Why Kosovo Divides Europe

  • Share
  • Read Later
Daniel Mihailescu / AFP / Getty

Young Kosovars celebrate in downtown Pristina.

Don't make the mistake, when in Barcelona, of assuming you're in Spain: The locals in the enchanting Mediterranean coastal city, and the triangle-shaped territory around it, cite Catalan as their national identity. In conversations across the spectrum — young and old, leftist and right-wing, gay and straight, a retired couple near Tarragona and a Moroccan immigrant in Vic — the upcoming Spanish elections are discussed as if they're taking place in a foreign country. "For Catalonia, it is better if…" was how the typical response began. Here, road signs and restaurant menus are written in Catalan. It's also the language of public education, in schools where the national history of Catalonia is central to the curriculum, while Spanish is taught for two hours a week as a foreign language. The region, officially called an "autonomous community," has broad leeway in establishing political and social policy. But polls show that some 35% want full independence from Madrid.

Nor are the Catalans the only regional nationalist movement pressing centuries-old linguistic, ethnic and historical claims on the forward-looking government in Madrid. In the Basque country, also endowed with extensive autonomy in the post-Franco era, separatist political sentiment remains ubiquitous, and terrorist actions by ETA continue.

And it's such long-standing fissures that pop up across the continent — many of whose modern nation states folded in diverse kingdoms and peoples — that shape Europe's responses to Kosovo's historic, and potentially precedent-setting, declaration of independence. Europe is divided over whether to recognize the new would-be nation on territory that has until now been recognized as part of sovereign Serbia. These divisions forced the European Union to leave it up to each member state to decide whether to recognize Kosovo's independence.

"The government of Spain will not recognize the unilateral act proclaimed yesterday by the assembly of Kosovo," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos promptly told reporters. "This does not respect international law." Similar opposition has been voiced from a list of smaller European countries that face internal independence movements of their own, or are longstanding allies of Serbia — or both: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia have rejected Kosovo's independence. It's not hard to find motivation for their stance: The Republic of Cyprus, for example, fears that Kosovo independence will give weight to Turkish Cypriot claims for dividing up the island into two separate nation states. The Foreign Minister of Slovakia, which fears unrest from its large Hungarian minority, said it "does not see a way" to recognize a Kosovar nation state.

But Europe's major powers — Britain, France and Germany — have, like the United States, encouraged Kosovo's drive for independence, citing the unique circumstances of its breakaway from Serbia. Nearly 1 million ethnic Albanians were forced to flee Serb ruler Slobodan Milosevic's attempt to "cleanse" them from the Serbian province in which they constituted more than 80% of the population. In the wake of the U.S.-led war that expelled Milosevic's troops from Kosovo, the Serbs have refused to negotiate on the future status of the territory, which the international community acknowledged remained legally part of Serbia even when it was under NATO protection and U.N. administration.

For those who support Kosovo's claims for independence, it is largely a question of giving greater weight to the "on-the-ground" reality over the claims of Serbia to Kosovo as a cradle of their national identity. To opponents, however, the question is one of international law, national sovereignty and precedent. China, for example, reacted much like the Spanish and Slovaks, worried that Taiwan could be spurred to declare independence. Russia is invested on the Serbian side both for strategic and fraternal reasons. Wary of national claims in the Caucasus and elsewhere, Russian President Putin has loudly defended Serbia, which shares the same Orthodox Christian roots as Russia. Moscow also sees Kosovo as another case of NATO encroachment into traditional spheres of Russian influence, and will likely work with China to ensure that the new state is denied recognition at the United Nations.

But the issue is most volatile in in Europe, where the collapse of Yugoslavia reignited conflicts that date from the Crusades and the Ottoman advance into Europe — conflicts in which European leaders appeared incapable of intervening to stop repeated crimes against humanity. Last November, I went to Kosovo to visit Ramadan Ilazi, who was 14 when I'd met him during the war in a refugee camp in Macedonia. He supported Kosovo's independence for historical reasons, but mostly because he thought it was the best bet for a peaceful future. "I want the path with the least amount of conflict and violence, and independence is that way," said Ilazi, now 22. "There is no perfect solution. But the Balkans should work to strengthen Europe, not be a problem for Europe." The initial responses to Kosovo's independence, however, suggest that the Balkans will remain a problem for Europe for the foreseeable future.