There is an old saying that the problem with the Balkans is that they produce more history than they can consume locally. Events in, and over, the Serbian province of Kosovo may soon give this adage new relevance.
Last month, an Albanian government in Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. That action was unhelpful, at best, for the future peace of the Balkans. Kosovo is the Serbs’ ancestral homeland, to which they remain emotionally attached. Serbian mothers sing lullabies to their babies about Kosovo, and men will fight for what their women love.
Never content to see a fire without pouring gasoline on it, the Bush administration promptly recognized the new “state” of Kosovo, as did some forgetful European countries. Russia, which may remember history too well, responded by announcing its support for Serbia. Within a week, Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence and the Great Powers’ response to it had set the stage for a classic 19th-century Balkan crisis. A few old fogies may recall that the last such crisis, in the summer of 1914, led to a certain amount of unpleasantness, not entirely contained within Balkan boundaries.
To grasp what is at risk here, and why, requires a tour through Balkan history. The Balkans are not so much steeped in history as drowned in it. Nothing happens there that is not seen by all players as a new act in an old drama.
For Serbs, the play began in Kosovo in the year 1389 on Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds. There a Serbian army fought and was defeated by an army of invading Turks. The Serbian national ethos that grew from that defeat was one of betrayal, loss, survival, and revenge. Serbs sum up their culture in one word, inat, best translated as marching to defeat with your eyes open.
The more recent events that led to Kosovo’s declaration of independence fit the Serbian mindset perfectly. After World War II, the Albanian population in Kosovo grew while the Serbian population gradually shrank. It is important to understand that there are no Kosovars, only Albanians and Serbs who live in Kosovo. Each seeks union with its homeland, Greater Albania or historic Serbia.
As Albanians in Kosovo became a majority, they began harassing the Serbs with the goal of driving them out. Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to power began when he promised the Serbs of Kosovo that, under his rule, no one would be allowed to beat them.
He kept his word. Milosevic turned the tables on Kosovo’s Albanians. Serbian state security forces protected the Serbs by beating up the Albanians. The Albanians responded by escalating to guerrilla warfare. No longer did they beat Serbs up. They killed them, took over their houses, burned their churches, and plundered their monasteries.
Guerrilla warfare is hard on civilians, and in Kosovo both Serbs and Albanians suffered. But the Albanians had the better propaganda machine. Soon all the world’s professional wailers were weeping over the innocent Albanians of Kosovo, who were being massacred by Milosevic’s butchers. What the Albanians were doing to Kosovo’s Serbs somehow got overlooked. Milosevic was “the new Hitler.”
Americans soon perceived their favorite narrative, the B-grade Western movie where the good and the bad are easy to recognize by the color of their hats.
The Serbian narrative, too, was coming into focus. The mostly Muslim Albanians were the new Turks, once again invading Kosovo. Next came betrayal: America, Serbia’s ally in both world wars, decided to intervene in support of the Albanians. The Clinton administration, led by its egregious secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, wanted a splendid little war. In 1999, the U.S. and NATO presented Belgrade with an ultimatum that, like its Austrian counterpart of 1914, was written to be unacceptable. (Mrs. Albright smirked as she said, “We set the bar a little too high for them.”) The result, again, was war.
Washington and NATO justified their massive air attack on a state that posed no threat to either by claiming the Serbs were ethnically cleansing Kosovo of its Albanian population. As German courts have since established, there was no such ethnic cleansing until after NATO’s bombing campaign started. At that point, the Serbs did begin pushing the Albanians out. Military analysis suggests their purpose was to overload NATO’s logistics with the care of hundreds of thousands of refugees, thereby making a NATO ground invasion difficult, if not impossible. That wasn’t very nice, but when you are one small country facing all of NATO, you do what you can.
NATO’s bombing campaign, which Mrs. Albright expected would bring the Serbs to their knees in 72 hours, failed, as bombing campaigns against stationary ground forces have always failed. In the 78 days that NATO bombed, it destroyed all of 13 Serbian tanks. When it became evident about halfway through that bombing the Serbian army in Kosovo wasn’t working, NATO shifted to civilian targets in Serbia proper. This terror-bombing campaign, which destroyed among other things the factory that made the little Yugo car and killed about 5,000 Serbian civilians, also failed.
