we care? A small part of the former Yugoslavia, an aspiring independent state under UN protection, has gone to vote in reasonably good order. Things are moving in the right direction; we can relax and leave the two million or so people of this Balkan enclave to their own devices.

At the present juncture, however, nothing would be more dangerous. The clear victor in these elections looks set to be the Democratic Party of Hashim Thaci, a former guerrilla leader. This was the party that campaigned most stridently and impatiently for Kosovo’s full independence.

If the results suggest growing militancy among Kosovo’s voters, the election offered other malign indicators. The turnout was the lowest ever recorded, suggesting that even voters from the Albanian majority are now frustrated and cynical about the political process. Nor is there the slightest sign of rapprochement between the ethnic Albanians and the minority Serbs. The Serbs – who want Kosovo to remain constitutionally a part of Serbia – stayed away from the polling stations. Their boycott, coupled with the low turnout, allows both sides to cast aspersions on the results.

What is more, time for an internationally sponsored settlement is running out. As part of his election pitch, Mr Thaci vowed to declare formal independence from Serbia once the official 10 December deadline for a deal had expired. With the post of prime minister now within his sights, Mr Thaci is repeating that promise. Yet a unilateral declaration of this sort is the very outcome that everyone involved – the UN, the EU, the government of Serbia and its Russian supporters – has been trying with increasing urgency to avoid.

Now there is a real risk that much, if not all, of the good achieved by the 1999 western military intervention will be undone. Of course, that intervention had its difficulties. It received UN authority only afterwards. It was later than it should have been. The decision making was ponderous. There were mistakes – the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade leaps to mind. And there were dangerous stand-offs. Russia’s advance on Pristina airport risked the first East-West military confrontation since the Cold War and precipitated a spat between the British commander on the ground, General Sir Mike Jackson, and Nato’s American supreme commander, General Wesley Clark.

For all that went wrong with the Kosovo operation, however, the balance remains overwhelmingly positive. This was a successful example of armed force used for humanitarian intervention. It afforded international protection to a group – Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians – who were in immediate physical danger. It also, although this was not the prime objective, sowed the seeds of Slobodan Milosevic’s downfall and speeded the advent of democracy in the rump of Yugoslavia.

The path to independence for Kosovo was never going to be smooth. The small Serbian population needs real guarantees that their rights will be protected; even then, their sense of grievance will run deep. For Serbs, parts of Kosovo have profound religious and cultural significance; more Serbs will probably leave. If, as is likely, Serbia refuses to recognise an independent Kosovo, and if – as is also likely – Russia vetoes recognition at the UN, Kosovo will be in a diplomatic limbo.

In this event, nothing can be ruled out, including resort to arms by disillusioned Albanian Kosovans and irate Serbs. The flames of a new Balkan war could reignite latent conflicts further afield, destabilising the region as a whole. Unless we show greater awareness of these dangers now, Kosovo risks becoming a small country of which we get to know all too much.

* http://comment.independent.co.uk/leading_articles/article3174393.ece

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