The trouble with the Balkans, it has been said, is that they produce far more politics than can safely be consumed at home. As an Indian, I can relate to this.
On Sunday Kosovo formally declared independence to the accompaniment of festive celebrations by the good citizens of the world's newest country. We can but wish them well as they chart a new course inside a new Europe, free of the distracting conflicts that had ravaged the continent until the middle of the 20th century.
The two iconic cases of international intervention in 1999 were Kosovo and East Timor. Canada was involved in the first, Australia led the second. As the recent attempted assassinations of East Timor's President Jose Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao show, the euphoria of independence is not enough to sustain the structures and practices of a civic community and viable polity.
It would be naive to believe that the centuries-old history of Serbian-Kosovar conflict was brought to an end on Sunday. The Serbs venerate Kosovo as the cradle of their nationhood, dating back to the war with the Ottoman Empire in 1389, which they lost. Their sense of victimhood and grievance has deep historical roots that will likely outlast Sunday's "setback".
Like East Timor, Kosovo may prove to be a postmodern "sovereign" state dependent for economic survival and territorial integrity on outsiders: "an entity that may be sovereign in name but is a US-EU protectorate in practice" (John Laughland in The Guardian, February 19).
The EU will underwrite the country's economy and security and its high representative can override decisions by Kosovo's government, just like in Bosnia. Thus is power fatally disconnected from responsibility.
The same, we might note, is true of East Timor. Why else, more than eight years after independence, would they be casting stones at the failures of Australia and the United Nations in the attacks on Ramos Horta and Gusmao?
There is a larger question for outsiders. Do we really want to take on the burden of determining by force the quest for independence by all the world's wannabe secessionists?
Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia was guilty of ethnic cleansing and unspeakable atrocities against Kosovars. His quest for Greater Serbia produced the opposite effect, of continually shrinking borders as more and more territorial units peeled away along ethnic fault lines: a classic example of the enormous disconnect between the goals sought, means used and results achieved.
This still does not mean that the blame lay 100 per cent with the Serbs and that the Kosovars were nothing but innocent victims. Lawrence S.Eagleburger, the former Secretary of State (1992-93) and also a former US Ambassador to Yugoslavia (1977-81), in an article in the International Herald Tribune in 1999 not exactly friendly to Milosevic, wrote, "The Kosovo Liberation Army earned its reputation as a terrorist group".
NATO became the tool for the KLA's policy of inciting Serb reprisals through terrorist attacks in order to provoke NATO intervention. How many Western countries had the KLA on their security watchlist as a criminal and terrorist organisation before 1999?
The liberation of Kosovo by NATO was followed by reverse ethnic cleansing of Serbs and Romas, which did not receive anywhere near the matching coverage that Serbian atrocities against Bosnians and Kosovars did in the international media.
Since 1999, while many mosques have been built in Kosovo (with Saudi and Iranian funding?), many churches have been burnt. Will Europe and NATO stand in the way of the quest for Greater Albania across Kosovo, southern Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro perhaps even Greece?
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged in 2000 that his call for a debate on "the challenge of humanitarian intervention" had led to fears that the concept "might encourage secessionist movements deliberately to provoke governments into committing gross violations of human rights in order to trigger external interventions that would aid their cause".
Indeed. By one estimate, in rough, round and easily remembered figures, there are about 20 broadly homogenous nation-states, 200 states and over 2000 nationalities in the world today. To support, or to give the impression of international encouragement to armed secessionists, is to risk unleashing the most violent phase of history ever.
Let's start with the more than 100,000 or so remaining Serbs inside Kosovo. Will they accept Kosovo's new status? Why should they?
The rest of the world is not short of secessionist and irredentist movements, including in Europe.
Will separatists in Basque and Catalan be encouraged or discouraged? Have independistas in Aceh, Kashmir and Taiwan been delighted or perturbed?
It's hard to see after this why the Turkish Cypriots will accept reunification of Cyprus under any formula, or why Sri Lanka's Tamils should not lay fresh claims on the world's conscience for a north-eastern enclave of the island nation.
Similarly, the Kurds might be encouraged to step up their campaign and move beyond peaceful means.
Unlike Australia, Canada, conscious of its own little difficulty in Quebec, has not rushed to recognise the new country.
The online edition of The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, announced Kosovo's independence declaration with the headline, "Proud, independent and free".
The next day, a correspondent from Quebec City asked the paper to please keep the headline in "the archives and use it to announce the independence of Quebec, when it happens".
Maybe the collapse of colonial era borders and the dismantling of dysfunctional states is an irresistible force of contemporary world politics.
If so, if bad borders mean mounting bloodshed, our most interesting times are just beginning.
About the Author
The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.