BALKAN BLOG: Kosovo independence was best of bad choices

By bne IntelliNews February 22, 2008

bne -

It was always going to be a mess. But of all the options available to the international community, Kosovo's declaration of independence is probably the best solution to an intractable problem.

Violence flared up in Kosovo on Thursday, February 21 as disgruntled Serbs vented their anger at the small state's decision to break away from the rest of the country unilaterally. The US embassy took a battering for its complicity in the decision.

The surprising lack of violence that came with the disintegration of the former Soviet Union has meant the new countries created in the process (Ukraine was never a country, only a region, before 1991) or at least freed, have had a decade to get their acts together. The war in the Balkans during the 1990s meant that process in this region is only really able to start now.

Kosovo's decision probably marks the end of the break up of the former Yugoslavia - though there's still the lingering problems of the Albanian minority in Macedonia - and from this perspective was long overdue. The politics of the situation are intractable and were never going to be resolved amicably regardless of the rights and wrongs of each side's arguments.

But the wrangling couldn't be allowed to drag on forever and so a resolution had to be decided in the end of on its pragmatic benefits rather than any morality.

Putting aside the political arguments about sovereignty for the moment, consider the two cases where Kosovo remains part of Serbia and where it becomes independent from a purely pragmatic point of view.

If the region stayed as part of Serbia, then you would be left with a situation similar to the Basque province in Spain, Northern Ireland in the UK and Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka - a disenfranchised ethnic group living under the rule of another larger group.

Once the minority becomes inflamed, or radicalised, as was the case with the Albanians, then it is almost impossible to make peace between the two groups. In many cases the bitterness felt by the minority escalates leads to violence and terrorism starting a vicious circle of attack and retribution. These conflicts, once started, carry on for generations and are extremely difficult to stop.

Alternatively, if Kosovo is independent, then there is little Serbia can actually do to undo the independence short of annexing the country by force. No one in the Balkans wants another war and the government has explicitly said it won't start one.

The upshot is that while those in Belgrade are mightily annoyed, the two sides have been separated and can largely ignore each other while they get on with the job of reconstruction. The situation is complicated by Serb enclaves dotted around Kosovo and the Serb-dominated north of the new state, so the end game remains complicated, but the basic issue at hand has been resolved.

To aid the reconstruction effort, the EU has usefully promised to pour $1bn into the newly minted state to get it back on its feet, which is a necessary part of making the whole independence project work. This last point is not often considered, but we now live in a world where small countries are not only viable, but often enjoy a competitive advantage.

At the start of the last century, countries needed to be big, or at least have strong allies, if they were to remain safe from predatory great powers. However, with the advent of Nato, the military strength of the alliance is available to even the smallest country. Likewise, having a big country meant a big market that was safe economic attack by tariffs hikes and border closures. But with the advent of the EU and WTO, increasingly borders count for little.

Small countries are cheaper and easier to run, so can compete with the larger members of the clubs they join with little difficulty. Of course, Kosovo needs to bring its economy up to the level of the rest of the EU before it can really enjoy these benefits, but with the EU's help there is no reason why it cannot repeat the success of the Baltic states.

The irony of this process is that while Serbia protests at the succession of Kosovo, the separation may become increasingly meaningless. Accession to the EU already means borderless travel for many members and as this century unfolds, Europe is headed towards some sort of federated state where markets are becoming ever more integrated. Where this process will end is moot, but certainly the long-term trend will mean independence becomes increasingly symbolic. Better to separate them now than leave them together to fight.

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