Milosevic was the midwife to Kosovo’s nationhood
By Philip Stephens
Published: February 21 2008 17:48 | Last updated: February 21 2008 17:48
The maps presented to the president and his team at the Paris peace conference told a more complex story. Splashed across them were a vast array of identities – ethnic, linguistic, religious – paying little heed to natural frontiers and neat divisions of economics and politics. There were collisions everywhere. It was apparent that self-determination based on homogeneity would be as often the exception as the rule.
Nowhere was the confusion greater than in the Balkans. Wilson’s original blueprint, set out in his famous 14 points, spoke of a Serbia with access to the sea and a “relationship of several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality”. Realpolitik intervened even before he arrived in Paris. Pre-empting any negotiations, Serbs, Croats and Slovenes formed the kingdom that was to become Yugoslavia. Albanians, Montenegrins and Bosnian Muslims were swept up in its borders.
Elsewhere in Europe frontiers were redrawn by power, geography and the determination of some of the victors to extract revenge. Robert Lansing, Wilson’s estranged secretary of state, was among those who poured scorn on the president’s idealism. “It will raise hopes which can never be realised,” Lansing wrote. “It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited.”*
Two of these observations might be said to have stood the test of time; not, though, the third. Wilson’s League of Nations would eventually bring together 50-odd states. Three quarters of a century later the United Nations embraces nearly four times that number. Self-determination may have lacked definition, and sometimes defied logic, yet it shaped the break-up of the big territorial empires.
Kosovo’s secession from Serbia this week, another postscript to the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s, marked in its way the final unravelling of the accommodations between nationalism and pragmatism that imposed themselves in 1919. It was a reminder also of the enduring and vexatious character of Wilson’s dream.
Serbian fury aside, one of the striking things about the voices raised against Kosovan independence has been the absence of argument on the justice or otherwise of the case. Instead, the debate has been about the precedent it might set.
Understandably enough, other Balkan states still fret about the ethnic and linguistic minorities within their borders. The concern about Kosovo’s bid for full statehood, though, extends well beyond the south-eastern corner of Europe.
Governments everywhere facing separatist movements have expressed concern. Spain has its Catalans and Basques, Sri Lanka its Tamils. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as determined as ever to make mischief among its neighbours, speaks darkly about Kosovo serving as model for the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
Among those, led by the US, France and Britain, offering immediate recognition of the new state there has been more resignation than visible enthusiasm. The Balkan wars of the 1990s have left deep scars not just on the protagonists, but on the western governments that for too long fiddled on the sidelines. Now they worry that as Kosovo has splintered from Serbia, so the Serb enclaves in the north of the new state could break away from Kosovo. The fear always is of the spark that lights another Balkan fire. The best that is said of self-government for Pristina is that it is the least worst option.
Kosovo, though, is not a harbinger of things to come. For one thing it will be the last state to be carved from the map of 1919. For another, its independence was a consequence of Serbian repression. And it could aspire to statehood only because of the European Union’s unique capacity to shelter the smallest of nations.
This new state of 1.9m Kosovars and 100,000 Serbs was not born of any resuscitation of Wilsonian principle – even if George W. Bush sometimes borrows the rhetoric of his long distant predecessor. Kosovo was lost to Serbia when Slobodan Milosevic’s armies sought to suppress its autonomy. After the brutal invasion of 1999 the two could never be put back together. Recognition of Kosovo’s, albeit closely supervised, independence is an act of realpolitik rather than of idealism.
What matters now is that the international community, and above all the EU, have the staying power to help Kosovo make a success of statehood – a project probably for decades to come. The choice for Serbia is between an open door in Brussels or a future sacrificed to the self-defeating nationalism that led to Kosovo’s secession.
Kosovo does not set the rules for other declarations of independence because no such rules exist. Self-determination, as when Wilson first embraced it, remains a principle without a template. That Kosovo will be forever cited by other secessionists does not make it a precedent.
Now, as in Wilson’s day, self-determination cannot be blind to geography, history or culture nor dismissive of the territorial integrity of existing states. Its application must recognise that the central purpose of democracy, Wilson’s other great cause, is as much to safeguard the rights of minorities as to reflect the will of a majority. Ethnicity can be only one dimension of nationhood.
For all the trouble he may have caused, Wilson’s demands for justice for the dispossessed and democratic institutions remain the building blocks of the modern liberal order. That the Great War of 1914-18 gave way to the global conflagration of 1939-45 was due not to fealty to Wilson’s 14 points but to great power rivalry and revenge. As for those in the protesting crowds in Belgrade still seeking guilty men, they need look no further than Milosevic.
*c.f. Peacemakers. Six months that changed the world, By Margaret MacMillan (John Murray).
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008