Balkanisation by another name

In the talks about Kosovo's future, the former Yugoslavia is being treated as a carcass to be dissected by Western diplomats.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

This year promises to be a testing one for politics in the Balkans. Talks on the administrative devolution of Kosovo finished in Vienna earlier this week, between representatives of the Kosovo Albanians and the Serbian government. The talks, conducted under the aegis of the six-nation ‘Contact Group’ (composed of America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia), are seen as stepping-stones to resolving the ‘final status’ of the province, since it was left in political and legal limbo following NATO’s war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

Since then, Kosovo has been subsumed under the incoherent terms of United Nations (UN) resolution 1244. That grants Belgrade legal sovereignty over the province, while the province has been governed by an international administration and occupied by a NATO army. While the ‘final status’ talks have been formally cast as open-ended negotiations between two equal parties, the political director of the British Foreign Office, John Sawers, gave the game away earlier this month when he told a group of Kosovo’s minority Serbs that the Contact Group had already decided on independence for Kosovo (1).

In April, Montenegro, Serbia’s sister republic in the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, is planning to stage a referendum on independence from Belgrade. The Montenegrin prime minister, Milo Djukanovic – the darling of Western diplomats while Miloševic was still in power – told the BBC that it was time that Montenegro’s citizens ‘assumed responsibility for themselves’ (2).

In fact, it is the European Union’s (EU) Council of Ministers, and not the Montenegrin people, that will decide the actual outcome of the referendum. The final decision on what will constitute an acceptable threshold for a pro-independence vote will be decided when the Council meets on 27 February (3). That the EU has the final word is hardly surprising: it was the EU High Representative, Javier Solana, who cobbled together the Union in the first place after the overthrow of Miloševic in October 2000. The popular Serbian nickname for the union, ‘Solania’, indicates the union’s degree of legitimacy in the eyes of many Serbs.

The Kosovo talks have renewed habitual Western speculation about the supposedly implacable ethnic hatred that poses the major barrier to long-term political solutions. The Serbs in particular are singled out for their atavistic attachment to Kosovo, traditionally claimed to be the ‘cradle of the Serbian nation’. The BBC’s Matt Prodger claims that the ‘idea of this so-called “sacred land” being separated from Serbia is, to Serbs, simply unacceptable’ (4). The very mention of separation provoked ‘howls of outrage’ according to The Economist (5). In fact, the secession of Kosovo has been openly mooted in Serbian political debate over the past few years (6).

What is more striking than any Serbian ‘howls of outrage’ is the presumption on the part of these commentators that Western diplomats should be able casually to discuss dismembering a country without provoking a reaction on the part of that country’s citizens. The discussion of the secession of a province within a country is clearly different from a country being treated as a carcass to be dissected by Western diplomats. There is moreover a sinister sub-text to the whole discussion.

According to The Economist, John Sawers’ unilateral proclamation of independence for Kosovo is designed to send a signal to Belgrade: ‘Serbia must help [Kosovo’s] 100,000-plus ethnic Serbs to cut the sweetest deal they can if they want to stay there.’ (7) The implication is clear. Unless Belgrade bows to Western pressure, the West will be justified in washing its hands of any responsibility for Kosovo’s Serbs – a policy whose results were seen in the lethal Albanian pogroms against Kosovo’s Serbs in 2004, as well as the mass exodus of 200,000 Serbs from Kosovo after the war in 1999.

It is commonly held that any attempt to get a handle on Balkan politics is to step through the looking glass, in to a topsy-turvy world where ethnic irrationality rules and few of the standard political markers apply. But this topsy-turvy world is less to do with ethnic hatreds so much as the bizarre Orwellian policies that the international community has repeatedly inflicted on the region.

In the Balkans, ‘independence’ can be ‘imposed’: this is what the influential think tank, the International Crisis Group, is explicitly calling for, in anticipation of the talks over Kosovo being deadlocked (8). In the Balkans, ‘independence’ can co-exist alongside an internationally-appointed governor-general (or ‘envoy’ in politically-correct parlance) and whilst under military occupation. This has been the case with neighbouring Bosnia over the last eleven years, and everyone openly admits that the international ‘presence’ in Kosovo will continue after ‘independence’ (9). In the Balkans, democratic referendums take place not when the people decide, but on the say-so of EU bureaucrats.

The international community has redefined the most basic categories of political language, emptying the words ‘independence’ and ‘democracy’ of any meaning whatsoever. Ironically, the one word that the international community has restored to its original meaning is the word ‘balkanisation’, the term once used by historians and diplomats to denote the deliberate fragmentation of a region into a number of quasi-independent, mutually hostile statelets. Since the wars of Yugoslav secession ended, Western balkanisation in the region has never been more apparent. None of the peoples of the Balkans will attain any meaningful independence until the international envoys and peacekeepers are sent home.

Philip Cunliffe is co-convenor of the Sovereignty And Its Discontents working group.

(1) ‘When hard truths shock’, Economist, 18-24 February 2006

(2) Montenegro plans independence bid, BBC News 14 February 2006

(3) ‘Montenegrin government “lobbying” EU for “grey zone” referendum vote’ BBC Monitoring / Mina news agency 20 February 2006. South Eastern European Security Monitor 21 February 2006

(4) An uncertain future awaits Kosovo, BBC News 20 February 2006

(5) ‘When hard truths shock’ Economist 18-24 February 2006

(6) ‘Ex-Serbian premier favours partitioned Kosovo with independent Albanian part’ 28 October 2004 BBC Monitoring; Studio B TV South Eastern European Security Monitor 28 October 2004

(7) ‘When hard truths shock’, Economist, 18-24 February 2006

(8) See the ICG report Kosovo: The Challenge of Transition, 17 February 2006

(9) See the ICG report Kosovo: The Challenge of Transition, 17 February 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today