Monday, February 25, 2008

Some Thoughts on Kosovo

The former Yugoslavia is a mess. It has been so since before the Ottomans ruled that part of the world, and judging from recent events, it will continue to be so long into the future. CW is fond on quoting from Dame West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”, because the pre-war Balkan region she describes is remarkably similar to the situation today.

In “What Went Wrong”, Bernard Lewis noted the stark cultural difference between Turkey and the rest of the Muslim world in the period from roughly 1880 to 1922. When confronted with the reality of European dominance and success, the Turks asked themselves “What did we do wrong?”. The Arabs asked themselves “What did they just do to us?”. Turkey flourished, relatively speaking, and the Middle East today would be right where it was in 1922 if it were not for oil. In fact, it is pretty much where it was in 1922, just with more automobiles and guns.

The culture of the Balkans blames everyone else for their troubles: their neighbors, the UN, the EU, and most of all the US. After nearly 3 decades of murdering each other, here’s what the Serbs have to say:

"The whole nation is angry," said Sinisa Tasic, one of the organizers. "We are furious with the Americans. Wherever they go they create problems."

As intellectual rationalizations for bad behavior go, blaming the US is a pretty convenient one, but the leaders of the Balkans have always been pretty good at rationalizing their actions in the absence of foreign interference. P.J. O’Rourke noted that same thing when writing about the Bosnian situation in All the Trouble in the World:

Yugoslavia’s ethnic wounds are also, unfortunately, infected with idealism. There’s a surplus of intellectuals in the regions. Yugoslavia, like the rest of Eastern Europe, has more artists, writers and teachers than it has art, literature, or schools. In the resultant mental unemployment, idealism flourishes.

The regional sport of the Balkans is arguing, especially arguing over wrongs that date back to the 14th Century. Most of the debates between nations in the region show many of Jim’s 10 characteristics, here. It’s as if the Balkans are an entire subcontinent populated largely by Internet trolls.

What puzzles me about the current situation is the sheer ineptitude of the Bush Administration. Over 90% of the troops on the ground in Kosovo are European nationals, not US. I’m pretty sure that nothing happens to or in Kosovo that is not vetted by Brussels. The Economist has a pretty good review of the situation here:

Besides, the “independent” Kosovo will for a long while in effect become a protectorate of the European Union, which is sending a large mission to take over from the UN.

The three big dogs of the EU are thrilled to confront Russia here, on a battleground no one really cares about. Once again the Balkans are the setting for a proxy fight between the great powers. Many of the new member states or candidates for membership to the EU were long under the thumb of the USSR, and many have ties to Russian as part of a vague but very real larger Slavic culture. In order to prevent Russia from influencing EU affairs and to preserve their dominance, France, Germany and the UK are delighted to have a current example of old Russian habits to remind the new member states why they turned to the West in the first place. A regional power play explains why the French and German contingents in KFOR outnumber the US by a factor of 2:1 each.

Forcing the Russian eminence grise out into the open in fact stabilizes the rest of Western and Central Europe at the expense of the Balkans. Since the Balkans are already torn by war and occupied by foreign troops, destabilization there will not significantly affect the rest of Europe. In time, Kosovo will become Europe’s Afghanistan, a forgotten conflict uncovered by the press save for a few pathetic casualty reports.

American interests probably receive a few collateral boosts as well. The major effect, and the only real reason I can see for the US rush to recognize Kosovo, is to focus the attention of the “Stans” on Russian activities there. As a great power, Russia can keep its eye on many problems simultaneously, but it can not run multiple strategies at once. The Russian military has been leaning on the Stans to roll back their cooperation with the US. The new bases in the Stans will be vital if the situation in Pakistan goes South, so this is an excellent opportunity to show Russian chauvinism in a pro-Slavic, pro-Orthodox, and anti-Muslim situation. I’m sure the Uzbekhs and Kazakhs are watching closely.

