If the Balkans had an anthem, it would be that 1950’s doo-wop hit, “Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.” The latest Balkan fools are the United States and the European Union, which have rushed in to recognize what Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica rightly calls the “fake state of Kosovo.” Why is it a fake state? Because there are no Kosovars, only Serbs and Albanians. Each group seeks to unite Kosovo with its homeland, historic Serbia or Greater Albania. An independent Kosovo has the half-life of a sub-atomic particle.
The action of the U.S. and the E.U. in stripping Serbia of Serbs’ historic homeland is both a crime and a blunder. It is a crime, first, because no one, not even the U.N., has a legal right to dismember a sovereign state, and second, because the narrative used to justify the illegal action is a lie. The stated justification is that the Serbs, under Slobodan Milosevic, were ethnically cleansing Kosovo of Albanians. As German courts have established, there was no ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo until NATO started bombing Serbia. After NATO launched its unprovoked attack on Serbia (Mrs. Albright’s splendid little war), the Serbs dumped the Albanians on NATO’s doorstep as a vast logistics spunge. That wasn’t terribly nice, but when you are a very small country fighting all of NATO, you do what you can. Ironically, after Serbia was forced to capitulate when Russia withdrew her support, NATO blithely presided over the ethnic cleansing of two-thirds of Kosovo’s Serbs by the Albanians.
In international affairs, blunders are worse than crimes, and two of the blunders contained in the recognition of Kosovo are likely to have consequences. The first is the creation of an irredenta, which guarantees another Balkan war. Serbia will never accept the wholesale alienation of one of her provinces. Like France after 1871, her whole policy will focus on recovering her lost territory as soon as the moment is ripe.
The second blunder is further alienating Russia, this time in a way she cannot ignore. If the U.S. and the E.U. are blind to the ghost of 1914, Russia and Serbia are not. The fact that Russia went to war to protect Serbia then puts pressure on Moscow to do so again, lest the Putin government look weak domestically as well as abroad.
Washington and Brussels scoff at the thought, but Russia and Serbia certainly have military options. A guerrilla war against European and American troops and police in Serb-inhabited portions of Kosovo is likely to occur spontaneously, at least at a low level. IEDs and sniper ambushes are easy enough to arrange. Belgrade can ramp it up by smuggling in shaped-charge anti-armor mines, dual-warhead RPGs and sniper rifles, along with Serbian special forces to make sure they are used effectively. If Europe responds with economic measures against Serbia, Russia now has enough petro-dollars to support Belgrade economically. If NATO threatens a new bombing campaign, Russia can up the ante too by sending Russian air defense troops and equipment to Serbia. The last time NATO bombed Serbia, Russia was too weak to respond. That is not true now, nor is President Putin for sale the way Mr. Yeltsin was.
The last thing the world needs now is a new Balkan war, with NATO and Russia caught in a contest of mutual escalation. Is there a way to walk this dog back? I think there is, if Washington and Brussels regain some sense of reality. They can do what Bismarck did in 1878 and call a conference. There, a solution could be negotiated that all parties might live with, even if none really liked it. One such solution would be to partition Kosovo between Serbia and Albania, with Serbia compensated for her loss of some of Kosovo by being allowed to annex the Serbian portion of Bosnia. The fact that both Kosovo and Bosnia are fake states would make such a deal all the easier. As the E.U. has already discovered, maintaining fake states is an expensive and never-ending business.
Fools rush in, but sometimes even fools are wise enough to back out again. Berlin, are you listening? The Congress of Berlin of 2008 may be as successful as the Congress of Berlin of 1878 in averting war in Europe.