Then, following the eternal Serbian narrative, came more betrayal and defeat. Russia, Serbia’s only Great Power supporter, pulled the rug from under the Serbs and demanded they yield. Why? History may some day find out, but as of now, we don’t know. Rumors of payments to Russian President Boris Yeltsin swirled. Certainly his titles never included “the incorruptible.”
Serbia dared not confront all the Great Powers, so she came to terms. NATO and American troops occupied Kosovo, where they blithely presided over the ethnic cleansing of two-thirds of Kosovo’s remaining Serbs by the Albanians. No mass graves of slaughtered Albanians were found.
There the situation stood, frozen until February 2008, when the Kosovo Albanians declared their independence and the U.S., France, and Great Britain recognized Kosovo as an independent state.
By taking control of Kosovo from Serbia, Washington and NATO committed a crime against the law of nations: nowhere does that law give anyone the authority to dismember a sovereign state. By recognizing Kosovo’s independence, those powers did something worse: they committed a blunder. What might the price be?
In the Serbian narrative, betrayal and defeat are followed by survival and revenge. Those goals are now somewhat in tension. A lost Kosovo will forever be an irredenta for Serbia. She will never accept its loss and will look for a favorable opportunity to take it back. But at present, she needs to survive. Another war with NATO now would threaten her survival—if she had to fight alone.
Here we come to that fateful tendency of Balkan history to spill over. The question, as always in Balkan crises, is what will Russia do?
When NATO bombed Serbia in the 1990s, Russia was too weak to respond. That is no longer the case. The Russian economy is doing well, flush with petrodollars. Russia’s military, while still somewhat ragged, is in far better condition now than it was then. Most critically, the boozy, corrupt Yeltsin has been replaced by the new Man of Steel, Vladimir Putin. The results of the recent Russian presidential election, where Putin’s handpicked successor won with 70 percent of the vote, show that he has the Russian people behind him.
Russia’s relationship to events in the Balkans in fact serves as a barometer of her strength. When Russia is weak, she has to stand by helplessly as her Balkan friends—Serbia heads the list—are defeated and she is humiliated. When she is strong, and when her government wants to look strong at home as well as abroad, she brooks no such treatment. More than once, events in the Balkans have led Russia to go to war.
At this point the ghost of 1914 rises, not as wisps of vapor but like Il Commendatore. Can Washington see it? Probably not. In the middle of the Clinton administration’s Balkan war, I asked an American four-star general who was in most of the key meetings, “Don’t our people know the history of this region?” He replied, “They know the history, but they don’t think it applies to them.” Nothing blinds like hubris.
Here is how events might play out on a 1914 model. Kosovo’s remaining Serbs reject becoming “Kosovars,” a fake nationality. They insist no new border be created between them and Serbia. When Albanian police, backed by NATO troops, attempt to establish such a border, Serbs residing in Kosovo attack them. Serbia joins them in rejecting any new border. Sniper and IED attacks begin and spread.
Some of this is already taking place. The March 4 Washington Post reported:
Serbia said … it was reclaiming control of a 30-mile stretch of rail line in northern Kosovo in defiance of ethnic Albanian authorities in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.
The claim … came as Serb workers refused to work for Kosovo’s railway company and Serb police officers turned in their guns and badges, saying they would not report to Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian authorities.
In another sign of rising tensions, a sniper fired at a multiethnic office in the ethnically divided Kosovo town of Kosovska Mitrovica, officials said. No one was injured.
All over the world, people have learned from the war in Iraq how to resist a foreign occupation. Soon events in northern Kosovo could ramp up toward full-scale guerrilla warfare. Serbia supplies local Serb guerrillas with all the best gear: shaped-charge IEDs that will take out any armored vehicle, tandem-warhead RPGs that will do the same, sniper rifles, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. With them come Serbian army special forces to make sure they are used effectively. Albanian and NATO, including American, forces start suffering casualties that play poorly on the political front back home.
Russia, which has already made clear its political and economic support for Serbia, growls louder. When America and the EU announce economic sanctions on Serbia, Russia offers Serbia subsidies. The U.S. and NATO threaten to renew bombing of Serbia. Russia escalates in turn by sending Russian air- defense units to Serbia, including fighters with Russian pilots. Russian submarines appear in the Adriatic. Moscow lets it be known that she has cruise and ballistic missiles, with conventional but powerful warheads, targeted on NATO air bases such as Aviano in Italy. Unthinkably, less than 20 years after the Cold War ended, we face another East-West crisis. This time, Washington and NATO are the aggressors.