However, by putting the US at the forefront of recognition and by ignoring International Law, the Bush Administration has once again taken a correct strategy and so mishandled the tactical execution that the objectives that would have been served by the strategy are completely lost. I find it supremely ironic that the US is supporting the construction of a Muslim state in a region whose religion-tainted wars in the 1990s trained many of the Al Quaeda operatives our forces have faced in Iraq.

The Russians are of course concerned about contested regions such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Pridnestrov. As one Russian headline proclaims: “The Americans Have not Yet Realized the Full “Uniqueness” of Kosovo”. The Bush Administration claims the action does not legitimize self-rule movements in places such as Chechnya, but the Russians are rightfully suspicious of the precedent.

The best course of action would have been to let the EU take the lead in recognition and follow with official notice from Washington once EU troops were firmly manning the barricades. If the US is taking one for the team by focusing ire on Americans so that EU troops in Kosovo are not unduly targeted, the risk to American interests is far too great in proportion to the level of support the EU provides to the US efforts in the Middle East (with the obvious exception of the UK). Whatever small gains the US takes away, the dominant powers in the EU gain more, and should take a more proportionate share of the risk.

The Russian press in fact recognizes the game. (All translations below are mine, but I am including the Russian text, for reasons that will become clear below).

Представители косовских сербов неоднократно высказывались против присутствия новой миссии европейцев в крае. Такого же мнения придерживается и Белград. Несмотря на эти возражения, Евросоюз в минувшую субботу дал зеленый свет развертыванию EULEX. В нее войдут около 2 тыс. человек, в том числе 1500 полицейских. В декабре прошлого года отправку миссии одобрили лидеры ЕС. Сейчас в Косове присутствуют гражданская миссия ООН (UNMIK) и силы миротворцев KFOR.

На первом этапе существование самопровозглашенной республики будет контролировать EULEX. Миссия ООН UNMIK не может в полной мере взять на себя эту функцию, так как решение по косовскому вопросу было заблокировано в Совбезе ООН.


The representatives of the Kosovo Serbs immediately registered their opposition to a new EU mission to the region. Belgrade shares their views. Disregarding these protests, last Saturday the EU gave the green light to the augmentation of EULEX. Nearly 2000 new members, including 1500 police officers, will be added. The addition was approved by the leaders of the EU last December. Currently, both a humanitarian mission from the UN (UNMIK) and the KFOR peacekeepers are operating in Kosovo.

Initially, the existence of the self-proclaimed republic will be controlled by EULEX. The UN mission UNMIK could fully not take on that responsibility, as a decision about the Kosovo situation was blocked in the UN.

Russia is of course protesting the move to recognize Kosovo. The EU and US have been making Russia out to be the bad guys. In many senses, the Russians are behaving reasonably, although it is obvious that Moscow would like to pull the Serbs firmly into Russian orbit.

The MSM seems to be rushing to judgment as well. I’m not sure if the distortions are intentional or due to ineptitude, but the Russians position is not well represented in the Western press. Take, for example, this CNN quote:

"If the EU works out a single position or if NATO steps beyond its mandate in Kosovo, these organizations will be in conflict with the U.N., and then I think we will also begin operating under the assumption that in order to be respected, one needs to use force," Moscow's ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin said, in comments carried by Russia's Interfax news agency.

I went to the Interfax files and pulled up the original Russian story. The actual text is:

Москва. 22 февраля. ИНТЕРФАКС - Постпред РФ в НАТО Дмитрий Рогозин не исключает, что после косовского прецедента государственные интересы в мире можно будет защитить только с помощью военной силы.

"В случае если Европейский Союз и Организация Североатлантического договора выйдут за пределы мандата, который определен им Организацией Объединенных Наций, то это означает, что они вступают в каком-то смысле в конфликт с самой ООН. Это будет означать, что мир в будущем будет строиться не на международном праве, а на грубой силе - читай вооруженной силе", -подчеркнул он в пятницу в ходе телемоста Москва - Брюссель.

My translation:

Russian Federation Emissary to NATO Dmitri Rogozin does not discount that after the Kosovo precedent that in the future national interests may be defensible only with the aid of military force.

