The Balkans, Crimea and the ‘boomerang’ effect

As superpowers switch sides on issues of secession, what is the future of the Balkans?

Republika Srpska's President Milorad Dodik has expressed his support for the secession of Crimea from Ukraine [AP]
Republika Srpska's President Milorad Dodik has expressed his support for the secession of Crimea from Ukraine [AP]

Since the Crimean referendum, some countries have found it difficult to take an unequivocal position on the Ukraine-Russia conflict. For the Balkan states trying to comply with international law and principles, it has become even more confusing since Russian President Vladimir Putin justified the Crimean case by referring to Kosovo’s secession from Serbia.

Russia has strongly opposed Kosovo’s independence citing the need to uphold the territorial integrity of Serbia, while the US and the majority of Western countries supported and recognised the self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo in 2008. They then claimed that Kosovo is a sui generis case and was entitled to secession because the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic had committed atrocities against Kosovo Albanians.

Now the “Great Powers” have reversed their arguments and switched sides. Washington now claims that it is unacceptable to recognise the secession of any region especially when it is not done in agreement with the central government, while Moscow says that if it had been possible for Kosovo, it is now possible for Crimea. 

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It is complicated for Washington to prove that Kosovo was an isolated case which would not effect future secessions all over the world, especially when some policy experts now claim that, “Kosovo is very much a legitimate precedent,” as Dimitri K Simes, president of the Center for National Interest, a Washington think-tank has said.

Agreeing with Moscow’s argument, he stresses that independence in Kosovo was accomplished despite strong opposition by a legitimate, democratic and basically Western-oriented government: Serbia.

Between the hammer and the anvil

For Serbia, the events in the Ukraine and the comparison with Kosovo paradoxically come at the worst possible moment. The country has yet to form a government after the recent parliamentary elections, and will have to tackle the divisive issue. The agreement with Kosovo on normalisation of relations, brokered by Brussels, has finally been reached, clearing the way for advancing towards EU accession. The EU continues to demand that Serbia follow this path, while the Serbian population in North Kosovo strongly opposes the Brussels accord which they see as a path to the recognition of the new state.

The recent events in Ukraine have worsened the situation. Serbia is under pressure by Russia on one side, and Ukraine and the EU on the other, to endorse one of the opposing sides on the issue of Crimea. The pressure from Moscow is particularly strong, as Serbia, which is in deep economic recession, depends on favourable trade agreements and Russian loans. The irrational and traditional emotional link to “Mother Russia” among Serbians should never be underestimated.

Serbia has decided to postpone a formal response to the status of Crimea. No Serbian representative was even present at the General Assembly of the United Nations when the vote on the Ukraine resolution took place on March 27.

“The world is large and diverse, and Serbia has friends everywhere. […] Serbia has its own path, which means that it does not want to choose any of the sides by endangering its relations with the other,” Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic saidwhen asked whether Serbia can be expected to voice an official position on the Crimea issue. “Those who are expecting specific answers from us could get them by May,” Nikolic said, referring to the expected date for the formation of the new government.

The closest neighbour, Republika Srpska, has no need to wait to announce its position on Crimea. It was created as an autonomous part of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 after the bloody wars in ex-Yugoslavia. With a majority Serbian population, its government never concealed that its long-term goal is secession from dysfunctional Bosnia in order to join Serbia. The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, hailed as legal Crimea’s secession from the Ukraine and its decision to join Russia.

In the meantime, calls have been made by ethnic Albanians from regions in southern Serbia to hold a referendum on separating from Serbia in order to join Kosovo, which they obviously perceive as an independent state.

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Now, when the genie has been let out of the bottle again in the ethnically divided Balkans, few can hear the warnings that there can be “no more redrawing of borders in the Balkans”, as British Foreign Secretary William Hague emphatically stated in an interview with Dnevni Avaz, when he visited Bosnia recently. Only a single and sovereign Bosnia and Herzegovina within its present borders can join the EU, he said. At the same time, Serbia’s path towards full EU membership is conditional upon the recognition of Kosovo’s separation.

Bombing into independence

However, the EU is in trouble itself, due to the announced independence referendums in Scotland in September, and in Catalonia in November. London has reluctantly agreed to the referendum in Scotland, while Madrid has ruled the referendum unconstitutional. In both cases, however, if the Scots or the Catalonians vote for independence, the EU will lose these territories and nearly 13 million inhabitants. The newly formed countries would have to go through the whole process of accession to the EU while any member will have the right to veto their joining the EU.

It is interesting that Spain is one of five countries in the EU that do not recognise the independence of Kosovo. But in Barcelona, one can hear more and more often that the Catalonian parliament should unilaterally declare independence from Spain as was done in Kosovo.

Here in Serbia, 78 days of NATO air strikes in 1999, which took place without a UN Security Council authorisation, killing hundreds on the ground, are still fresh in the memory of ordinary people. Washington called it a “humanitarian intervention” in order to preclude Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. NATO military intervention 15 years ago resulted in a de facto independent state of Kosovo. Nine years later, Kosovo’s parliament declared an independent state and was immediately recognised by the US and the majority of Western countries.  

Trying to limit the future impact of the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state in 2008, the US State Department explained that it “considers Kosovo to be a special case that should not be seen as a precedent for other situations”.

In Belgrade, the media has pointed out that “the model of Kosovo has come back to the West as a boomerang”. Most Serbs, as recent polls show, still want to join the EU, despite the obvious Western hypocrisy about complying with UN principles and international law.

Zorana Suvakovic is a Belgrade-based journalist, columnist and editor, working for the Serbian newspaper Politika.

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