As the Soviet Union started to collapse back in 1991, Yugoslavia too slumped into conflict. These events created strategic diplomatic dilemmas not seen since World War Two.
Policy-makers around the world had to solve one existential problem as the basis for doing anything useful: where and how to draw new international borders for new states emerging from these crises?
The end of the Soviet Union was largely negotiated by the leaders of the largest Soviet republics led by Russia (much the biggest republic). Each of the fifteen republics constituting the USSR became an independent state. This approach was warmly encouraged by the international community. How else to keep the vast Soviet nuclear weapons arsenal under legal supervision before these weapons were transferred to Russia?
Yugoslavia was not like this. The internal republic/province borders set up by Tito’s communists were not seen as legitimate or necessary by many Serbs (the single largest community). Fighting broke out as Slovenia then Croatia proclaimed their independence, with the parts of the Yugoslav army loyal to Belgrade/Serbia in vain trying to keep the country together.
The world watched in alarm. What to do? Create new smaller states based on the internal Yugoslav borders, drawing a parallel with the approach taken for the former Soviet Union? Or somehow try to negotiate new borders that took better account of Yugoslavia’s confusing ethnic map?
With the European Union to the fore, it was agreed to base international recognition of new states in the former Yugoslavia on the former internal republic borders. This seemed both principled in itself and the simplest way forward in a messy situation: how to begin to negotiate new borders in that angry, divided part of Europe?
That policy has lasted for nearly 30 years after the initial ruinous conflicts. Communist Yugoslavia had six republics, and two ‘autonomous provinces’, Kosovo and Vojvodina, within one republic (Serbia). All six republics are now fully recognised independent states and members of the United Nations. One autonomous province, Vojvodina, remains within Serbia.
The problem is the other autonomous province, Kosovo. After serious conflict and NATO intervention against Belgrade, Kosovo is now recognised as an independent state by 111 UN member states, but not by India, Russia, China, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Spain, Romania and many others.
Those countries that do not recognise Kosovo each have their reasons for their position. The key unifying idea is that they do not accept that part of state A can break away to create a new state B without state A’s consent, the more so if (arguably illegally) NATO can enter the fray and help undermine state A’s integrity.
Serbia blocks Kosovo’s UN membership. Kosovo effectively blocks Serbia’s EU membership. The stand-off drags on, making each side poorer than it needs to be.
Hitherto states supporting Kosovo’s independence and Kosovo itself have refused to countenance any adjustment of Kosovo’s border with Serbia as part of a deal to end the dispute, for example by Serb-dominated northern Kosovo staying with Serbia and some Albanian areas in southern Serbia joining Kosovo. This is seen as upholding reactionary ‘ethnic partition’, just when Europe needs diversity and multi-culturalism.
But what if Serbia and Kosovo themselves think that that is a reasonable compromise, in fact the only sane basis for resolving their differences? Why should anyone else object or even care? Does it really matter where exactly a stretch of scraggy Balkan border runs?
The Trump Administration is indicating that it does not care. Hence a subtle change in tone in some European capitals. Rather than flatly ruling out any border tweaks they ‘might be open to ‘hearing the case’ for doing just that.
Some Balkan experts rejoice. Common sense dawns at last! Others are alarmed. They suspect that however any such Serbia/Kosovo deal might be legally expressed and politically ring-fenced, back in real Balkan life it opens the way to the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats starting to push to break up Bosnia and Herzegovina, thereby re-opening that ghastly issue.
What if Serbia’s Hungarians want to join Hungary? What if Kosovo wants to merge with Albania to create ‘greater Albania’? What if the whole region slumps into ethnic conflict? How in principle to contain it? What about the former Soviet Union? The Middle East? Africa?
Diplomacy: the eternal struggle between high principle, and what might work on the ground.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.