A reply to some commentary which appears in two mainstream media affiliated blogs.
Re: “States of Independence,” The Economist, December 28, 2011
In Soviet times Nagorno-Karabakh was a mostly Armenian-populated autonomous region in Azerbaijan. In Yugoslav times Kosovo was a mostly Albanian-populated autonomous province of Serbia.
Armenians fought a war against the Azeris in the early 1990s, and the Kosovo Albanians against the Serbs in 1998-99. Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence in 1991. Serbia’s administration and security forces were expelled from Kosovo by NATO in 1999. The region was then run by the United Nations. It declared independence in 2008.
On the face of it, there are plenty of similarities between Soviet breakaway statelets like Nagorno-Karabakh and Kosovo. But there are also many differences. No countries have recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state, but more than 80 have recognized Kosovo. Western countries emphasize that they believe that the Kosovo case is not a precedent for others.
With an emphasis on former Yugoslavia, several additional points come to mind.
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For most of Communist Yugoslavia’s history, Kosovo did not have an autonomous designation, much unlike Nagorno-Karabakh’s lengthy Soviet era autonomous classification within Azerbaijan. Regarding the characterization of Kosovo as an “autonomous province of Serbia,” that designation was arbitrarily granted by the non-Serb Communist dictator Tito in 1974. By 1989, aspects of Kosovo’s status were questioned and changed, in response to an increasingly tense situation in that territory.
An inconsistency was created with the autonomy statuses of Kosovo and Vojvodina in the Socialist Republic of Serbia (SRo Serbia). None of the other Yugoslav republics had regional autonomy statuses, even though some of them had noticeably distinct areas, along with boundaries that were not so historically consistent.
The non-autonomous Krajina portion of the Socialist Republic of Croatia had an ethnic Serb majority. In contrast, Vojvodina’s autonomy status within SRo Serbia was granted with that area having a Serb majority. Thru the centuries, Vojvodina is recorded as having a fluctuating Serb majority and plurality. The regionally distinct characterization of Vojvodina within Serbia applies to the Dalmatian and Istrian regions in Croatia, which along with Krajina were not designated as autonomous.
(Considerably smaller portions of Dalmatia and Istria exist outside Croatia, on its periphery, in other former Yugoslav territories. On the issue of related territory having an autonomous status: for much of Soviet history, North Ossetia and South Ossetia each had an autonomy classification in their respective republics. North Ossetia received an “autonomous republic” status in Russia, with South Ossetia granted an “autonomous oblast” designation in Georgia. The currently disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory was classified as an autonomous oblast.
An autonomous republic designation seems to have had a greater standing than an autonomous oblast classification. Putting aside these Soviet designations, some of the categorized oblasts could arguably claim a better historical case for independence than some of the autonomous republics.)
In Communist governed Yugoslavia, the autonomy classifications given to Vojvodina and Kosovo within Serbia appear designed to limit Serb influence. Serbia was the largest Yugoslav republic in population and land. In support of Kosovo’s independence, the Albanians note that as a stated autonomous province, Kosovo participated in some federal Yugoslav structures, along the lines of the republics comprising Yugoslavia.
As a combined group, the Western governments leading the diplomatic charge to recognize Kosovo’s independence have significant geopolitical influence. At last notice, the international recognition of Kosovo’s independence has increased to near 50% among United Nations (UN) member states. The nations not recognizing Kosovo’s independence include the BRIC grouping (Brazil, Russia, India and China), five European Union member nations and most (a little over 50%) of the nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The proclaimed independent Kosovo is not in a number of international organizations, including the UN and International Olympic Committee.
It remains to be seen if Kosovo’s independence will get an overwhelming majority of international recognition, should the years go by without a mutually agreed acceptance of Kosovo’s status. Three factors influence this matter. Specifically, the geopolitical mood of the major powers, Serb government efforts against Kosovo’s independence (second guessed for effectiveness among anti-Kosovo independence advocates) and the situation in Kosovo, having to do with whether this disputed land can exhibit a better ability at self governance, in a situation that remains noticeably challenged on socioeconomic issues and ethnic relations.
Concerning the reference to the past, the clear Albanian majority in Kosovo came about over a period within the past roughly 200 years. This development involved a considerable Albanian migration from the territory of contemporary Albania, a comparatively higher Albanian birth rate, some economically motivated movement of Serbs out of Kosovo, as well as periods of violence against them.