“If the EU and NATO overstep the bounds of the mandate that has been given to them by the UN, then that means that they are heading in some sense into conflict with the UN. That means that peace in the future will be constructed out of International Law, but by the basest of pressure - military force” – he emphasized on Friday in a teleconference between Moscow and Brussels.

The original text contains no reference to “respect”, and it’s inclusion is a clear bias in the CNN reports attitude towards Russian loss of influence in the post-Soviet era. The Russian text is much less threatening, and clearly, in my mind, aimed at maintaining the Russian moral authority to use force in Chechnya and other break-away regions within its territory.

The original mis-quote was used to support a headline of “Russia does not rule out force in Kosovo”. It’s interesting to note that the original article was taken down and replaced with another, but Google does have a cache of it here.

Unfortunately, in the brief time that misinformation graced the Web, it was picked up by other clueless Western reporters.

From what I’ve read in the Russian press, the concern about Kosovo is mainly over the violation of UN resolutions and what that may mean for Russia in the future. Take, for example, the Argumenty and Fakty opinion poll on Kosovo:

Парламент Косова проголосовал за принятие декларации о независимости края. Как вы относитесь к образованию нового государства?

39% Отрицательно. США и Европа не посчитались с мнением Сербии

44% Отрицательно. Теперь любая спорная территория может провозгласить себя отдельным государством

10% Положительно. Этнические меньшинства получат самостоятельность и свободу

4% Мне все равно

3% Другое


The Kosovar Parliament voted in favor of a declaration of independence for the region. How do you feel about this new country?

39% Negative. The US and EU did not consult the Serbs.

44% Negative. Now every contested region may vote to make itself a separate country.

10% Positive. Ethnic minorities are achieving self-rule and freedom.

4% Don’t care.

3% Other

The Russians in fact do seem to be somewhat reasonable in this instance.

Возможен фактический раздел Косово на две части, считают в МИД РФ Москва. 22 февраля. ИНТЕРФАКС - В Москве не исключают раздела Косово на сербскую и албанскую части.

"Складывается ситуация, имеющая перспективы к самоизоляции косовских сербов, не согласных или не принимающих одностороннее провозглашение Приштиной независимости Косово", - сказал "Интерфаксу" в пятницу заместитель директора четвертого европейского департамента МИД РФ, курирующего Балканы, Александр Боцан-Харченко.

"Это вполне может привести к фактическому разделу Косово", - сказал собеседник агентства.


It is in fact possible to divide Kosovo into two partitions, claims the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation

Moscow does not exclude the possibility of dividing Kosovo into Serbian and Albaninan regions.

“This situation may lead to the self-segregation of the Kosovo Serbs who do not agree to or do not accept the one-sided declaration of independence for Kosovo by Pristina” –Deputy Director of the 4th European Department of the FM of the RF with responsibility for the Balkans Aleksander Botsan-Kharchenko told Interfax.

This indeed could lead to the de facto partition of Kosovo”, - he told the agency.

So, fears of a new cold war are quite unfounded. The Russian know the game they are playing for in the EU. They will, of course, jockey for as much position as they can by taking Serbia’s side in the forced succession of a large chunk of formerly Serbian territory, for which I can not blame the Serbs for protesting. However, P.J. O’Rourke also once again summarizes my attitude towards everyone who is squabbling in the region:

The Serbs, of course, have as many excuses and grievances as anybody does in Yugoslavia, which s to say a lot. And they are just as much in the right as everybody else, which is to say they’re shits.

1 comment:

CW said...

John you pretty much summed up Dame Rebecca in one blog post... The more things change the more they stay the same. The game in the Balkans has been pretty much the same for a long time.

The only thing really new in Kosovo is demographics, e.g. the Albanians reproduce at an alarming rate, and the Serbs don't. Kosovo is about 93% Albanian now (it was under 90% when the Balkan wars started in the early 90's), and still increasing. (Although just in the last couple of years the Albanian birth rate has started to slow.)