By William Urban
Kosovo's recent declaration of independence was not a surprise, but it was not universally welcomed, either. No other event of recent times will stir up more Russian anger against America.
President Bush recognizing the new state runs against one of the most important myths of Russian culture, pan-Slavism, a belief that all Slavs share fundamental cultural and religious values and, specifically, that Russians must protect the small Slavic states in the Balkans.
I know about Kosovo from having taken students to Yugoslavia in 1986, part of a semester program based in Zagreb. Even then travel to Kosovo was not easy. The Serb-dominated government of Yugoslavia had clamped down on centers of peaceful dissent, such as the universities.The Yugoslav government sought to discourage outside visitors by forbidding them to spend the night in Kosovo. Since there were no Western-level hotels within driving distance, that was an effective policy.
I managed to find a lesser quality hotel for us in Montenegro, right on the border, in a town that could have been used for a Clint Eastwood movie. Consequently we were able to visit the Serbian monasteries and see more or less where the climatic battle of Serbian history was fought (and lost) against the Turks in 1389. As our bus pulled into Pec, the largest city in northern Kosovo, people gathered to see who we were. When they discovered that the students were Americans, they gleefully took them to their individual homes for lunch.
America was their only hope, they believed, to escape what they thought was a vicious cycle of repression and oppression. We went on to Macedonia, then a few days later came back through Pristina, which is today Kosovo's capital.
Over the course of months it became clear that Yugoslavia was in trouble. The state had been created after the first World War to unite speakers of Serbo-Croatian. Awkwardly, this included Bosnians (who were Muslims) and Croatians (who were Roman Catholics). By 1986 many Serbs — and many others in that multinational land — still held to the original dream of all southern Slavs living together in peace. But those who believed in a violent solution to the nation's ethnic problems were growing stronger.
Not only did Albanian-speaking Kosovars not fit, but they also were Muslims living in the original homeland of the Serbian people. Many Serbs had the attitude that all Muslims were essentially Turks, and that all Turks were enemies.
When Slobodan Milosevic became president of Serbia in 1989, he pointed to the need for Serbs to act firmly in Kosovo, then gutted the Yugoslav constitution to keep them in their place. That led to the secession of Slovenia and Croatia, then Bosnia and Macedonia. The terrible civil war of the early 1990s began as an effort to keep Yugoslavia together but evolved into taking all lands that were inhabited by Serbs or were deemed necessary to connect those territories together. As far as Milosevic was concerned, the Kosovars should have gone back to Albania, from whence they came in the early 1700s.
Milosevic's ethnic cleansing started against Catholic Croatians, then included Muslim
Bosnians. President George H.W. Bush stood aside, worrying about the problems that arise when a multinational state breaks up. That was his reason for trying to keep the Soviet Union together and for opposing independence for Shiites and Kurds in Iraq after the Gulf War. President Clinton tried to do the same, but when the number of refugees threatened to destabilize neighboring countries, he first allowed weapons to slip through the blockade, then led NATO into bombing the Serbs into surrender. He had to do it again to rescue the Kosovars.
This is no story of right on one side, wrong on the other, though it is hard to justify Milosevic's brutal plans to physically remove non-Serbs from their homelands. Opportunities for Kosovars to get jobs had been so limited that they had gravitated into the black market opportunities
that abounded in every Communist state.
We would see them on the street, easily spotted by their darker complexion and skull caps, scurrying from one job to another, obviously working on their own. From this illegal activity it was an easy step to others. Consequently, crime — both organized and unorganized — were attributed to Kosovars. And Kosovars did riot and threaten Serbian neighbors, especially after the civil war began.
Allowing Kosovo to declare its independence raises an important question: How far should states be allowed to break apart? What happens if Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro want to form a larger, new state with Kosovo and Albania? What if the Serbs in Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia want to join Serbia? If it were only a matter of language or religion, that could be arranged. But there are economic reasons to keep borders as they are and historical ties to specific locations such as the Serbian monasteries and churches in Kosovo.
The problems of what the United Nations calls 'former Yugoslavia' are basic, intertwined and unlikely to disappear soon. Nor will Russia forget its recent humiliating inability to stop the United States from defeating Milosevic, then the U.N. from putting him on trial for war crimes. Milosevic died in custody, but his widow is in Russia, defending Serbia's claims to all its ancient lands.
We have not heard the last of this problem.
WILLIAM URBAN is Lee L. Morgan professor of history and international studies at Monmouth College.
Peoria Journal Star (March 16, 2008), 5.