Events along these lines may happen. But I think Serbia’s desire to survive, Russia’s relative fragility, and a worldwide recognition that American power is waning, point to an alternative to the 1914 model: the Bosnian annexation crisis of 1908.
Since 1878, Austrian troops had occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina, which nonetheless officially remained part of the Ottoman Empire, a situation analogous to NATO occupation of Kosovo until the latter’s declaration of independence.
In 1908, Count Aehrenthal, Austria’s ambitious foreign minister, decided the time had come to formally annex Bosnia-Herzegovina. Conveniently, the Russian foreign minister, Izvolsky, had ambitions of his own, namely opening the straits that lead from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean to Russian warships. When the two ministers met at Buchlau in Austria on Sept. 16, 1908, they agreed to a swap. Russia would recognize Austria’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, while Austria agreed to Russia’s position on the straits issue.
Aehrenthal then proceeded to take the hapless Izvolsky to the cleaners. While the latter made a leisurely and fruitless trip through Europe to ask the other powers to agree to open the straits —none would—Aehrenthal announced the annexation. Russia was humiliated; Serbia was outraged. In his history of the region, The Balkans Since 1453, L.S. Stavrianos writes:
These moves aroused a storm that brought Europe to the brink of war. The Serbians reacted perhaps the most violently against the incorporation of the two South Slav provinces into the Hapsburg Empire. Traditionally they had regarded Bosnia-Herzegovina as their rightful heritage. Now they refused to accept the Austrian annexation as final and they raised the cry for revenge and restitution as the French had done after 1871. In fact, the Serbians regarded Bosnia-Herzegovina henceforth as the Alsace-Lorraine of the Balkans. The foreign minister, Milovanovich, went so far as to say to the British minister in Belgrade that many Serbians ‘now were of the opinion that a warlike adventure, even with the certainty of defeat, would not place the country in any worse position…’
War did not break out in 1908 because Russia was still too weak following her defeat by Japan in 1905. But in 1914, one of the principal reasons Russia went to war was the memory of her humiliation in the Bosnian annexation crisis.
Does history suggest a way the Kosovo independence crisis of 2008 might be resolved without war? It may, if we do what all prudent statesmen ought to do in a crisis and ask ourselves, “what would Bismarck do?”
What Bismarck did in a somewhat similar situation was call a conference. In 1877, in response to—what else?—events in the Balkans, Russia declared war on Turkey. Despite a stubborn Turkish defense, the Turks were well beaten. The war ended with the Treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 3, 1878.
But the treaty proved unacceptable to other European powers. Another war threatened. Bismarck called a conference that, in the Treaty of Berlin, gave everyone just enough to keep the peace (despite much grumbling; in Britain, it was known as “the peace that passeth all understanding.”)
A conference of Berlin of 2008 might achieve the same, especially were it to follow the 19th-century diplomatic principle of compensation. Serbia would lose some of Kosovo, either to a short-lived Kosovar state or directly to Albania, where it will end up in any case. But Serbia, in addition to retaining those portions of Kosovo inhabited mostly by Serbs or containing major Serbian historical or cultural sites, would be compensated. She would be allowed to annex the Serbian portion of Bosnia, get an invitation to join the EU, and receive a substantial payment as well. Her security might be jointly guaranteed by NATO and Moscow. As was the case with Bismarck’s Conference of Berlin, everybody would go home grumbling but not mad enough to fight.
The question is, who will call the conference? Washington, blind-drunk on hubris, will not. Moscow cannot, lest she look weak. Germany, here’s your moment. The German government has recognized the independence of Kosovo —fatuity is to be expected from a Germany that has neither a Bismarck nor a Kaiser—but Berlin retains a closer relationship to Moscow than does London or Paris. Recognizing Kosovo does not mean recognizing its claimed borders. Moscow could accept an invitation from Berlin without a hint of humiliation. Once a conference gathers and the principle of compensation is accepted, the rest follows easily enough. If Russia finds a deal acceptable, Serbia must as well.
So will we have 1878, 1908, or 1914? My bet remains on 1908, mainly because every Western government is bloody stupid. If I’m right, you might not want to hold on to those euros too long.
William S. Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.