The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia used to consist of six constituent republics and two autonomous provinces. The six republics are now all separate countries (Bosnia/Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia); one autonomous province, Vojvodina, has an ethnic Serbian majority and has remained part of Serbia.
That left the second autonomous province, Kosovo, which yesterday became the world’s newest independent nation. With its large Albanian majority and traumatic recent history, Kosovo was never going to return to Serbian control. Nor was there any rational reason why it should. The only surprising thing is that this conclusion is at all controversial.
Kosovar independence is opposed not just by Serbia and Russia but by a number of countries who fear separatist movements of their own. Although the west has been supportive this time, its record is equivocal; George W Bush and his advisers came to power opposing the Clinton administration’s “nation building” in the Balkans, just as Bush senior had defended Serbian hegemony in the early 1990s. And of course Australia’s own foreign policy “experts” have consistently opposed the breakup of the Javanese empire to our north.
All of these countries are signatories to the United Nations Charter, and have therefore committed themselves to supporting “friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” (article 1.2). But the habit of according those rights only to “people like us”, and not to those with funny names and exotic customs, is deeply ingrained.
No-one would suggest that England should be content with being an “autonomous province” of France, for example. No-one disputes the right of Norway or Luxembourg to be independent countries. Yet Kosovo’s claims are not fundamentally different, only newer.
It is a sound principle (also in the UN Charter) that national borders should not be changed by force. But to generalise that, as Serbia and Russia are arguing, into a rule that they can never be changed unilaterally would be to freeze existing injustices in place indefinitely.
Russia now suggests that western support for Kosovo could lead it to retaliate by recognising the independence of places like Abkhazia (it’s on the Black sea, not far from where Jason supposedly retrieved the Golden Fleece). But if the Abkhazians are willing to go through the exhaustive negotiations and UN apprenticeship that Kosovo did, then why not?
It might expose a certain degree of western hypocrisy, but by this stage that’s not likely to surprise anyone.