A memorial erected by Serbs in Mitrovice to members of their community killed or displaced during ethnic unrest in Kosovo. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
Is a new Balkan crisis brewing?
Last Updated March 19, 2008
The late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic, whose aggressive nationalism and determination to retain influence for Belgrade across the Balkans led to war-crimes trials in The Hague and Milosovic's death in custody. Millions were killed or displaced as Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s. (Srdjan Ilic/Associated Press)
Just outside Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, a square stone tower looms over the landscape. It marks a sacred spot for Serbs — the place where, in 1389, Serbian royalist forces lost a battle to Turkish troops of the Ottoman Empire.
The Battle of Kosovo ushered in centuries of Muslim rule over a largely Christian population, and led to the conversion of many of Kosovo's Albanians to the Islamic faith. It is enshrined in myth, poetry and popular song, and represents to the Serbian people their culture's long struggle with outsiders and others who don't share their Eastern Orthodox religion and traditions.
In 1989, a Serbian leader named Slobodan Milosovic gave an incendiary speech at the battle memorial site, known in Serbo-Croat as "the field of blackbirds." His stirring words of ethnic nationalism touched off a chain of events that eventually saw the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the deaths and displacement of millions of people, from Slovenia to Macedonia, Belgrade to Bosnia.
Even after Yugoslavia's bloody collapse in the 1990s, the aspirations of Kosovar Albanians for freedom from Serbian rule kept violence simmering, sometimes boiling over. It took international intervention on a scale unseen since the Second World War to bring about an uneasy peace.
The dangerous fissures that run through the Balkans have at times been papered over by strong Communist rule of the Yugoslav authorities or through the international community through NATO and the United Nations.
Now, after Kosovo's Albanian-dominated government unilaterally declared its independence over the objections of local Serbs, Belgrade and Russia on Feb. 17, 2008, there are fears of a return to widespread violence.
"It's not the 1990s," cautioned Misha Glenny, a London-based Balkans expert and author of The Fall of Yugoslavia, "but this is a hugely unstable region and it can ill afford this sort of uncertainty and apparent lack of planning by all the major players."
Glenny says the international community, which has been administering Kosovo since 1999, has failed to build consensus either within the troubled region or in the wider world. Russia, China and many other countries do not support Kosovo's independence bid. Canada, the United States, Britain and France are among the Western nations that have acknowledged Kosovo as a sovereign country.
A United Nations mission is handing over authority for Kosovo to the European Union, but some members of the EU aren't recognizing the new state, often for internal political reasons. Spain, for example, is said to be holding off on recognition because of its concerns about Basque militant groups. Even the Canadian government is having to swallow fears that its recognition of Kosovo will encourage Quebec separatists.
Lenard Cohen, a professor at the School for International Studies in Vancouver and author of numerous works on the Balkans, says Kosovo is a crucial test for European dreams of broader political influence in the world. So far, he says, the Europeans aren't showing their mettle.
"It's their baby, they want to be an effective regional player," Cohen told CBC News, "but they're not always good at it. Look at this business of recognizing Kosovo a bit at a time. It's how the 1990s began."
Inside a monastery at the memorial to the Battle of Kosovo near Pristina, Serbs light candles in June 2007 to mark the 618th anniversary of a conflict that some regard as the beginning of division and violence in the Balkans. (Associated Press)
Many analysts say the touchstone for the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia was German recognition of Croatia's independence before other Western powers were ready to follow suit.
"It's not just the Europeans," said Glenny, "what about the Islamic world? There's a deafening silence on this and people are waiting to see what the implications for their own internal separatist movements might be. The U.S. and the EU rushed into this and they don't seem to have a plan."
Inside Kosovo, events in Mitrovice the last remaining Serb majority area, show there's been no progress in reconciling the former province's ethnic minority communities, nor on convincing Belgrade to agree to the loss of a sizeable chunk of territory that it regards as its cultural heartland.
"It's a dog's breakfast," Glenny said, "a moment [like that] that has to be managed carefully and so far we're not seeing that. An utterly dysfunctional state with a largely criminalized economy has come into being without an adequate plan to support it."
Other observers of the Balkans warn that the whole process needs to be given more time, that Kosovo's independence need not touch off another round of broader regional tensions and conflicts.
"In the short term, the situation is a little bit dicey," said Edith Klein, resident fellow for Russian and East European studies at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre. "But in the long run, over the next couple of decade, borders could disappear as they all join the European Union and these concerns will go away."
"It will take time but it will happen," she said.
In the meantime, an international community distracted by events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan's Darfur region has a tricky balancing act ahead of it, at least until Serbia holds a parliamentary election in May that many hope could bring politicians to power that aren't as hard-line on Kosovo as the current government in Belgrade.
"There is — as yet — no clear sense in Europe or the United States on how to clean this mess up," said Glenny, "until that emerges, it's hard to be optimistic about Kosovo."
- Timeline: Kosovo independence
- Q&A with Robert Austin
- Kosovo's independence: Is there a new Balkan crisis brewing?