Freedom Fighters

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    --LOCATION Distance from Washington is relevant but cuts both ways. Fighting in Europe's backyard helps the Kosovars but hurts the Kurds. Living far from the West deprives oppressed East Timor of active foreign support, but in Sri Lanka the secessionist Tamil Tigers wage their war without interference.

    --TELEVISION It is not necessarily the legitimacy of a a group's claim as much as the telegenic horror of its suffering that gains the combination of sympathy and anxiety crucial to independence. Constant images of the intifadeh helped transform the Palestinians from terrorist outcasts to deserving victims. The Basques, seeking a homeland from Spain and France, can air no bloody incidents to galvanize world support.

    --GOOD GUYS VS. BAD GUYS You have to be seen as the good guys in your struggle. This is not a guarantee: the Ibos in Biafra were regarded as victims, yet the world refused them statehood. Still, it is because of the Chechens' reputation for thuggery that they command little support. Leaders can make or break perceptions: Abdullah Ocalan as a terrorist cast the Kurds into disrepute; captive and martyred, he may help reshape them into the cause du jour. The alchemy of time also helps, transmuting bad rebels into negotiating partners, as the years have done to Northern Ireland's Roman Catholics.

    UNITY You can have too much or too little. The Kurds have long been thwarted by their internal rivalries. The Kosovars are feared because they might unite with ethnic brothers in Albania and Macedonia. Physical dispersal is an even greater obstacle: How would you separate territorially Rwanda's intermingled Hutu and Tutsi?

    --DEMOCRACY The victors of the cold war will judge your case, and they are disposed to anoint only noncommunist, nonauthoritarian believers in multiparty elections and the free market. That pretty much queers the prospects of religious-based Chechnya and most African separatists. The Kosovars' lack of civil institutions and political structures makes them a premature candidate.

    --POTENTIAL TO ROCK THE GLOBAL BOAT Stability, more than any other principle, governs statemakers. One reason the Kurds may never get their state is that they covet pieces of four geostrategically important nations: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Tibet is stuck as long as the world considers it folly to take on China.

    --VICTORY War is still the best guarantee of independence--if you win. Eritrea won in 1993, after 32 years of battle. The Kosovars and the Kurds are not ready to concede.

    Quite frankly, most of today's aspirants for independence are not going to get it now, and maybe never will. The Helsinki accords of 1975 approved changes of borders only by mutual consent. Yet who besides the Czech Republic and Slovakia will politely shake hands and part ways?

    That is why statesmen invented autonomy. It looks like a nice middle ground between immovable borders and the chaos of universal self-determination. "We have to work out these ways of allowing groups of people who feel they have something important in common to have a degree of autonomy within the existing borders," prescribes Samuel P. Huntington, a Harvard professor who has written on the subject. Fine theory, but how does the world accomplish that? And maybe it shouldn't. Existing arrangements of semipartition, like in Cyprus and Bosnia, are also semiprotectorates requiring long-term peacekeeping troops.

    Anyhow, in Rambouillet the Kosovars balked at Washington's half-elephant, half-mouse formula precisely because it avoided deciding on independence. In the march of history, borders change, states come and go. How the West settles Kosovo is going to set precedents for how our era manages that, like 'em or not.

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