The Kosovo Battleground
After months of suspense, Kosovo finally declared independence. In a special session on February 17, the Kosovar parliament voted 109-0 in favor of severing ties with Serbia. “From now onward, Kosovo is proud, independent, sovereign and free,” said Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former anti-Serb guerrilla leader.
After the declaration, Thaci personally signed 192 letters to nations around the world asking them to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state. Several nations accommodated his bold request. Others flatly refused.
The issue is far from being resolved. In fact, it contains the seed of a dramatic conflict between rising world powers.
Serbia remains strongly opposed to Kosovo’s independence. Serbian President Boris Tadic said that “Serbia will … do everything in its power to revoke the unilateral and illegal declaration of independence.” In its attempts to reverse Kosovo’s declaration, Serbia is relying mainly on Russia.
A week after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration, the Kremlin sent two representatives to Serbia to implement what could be a major move by Moscow against the West over Kosovo’s independence. The representatives weren’t lightweights, either. The first was Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The second was Dmitry Medvedev—who is now president-elect of Russia.
“Serbia is a single state whose jurisdiction is stretching through its entire territory,” said Medvedev during a meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica February 25. “We will stick to this as our principle in the future.”
In keeping with this Russian principle concerning the Serbian state, Medvedev not only reiterated Moscow’s refusal to recognize Kosovo, he and Lavrov stood right beside the Serbian prime minister as he declared Serbia’s intention to rule the parts of Kosovo where “loyal citizens” still looked to Belgrade for governance.
The “loyal citizens” that Kostunica referred to are most likely in Kosovo’s municipalities of Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin Potok. These provinces contain a Serbian majority, they directly abut Serbian territory, and they are largely separated from the rest of Kosovo by the Iber River (see map).
Lavrov followed Kostunica’s declaration with a warning to the West: Supporting Kosovo’s Albanians “will only lead to the creation of one more frozen conflict and will push the prospect of stabilizing Europe, and primarily stabilizing the Balkans, far away,” he said.
Russia and Serbia are sending a strong message to the European Union and the United States: If the West supports independence of Kosovo’s Albanians from Serbia, Russia will support the independence of Kosovo’s Serbs from Kosovo.
Both the EU and nato would be reluctant to see Kosovo split, but all in all the transfer of three small counties from Kosovo back to Serbia would be a relatively small retaliation for the humiliation both Russia and Serbia received when Kosovo declared independence.
But Moscow may have another more drastic option up its sleeve.
Since its 1992-1995 war, the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been composed of two largely autonomous states: the Serbian-run Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation.
After February 17, more than 10,000 Bosnian Serbs took to the streets of their Bosnian stronghold, Banja Luka, to protest Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Most Bosnian Serbs now feel that they should be allowed to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina and rejoin their Serbian motherland.
The protesters in Banja Luka cried, “We will not give the Serbian soul to the devil” and, “We want independence for Republika Srpska!”
These protests had far deeper roots than just mob indignation. Srpska Prime Minister Milarad Dodik fully supported the protest, telling the demonstrators, “This is a democratic, human revolt!” The Bosnian Serb parliament also came out against Kosovo’s independence and stated that Republika Srpska should secede from Bosnia if a significant part of the United Nations and the EU recognize Kosovo.
EU ambassadors to Bosnia strongly rejected such rhetoric, saying that these Serbs have no right to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina under the peace deal that ended Bosnia’s war.
Nevertheless, Dodik made it a point to attend the February 25 meeting between Medvedev and the Serbian prime minister.
At that meeting, Medvedev stated that Serbia’s participation in Russia’s planned South Stream gas pipeline to southern Europe was an act of Russian support for Serbia over the Kosovo issue. “It is an element of our support—moral, material and economic—to a state which has found itself in a very difficult position and which—unfortunately, due to the will of some other countries—is being doubted as a single territorial entity,” he said.
Medvedev affirmed that Srpska—not all of Bosnia-Herzegovina, just Srpska—would be included in the Russian buy-up of most of the Serbian energy sector and in the proposed South Stream pipeline.
According to Stratfor, Srpska is a net energy exporter and really has no need for Russian gas. The fact that Dodik traveled all the way to Serbia to meet with Medvedev about a gas deal he does not need, combined with the fact that Dodik has expressed approval over Srpska secessionist riots, led to speculation that Russia may back both the Bosnian and the Kosovo Serbian secessionist movements.
Supporting the reunion of Srpska and the Serb-dominated counties of Kosovo with their Serbian motherland is a chance for Russia to get even with the EU and America over Kosovo’s declaration of independence.
EU’s Strategy: Divide and Conquer
Germany has been the driving force behind the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. In late 1991 and early 1992, Germany and the Vatican opposed the U.S., the UN and the European Economic Community and formally recognized the Yugoslavian breakaway states of Slovenia and Croatia. In 2003, Germany contributed more troops to nato’s Bosnian peacekeeping force than any other nation.
After Yugoslavia lost Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia, Germany was still unsatisfied. It was intricately involved in the 1999 nato bombings that gave Kosovo de facto independence. After Kosovo’s declaration of independence on February 17 this year, Germany was one of the first states to recognize Kosovo. Now most of Europe is following Germany’s lead.
“Why encourage separatism with the goal of creating a unified Europe?” Lavrov said after the secession.
Germany wants to get the former Yugoslav republics inside the EU. Berlin, however, could have brought Serbia into the Union without recognizing Kosovo’s independence. In fact, recognizing Kosovo’s independence has only made Serbia’s integration process harder, because many Serbs now fear the EU as a fascist entity trying to act against their interests. Recognizing Kosovo has only driven Serbia toward Russia.
But this is exactly what happened during World War ii. Yugoslavia was divided over whether or not to support the Nazi regime. When the government, under heavy pressure, signed a pact with Hitler’s Germany, the people staged a coup, overthrew the government and set up an anti-fascist state. Hitler then invaded and conquered Yugoslavia. But he did not stop there. Germany ripped the nation into pieces, formed northern Yugoslavia into the Nazi-puppet state of Croatia, annexed Kosovo to Albania and imposed a German military command over Serbia. In short, he conquered Yugoslavia and divided it into so many pieces that he ensured it would no longer pose a threat to his regime.
The similarities to what European leaders are doing today—though far more subtly—are eerie. The EU is avoiding annexing Yugoslavia as one big chunk, preferring instead to once again rip it apart bit by bit and then swallow the chunks one by one. This way, when all the former Yugoslav states are finally part of the EU, none of them will have the power to cause undue trouble for Brussels—or Berlin.
German fascism is again conquering the Balkans. To some extent, Russia knows it. That explains why the Russians are so intent on supporting Serbia. If they can annex Serbian zones of former Yugoslav republics back to Serbia, they can make a run at forestalling Europe’s rise to power.
Sectarian violence will increase in Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo as Russia and Europe compete for influence. But at the end of the day, Europe is already too entrenched in the former Yugoslav republics to lose out. Russia’s effort may pay off in other ways, but the European Union will remain the conqueror of the Balkans.