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Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- The Price Of Self-Determination

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- New suggestions that Serbian brutality could lead the international community to recognize Kosovo as an independent country may have dramatic consequences far beyond Yugoslavia -- regardless of whether any government actually takes this step.

Both before and during the current crisis, world leaders have maintained that Kosovo is and should remain part of Yugoslavia. They have insisted only that Belgrade restore and respect the autonomy that Kosovo had earlier enjoyed.

There are at least three compelling reasons why the international community has taken that position, even though some analysts had earlier suggested that threatening to recognize an independent Kosovo might help to restrain Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

First, world leaders are aware of the centrality in Serbian national life of several locations in Kosovo and were loathe to provoke Belgrade to even more violence against the Albanian population there.

Second, they are concerned that an independent Kosovo might further destabilize the Balkans, leading to an even wider war perhaps involving NATO countries like Greece and Turkey. .

And third, they are worried that international recognition of the state independence of Kosovo could serve as a precedent for other ethnic minorities not only in the Balkans but further afield as well.

But Serbian atrocities and the difficulties involved in blocking them by air power alone has now prompted at least some Western leaders to consider an option they had earlier declared unthinkable.

During a speech at the State Department in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that Milosevic's actions have "increasingly jeopardized" international support for Serbia's "claim to Kosovo."

Clearly designed to put additional pressure on Belgrade to stop the violence in Kosovo, Clinton's words are almost certain to lead other Western leaders to follow suit.

Some of them may do so because they would like to see NATO raids end, others because they despair of any other outcome that would end the current atrocities, and still a third group because they believe the Kosovars have an inherent right as a people to national self-determination.

But even if many Western leaders adopt this as a possibility, this will not necessarily mean they will actually follow through given the likelihood that actual recognition of an independent Kosovo could lead to the falling of other dominoes across the Balkans.

The discussion of this possibility is likely to have a far greater impact in places far removed from Kosovo than in that troubled land.

On the one hand, this suggestion may prompt governments to behave more responsibly toward ethnic and regional minorities out of the very real fear that the international community may use diplomatic recognition as a weapon against them if they do not.

But on the other hand, this suggestion is likely to prompt at least some ethnic minorities to try to provoke central governments in order to enlist the support of the international community.

As a group of states, the international community has been naturally reluctant to support any challenge to state borders, seeing such challenges as a potential threat to all states.

That attitude helps to explain why many countries moved so slowly in recognizing parts of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union and why most Western governments have adopted a policy that former U.S. President George Bush called "no secession from secession." But as many in the international community learned a quarter of a century ago in Biafra, more recently in Chechnya, and now in Kosovo, that commitment to the stability of borders can open the way to atrocities and crimes that call into question the moral status of doing that.

Those who now advocate international recognition of an independent Kosovo will insist that this is a special case, one no one should generalize from.

But such shifts in the position of major powers on questions of self-determination inevitably have a larger audience. And among its members are at least a few other ethnic groups whose leaders may conclude that they might attain their goals by provoking attacks against themselves.

That may ultimately be enough to prevent the international community from recognizing Kosovo, but the mere mention of the possibility by the president of the United States will inevitably get the attention of both central governments and those who would challenge them.