The last point is not intended to deny the unjust activity against Albanians. Numerous conflicts the world over involve noticeable wrongdoing by elements within each of the given sides. This article is written as a follow-up to what is commonly highlighted in Western mass media.
The Serb churches in Kosovo reveal a Serb presence going back centuries. An Albanian talking point stresses the view that their presence in Kosovo goes back centuries as well. (As one gets closer to the story of Adam and Eve, as well as the non-biblical scientific findings on the origin of humankind.)
In more recent history, there are examples of inaccurate commentary, which broadly blame the Serbs for what led to the increased turmoil in Kosovo. The matter of some violent tendencies in the Albanian community, has been downplayed in certain circles.
The above referenced excerpt mentions the Serb military withdrawal from Kosovo in 1999. That move was done with the understanding of the mutually agreed UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1244, recognizing Kosovo as a continued part of Serbia, inclusive of stating a limited return of Serb military and police personnel to Kosovo. Serbia is considered the legal successor state of Yugoslavia, which signed onto UNSCR 1244. (This last observation is noted in an earlier piece in the above referenced blog.) In Yugoslav and pre-Yugoslav times, Kosovo had a history of being part of Serbia, while never being part of an independent Albania, or an independent entity unto itself.
The 2010 International Court of Justice’s non-binding advisory opinion on Kosovo’s status says the territory can have a declared independence, without specifying whether that desire should be internationally recognized.
There are inconsistencies everywhere you look. Russia, an ally of Serbia, does not acknowledge the independence of Kosovo. But, unlike any Western countries, it recognized the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following its war with Georgia in 2008. Serbia might like to make common cause with Georgia but does not wish to irritate Russia. Likewise Georgia won’t work with Serbia because of the potential damage of relations with the United States.
Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova are among the nations which do not recognize Kosovo’s independence. These four former Soviet republics are involved in territorial disputes.
Since the wars of the 1990s, Moldova, Serbia and Azerbaijan have not initiated a profound military operation in the respective disputed land they each claim. Russia recognized Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence shortly after the Georgian government’s armed strike in South Ossetia in 2008.
Re: ” Putin, Russian Nationalism and the Future of the Opposition,” Forbes, December 1, 2011
One of the very few things that Yeltsin can be given real credit for is not stirring up ethnic Russians living outside the formal borders of the Russian Federation: a Milosevic-like figure in early 1990’s Russia could have caused almost incalculable harm, but Yeltsin resolutely insisted on the supremacy of a pan-ethnic “Rossisski” identity.
In mass media and elsewhere, prominent countries like the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia appear to attract a greater interest and understanding than smaller entities like former Yugoslavia. The differences between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia partly influence how some perceive Milosevic and Yeltsin.
Yugoslavia’s breakup was per capita more violent than the Soviet Union’s. It stands to reason that when compared to their Soviet counterparts, the freer travel accorded to Tito era Yugoslav citizens led to a better knowledge of anti-Communist nationalist/patriotic views in the West. The shared anti-Communism of the varied nationalist/patriotic groups was not as agreeable on other matters. Once Communism collapsed, the disagreements became more enhanced.
On the surface, it is tempting to also believe that the Yugoslav breakup was perhaps more violent per capita than the Soviet Union’s, on account of the Soviet Union and Russian Empire each lasting longer than the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and its Communist variant. Having a lengthier time of togetherness in the same nation might explain a better comfort zone, when it comes to different ethnic groups.
On the other hand, it was not as if the peoples who predominated in Yugoslavia were so foreign to each other prior to that nation’s existence. Many Serbs, Croats and Slavic Muslims (Bosniaks) had a lengthy pre-Kingdom of Yugoslavia experience under Habsburg rule. Likewise with Serbs and Albanians, who lived under the Ottoman Empire.
The thoughts on Milosevic-Yeltsin and the history of their respective nations brings to mind several particulars. At the time of the 1990’s wars in Kosovo and Chechnya (the second Chechen war lasting to about the middle of 2000), there was universal recognition that Kosovo was part of Serbia, in a somewhat similar way to how Chechnya is recognized as a part of Russia. The two wars in Chechnya (the first during Yeltsin’s presidency, with the second during Putin’s) are recorded as having unnecessarily brutal aspects, which some say did not reflect a gentler conduct among the combatants, when compared to what occurred in Kosovo. (Around the time of the 1999 NATO-Yugoslavia conflict: without quoting verbatim, I recall New York Times journalist Steven Erlanger expressing this view on American based National Public Radio.) Keep in mind that the best equipped and trained of armed forces, from countries viewed as the most democratically advanced, have nevertheless engaged in some unnecessarily brutal manner.
Not so far away from Serbia and Russia, the Turkish government has over the decades used a significant amount of American supplied arms against Kurdish opponents, deemed as having engaged in terrorism. In turn, the Turkish government has been credibly accused of some unnecessarily aggressive manner. This particular conflict has resulted in many deaths and refugees.
Serbia is not a nuclear power like Russia and is not a NATO member like Turkey. These observations provide an explanation on why Yugoslavia (when reduced to Serbia and Montenegro) was bombed by NATO, under the premise of a “humanitarian intervention.”
A common theme presents Milosevic led Serbs starting four wars in (sequential order) Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Among the peoples making up Yugoslavia, Milosevic and the Serbs en masse were not lone perpetrators of political violence. Actually, Milosevic’s 1989 address at Kosovo Polje spoke favorably of a multiethnic state. That speech of his was given with a background of non-Serb separatist minded terrorism in Kosovo.
Before achieving a substantial international recognition of Slovenian independence, Slovenia’s government setup border checkpoints, independent of Yugoslavia. Shortly thereafter, pro-Slovenian government forces fired on a multiethnic contingent of Yugoslav armed forces. The Slovenian action was supported on the basis of a preemptive strike. The Yugoslav military intention arguably sought to safeguard Yugoslavia’s borders, without seeking an armed conflict. With a population in the range of 90% ethnic Slovenian and relatively limited ethnic tensions, Slovenia could have possibly achieved a war free independence via negotiations. Consider the Slovenian war’s shortness (less than two weeks) and relatively low casualties (totalling under 100), while noting that another Yugoslav republic, Macedonia, peacefully achieved independence.
Pro-Ustasha sentiment among elements of Croatia’s government and population was not something conjured up by Milosevic. As Yugoslavia was breaking up, that slant and evidence of discrimination against Serbs (in some instances violent) within Croatia’s Communist drawn boundaries was not something that could be simply overlooked by most, if not all Serbs, with a conscious awareness of what happened during World War II, at the Jasenovac Nazi allied Ustasha run concentration camp, among other situations.
Milosevic did not encourage Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic to write his 1970 Islamic Declaration, which contradicts the idea of a tolerant state. Fast forward to the 1990s, Izetbegovic sought to break away from what was still a noticeably multiethnic Yugoslavia, even with the secessions of Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia. A downplayed facet of the Bosnian Civil War pertains to the considerable number of Croats and Serbs, as well as some Muslims who opposed Izetbegovic and his forces. (Regarding the Bosnian Civil War: by and large, Bosnia’s Croats and Muslims opposed remaining in Yugoslavia, unlike the Serbs, whereas Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats did not favor an independent Bosnia, where the Muslims would be the plurality of the population.)
For accuracy sake, these comments should not be misconstrued as a pro-Milosevic reply. The late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke was correct in noting that Milosevic would periodically change his image for the purpose of personal advancement. Within the last half of 1995, Milosevic exhibited an inclination to “play ball” (for lack of a better term) with the major Western powers, in exchange for a greater diplomatic role. Milosevic showed no inclination to directly take action to defend 150,000-200,000 Serbs, who were ethnically cleansed from Krajina. Shortly after the ethnic cleansing of the Krajina Serbs, the Western powers accepted Milosevic as the representative of Bosnian Serb interests at the Dayton meeting, which served to formally end the Bosnian Civil War.
One other point in the above referenced Forbes article concerns “Russian nationalists.” In modern day English language political jargon, “nationalist” has been used to suggest a patriotic perspective that is not moderate. There are Russian patriotic views which are tolerant, in a way that recognizes and encourages a positive multiethnic participation in Russia. Many individuals identifying themselves as ethnic Russian have noticeable traces of a non-ethnic Russian background.
A large multiethnic nation with socioeconomic challenges such as Russia, is likely to have some degree of ethnic tension. The positive side of ethnic tolerance in that country is not as good a story for those preferring a negative image.
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic.
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