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Why Kosovo's Independence Struggle Is Far From Over

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
February 21, 2008
 
Despite Kosovo's much-heralded declaration of independence Sunday, the Balkan region's struggle for sovereignty is just beginning.

Europe's biggest powers and the United States quickly moved to recognize Kosovo as the world's newest country, but the news has encountered considerable opposition elsewhere.

Serbia, which still claims Kosovo as part of its territory, has denounced the declaration as illegal. Russia, China, and some European Union members—which are dealing with their own secession dilemmas—are also staunchly opposed to Kosovo's independence, arguing that it would fuel secessionist movements around the world.

Russia, for example, has vowed to veto any United Nations Security Council resolution providing for UN recognition of Kosovo as independent.

But Kosovo's bid meets certain important criteria: The majority of its people not only claim a territory, they control it with democratic institutions (supervised by the UN).

The declaration also has broad international support.

Historically, most independence bids that meet those criteria have been successful.

"The die is cast," said Marshall Harris, a senior policy advisor at an office of the law firm Alston and Bird in Washington, D.C.

"Kosovars have not only been waiting for this moment for years but have also been preparing for it for a long time," said Harris, who is a former U.S. State Department official and adviser to the government of Kosovo.

Middle Ages

About 90 percent of the Balkan nation's two million people are ethnic Albanians. The remaining 10 percent are mainly Orthodox Christian Serbs.

Albanians say they are descendants of the ancient Illyrians, Kosovo's first inhabitants.

But Kosovo was also the site of an epic battle in 1389, when the defeat of the Serbs enabled the Ottoman Turks to invade the Balkan Peninsula and remain there for several centuries.

Kosovo is often described in Western news media as hallowed ground to the Serbs because of that battle.

But some observers say that Kosovo's role as a birthplace of Serb identity is a myth that has been embellished by Serb politicians seeking to capitalize on nationalist sentiments.

"There are very few people on the streets of Belgrade [the Serbian capital] who care about Kosovo," said Mirsad Tokaca, director of the Research and Documentation Center, a nongovernmental, nonprofit group in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The center has documented war crimes in the Balkan conflicts.

The Yugoslav wars, which raged between 1991 and 2001, were the bloodiest conflicts on European soil since the end of World War II.

The conflicts led to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia into Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and now, it appears, Kosovo.

The UN and NATO have run Kosovo since 1999, when Serbian forces were ousted after U.S.-led NATO air strikes helped end Serbia's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

About 10,000 people were killed in the conflict, and nearly a million others were driven from their homes.

Separatist Movements

The Serbian government considers Kosovo's independence a "partitioning of Serbia against its will," and points to a UN resolution, adopted in 1999, that recognizes Kosovo as part of Serbia.

Serbia has recalled its ambassador in Washington to protest U.S. recognition of Kosovo. But Serbian officials said they were not severing diplomatic ties, and they have ruled out any military retaliation against Kosovo.

"The countries that are against [Kosovo's new status] are all countries that face their own internal ethnic divide," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. These nations likely fear the move will encourage separatist groups worldwide to press for sovereignty.

Russia has been battling separatists in its Chechnya region for several years, though it supports the independence claims of two provinces in the country of Georgia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

China's Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, criticized Taiwan—which China considers to be Chinese territory—for welcoming Kosovo's independence, saying Taiwan's government does not meet the criteria for recognizing other countries.

The largest European Union power opposed to Kosovo's independence is Spain, which has battled a violent Basque separatist movement for decades.

Greece, Romania, and Cyprus, all with their own separatist problems, also oppose Kosovo's independence claim.

However, Kupchan said, Moscow's opposition on Kosovo is also driven by its desire to stand up to the United States and Europe.

Harris, the former adviser to the Kosovo government, said the declaration "is a big victory for the United States, because it has been a driving factor behind Kosovo's independence bid."

Intra-Kosovo Conflict

Some observers warn of the risk that Kosovo's Serbian population, which is isolated in the northern part of the region, could respond by declaring their own independence, setting the stage for violent confrontation.

The UN plan on which Kosovo's independence move is based does not provide sufficient security for Serbs living in Kosovo, according to Alan Kuperman, a Balkan expert at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Instead it would leave these Serbs insecure, resentful, and well armed—precisely the conditions that originally triggered war in Croatia and Bosnia," he told National Geographic News.

Thousands of Kosovo Serbs chanting "Kosovo is Serbia" marched on Tuesday to a bridge in northern Kosovo dividing them from ethnic Albanians.

Other Serbs torched UN border checkpoints and cars to protest Kosovo's independence bid, according to the Associated Press.

Tokaca, the director of the Research and Documentation Center, expects such protests to be short-lived. He does not believe ethnic strife will once again spread through the region.

"The root cause of conflict in this region has been a lack of democracy, not ethnicity," he said.

Redrawing Maps

David Miller, a map editor for National Geographic Maps, said that for independence bids to ultimately succeed, the government must control its territory, have the support of the people, and show stability over a certain period of time. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News and National Geographic Maps.)

"The strongest type of country is a nation-state that shares a common language, ethnicity, or heritage," Miller said.

By contrast, he said, countries that have a number of ethnicities have a greater potential to become failed states.

"The Democratic Republic of the Congo," which has as many as 250 separate ethnic groups, "wasn't prepared for independence by the Belgians, and has been a failed state for decades," he said.

"This is more recently true for a country like Somalia." Miller expects that the National Geographic Society will have no objections recognizing Kosovo as independent very soon.

"We're preparing our digital maps and databases … to start showing it as an independent country," he said.

Allen Carroll, National Geographic's chief cartographer, has selected purple to illustrate Kosovo on official National Geographic maps when the time comes, Miller said.

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