02 April 2007

Kosovo independence not an option



OPINION by Harry Sterling, Freelance


In the volatile Balkans, dream of Albanians could have unpredictable consequences


OTTAWA - Keenly aware a United Nations proposed solution to Kosovo's demand for independence from Serbia is looming closer, Serbia's foreign minister has sought to ward off formal independence for Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority by suggesting the Chinese model vis-a-vis Taiwan be considered.


However, in his attempt to forestall Kosovo's independence, the foreign minister clearly is grasping at straws, since using the analogy of Taiwan's situation with China will do little to advance any prospect of Kosovo's Albanian population agreeing to remain within Serbia.


While both Beijing and Taipei did once agree there was only one China -- which they both claimed to represent notwithstanding that the Chinese nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek were forced to flee from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan after being defeated by Mao Zedong's communists in 1949 -- the concept that they could co-exist under two different systems was never actually put to the test because they remained separated by the Taiwan strait. In reality, they've remained geographically apart for over half a century.


And although some in Taiwan continue to pay lip service to the idea there is only one China, especially those who still believe in eventual reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, increasing numbers on the island now see themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese.


The current president, Shen Bian-shui, actually has been attempting to persuade his countrymen to back Taiwan declaring independence from China.


Thus, the Serbian foreign minister's comments about emulating the so-called one-China policy, which most of the international community follows, would have little practical usefulness in the case of Kosovo. The fact almost no one within Kosovo's Albanian population -- 90 per cent of Kosovo's two million -- would support remaining within Serbia makes such a system unworkable.


Nevertheless, it appears Finland's


Matti Ahltassari, appointed by the UN to find a solution to the Kosovo issue, is unlikely to propose a settlement which calls unequivocally for complete formal independence for Kosovo.


Instead, it's thought he will fudge the issue, proposing a form of autonomy which effectively gives Albanians self-rule and access to international bodies reserved for sovereign states but with some kind of "supervision" by the European Union. Whether Russia would agree with this scenario will be critically important.


While this might make it possible for Serbia to swallow what amounts to de facto independence of Kosovo -- with protection for Serbian enclaves -- it's doubtful ultra-Albanian nationalists will be prepared to live with such an arrangement for long. Nor would Serbs still living in Kosovo trust a system where their vulnerability would become even more apparent if current foreign peacekeepers there were withdrawn, as would appear likely at some stage.


Put bluntly, there simply has been too much violence and killing between the two communities to expect them to co-exist peacefully without a foreign peacekeeping contingent to maintain order. (10,000 Albanians died during Belgrade's ethnic cleansing of Albanians before a 1999 international intervention.)


There's an additional factor complicating the Kosovo issue. Some in Kosovo don't just want to withdraw from Serbia. They also dream of becoming part of a greater Albania, joining next-door Albania proper. This is particularly relevant in northern Albania, where Geg is the common language form of Albanian spoken, as in Kosovo. Southern Albanians mostly speak Tosk.


Although the government of Albania in Tirana has been careful not to make any statements about such an eventuality, sectors of society in Albania would welcome such a development.


However, some in Albania would likely be wary of absorbing their Kosovo cousins. Some in the past, especially in the period when Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia, were not pleased about the patronizing attitude of Kosovo's Albanians towards the Albanian population across the border, generally perceived by Kosovo's Albanians as less educated and advanced than themselves.


During the long 1946-85 xenophobic rule of Albania's Enver Hoxha, the latter banned foreign investment and adopted a draconian economic policy which made Albania the poorest country in Europe -- even private ownership of automobiles was not allowed.


Not surprisingly, Kosovo's Albanian population regarded the situation in Albania as backward by their standards, an attitude which, for some, still influences their thinking. Notwithstanding such lingering factors from the past, some in both Kosovo and Albania undoubtedly see the merging of the two societies into a greater Albania as a very desirable long-term goal.


The government of Montenegro has accused sectors of its own Albanian community of harbouring similar aspirations, even plotting to have Montenegrin territory seceded by force to Albania. Macedonia shares similar concerns about the loyalty of its own Albanian-speaking minority.


In such a tinderbox environment, independence for Kosovo could have totally unpredictable consequences, not just for the Albanian and Serbian communities in Kosovo but also for other neighbouring countries in the traditionally volatile Balkans.


Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator