The Balkans, ever the powder keg of Europe, have produced yet another bombshell. Despite strong protests from Serbia and Russia, the war-torn region of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence on February 17. Though Kosovo’s Albanian majority greeted the long-awaited news with great celebrations, many fear that the independence of the tiny province will have drastic, far-reaching implications. Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence is a heavy blow to one of the major principles that has helped to maintain stability in Europe since the end of World War II: borders should not be changed except by mutual agreement. Countries around the world with large, politicized ethnic minorities demanding autonomy fear a ripple effect emanating from Kosovo and are holding their breath at what the coming months may bring.
Even ignoring the international ramifications of Kosovo’s new-found sovereignty, Kosovo has a number of domestic issues that are cause for concern. Perhaps most pressingly, many observers have questioned the very viability of Kosovo as an independent state. A European Commission report released in November detailed the inadequacy of the Kosovar government in almost every area, describing Kosovo’s public administration as “weak and inefficient” and its judicial system as similarly “weak.” The report also described the widespread corruption among leaders of the then-province, stating that “civil servants are still vulnerable to political interference, corrupt practices and nepotism.” In addition, Pristina has made “little progress” in combating organized crime and trafficking in human beings, according to the report. The fledgling country’s feeble economy and lack of mature government institutions ensure that an independent Kosovo will be heavily reliant on foreign aid—political, military, and economic—for many years to come, simply in order to survive.
Kosovo’s small economy is dominated by a mafia-controlled heroin market, prostitution, gun-running, and sexual slavery rackets. The Albanian mafia, with which Kosovo’s leaders are closely connected, has an enormous reach, from the Nordic countries, where it controls up to 80 percent of the heroin trade, to the eastern seaboard of the United States, where law enforcement officials have been trying to disrupt the so-called “Balkan connection” for decades. Arms smugglers from Kosovo operate all over Europe, and are occasionally caught red-handed; just this January four people were arrested while crossing the border from Denmark to Sweden in what the Swedish customs authority termed “one of the largest weapons seizures ever made in Europe.” As for sexual trafficking, a 2001 article from Insight on the News magazine reported that large Albanian-run rackets had been discovered in Rome, Milan, Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam, Athens, and Stockholm. And, to make things even more worrisome, the interconnectedness of the current government of Kosovo and the mafia makes it unlikely that Kosovo’s leaders will crack down on organized crime in the foreseeable future.
Kosovo also has proven ties to radical Islam, including al-Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden himself visited the region multiple times in the late 1990s, and his organization set up terrorist training bases and drug trafficking operations in Kosovo and throughout the region during the same time period. The Washington Times reported in 1999 that “some members of the Kosovo Liberation Army were trained in terrorist camps run by […] Osama bin Laden.” Many organizations, including the German intelligence service BND and the French anti-terrorist unit UCLAT, believe that the commuter train bombings in Madrid in 2004 and the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 were organized in and carried out with explosives from Kosovo. In addition, millions of dollars have flowed into Kosovo from Saudi and Emirati Wahhabists—adherents of the strictest brand of Islam—since the end of hostilities in 1999, almost exclusively to pay for Wahhabi missionaries and the construction of mosques. Over 200 mosques have been built with money from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in that time period, while humanitarian aid from those countries has been negligible. These links to fundamentalist Islam have led some to fear that Kosovo will become the new “beachhead” of Islamism in Europe, a terrorist transfer point that ultimately endangers the lives of Americans and, especially, non-Muslim Europeans.
Concern has also arisen over the safety of Kosovo’s Christian Serb minority. A 2005 article from CNSNews.com reported that since the UN and NATO took over administration of Kosovo in 1999, “approximately 150 churches, monasteries, seminaries, and bishop residences” have been destroyed or seriously damaged, some of which contained “priceless Byzantine frescoes and other religious artifacts dating as far back as the 13th century.” By some estimates, 200,000 Serbs have fled from their homes to escape the violence. Because of these incidents, multiple commentators have pointed out that this is, in essence, a “reverse ethnic cleansing” where, instead of Albanians being expelled from their homes as in the 1990s, Christian Serbs are now the victims. Though Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci has tried to assure the international community that “in independent Kosovo, not one citizen will feel discriminated against or neglected,” fear of ethnic violence is still prevalent.
Yet the most immediately relevant aspect of the present situation is the effect that Kosovo’s independence might have on the rest of the world. Leaders of those countries supporting Kosovo’s independence have taken great pains to point out that their actions should not serve as a precedent for nationalist movements around the world eager to declare their own independence. They argue that, because of Kosovo’s oppression under Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, it is in a unique position. Nevertheless, EU members Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania have all thus far refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence due to concerns about their own ethnic minorities. Other countries worried about a possible precedent being set include China, Russia, Georgia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Israel. Even countries which have recognized Kosovo, such as France and Turkey, face minorities agitating for independence. Some have gone so far as to say that the recognition of Kosovo undermines the very notion of the multi-ethnic state, and a chain reaction may soon occur in which separatist movements in the wide range of countries listed above feel empowered to declare their own independence. Such a series of events, if it were to occur, would lead to a nearly unparalleled international crisis.
The official reaction from Serbia, which views Kosovo as the cradle of its national identity, has included harsh rhetoric and token diplomatic moves, since Serbia had previously promised to refrain from military action. Serbian President Boris Tadic said in a statement on the day of Kosovo’s declaration of independence that “Serbia…will react with all peaceful, diplomatic and legal means to annul this act committed by Kosovo’s institutions.” Serbia recalled its ambassador to the United States after that country recognized Kosovo, and a peaceful protest against Kosovar independence in Belgrade drew over 200,000 people. Not all was so placid, however. A separate riot in the capital resulted in the torching of the US embassy and damage of several others, and tensions have already flared in Serb-populated northern Kosovo, where riots, explosions, and attacks on checkpoints separating Kosovo from Serbia have been reported. How long the situation will remain in its current volatile state is unknown, but escalation into military conflict is considered unlikely.
Kosovo’s status as a haven for drug smugglers and Islamists, combined with the potential for an international rush for sovereignty among ethnic minorities, inarguably makes Kosovo’s independence an issue of utmost global significance. The independence of this former province, smaller in area and population than the state of Connecticut, has already proven to be one of the most divisive issues in international politics since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And while the end-result of this feud is anyone’s guess, unrest in the Balkans has historically opened the door to wider conflict and led to enormous unforeseen consequences. Russia’s unwavering support for Serbia looks very familiar indeed.